Simon Schlegel

The Making of Ethnicity in Southern Bessarabia: Tracing the histories of an ambiguous concept in a contested land

The dissertation project “the making of ethnicity in southern Bessarabia” looks at how meanings and implications of ethnicity have changed over time and space. This study aims to find a suitable set of translations for “ethnicity” at different periods during the past two centuries in a peripheral and multi-ethnic region of Ukraine called southern Bessarabia. This region has been chosen for its unusually diverse ethnic mosaic formed by a history of settler communities. The descendants of settlers who came to the region in the early 19th century today identify as Ukrainians, Russians, Bulgarians, Moldovans, Gagauz, and Albanians. Bessarabia also offers a history of frequently changing statehood; it has been ruled by the Russian Empire, Romania, the Soviet Union, and most recently Ukraine. Each of these states used ethnicity as it served them best. The study therefore follows the ambiguous concept of ethnicity through the history of a contested land. How this history of changing functions has changed the meaning of ethnicity was analyzed by combining the insights that can be won from archival sources, ethnographic fieldwork, and biographical interviews.

The study shows that ethnicity became an exclusive and clearly bounded category only in periods when the currently ruling state experienced some sort of legitimacy crisis. At such times, each state invested substantial resources to reach locals and convince them of a specific concept of ethnicity. It is important to notice that it was not the alternating states that changed the meaning of ethnicity. Rather, it was the developmental phase the state was going through. With more pervasive bureaucracies, states needed to fine-tune their administrative categories, among them ethnicity. When state elites came under pressure, they began to suspect ethnic minorities and therefore tried to count and control them more closely. In recent decades, clientelism has dominated local politics. In this situation ethnic boundaries have been used to delimit groups of clients and serve them more efficiently with the resources of wealthy patrons. The changeful history of a term’s implications resulted in an array of popular narratives about what ethnicity is and how it acts out. Collecting and analyzing such narratives helped to approach translations of the changing meanings of ethnicity during the past 200 years of Bessarabian history.

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