Like many other cities, Chișinău, the Capital of Bessarabia in the 19th century and of the Republic of Moldova nowadays, has had a progressive evolution, since, during a few centuries, it has turned from a small hamlet into an important economic and commercial center in Eastern Europe.

The name of Chișinău was first mentioned in Moldavia in the 15th century, more precisely on 17 July 1436, when a royal charter mentions “…the valley that descends to the Cheșenău of Adbaș, to the spring where the Tartar Meadow lies, next to the grove”. It is not certain whether the homonymous settlement in Bessarabia was named after it, but, in exchange, it is known that, in the 18th century, on the bank of the Bâc River there was a place called Chișineu, about which Dimitrie Cantemir used to say that “it was a town of very little importance”. Here, between 1752 and 1772, on the spot of an old monastery named Câșla-Vărzăresci, the cavalry commander Mazarachi’s church (today the oldest building in the Capital of the Republic of Moldova) was erected.

At that time, Moldavia was already under the Ottoman domination, but it had been long desired by Tsarist Russia, which had been aiming not only at expanding its territories but also at weakening its main rival at the Mouths of the Danube, the Ottoman Empire. This was the reason for the numerous Russian-Turkish wars in the 18th and 19th centuries. The war between 1806 and 1812, concluded by the peace treaty in Bucharest (6/28 May 1812), legitimated the occupation of the Eastern part of Moldavia (the area between the Prut and the Dniester Rivers), representing 45.000 km2, by Tsar Alexander I, the new territory, named Bessarabia, receiving the status of “oblastie” (autonomous region). During the following year, on 13 April 1813, the Diocese of Chișinău and Hotin was founded, being led by the former metropolitan bishop of Moldavia, Gavril (Grigorie Bănulescu-Bodoni).

In 1826, Bessarabia’s coat of arms also became the heraldic symbol of Chișinău: a shield divided into two parts, with the Russian double-headed eagle in its upper part and the Moldavian bull’s head in its lower part (fig. 1). Through the ukase in 1813 “Pravila vremennogo pravlenia Bessarabii”, the Moldavian administration was preserved and the Romanian language was allowed to be used together with Russian. Moreover, local boyars were assigned to rule over various regions (Ghica, Leon, Catargiu, Vârnav etc.), and Scarlat Sturdza was appointed governor up to his death in 1813; later, in 1816, the position of a “polomonocinîi-namestnik” was established, through which the civilian governor was subordinated to a deputy of the Tsar and, two years later, a new law was passed regarding the administration of Bessarabia. Though preserving the local administration, it established a Supreme Council (Verhovnîi Soviet) and a regional Court of law, which was going to use the Russian language and the Russian laws during the trials. Bessarabia’s autonomy was even more restricted after 1823, when Prince Mikhail Semynovich Vorontsov was appointed the governor of Novorossiisk and viceroy (namestnik) of Bessarabia. In 1828, through an imperial ukase, Chișinău was established as the new Capital of the province. During the same year, the “Voronțov regulation” was issued (29 February/12 March 1828), stipulating that the Russian government suspended all the economic, administrative and political liberties granted to Bessarabia in 1812. Bessarabia was included in the governorate (guberniya) of Novorossiisk, the positions of civilian governor and polnomocinîi-namestnik were abolished, and the Russian language became compulsory in the legal and administrative system.

The new status gradually modified the ethnic, social and economic structure of the small town. Here came not only Russian officials in charge with governing the province, but also Moldavian boyars, who, in their turn, were going to participate in the administration. They were followed by Jews from Podolia, Southern Russia, Ruthenians and other nations. Several imperial documents were issued for this purpose: one in 1830, through which the Jews in the Empire could settle in Bessarabia, being exempted from taxes for two years, and one in 1832, through which the liberated Russian peasants or those who paid a tax (obroc) to their masters (for the right to leave the estates and get employed wherever they wanted) were granted the approval to settle on the territory between the Prut and the Dniester Rivers. Furthermore, another imperial ukase issued in 1839 established new privileges: “Foreign traders who settle in Bessarabia and especially in Chișineu and, within two years since their settlement, build factories, shops or other commercial buildings, will benefit from the privilege to be exempted from paying the patent tax for ten years; moreover, all the foreigners that will settle in Bessarabia will be exempted from any contributions, wagons or other requisitions for the army” (Zamfir C. Arbore, “Bessarabia in the 20th century”, pp. 257-258). Only between 1812 and 1828 the population of the city increased from 7000 to 18594 inhabitants. Therefore, it is not surprising that, on 2 August 1834, an architectural plan was drafted, laying the foundations of the modern city of Chișinău. This plan was put into practice when the Russian General Pavel Ivanovici Fedorov was the governor (23 August 1834 – 29 May 1854). During the same period, following a decision of the city council, using funds both from the state and from the inhabitants’ donations, the engineer Osip Gaschet collected the water from the springs under the hills of the Mazarache Church and made it run through some special troughs, thus facilitating the job of the water carriers in the city.

