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Transnistria Then and Now

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Ancient and medieval period | Rusia at Nistru | Between WW1 and WW2 | Transnistria today

Location of Transnistria. Transnistria in antiquity

Transnistria derives its name from the river Nistru (Dniester), the river that was for centuries the eastern border of the Principality of Moldavia. The name is of Celtic origin, being related with Ister (Danube), Dnieper and Don and meaning water course. The ancient Greeks named it Tyras, the same name being used for the Greek fortress built at the river's mouth, the citadel to be Cetatea Albă (White Fortress).

Accordingly to the information given by the Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy in the 3rd volume of his monumental work Guide to geography (Geographike hyphegesis), Nistru (Dniester) flowed at the eastern border of the great kingdom of Dacia: "Dacia is bordered to the north with that part of the European Sarmatia [region between Vistula River and Don River], that stretches from the Carpatos Mountain to the mentioned bend of the Tyras River [...], to the west with the [Metanastian?] Iazyges, from Tibiscos River [Tisa] to Axiopolis from where, to the Pontus and to his mouths, the Danube is called Ister..."

The Roman presence is attested over the river Nistru, the well-known Trajanic defensive wall crossing it just above its mouth and ending at the mouth of Bug river (after Dimitrie Cantemir, at Don).

Romanians in Transnistria in the Middle Ages. Documents of the Moldavian rulers

In the Middle Ages, formally, the Great Duchy of Lithuania bordered the principality of Moldavia from Nistru to the east. Many Romanians lived even farther east in the steppe lands of Transnistria (Land over Nistru), scattered (mainly) in small rural settlements. Transnistria was in the past an arid, underpopulated region that began to be colonized in the Middle Ages (after 1500, probably, but possibly even earlier) by Moldavians that crossed the Nistru river in search of free land and by some Tartars, its borders not being delimited as for a distinctive entity, a part of something. The eastern frontier was for Moldavia rather theoretical than effective up to the 19th century.

In the east of river Nistru the Romanian life is mentioned all over the Middle Age.

The oldest attested Moldavian possession over the Dniester River was the Lerici castle (at the entrance inside Dnieper's estuary, where the fortress Ochakov was later on to be built), captured by some Moldavian pirates from the Genoese in the times of voivod Petru Aron (in 1455). The fortress of Mangop from the distant Crimea had also connections with Moldavia, being ruled by the brother-in law of Stephen the Great. The Moldavian ruler was married to Mary of Mangop, princess descended from an illustrious Byzantine imperial family. This marriage may have justified his rights to rule over the Constantinople as emperor, in the eventuality of the liberation of the great city by a concerted Christian effort. For this dream Stephen the Great worked tirelessly for almost a half of a century.

Only one Moldavian prince, Duca Vodă, ruled in the Middle Age over the region implied along with Ukraine (the Ukrainian residence being at Nemirova - Niemirow in Polish, on southern Bug River), but no separate administrative unit was yet known for Transnistria until the later days, foremost due to its being underpopulated but also very troubled and unrested. Beside the droughty periods typical for the region, the second reason for the underpopulation of the Black Sea northern shores is the vicinity of the Tatars. Their presence, both military and civil, impeded the settling of the east European type life and blocked the Moldavian or even Polish expansion to the east. The Transnistrian lands settled in the Middle Ages by Romanians were only partially and temporarily ruled by Moldavian princes or possessions of the Moldavian Principality. So, can the descendants of such settlers be named Moldavians? Most probably the name Moldavians is the proper one, because the greatest part of the Transnistrian Romanians came from the Principality of Moldavia and maintained the cultural and the blood links with the Moldavians from the west and spoke (and speek even now) the same language and the same idiom. The Transylvanian shepherds, in despite of the wide area they wandered through with the herds ( Dobrogea - Dobruja -, Balkans, eastern steppes over to Caucasus), must have had only a small contribution to the number of the Romanians settled over Nistru. Walachian merchants are also mentioned in Transnistria, but their number was certainly very small.

