S. Suveica: Post-imperial Encounters

Post-imperial Encounters. Transnational Designs of Bessarabia in Paris and Elsewhere, 1917–1922

Suveica, Svetlana
Südosteuropäische Arbeiten
506 S.
€ 54,95
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Wim van Meurs, Instituut voor Geschiedenis, Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen

After the December Revolution of 1989, Romanian historians felt free to elaborate extensively on their national claims to Bessarabia and its history. Most historians in the newly independent Republic of Moldova joined this choir of Romanian nationalism and reunification. A handful of Western historians were triggered to study past politics of language, history, and identity by the fascinating live events of nation- and state-building in Chișinau and Tiraspol’, the capitals of Moldova and the break-away post-Soviet republic of Transnistria respectively. Their perspective, however, was dominated by nationalism studies. On the one hand, because of the popularity of this field of study since the 1980s, and on the other hand because Moldova and Transnistria offered such intricate and extremely artificial cases of belated nation-building. As late as 1924 in the case of Moldovan national identity and as late as 1992 in the case of Transnistrian secessionism.

Since a decade or so, a new generation of historians has taken over, in Western Europe as well as in Romania and Moldova. Their work combines the best of both worlds and Svetlana Suveică is one of them. They are well-versed in the relevant international theoretical literature on nationalism, imperialism, borderlands, or regime changes. Their language competences are impressive: Suveică uses academic literature in Romanian, Russian, French, English and German. Hence, they converse with the existing local scholarship on the history of Bessarabia, Moldova, and Transnistria. Yet, they are also an integral part of the larger debates in the humanities on the above topics and inter-/intra-regional comparisons. The academic mission of the Western historians in the 1990s was to introduce a non-partisan, but in many ways rather classic analysis of the modern history of Moldova. Today, novel perspectives and techniques are applied to these specific cases.

It is noteworthy that Bessarabia only appears in the subtitle of Suveică’s Habilitationsschrift (Regensburg 2021) on “post-imperial encounters”. The classic narrative of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference at large and Bessarabia in particular – as one of the many entities in Europe that had their fates decided by diplomats and a handful of world leaders at a conference table – has been written many times over.1 For Romania, the peace conferences had confirmed the maximum extent of national unification in all directions, with one exception: Bessarabia was not part of the treaties and Transnistria remained in Russian/Soviet hands. Unlike most Western and Romanian predecessors on this topic, Suveică did not limit her study to (published) collections of diplomatic sources. She has diligently visited more than two dozen archives in Moldova, Romania, the USA, the UK, Switzerland, the Russian Federation, Germany and Austria. Her most important find were the unpublished papers by Alexander Krupensky at the Hoover Institute. Krupensky had been a Russian large-landowner in Bessarabia who had petitioned the Paris Peace Conference in person and in pamphlets, arguing the case of Russian rule in Bessarabia. The insights from the papers take pride of place in the monograph, in a way Krupensky is the true hero of the story – quite a leap from narratives where pro-Romanian national leaders in Bessarabia were praised for their determination and vision in bringing Bessarabian-Romanian reunification about in 1918. In those narratives, Krupensky had always been one of yesterday’s men, who did not read the sign of the times and tried to obstruct national unification. Given the outcome, Krupensky was typically treated as a mere footnote to history.2

The author of Post-Imperial Encounters, however, experiments with the study of local elites and their networks and the dynamics of local institutions, no matter how short-lived. And with identification as an active process of mobilisation rather than identity as a given and the Mare Unirea (the “grand unification” with Romania) as a preordained outcome of the process. In a telling aside, partly hidden in a footnote (23), Suveică indicates that she has been criticized by colleagues at home in Chișinău for paying any attention at all to Russian landowners who stood on the wrong side of history. Her fascination for “(self-) identification and belonging after empire” (p. 381) indeed sides with Western scholars of the previous generation who question the dogma – at least from 1917 onwards, if not since times immemorial – of a Romanian national identification by all Moldovans. Conversely, the situational and relational character of identification and its recurring renegotiations open a plethora of new vistas for historians.

After two substantial introductory chapters on historiography and methodology, the book follows the course of events concerning the Bessarabian question from Paris 1919 and the peace conference to a last futile appeal to the League of Nations a mere three years later. The eight chapters are not strictly chronological as the drama unfolds from the perspective of Krupensky and his self-proclaimed “Bessarabian delegation” in Paris. The second chapter, for instance, discusses the identity or identifications of these men from the former imperial elite, and the third one their political actions in the preceding turmoil over Bessarabian autonomy within the empire. In the bigger picture of the study, the network analysis (chapter 6 and Annex IX) seems more of an afterthought, an attempt to add yet another layer to the story. It does strengthen the author’s argument on ambiguous and multi-layered identities as well as on windows of opportunity for coalitions of interests. The starting point of the visualisation is Krupensky’s pivotal position as the spider in the web of opponents of Romania’s takeover in Bessarabia. Hence, the graph of this network (pp. 439–441) visualises dozens of persons and their known connections to a handful of key players. Alternatively, the general reader of the monograph would have appreciated short biographies introducing a manageable number of key figures in each chapter.

As argued above, Suveică’s approach is far more innovative and out-of-the-box than the preceding generation of Western nationalism studies on Moldova. They do share the same non-partisan stance. Thus, Suveică gives a fair share of attention to Russian elites in Bessarabia and to petitions to the League in Geneva by the Russian minority. The lives and views of these “yesterday men” is at least as fascinating as the well-known success stories of Moldovans like Pantelimon Halippa, Ioan Pelivan who championed reunification in the eventful years of 1917–1918 in Chișinău. Suddenly, the history appears to be full of fluid concepts, abortive initiatives, wavering politicians, historical contingencies, and confused constituencies. Decades ago, Iurie Colesnic managed to achieve the same effect by putting together a collage of source documents full of ambiguous and contradictory identities and political agendas from those years.3 Moreover, the author deserves respect for daring to open up the well-worn narrative and yet manage to present the reader with a lucid and well-founded new tableau. In sum, akin to the angle of “national indifference”4 and hence a formidable research agenda for the next decade.

1 Sherman David Spector, Rumania at the Paris Peace Conference. A Study of the Diplomacy of Ioan I.C. Bratianu, New York 1960.
2 Alexandru V. Boldur, Istoria Basarabiei. Contribuții la studiul istoriei Românilor, Chișinău 1937; Nicholas Dima, From Moldavia to Moldova. The Soviet-Romanian territorial dispute, Boulder 1991.
3 Iurie Colesnic, Basarabia necunoscută, Chișinău 1993.
4 Maarten van Ginderachter / Marnix Beyen (eds.), Nationhood from Below. Europe in the Long Nineteenth Century, New York 2012; Tara Zahra, Imagined Noncommunities. National Indifference as a Category of Analysis, in: Slavic Review 69, 1 (2010), pp. 93–119.

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