Nowadays a regional capital city, an important academic and cultural center, with a touristic and economic potential that starts to be valued, Cernăuți confers diversity and color to Ukraine, the country to which it has belonged since 1991. However, the current city has followed a meandering route and the numerous pronunciations of its name testify for this. Chernivtsi, its official name, becomes Cernăuți for the Romanians, Czernowitz in German, Czerniowce in Polish, Csernovic in Hungarian, Chernovtsy in Russian. All these pronunciations are related to the communities who live or lived here or to the states that owned it. In a reversed chronology, before 1991, Cernăuți had been included in the USSR, which obtained the region (the Northern Bukovina and Bessarabia) for the first time on 28 June 1940, through an ultimatum imposed on Romania, as a direct consequence of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact (23 August 1939). The initial Soviet occupation was, nevertheless, temporary. In 1941, the city was given back to the Romanians, who lost it forever in 1944, when it was occupied – lastingly this time – by the Red Army. The interwar period is the Romanian period of the city, started on 28 November 1918, the moment when the National Council of Bukovina decided the Union with Romania. The period 1918-1774 is the Habsburg period of Cernăuți. Before this date, the city had belonged to the Principality of Moldavia, where it was first documentarily attested in 1408.

Before the Union: from little Vienna to the Jerusalem on the Prut River

Located on the banks of the Prut River, Cernăuți is on the commercial route between Poland and Moldavia, which encouraged its emergence and development. Since its first documentary attestation, at the beginning of the 15th century, during the reign of Alexander the Good, the city had shared the fate of the Principality of Moldavia up to 1774. At the beginning of the 16th century, it was already included in the Ottoman Empire, as part of the Principality of Moldavia. It gradually lost its internal autonomy and its situation got worse at the beginning of the 18th century, when the Sultan got directly involved in the internal affairs of the principality, directly appointing the rulers. Moreover, the area became the territory of confrontation between the Austrian, Tsarist and Ottoman Empires, the first two trying to expand to the detriment of the last one.

The confrontation between the Tsarist and the Ottoman Empire between 1768 and 1774 is an important moment in the history of the city. Benefitting from the internal weakening of the Ottoman Empire and using a cunning policy of promoting her country among the Christian subjects of the sultan, Empress Catherine II had many victories in the confrontations with the Sublime Porte. During the war, the Russian troops temporarily occupied the two Romanian Principalities. Nevertheless, the peace treaty of Kuciuk-Kainargi brought the two provinces back to the Sublime Porte. However, the Habsburgs got the Northern part of Moldavia, called from now on Bukovina, in exchange for preserving their neutrality during the war. The Turkish-Austrian convention in 1775 confirms that the Sublime Porte ceded Bukovina to the Austrian Empire. The event had tragic consequences. The protests of the Moldavian ruler, Grigore III Ghica, against territorial handovers were ignored at first. Later, in 1777, at the intervention of the Austrian diplomatic representative in Istanbul, the Sultan decided the assassination of the prince, who was killed on his throne in Iași. The moment is presented in the first theatre play written in Romanian: Occisio Gregorii in Moldavia Vodae tragice expressa. Bukovina was integrated in Galicia in 1790, and, in 1849, it became the autonomous Duchy of Bukovina.

The Habsburg period of the city coincides with its transformation into a modern city. From a provincial town, characterized by a specific East-European and Balkan architecture, with wooden buildings and narrow streets, Cernăuți gradually turned into a Habsburg city. In his brief account about Cernăuți, Count Feodor Karaczay of Valyeszaka (1787-1859), who, as a serviceman in the Austrian army, visited Bukovina twice, for the first time in 1814 or 1815 and for the second time in 1817, emphasizes the role of the city as an administrative center and customs point at the beginning of the 19th century, mentioning in passing its diverse ethnic and religious composition:

The city of Cernăuți is the Capital of Bukovina, the headquarters of the sub-prefect’s office, of the border guards, of the tribunal for civil and criminal legal issues, of the Customs Inspectorate, of an Orthodox Episcopal Church, of a high-school, of an Orthodox clerical teacher-training school, of the commissioner for roads, of the office for constructions and of the Court of law. It has 672 houses and over 5000 inhabitants, out of which many are Armenians and Jews.