A very interesting document (diploma) issued by John Voivod the Frightful at May 10th 1574 confirmed to his boyars, logothete Ion Golia and pîrcălab Ieremia (administrator of a county and commander of a fortress or city, somehow equivalent to a burgomaster), territories on the other side or river Nistru (left bank), in the Transnistria to be: "place for four mills, on the other side of Nistru, on the brook, at the mouth of Iahorlîc, where it flows into Nistru".

Voivod Petru Șchiopul (Peter the Limp) established, in a document dated on August 4th 1588, the partition of the mills over the Nistru between logothete Ion Golia and Tudora, the wife of burgomaster Ieremia, confirming two mills to each.

Prince Ieremia Movilă also gave a diploma to the owners, confirming "place for four mills, on the other side of Nistru, in the brooks, in the mouth of Iahorlîc, where it pours out into Nistru".

These documents are the proof of the fact that in the Middle Ages, in the proximity of the eastern bank of the Nistru valley at least , Moldavia exercised the same political authority as over the rest of the principality's territory.

Taking into account the small number of documents that passed on to us, as repeated destruction of the state or private archives occured in the Romanian principalities (due to the lack of political stability and continuity that marked the entire Romanian Middle Ages but also to various catastrophes: e.g., on July 20th 1827 a great fire destroyed one third of city of Iași - Jassy, the archives of the Treasury and of the Divan of Moldavia being completely burnt), the previously mentioned documents, preserved despite all vicissitudes, must not be seen as proofs of singular presences of the Moldavian State on the left bank of Nistru, but as certifications of the permanent demografic and juridical binds between the two sides of the river. These binds began a very long time ago and certainly outdo the level strictly attested by the documents.

The small town of Movilău seems to to founded by the boyar Ieremia Movilă around 1600 on the left bank of the Nistru river. In the same period the boyar Jura possessed lands on both banks of Nistru, from Rîbnița to Dubăsari.

One of prince Vasile Lupu's daughters, Ruxandra, married to Timush Khmelnytsky, the son of Bogdan Khmelnytsky, received from her father as dowry estates at Iampol and at Rașcov, over Nistru. These estates, inhabited by Moldavians, came after her death into the possession of the Golia monastery in Iași.

Duca Vodă, ruler of Moldavia and hetman of Ukraine, erected the courts of Țicănăuca, next to the fortress of Soroca on Nistru, approximately at the half distance between Iași and Nemirov. From there the voivod and hetman issued documents, in the same mode as in the regular chancellery. The same voivod Duca Vodă colonized Moldavians in the poorly inhabited steppes near Dnieper (Nipru) river.

Grigore Ureche mentioned the savageness committed by the Cossacks come in 1583 for pillage over the Moldavian settlers that had moved over Nistru during the hardships of voivod Iancu Sasul (feigned son of Petru Rareș): "Before long after that the Cossacks struck up river from Tighina, on the other side of Nistru, some villages settled on the Polish border, stray Turks, Moldavians very many, that had come out of the country because of the Iancu Voivod's evil straits, and great death they did amid them and plundering and slavery and with booty they came back to their homes".

Many Moldavian families inhabited in the past the both banks of Nistru, just as today many live on both banks of river Prut. An interesting mentioning speaks about the arriving of the boyars charged with the property delimitation at Peresecina in the county of Orhei, to settle the border between the estates of boyars Dulman and Petrică. These later two had declared that their papers "were burnt into a pitiless fire at night, when all in their house was burnt, so they could not save anything; they have only one princely diploma, but that is at their kinsmen over Nistru".

The last known Moldavian ruler that granted a document for a property over Nistru to a Moldavian subject is Mihail Racoviță. The diploma was issued in 1717.

The important Ottoman fortress Ochakov (named by the Turks Ozu and by the Moldavians Vozia, today Ochakov) in the north of the Black Sea was the most important city inside the land between rivers Nistru and Bug and also an important center of Moldavian presence in the region. The city was placed close to the ancient Milesian colony of Olbia.

