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Ecaterina Sherbacova, a high school senior in Moldova going through the country’s grueling graduation exams, recently recounted a frustrating episode that seems emblematic of this ethnically divided country’s pervasive identity crisis.
Sherbacova said that when she took a preliminary exam in her country’s language and literature, she lost points for referring to the Moldovan language, Moldovan culture, and Moldovan people.
To her, it was effectively a declaration that Moldovans are in fact Romanians, and it’s one reason neither she nor any of her classmates have chosen to sit the optional history exam. As it’s taught now in the country’s classrooms, Sherbacova said, history “feels alien. ... My friends and I feel confused and don’t fully understand the connection of this subject with the history of my motherland, Moldova.”
For many students, this week’s history exam was optional, but graduating seniors who majored in the humanities had to sit the “Romanian and General History” test. About 12,000 took it.
To get there, they negotiated a curriculum that some say changes radically with each government, although one Education Ministry official says the changes have been cosmetic.
For much of Moldova’s post-Soviet existence, high school history teaching has been divided into the history of the Romanians and world history, with the Romanian segment at times optional, at others times – like now – mandatory.
In 2006, under a Communist government, schools introduced a course called Integrated History, which included segments on national, regional, and world history as well as that of Moldova’s several ethnic groups. That course was scuttled when the Western-centric Alliance for European Integration took over the government in 2009.
Political analyst Bogdan Tsirdea said history has become a political tool in the struggle for voters.
“One faction of politicians pulls us toward the EU, another toward Romania, a third toward the Customs Union,” he said, referring to a free trade bloc led by Russia. “When the regime changes, the first thing the new authorities lay their hands on is history.”
But Corina Lungu, an expert on college preparatory education at the Education Ministry, said little more than the names of the courses have changed, at the request of some historians and civic organizations.
MOLDOVA = ROMANIA?
History teaching in Moldova is a minefield because Moldova’s history is a minefield.
The principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia were united under the same ruler in the mid-19th century, creating the core of a future Romanian state. Unionists argue that Moldova, formerly called Bessarabia, is historically, culturally, and linguistically part of a larger Romanian nation that was divided by the Russian and Ottoman empires. They say the history of the country is best understood through a Romanian perspective.
Last year, the government received 800,000 euros ($1 million) from Romania to re-issue 450,000 textbooks on Romanian and world history.
“The choice toward classical Romanian historiography was the only right one, since the history of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic was no longer relevant and the history of the Republic of Moldova had just started,” he said.
Petrenco said a focus on the medieval Principality of Moldavia could have been seen as irredentist by Moldova’s neighbors, Ukraine and Romania, which incorporate a large part of the principality’s former territories. He contended some historians and politicians exploit the idea of a Moldovan identity to push a policy of separatism from their “brothers” across the Prut river in Romania.
“We have the same culture, same language, and same history as Romania. We can’t create textbooks just because some historians think they are pure-blooded Moldovans and can’t understand that they are Romanians,” Petrenco said.
AN INTEGRATED APPROACH
In June 2012, after years of lobbying for changes in high school history textbooks, Pro-Moldova sued the Education Ministry for disseminating what the association called hate speech. Nazaria called the Romanian history course “xenophobic, nationalistic, and ethnocratic” and has vowed to take the case, which is still in process, to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.
Nazaria said a new edition of the Romanian history textbook is essentially the same as one criticized in 2002 by a panel of history teachers advising the Council of Europe, an intergovernmental human rights watchdog. The teachers said it reflected a “nationalistic attitude,” slighted the history of some ethnic and religious communities, ignored the Holocaust, and prevented “mutual understanding and integration.”
Essentially, the advisers said, the debate over history teaching is related to the Romanian-speaking majority’s refusal to recognize Moldova as a multicultural society.
At the time of the most recent census, in 2004, Moldova’s population was about 76 percent Moldovan, 8 percent Ukrainian, 6 percent Russian, 4 percent Gagauz, and about 2 percent each Romanian and Bulgarian. The remainder was divided among nearly 50 ethnic groups.
About 60 percent of Moldovans identified Moldovan as their mother tongue and another 16.5 percent said Romanian, although the Council of Europe advisory group presumably lumped these communities together in referring to the country’s Romanian-speaking majority. A further 5.5 percent had Russian as their mother tongue, 4 percent Ukrainian, and 1.6 percent Gagauz.
The population of 500,000 in Transdniester, the breakaway region on the eastern side of the Dniester river, is more evenly divided, with roughly one-third each calling themselves Moldovans, Russians, or Ukrainians.