The urban aspect improved especially after 1850, in the favorable context of local autonomy, after Bukovina was raised to the rank of a Duchy. This is the time when the city got rich in monumental buildings. Among these, the Residence of the Metropolitan Bishops of Bukovina and Dalmatia is remarkable. The ensemble of buildings was erected between 1864 and 1882, according to the plans of the Czech architect Josef Hlávka, in an eclectic style, which combines elements of Gothic, Moorish and Byzantine inspiration. In 2011, the complex was included in UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage. Nowadays, it is the headquarters of the University in Cernăuți and is considered one of the symbols of the city.

The efficient administration of the mayor Anton Kochanowsk, intermittently elected between 1866 and 1905, when he retired from public life, together with Emperor Franz Joseph’s inspired policy in the Duchy led to the transformation of the city from a provincial town into an attractive and modern Habsburg city. During this period, it got its laudatory surname of “Little Vienna”. Since 1875, when, in the context of the 100th celebration of the acquisition of Bukovina, Franz Joseph provided it with a university, it has been an academic center.

The large Jewish community played a major part in the transformations of the city. Since 1867, when their political rights were fully acknowledged, the Jews have got actively involved in the life of the city. Belonging mainly to the upper and middle bourgeoisie, the Jews, most of whom were secular, acted as factors of modernization and Germanization. Among them, there were the first Zionist movements. On the other hand, the prosperous community was one of the most powerful cultural centers of the Yiddish language and the first international conference in Yiddish was organized here between 31 August and 3 September 1908. The presence of the adepts of Zionism and of the traditional Hasidic communities, together with the Germanized elite that promoted the Austrian culture, made Cernăuți reflect an ample spectrum of the cultural and spiritual life of the Central-European Jews and brought it the surname of the Jerusalem on the Prut River.

The 1918 moment

Although large, the community of the Romanians in Bukovina was not dynamic at first. The transformation of the city into an academic center brought many Romanian young people to its schools, ever since the end of the 19th century. Among them, we must mention the poet Mihai Eminescu, who studied at the secondary school in the city between 1860 and 1866. Here, he received a solid Austrian education, in a cosmopolitan atmosphere, together with colleagues such as the Jewish writer Karl Emil Franzos. The same period also witnessed the first remarkable cultural and political manifestations of the Romanians. They were related to the names of some personalities like Eudoxiu, baron of Hurmuzachi (1812-1874), and his brothers, or Iordachi, baron Wassilko of Serecki (1795-1861), who actively participated in the political life and laid the foundations of the Romanians’ cultural life in Bukovina, among others by editing the bilingual (Romanian-German) magazine, Bucovina. In the context of autonomy, the Romanians got organized in a party and, as early as 1870, won most of the mandates in the Parliament of Bukovina.

Around 1918, the Romanians in Bukovina were led by a new generation, represented by personalities like Iancu Flondor (1865-1924), the Transylvanian Sextil Pușcariu (1877-1948), settled in Cernăuți, where he was the Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy. They were the ones who took the political initiative when the Habsburg monarchy collapsed and summoned a national Romanian assembly, called the “Constituent Assembly”. Chaired by Dionisie Bejan, it voted for the union with Romania.

Cernăuți in Greater Romania

Once integrated into Greater Romania, Cernăuți faced a new transformation. The Austran city of German language gradually introduced the Romanian cultural insignia. The streets were renamed and, in front of the National Theatre, the statue of Schiller was replaced with the one of Eminescu. Romanian became the language of national education and was compulsorily taught in private schools. The monument of Union dominated the Central Square since 1924, when it was inaugurated in the presence of the royal family.

Throughout the entire interwar period, Cernăuți preserved its multicultural atmosphere, of a city located at the crossroads between the East and the West. On its streets, the five languages spoken in the area continued to mingle: Romanian, German, Ukrainian, Yiddish and Polish. The most important poet of the city, Paul Celan, born in Cernăuți in 1920, belonged to the prosperous Jewish community. And Celan’s destiny is eloquent to the entire region. Of Jewish origin and Romanian nationality, Celan survived the exaggerated extremism that did not spare Bukovina and especially the anti-Semitic persecutions and the Holocaust and became remarked as a poet of German language.

Seen through the eyes of a contemporary, Cernăuți is today a quiet city, which bears the marks of its sinuous history.

Dr. Andreea Stefan


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