Tatarbunar rebellion in Romanian Bessarabia (1924): an operation of Soviet secret services or a modern jacquerie?

Igor Cașu

Bessarabia became a part of Romania in March 1918 as a result of the collapse of Tsarist Empire and application of Woodrow Wilson’s principle to national self-determination of local Romanian-speaking population. Ethnic minorities colonized by the Tsars in the 19th century accepted more or less reluctantly the new status of Bessarabia in the interwar period. Germans, Gagauz and Bulgarians were reserved initially, but later chose to be loyal Romanian citizens while others, like Russians and Ukrainians decided to confront the authority of the new state authorities.

The Soviets did not recognize the Union of Bessarabia and Romania and chose to use the dissatisfaction of Slavic minorities – and to some extent, Jews – in order to annex Bessarabia. As a matter of fact, the Bolsheviks intended to use Bessarabia as a bridgehead to extend communism in Romania as a whole and further in South-Eastern Europe. A Soviet Bessarabian government has been established briefly in 1918-1919, disbanded after the „March to the West” has been hindered by other more urgent affairs connected to the Russian Civil War. The first attempt to occupy Bessarabia was organized in May 1919 in Bender (Tighina), just on the Romanian-Soviet border along Dniester River, 50 miles south east of Chisinau. The Romanian authorities managed to crush the rebellion relatively easy.

It was, however, more difficult to deal with the second uprising in mid 1920s, at Tatarbunar, in September 1924. This will be the focus of my paper. What we know for certain about Tatarbunar rebellion/uprising is that its organizers aimed at creating the Soviet Moldavian Republic within Ukraine but ended in a fiasco. In a matter of weeks, failing to spark the revolution in Bessarabia, Moscow decided to create an autonomous Moldavian Republic on the left bank of Dniester River. I will try to answer several important questions related to Tatarbunar rebellion/uprising. The first, what was the wider European and indeed international context in which the Soviets decided to organize the uprising, this time at a larger scale and in another region, in the South of Bessarabia? What was the relation between the Tatarbunar rebellion and the other in Western USSR's borderlands, especially the one in Estonia, the so-called Tallinn uprising or coup d’état in December 1924? What Soviet institutions have been involved in the preparation of the Tatarbunar uprising and what factors contributed to the fact the expected Red Army involvement did not come to fruition eventually? What was the role of Razvedupr and Comintern, in particular, in the events of September 1924 in Bessarabia? What was the role of internal factors in the breaking out of the pro-Soviet rebellion in South Bessarabia in September 1924? Why some ethnic minorities were more willing to join the Soviet appeals at rebellion while others chose to collaborate with Siguranța, the Romanian security and political police) in liquidating the uprising?

 The paper is based on the new Romanian-issued archival documents from Chișinău and Bucharest depositories made available recently as well as Soviet documents from Odessa’s state regional archive, SBU archive in Kiev and RGASPI and GARF in Moscow. I am challenging the Soviet historiography thesis on Tatarbunar as a popular uprising against the „Romanian bourgeois and landowner oppressive regime.” I will show that the Tatarbunar events were mainly a result of the sometime competing but nevertheless, Soviet institutions’ effort in trying to destabilize the Western neighbors and expand revolutionary turmoil. At the same time, I am challenging the thesis expressed by a reputed American scholar according to whom Tatarbunar was rather a modern jacquerie than an uprising/rebellion with clear-cut ideological thrust (Charles King, The Moldovans. Cultural Policy between Romania and Russia, Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2002).

Among the tentative conclusions of my paper is that the Soviet attempt to occupy Bessarabia in 1924 – as well as the failure of the coup d’état in Estonia in the same year – is a landmark in Soviet foreign and security policy in the interwar period. No time afterwards did the Soviets try to conquer other former tsarist territories using a combination of propaganda and armed violent methods (hybrid war avant la lettre). Only in late 1930s after agreeing with Nazi Germany on the division of spheres of influences in Eastern Europe Moscow succeeded to occupy Bessarabia (and northern Bukovina, former Habsburg territory), Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and eastern regions of interwar Poland.

Karl Lorentz Kleve