The Moldovans, who ethnically are kindred to the Romanians, are the indigenous people of the republic and represent about two - thirds of the population. Their numbers are greater in the centre and north of the republic than in the south, and they account for about four - fifths of all rural inhabitants. As recent newcomers to the cities, they represent only one - third of all urban inhabitants.
Most of the Ukrainians and Russians - each group constituting about one - eighth of the population - came to Moldova after World War II and settled mainly in the cities. Nearly all of the remainder of the population consists of Gagauz, Bulgarians, and Jews.
The Gagauz, a mainly rural Turkic and Christian people, have lived in the Bugeac Plain region of southern Bessarabia since the late 18th century.
Bulgarians also are mainly rural and inhabit the southern districts, where they settled at the end of the 18th century. Jews, by contrast, are overwhelmingly urban. They began to enter Bessarabia in substantial numbers after 1800, but their numbers have been greatly reduced by war and emigration.
Each ethnic community has preserved its respective language, but urbanization has brought significant changes. Members of all communities who have been drawn to the cities, especially Moldovans, often have accepted Russian as a second language. Few, however, have abandoned their native language, and bilingualism has become the norm.
During the Soviet period the Moldavian language (as it is called in Russian) was written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Soviet scholars, mainly for political reasons, insisted that this language was an independent Romance language that was distinct from Romanian. In fact the differences between the two languages are of little significance and are confined to phonetics and vocabulary. In 1989 the script of the Moldovan language was changed to Roman; thereupon began a heated debate over whether the language should be called Romanian or Moldovan.
After World War II the influence of churches in public life was substantially reduced. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) imposed its religious policy on the republic: separation of church and state, exclusion of the churches from education, and subjection of the faithful to atheistic propaganda. The predominant faith was Eastern Orthodoxy, practiced primarily by Moldovans.
Russians, Ukrainians, Gagauz, and Bulgarians also were Orthodox, but, as with the Moldovans, exact numbers were unknown. Baptists and Seventh - day Adventists also formed important churches, their evangelical fervour appealing especially to the rural working class. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, all churches have undergone a revival and have striven to regain their former prominence.
During the 1960s the population of the republic grew rapidly, and since 1970 it has grown at a steady but slower rate. The population has become more urban, a consequence primarily of the continuous movement of people from the countryside to the cities.
Immigration from Russia and Ukraine also has contributed to population growth. The birth rate has remained roughly steady, though much lower than the rate for the 1960s, and it is somewhat higher in rural areas than in cities. Infant mortality has remained a serious problem.