Testimonies of foreign travellers about the Moldavians in Transnistria

The Italian traveller Giovanni Battista Malbi passed in 1620 through Moldavia and wrote about the neighborhood with the Tatars at the eastern border of the principality. Describing the Tatar fortresses (Ochakov included), he stated that the inhabitants of these lands are "Christians of Eastern Rite having a language corrupted from Latin, Italian and Russian". Of course, the Italian traveller did not note the corruption with the language of the Russians, but the words borrowed in Romanian from the old Slavic, that were and still are an important part of the Romanian linguistic background. We infer easily that the text refered to the Romanians in the region.

Another Italian traveller from the 17th century, the monk Niccolo Barsi da Lucca, passed through the region of Ochakov and described the three existing fortresses. He mentioned that "Only in one fortress - where a market was organized - can enter the Turks and the ones from outside that are Walachians". He recounted the fact that he shared the journey with the Moldavian delegation that brought from the Caucasus the voivod Vasile Lupu's betrothed, the Circassian princess Ecaterina. The pasha of Silistra, that was at Ochakov at the time, saw the princess and wanted her for his harem. The Moldavians hid Ecaterina in their wagons, and the pasha's men sought her especially inside the "inns of the Moldavians" in the city. So, there were many Moldavians inside Vozia - Ochakov, travellers as well as natives, that had their own inns. Niccolo Barsi recollected "I went in the house of a Moldavian, of whose strain, as I mentioned before, are many in this city, and I asked him to make some biscuits for money, because I was to pass, for three whole weeks, through unsettled lands". This is a proof of the scarce nature of human presence in the region at that times.

In the time of the Great Northern War the monk Daniel Krmann passed through Ochakov, coming from Poltava. On his way he encountered Moldavians, and at Ochakov he was lodged in a portico "ornamented with carpets" of the house of a Moldavian. At a local inn he drank "Moldavian wine". In which concerned the inhabitants of the city, he distinguished foremost the Walachians, then the Tatars, the Greeks and the Turks. About the Walachians from Vozia-Ochakov, he appreciated that "This kind of Vlachs have the same language with the Walachians and the same religion with the Russians and the Greeks". The religious belief (deduced from the manner in which the Romanians made the sign of the cross) was probably mentioned in order to differentiate - for the readers of his journal - the natives from the Italians, because the name Vlach had a very broad sense in the languages of many peoples and so it was not enough for the ethnic identification of the Romanians.

Lawrin Piaczeczynski, secretary of Sigismund III Vasa, king of Poland, sent as messenger to the Tatar khan Gazi Girai II, passed through the discussed regions and left also some interesting notes. In his voyage he encountered not Slavic settlements but "Moldavian villages controlled by the Tatar khan and governed in his name by his servant Nazyl aga". He found Moldavian villages around Cetatea Albă (White Fortress) and in the lands over river Nistru.

The Romanian principalities, having accepted toward the end of the 15th century the suzerainty of the sultan, were forced to pay tribute to the Sublime Porte, at first a symbolical one, then more and more burdening with time. Accounted as a part of the tribute, the Porte often requested the Moldavian rulers to solve some entrepreneurial matters as repairing or strengthening several Turkish frontier fortresses. Thus, the Moldavians repaired especially Camenița (named by the Russians Kamenets-Podolsky) and Vozia (Ochakov) in Transnistria, and the Wallachians Orșova at Danube. The rulers were obliged to engage immediately the tasks and go in person to the building sites with their courts, being exempt only in case of illness. Moldavian voivod Petru Șchiopul alone sent fifteen thousand laborers at Vozia and three thousand wagons of building materials.

