This page was created by Elena Sokoloski. 

The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Bessarabian Craft

    Sometimes Marya had time to walk along through the upper-bank neighborhood before beginning her work, but today was not one of those days. Her shortcut went along a dirt road, muddy from the rain the night before (Lamour 147), where she passed three overturned carriages on the way from the hut she shared with her brothers, parents, and grandmother, to the bazaar where she would spend the day selling the agricultural products she had carefully made and packaged, as well as the trinkets her brothers had fashioned from lamb’s skin, wool, and the reeds found down by the river.

    Today she would be working at Kishinev’s second bazaar, which had opened in 1825. Russian goods had recently become more accessible, as had manufactured goods, with the proliferation of craftsmens’ guilds (there were now at least 40 in the city alone), but there were still items for which Bessarabia was known that she knew would sell well. Her honey was popular among the neighbors, she thought indignantly, watching a canal boat unload a shipment of honey jars from Odessa.

    Kishinev had certainly become more busy recently: it had been a couple of years since the railroad had been finished, but trains now steamed in daily from Russian cities, with many more caravans coming in on the paved roads from Hanceshti, Orhei, and Criuleni. The canals were now deeper than than the Byk River itself, onto which Bessarabian goods were loaded almost daily for delivery to other parts of the empire. Her parents talked frequently of the explosion in population: She wasn’t alive for the incorporation of the town into the Russian empire, which her parents described as a quieter time, dominated by native Romanians. Now the town was much busier and much more diverse: at the bazaar, all languages and ethnicities seemed to mix together, but she frequently interacted with Bulgarians, Lipovans and Cossacks in her trade, as well as Little Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and Albanians.

    This paints a chaotic scene, but it wasn’t for lack of trying on the part of Russian authorities. She shivered, thinking of the drafty schoolhouse she had been required to attend, where a single teacher, generally uneducated herself, attempted to impose order on students of different native tongues. They had been forced to speak Russian in the classroom, which made school that much more unpopular among the students and their parents (Hamm 25): besides, time spent there mostly just took away from time she could use to farm her bees or help her brothers process the wool from their sheep. It was lucky for the visiting merchants that many of them spoke Roumanian, because God knows how long any of the students of Russian retained their lessons. Petersburg was welcome to their products, but it couldn’t have their tongues.

    Still, the influence of Moscow on the town had been pleasant, as Marya experienced it. The nicer section of the town, set up above the bank where the original town had burned all those years ago, featured attractive stone homes set around city squares and parks: the last time she had been there was on an errand for a visiting dignitary who needed someone to run ahead to announce his entrance, and upon his arrival, she overheard his relief at being back in the “civilized motherland.” She remembered his sigh of relief upon emerging from the noisy lower banks into the spacious, cleaner upper town, and a comment he made, something the empire’s vastness, and the success of the Bessarabian project.

    Adjusting her traditional dress, she shrugged to herself. Roads were being paved, electric utilities being outfitted, trams being built for public transportation, and the products her family made reaching outside Bessarabia: the Russians could think whatever they wanted about the tsar’s omnipresence here, so long as she could catch the tram to church on Sundays.

    Walking into the bazaar, Marya was overwhelmed with the scent of seasoned lamb and strong alcohol, mixing with the smell of woodfire and livestock and the bodies of hundreds of people, all bustling to make their own living. On her way to the booth from which she usually sold her goods, she overheard the dissidents perched at the corner, talking excitedly but in hushed tones of their next meeting. Kishinev was a popular place of exile for dissidents, that effectively removed them from the political circles of influence in Petersburg, but they were nonetheless enjoying their newfound co-politicals (Clark 30).

    Further down the row of booths, a rowdy group of performers was addressing a policeman, boisterously defending their theater. They had been performing in Romanian, as usual, but which they were not permitted to do without the presence of a Roumanian-speaking policeman. Finding it not worth the trouble, the policeman confiscated the open bottle in the loudest man’s hand, and moved on (Hamm 24). The noise faded into that of the market at large, and the incident passed largely unnoticed.



Marya isn’t representative of the merchant class, so much as the large group of craftsmen and their families who settled in Kishinev in the later part of the 19th century. Part of neither the peasantry nor the aristocracy, craftsmen took place in fledgling civil society through guilds, and were affected tangentially by the reforms Tsar Alexander brought to the city. In this story, I imagine the way that the modest reforms in education and public life may have touched the life of one resident, a Russian reconciling her national allegiance with Roumanian-Moldovan ethnic identity or, at least, agnosticism. The people here did not feel the same drive that Petersburg did to be Russian in any meaningful sense of the word; they were Bessarabian, and beneficial to the Russian center, and took pride in that alone.

Clark, Charles Upson. Bessarabia. 1927.
Hamm, Michael. The character and development of a Tsarist Frontier Town, Nationalities Papers, 26:1, 19-37.
Lamour, Philippe. The Living Age (1897-1941); October 1936; pg. 147

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