After Council of Europe guidance, new textbooks on “Integrated History” were issued in 2006 under the Communist government, aiming to promote multiculturalism and a sense of citizenship, and to explore the history of the countries’ minorities.
The new books were met with sustained protests and criticized by some historians for glorifying Soviet achievements and denying Romanian identity. Petrenco called them “scientifically unsound.” Lungu, in the Education Ministry, said they also were criticized by the Council of Europe and as a result, two are no longer recommended for use in the classroom.
But that’s not how Alexei Tulbure remembers it. Moldova’s representative to the Council of Europe when the Integrated History curriculum was introduced, he said those books were not criticized by the advisory group. He said those in power now “are turning everything upside down.”
“The Integrated History concept was recommended to different countries where the interpretation of history divides society. It helps avoid sensitive topics. Unfortunately, in Moldova the idea wasn’t given the time and resources to develop,” he said.
Nazaria said that in its 20 years of independence, Moldova has never published a history textbook that champions Moldovan patriotism. The decision to adopt the Romania-centric approach was pushed by unionist elements in parliament in the 1990s, he said.
“Since then, using half-truths, speculation, and lies, through the schools they promote ideas aimed at the liquidation of the Republic of Moldova as a state by changing our national self-identification. They say we don’t have a history, so we don’t have a right to be a nation,” Nazaria said.
If that’s true, it’s not working, judging by the high numbers who self-identified as Moldovan in the 2004 census – up by about 6 percentage points since 1989, according to the government’s statistics office. The number of self-identified Romanians continues to constitute a fraction of the population.
Nazaria accused the Education Ministry of tuning out all but the pro-Romanian voices when it adopted the Romanian and General History course last year.
For instance, he said, a quote in the Romanian history textbook from a 19th-century Russian bureaucrat in Bessarabia who called Poles, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews “worthless nonentities who have polluted Chisinau” was presented uncritically. The quote was among the elements that spurred a separate lawsuit by some private citizens against the book’s authors.
Petrenco said one of the authors made a public apology and the quotation was not included in a later edition. But such gestures have not mollified those who think a focus on Romanians gives short shrift to Moldova’s minorities.
Mihail Formuzal, the governor of the autonomous Gagauzia region in the south, said the Gagauz, a Turkic people, want to learn their own history, not their neighbors’. Resentment over the issue has grown since an Education Ministry official said in January that the region’s schools might have to drop a unit on Gagauzian history to ease a crowded schedule.
Like units offered in other regions that focus on local history, the Gagauzian history lessons take up about 5 percent of the annual course. Fifty-five percent is devoted to the history of the Romanians and 40 percent to world history.
Tsirdea, the political analyst, said the debate is anchored to an outmoded concept of ethnicity as nationhood. He said politicians and historians in a country as small and ethnically diverse as Moldova need to embrace the concept of civil nationhood.
“That is how a nation is perceived by the UN, the Council of Europe, and most EU states. All citizens of a sovereign state are a part of the nation whatever their ethnic origin. But our elites can’t seem to agree on this fact,” Tsirdea said.
THE PERFECT TEXTBOOK
Both sides of the debate say they want honest, historically unbiased textbooks that are interesting, accessible, and unifying for Moldovan society. But they are far from agreeing on what version of history would tick those boxes.
Meanwhile, teachers have been left to look beyond textbooks for a well-rounded version of Moldovan history for their students.
Nina Uzicov, a high-school history teacher in Chisinau, said educators need to be flexible and use as many historical sources as possible – textbooks written in and outside of Moldova, non-textbook histories, information from museums, historical documents posted online – to piece together a comprehensive picture of reality and let students draw conclusions.
Uzicov said her students are whizzes at finding information online and can often find more sources than she can.
“Every textbook regardless of political vector and interpretations has its pros and cons,” she said. “In accordance with a new history curriculum, we’re aiming to develop students’ critical thinking. It helps us to raise self-conscious citizens capable of forming their own opinions.”
Nazaria said using several textbooks with different perspectives should become standard practice, but Petrenco said that approach would wrongly leave it to students, and not historians, to decide what to learn.
And even if the multiple-textbook approach were adopted, it’s impractical – or impossible – for some schools.
Galina Fadeeva, another high school history teacher in Chisinau, said ninth- and 12th-graders at her school have lacked history textbooks since 2010, when the Education Ministry under a new government pulled books that had been favored by the previous, Communist government. They were never replaced.
“I can only use lecture notes and documents downloaded from the web, which I print at home,” she said. "These days a history teacher has to be very resourceful.”