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Updated: 19.09.2003

Bessarabia - historic region, c.17,600 sq mi (45,600 sq km), largely in Moldova and Ukraine. The region probably derives its name from the Walachian princely family of Bassarab, which once ruled Southern Bessarabia.

Bessarabia is bounded by the Dnestr River on the North and East, the Prut on the West, and the Danube and the Black Sea on the South. Consisting mainly of a hilly plain with flat steppes, it is an extremely fertile agricultural area, especially for wine grapes, fruits, corn, wheat, tobacco, sugar beets, and sunflowers. Dairy cattle and sheep raising are also important. Agricultural processing is the chief industry. There are some stone quarries and lignite deposits.

Bessarabia's leading cities are Chisinau and Tiraspol in Moldova and Izmail and Belgorod-Dnestrovsky in Ukraine. The population consists of Moldavians (about two thirds), Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, and Bulgarians.

As the gateway from Russia into the Danube valley, Bessarabia has been an invasion route from Asia to Europe. Greek colonies were planted on the Black Sea coast of Bessarabia as early as the 7th century BC. The region was later part of Roman Dacia, but after the 4th century AD it was subject to incursions by Goths, Huns, Avars, and Magyars.

Slavs first settled in Bessarabia in the 7th century in the midst of these incursions. From the 9th to the 11th centuries, the area was part of Kiev Rus, and in the 12th century it belonged to the duchy of Halych-Volhynia.

Cumans and later Mongols overran Bessarabia; after the latter withdrew it was included (1367) in the newly established principality of Moldavia.

In 1513 the Turks and their vassals, the khans of the Crimean Tatars, conquered Bessarabia. After the Russo-Turkish wars, the region was ceded to Russia by the Treaty of Bucharest (1812).

The Crimean War resulted (1856) in Russia's cession of Southern Bessarabia to Moldavia; but the Congress of Berlin (1878) returned the district to Russia.

After the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) the anti-Soviet national council of Bessarabia proclaimed the region an autonomous republic; however, in 1918, Bessarabia renounced all ties with Soviet Russia and declared itself an independent Moldavian republic, later voting for union with Romania. Although the Treaty of Paris (1920) recognised the union, Russia never accepted it.

In 1940 Romania was forced to cede Bessarabia to the USSR; the Romanian peace treaty of 1947 confirmed Bessarabia as part of the USSR. The larger part of the region was merged with the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic to form the Moldavian SSR (now Moldova); the southern and northern sections, with a predominantly Ukrainian-speaking population, were incorporated into Ukraine.

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