Nevertheless, the true development and modernization of the city on the bank of the Bâc River occurred during the life of the architect Alexandru Bernardazzi (1831-1907). Born in an Italian family settled in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, he studied in Sankt-Petersburg and, in 1850, he was appointed member of the committee for buildings and roads in Bessarabia. On his proposal, the Water Tower was erected, thus improving the city’s water supply. He was also the one who, between 1887 and 1891, built the St. Panteleimon Greek Church on the land donated by Alexandra Constantin Zoti, married to Ivan Sinandino. Among the urban residential buildings erected by the same architect, there are the Iorgu Râșcan-Serojinschi mansion (on the Podoliei Street, today the Bucharest Street) and the Casso house, on the 35, Mitropolit Gavriile Bănulescu-Bodoni Street. The Casso house is also famous for being the place where Osman-Pașa, the commander of the Ottoman army, was kept prisoner after he had surrendered to the Romanian army after the fall of Pleven. (Note: In 1877-1878, Romania, an ally of Russia, fought against the Ottoman Empire for obtaining its independence).

Alexandru Bernardazzi recreated the project of the hospital of psychiatry in Constiujeni (built by the architect T. Ghingher in 1892), turning it into one of the most modern institutions of this kind in Europe. However, the list of his buildings does not end here. The Principesa Natalia Dadiani High-school (built between 1899 and 1901 on the suggestion and with funds from the princess whose name it bears), the chapel of the No. 1 Secondary School for Girls, the Court of Appeal, the building of the City Duma, etc. were erected according to Alexandru Bernardazzi’s plans. The same architect was in charge with paving the streets and sidewalks and with building Markov’s funerary monument in the Armenian Cemetery, the chapel of the Armenian Church, etc. For his numerous achievements, he was appointed honorary member of the city in 1875.

We must also mention Carol Smidth, who, as a mayor between 1877 and 1903, supported this ample work for modernizing the Capital of Bessarabia. Among others, on 15 December 1892, the so-called Water Plant was opened, as the first aqueduct in the city and later, in 1912, the sewage system for the center of the city was made, being extended after 1914.

The Diocesan House is especially worth mentioning. Built according to the plans of the architect Gheorghe Cupcea in 1910 – 1911, founded by the Archbishop Serafim Ciceacov, it had the best concert hall in Bessarabia and, in October 1917, hosted the Congress of the Moldavian Soldiers, which decided to establish the Council of State. (Note: unfortunately, this architectural gem was dynamited by the Russian troops that were withdrawing in 1941).

Thus, the city was impressive and cosmopolitan at the beginning of the 20th century. Nicolae Iorga, who was in Bessarabia at the beginning of the century, wrote: “Chișinău is a religious city. Everywhere, on foot or in carriages, you can see priests called by the Metropolitan Bishop of the country, who is Russian. There are many churches, belonging to all styles. One seems to remind of the Moldavian buildings, but, when you look closer, you can see that, in golden letters, it bears a Polish inscription. Others have all sorts of protuberances, turrets or green awnings. I even saw a chapel at the school for girls, extremely carefully carved in stone. Whoever likes the Russian style can admire them; anyway, they are big, clean and well-surrounded. Many majestic public buildings, the Court of Justice, the palace of the government, two secondary schools for boys, one secondary school for girls, a diocesan school for girls, placed on a hill, with a church-like dome, on the way to the railway station, a noblemen’s orphanage, a club for noblemen, the foundation of old Balș, who died around fifteen years ago, a museum, built in a Moorish style, with a girdle of enamel. It seems that, through these huge quantities of stone, this endless Empire wanted to emphasize its power and resistance, which nothing can shatter, and, through their good administration, it wanted to make obvious its military discipline, introduced in everything…”. (Nicolae Iorga, The Romanian Nation in Bessarabia, the Librăria Socecu & Co Publishing House, 1905, pp. 123-125 ).

According to the census in 1860, Chișinău had 87477 inhabitants, out of which 50% were Romanians, 20% Jews, 10% Russians, 6% Greeks, 5% Bulgarians, etc. As we can see, the Romanians were still the majority, despite the numerous privileges granted to foreigners. However, it is strange that “through some measures, the Russian government had prevented the settlement of Russian colonists until thirty years ago”, said Zamfir C. Arbore, a Romanian writer and journalist in Chișinău in 1898. “The cause of this measure against the purely Russian element must be searched, on the one hand, in the desire of not witnessing the loss of population in the Russian provinces and, on the other hand, in the conviction of the central government that the Russian peasants are utterly unable to russify another people, but, on the contrary, when they come into contact with another nation, they lose their own national characteristics and become denationalized” (Zamfir C. Arbore, Bessarabia in the 20th Century, the Publishing House of the Carol Göbl Institute of Graphic Arts, 1898).