This complex situation was favorable to the exodus of the Moldavians to the vast spaces over Nistru. These Moldavians sought and sometimes found their fortune, free land, small taxes and diverse opportunities on one hand, but on the other they were confronted with the inherent risk of living in a more unstable region, dense with wars and skirmishes and far off from the east European type of organization that they had left behind. The important ethnic density of the Romanians in the spaces over Nistru often misled important geographers and historians of the time, that inferred from the unquestionable ethnical reality that the region belonged also politically to the Romanian space.

Antonio Bonfini (approx 1434 - 1503), Italian historian that ended his life at the Hungarian royal court, as guest of Matei Corvin (Matthias Corvinus), was the most important of the 15th century historians that tackled the subject of the origin of the Romanian people (in his work "Rerum Ungaricarum decades quatuor cum dimidia"). Writing about the two Romanian countries, Moldavia and Walachia, he appreciated that these stretched "a Transsylvania incipientes inter Tyram et Borysthenem fluvium, ad Euxinum usque mare latius effunduntur", i.e. "starting from Transylvania and to the Black Sea where Nistru and Bug Rivers flow into".

Many important geographers included, wrongly though, the city of Ochakov among the cities of Moldavia. This inclusion appears at Giovanni Botero (1540-1617), in "Relazioni universali", book published in 17 editions and having three translations in Latin (the first, at Venice, in 1591), at Gian Lorenzo d'Anania, in "Universal System of the World of Cosmography" (Venice, 1596) and at Giovanni Antonio Magini (1555-1617), professor at the University of Padua, in "Geographie universae", first published at Venice in 1596.

About the "Moldavian Cossacks" from over Nistru (Dniester)

The attraction exercised by the life of the Cossack mercenaries over the Moldavian adventurers is worth to be mentioned here. Many Moldavians moved among the Cossacks, living their agitated military life and leaving toponymic proofs of their presence in the space between Nipru (Dnieper) and Don. Many mentioning of Moldavians among the Cossacks and of Cossack intrudings in the struggles for power inside Moldavia can be found in both Moldavian and Polish chronicles. Bogdan Khmelnytsky, the first practically independent hetman of Ukraine (name meaning Border Region, because there, in the zone of Nipru - Dnieper - and Don rivers, lay the frontier between Tatary and Russia) had six Moldavian colonels out of a total of thirteen, ten thousand soldiers of his fourty thousand men strong army being Moldavians. The last freely elected hetman of Ukraine - military leader of the frontier region - was Dănilă Apostol (1727 - 1734), himself a Moldavian, that also had under his command some corps of "Moldavian Cossacks".

Romanian spiritual life in Transnistria

The Christians from the territory between Nistru and Bug were under the jurisdiction of the Orthodox hierarchs of Brăila (city of Walachia at Danube) and Huși (Moldavia). The metropolitan Daniil of Proilavia (Brăila) entitled himself, in a document given on February 30th 1769 at Tighina: "Metropolitan of Proilavia, of Tamarova [Reni, on Prut], of Hotin [at that times, Turkish raya - territory ruled directly by the Turks, but with non-Muslim subjects], of all the edges of Danube [i.e. outside political jurisdiction of the Principalities] and of Nistru and of the entire Ukraine of the khan". The same Daniil blessed the construction on some churches in Transnistria at Malovata, Doroțcaia, Măhala, Pohrebea, Cocieri and Dencu. After the death of Daniil this eparchy was moved to the bishopric of Huși. Until 1837, when the metropolitan of Cherson was founded, Transnistria ecclesiastically belonged to the hierarchs of Moldavia.

The literate Mihail Strelbițchi moved in 1792 his printing press from Iași (Jassy), the Moldavian capital city, to Dubăsari, in Transnistria. There he printed books in Romanian, Russian and Greek. The first Romanian book of poetry was printed here, "New Poems" by Ioan Cantacuzino. In 1796 he moved to Movilău, also in Transnistria. There he published popular books for the entire Romanian space, as it was "Alixăndria", a fanciful history of Alexander the Great's life.

Ancient and medieval period | Rusia at Nistru | Between WW1 and WW2 | Transnistria today

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