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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Romania and the Eastern Question

[Excerpted from Romania: A Country Study, Ronald D. Bachman, ed. (Washington, D. C.: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, 1989)]


At the turn of the eighteenth century, Peter the Great's Russia supplanted Poland as the predominant power in Eastern Europe and began exerting its influence over Walachia and Moldavia. The Orthodox tsar announced a policy of support for his coreligionists within the Ottoman Empire, and Romanian princes in Walachia and Moldavia began looking to Russia to break the Turkish yoke. Peter's ill-fated attempt to seize Moldavia in 1711 had the support of both Romanian princes. After the Turks expelled the Russian forces, the sultan moved to strengthen his hold on the principalities by appointing Greeks from Constantinople's Phanar, or "Lighthouse," district as princes. These "Phanariot" princes, who purchased their positions and usually held them briefly until a higher bidder usurped them, were entirely dependent upon their Ottoman overlords. Within the principalities, however, their rule was absolute and the Porte expected them to leech out as much wealth from their territories as possible in the least time.

Exploitation, corruption, and the Porte's policy of rapidly replacing Phanariot princes wreaked havoc on the principalities' social and economic conditions. The boyars became sycophants; severe exactions and heavy labor obligations forced the peasantry to the brink of starvation; and foreigners monopolized trade. The only benevolent Phanariot prince was Constantine Mavrocordato, who ruled as prince of Walachia six times and of Moldavia four times between 1739 and 1768. Mavrocordato attempted drastic reforms to staunch peasant emigration. He abolished several taxes on the boyars and clergy, freed certain classesof serfs, andprovided the peasants sufficient land, pasturage, and wood for fuel. Mavrocordato also published books, founded schools, and required priests to be literate. These reforms, however, proved ephemeral; discomfited boyars' undermined Mavrocordato's support at the Porte, and he was locked away in a Constantinople prison.

The Russian Protectorate

Russia's influence waxed in Walachia and Moldavia as Ottoman power waned. In 1739 and 1769 the Russians briefly occupied the principalities. Then in 1774, Catherine the Great agreed to return Moldavia, Walachia, and Bessarabia to the Turks, but she obtained the right to represent Orthodox Christians within the Ottoman Empire and oversee the principalities' internal affairs; Austria complained that the agreement rewarded Russia too favorably and annexed northern Bukovina, part of Moldavia. In 1787 the Russian army again marched into the principalities, but a stalemate gripped forces on all fronts and in 1792 the empress and sultan agreed to reaffirm existing treaties. In 1802 the Porte agreed to halt the rapid turnover of Phanariot princes; henceforth, the princes would reign for seven-year terms and could not be dethroned without Russian approval.

In 1806 forces of Tsar Alexander I reoccupied the principalities, and the Romanian peasants were subjected to forced requisitions, heavy labor obligations, and real threats of exile to Siberia. As a result, the Romanians, who once had looked to the tsar for liberation, developed an abiding mistrust of the Russians that would deepen in the next century. In 1812 Russia and the Porte signed the Peace of Bucharest, which returned the principalities to the Ottomans and secured Russia's southern flank during Napoleon's invasion; Russia, however, annexed Bessarabia and retained its right to interfere in the principalities' affairs. Despite Russia's concessions, the treaty so displeased the sultan that he had his negotiators beheaded.

In 1821 Greek nationalists headquartered in Odessa took control of Moldavia as the first step in a plan to extricate Greece from Ottoman domination. Phanariot rule in Walachia and Moldavia led the Greek nationalists to view the principalities as possible components of a renascent Byzantine Empire. The insurgency's leader, Alexander Ypsilanti, a general in the Russian army and son of a Phanariot prince, enjoyed the support of some Greek and Romanian boyars in the principalities; after more than a century of extortion, however, most Romanians resented the Phanariots and craved the end of Greek control. Tudor Vladimirescu, a peasant-born Romanian whose wits and military skill had elevated him to boyar rank, assumed power in Walachia in an anti-Phanariot national uprising directed at establishing a Romanian government under Ottoman suzerainty. Russia denounced both Ypsilanti and Vladimirescu. The two rebel leaders argued in Bucharest; afterwards, Greek officers shot the Romanian, mutilated his body, and dumped it into a pond, an act that also ended Romanian resistance, which evaporated after Vladimirescu's death. Then the Turks, with Russia's approval, attacked the principalities, scattered the Greek forces, and chased Ypsilanti into Transylvania. The Greek rebellion shocked the Porte, which no longer appointed Phanariot princes to the Walachian and Moldavian thrones and chose instead native Romanians.

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