Despite the Russian government’s policy of denationalization, the Romanians benefited from help even from the leaders who came from Sankt-Petersburg. In 1835, the governor Pavel Ivanovici Fedorov (mentioned above) allowed the study of the Romanian language at the Highschool for boys in Chișinău and then extended this right to the schools in Chișinău, Hotin and Bălți counties. Moreover, in 1836, he allowed the use of Romanian in the state institutions. Another governor who was favorable to the Romanians was I.E. Gangardt, who, between 1867 and 1871, supported the reforms in Bessarabia; during his administration, the groups of Romanian artists from Iași “…were freely performing in the theatres in Chișinău, to the general content, having exceptional successes and enjoying a special attention from the governor himself ” (Al. Boldur, The History of Bessarabia, III, p. 197).

During all these years of Russian administration, the relationships with the Romanians on the other bank of the Prut River continued, partially facilitated by the conflagrations between the Great Powers. The occupation of the Russian troops in 1828-1834, 1853 – 1854 (during the Russian-Turkish wars), as well as the war for the independence of Romania in 1877 – 1878 (in which the Romanians in the Romanian Principalities fought alongside the Tsar’s army) facilitated the Bessarabians’ voyages to the principalities. Since 1873, their military service was introduced and, as they knew Romanian, they often served as translators in the Russian army on the territory of the future Romanian Kingdom.

The first newspapers in Romanian, which promoted the awakening of the national spirit, appeared in Chișinău: “Mesagerul Basarabiei” (1884), “Basarabia” (printed in 1906 at Constantin Stere’s initiative) and “Cuvânt moldovenesc” (edited in 1913 by Pantelimon Halippa, Nicolae Alexandri and Simeon Murafa). The names of many Bessarabians who pledged for the Romanian culture and language are also related to this city. Some of them were even born in Chișinău, whereas others graduated from the teacher-training school or the seminary. Out of these, we shall mention Alexei Mateevici, Gurie Grosu, Alexis Nour, Pantelimon Halippa, Ion Țurcanu, Ion Pelivan etc.

The start of World War I in 1914, and, mainly, of the Russian Revolution in 1917 brought new perspectives for Bessarabia, and Chișinău was the host of all the events that led to the union with the Romanian Kingdom. Thus, on 3/16 April 1917, the National Moldavian Party, led by Pavel Gore and having Pantelimon Halippa and Vladimir Herța as vice-presidents, was founded in Chișinău. Among the decisions it made, there were: the introduction of the Romanian language in administration, schools, justice, rights for the Romanians across the Dniester River, the organization of a national army, etc. Later, another congress, this time of the soldiers in the Russian army, also held in Chișinău between 20/27 October – 2/9 November 1917, proclaimed the autonomy of Bessarabia and asked for creating the State Council, in which representatives of all the social classes were supposed to be elected. The assembly of the State Council on 21 November /4 December – 2/15 December 1917 installed the Democratic Moldavian Republic, which, on 24 January/6 February 1918 proclaimed its independence. Eventually, on 27 March/9 April 1918, the State Council led by Ion Inculeț, voted for the union with Romania, in the presence of Alexandru Marghiloman, the president of the Romanian Council of Ministers, who declared: “Bessarabia is from now united with Romania for good” (Nicolae Ciachir, Bessarabia under the Tsarist Domination, 1812 – 1917, the Faculty of History, Bucharest, 1992, p. 80).

Nevertheless, his words were not messianic; Bessarabia was again separated from Romania by the Vienna Award in 1940, but, irrespective of the course of history, Chișinău continued its existence, with its buildings, streets, parks and gardens, being up to this day the heart of the Republic of Moldova.

Nicoleta König


1. Nicolae Ciachir “Basarabia under Tsarist Rule, 1812-1917”, Faculty of History, Bucharest, 1992

2. Zamfir C. Arbore, “Bessarabia in the 20th Century”, Institute of Graphic Arts, Carol Gölb, 1898

3. C. Filipescu, Eugeniu N. Giurgea, “Basarabia, general, agricultural, economic and statistical considerations”, Romania Noua Graphics Institute, Chisinau, 1919.

4. Lucia Sava “Everyday life in the city of Chisinau at the beginning of the 20th century (1900-1918), Edit. Pontos, Chisinau, 2010

5.Dinu C. Giurescu, The History of Romania in Data, Edit. Encyclopedia, Bucharest, 2003

6. Nicolae Iorga, “The Romanian people in Basarabia”, Edit. Socecu & Co Bookstore, Bucharest, 1905

7. Florin Constantiniu “A sincere history of the Romanian people”

8. Iurie Colesnic, “Our Unknown Chişinău”, second edition, “Cartier” Publishing House, Chisinau, 2016.

9. Octavian Ţâcu, Interwar Chişinău (–99329.html).