The historic principality of Moldavia lasted from the 14th to the 19th century. Only the region west of the river Prut is now within Romania, the eastern part was annexed by Russia in 1812 and is now the Republic of Moldova, also known by the name Bessarabia which was adopted in Russian times.
The ethnographic zones in the west within the sub-Carpathians have clear boundaries and distinct ethnographic features. Most of the territory is plateaux lands and hills separated by the major rivers hence the ethnography is more uniform, but there are still some interesting micro-zones. The south is part of the Bărăgan plain.
The zones of the northwest were part of the Hapsburg province of Bukowina from the 18th to 20th centuries and are still commonly referred to as Bucovina.
The place names in northern Moldavia give an indication of the extent of the early Slavic population by the -ăuți ending to Romanian place names, most of which have the -ovcy ending in their Ukrainian name. Interestingly, villages with the Romanian ending –ești have a distribution through Moldavia up to the line of Slavic place names.
Before Moldavia was founded
In the centuries before Moldavia was founded the northern regions were likely populated by a mixture of Romanians and Slavs, the Slavs post probably having migrated south from the Ukraine.
Most of the regions east of the Carpathians were at this time under the rule of the Cumans, but some areas Hungary claimed supremacy over. This lasted until the Mongol attacks of the mid-13th century after which it appears areas came under Slavic and Romanian rule.
There are occasional references that might indicate the presence of Slavs and Romanians before the founding of Moldavia. It is documented that in 1247 a Franciscan monk (Giovanni da Pian del Carpine) met a Romanian voivode called Olaha who is thought to have been in Moldavia. Histories of Romania sometimes refer to a Vlach region of Țara Sepenițului in Pocuția in the early 14th century.
The founding of Moldavia in the 14th century
The Hungarian King, Charles Robert of Anjou, attempted to expand the influence of the Roman Catholic church and the Hungarian Empire east of the Carpathians after the fall of Cuman rule. There was an early military campaign under the command of Phynta de Mende in 1324. Three decades later in 1353 Dragoș, a Romanian Knez from Maramureș, was sent by the Hungarian King to found a new Moldavian voivode with the capital at Baia. Dragoș succeeded and extended the region northwards to RadăuȚi.
A few years later in 1359 Bogdan a Romanian voivode of Cuhea in Maramureș who had fallen out with the Hungarian king, crossed the Carpathians, took control of the Romanian regions in Moldavia and succeeded in separating Moldavia from Hungarian control. Bogdan ruled the area from the river Ceremuș in the north down to the Black Sea in the south and east to the river Dniestr. These borders of Moldavia lasted for over six hundred years, until the 20th century. Bogdan’s first capital was at Radăuți which he later moved to Suceava. His home village of Cuhea in Maramureș is now known as “Bogdan Voda”.
The most significant voivodes of medieval Moldavia
Petru I founded the fortresses at Neamț and Suceava and in 1388 extended his rule to include the region of Pocuția, now in the Ukraine. Pocuția exchanged hands many times until the 16th century, and the mixing of Romanian and Slavic toponyms is still evidence of the changing border.
Stefan I successfully defended Moldavia against the Hungarians during an attempt to invade Moldavia in 1394 following Stefan I accepting suzerainty to the Polish King.
Alexandru cel Bun negotiated a peace treaty with Poland in 1411 and in 1420 defended Moldavia against the first attack by the Turks at Cetatea Alba. Around this time Hussite refugees from Poland and Hungary moved to Moldavia to escape religious persecution.
The most famous of the Moldavian voivodes is Ștefan cel Mare (1457-1504). He was victorious in 34 out of 36 battles against the Turks, and built a new church for each victory, thus creating the famous painted monasteries of northern Moldavia. The town of Hotin was returned to Moldavia in 1464 following a number of years in the Polish Empire. The last Hungarian campaign to re-establish suzerainty in Moldavia was in 1467 led by the Hungarian king Mathias Corvinus. He advanced along the Siret valley taking Bacău, Roman, and Târgu Neamț, but was defeated at Baia by Ștefan cel Mare. However, by 1473 the Moldavian and Transylvanian merchants had commercial freedom in each other’s countries and in 1475 Mathias Corvinus and Ștefan cel Mare pledged support to each other against their enemies.
The town Huși (Huszváros) near the river Prut and Cioburciu (Csöbörcsök) on the bank of river Dniester have long history of Hungarian populations, some speculate they were founded in 1460 by the Hussites escaping from King Mátyás of Hungary.
The Turks seized Cetatea Albă in 1485 and in 1489 Ștefan cel Mare agreed to pay a tribute to the Ottoman Empire in return for autonomy. This southern part of Moldavia was originally known as Besarabia after the Wallachian voivode Besarab who previously ruled the region. This term was later used for the eastern part of Moldavia acquired by the Russians after the First World War.
Turkish rule of Moldavia
The whole of southern part of Moldavia became known as Bugeac under Turkish rule.
In 1538 the Turks joined by the Tartars invaded Moldavia. Petru Rareș (1527-1538), son of Ștefan cel Mare, defeated the Tartars, but he was betrayed by his boyars and had to flee to Transylvania and Moldavia was annexed by the Ottoman Empire. The capital was moved to Iași in 1565.
Through the periods of Tartar attacks, following battles with the Ottomans, domination by the Ottoman Empire, and internal squabbling between the boyars and voivodes much of Moldavia was left poor and many villages became depopulated. The most severe period of Turkish exploitation was between 1711 and 1824 when Phanariot (Greek) rulers were imposed by the Turks. The Phanariots were Greeks from the Phanar quarter in Constantinople.
Post Turkish breakup of Moldavia
Following the end of Turkish rule, politics led to the regions of northern Bucovina, eastern Moldavia, and Bugeac changing hands a number of times and ending up outside the boundaries of modern Romania.
The Hapsburgs ruled northern Moldavia from Cernăuți from 1775 to 1918 which led to the current name of Bucovina for the region.
The Russo-Turkish peace treaty of 1812 incorporated the area between the Prut and Dniester, now termed Bessarabia, into the Czarist Empire for the first time.
At the Congress of Paris in 1856 the southern districts often collectively referred to as Bugeac were united with Romania.
At the Congress of Berlin in 1878 southern districts often collectively referred to as Bugeac was incorporated into the Czarist Empire in return for Romania retaining Dobrogea.
In 1940 the Soviet government send an ultimatum to Romania, and the regions of Eastern Moldavia (Besarabia) and northern Bucovina became parts of the USSR.