The roots of Romanian culture reach back to the second century A.D., the period of Roman colonization in Dacia. During the centuries following the Roman withdrawal in A.D. 271, the population of the region was influenced by contact with the Byzantine Empire, neighboring Slavic and Magyar populations, and later the Ottoman Turks. Beginning in the nineteenth century, a strong West European (particularly French) influence came to be evident in Romanian literature and the arts. The resulting mélange has produced a rich cultural tradition. Although foreign contacts were an inevitable consequence of the region's geography, their influence only served to enhance a vital and resilient popular culture.
The regional population had come to identify itself widely as "Moldovan" by the fourteenth century but continued to maintain close cultural links with other Romanian groups. The eastern Moldovans, however, those inhabiting Bessarabia and Transnistria, were also influenced by Slavic culture from neighboring Ukraine. During the periods 1812-1917 and 1944-89, the eastern Moldovans were influenced by Russian and Soviet administrative control as well and by ethnic Russian immigration.
Bessarabia was one of the least-developed and least-educated European regions of the Russian Empire. In 1930 its literacy rate was only 40 percent, according to a Romanian census. Although Soviet authorities promoted education (not the least to spread communist ideology), they also did everything they could to break the region's cultural ties with Romania. With many ethnic Romanian intellectuals either fleeing, being killed, or being deported both during and after World War II, Bessarabia's cultural and educational situation worsened.
To fill the gap, Soviet authorities developed urban cultural and scientific centers and institutions that were subsequently filled with Russians and with other non-Romanian ethnic groups, but this culture was superimposed and alien. Urban culture came from Moscow; the rural ethnic Romanian population was allowed to express itself only in folklore or folk art.
Although the folk arts flourished, similarities with Romanian culture were hidden. Music and dance, particularly encouraged by Soviet authorities, were made into a showcase but were subtly distorted to hide their Romanian origins. An example is the national folk costume, in which the traditional Romanian moccasin (opinca) was replaced by the Russian boot.
Moldova's folk culture is extremely rich, and the ancient folk ballad, the "Mioriţa" plays a central role in the traditional culture. Folk traditions, including ceramics and weaving, continue to be practiced in rural areas. The folk culture tradition is promoted at the national level and is represented by, among other groups, the republic's dance company, Joc, and by the folk choir, Doina.
The first Moldovan books (religious texts) appeared in the mid-seventeenth century. Prominent figures in Moldova's cultural development include prince and scholar Dimitrie Cantemir (1673- 1723), historian and philologist Bogdan P. Hasdeu (1836-1907), author Ion Creangă (1837-89), and poet Mihai Eminescu (1850-89).
Prominent modern writers include Vladimir Besleagă, Pavel Boţu, Aureliu Busuioc, Nicolae Dabija, Ion Druţă, and Grigore Vieru. In 1991 a total of 520 books were published in Moldova, of which 402 were in Romanian, 108 in Russian, eight in Gagauz, and two in Bulgarian.
In the early 1990s, Moldova had twelve professional theaters. All performed in Romanian except the A.P. Chekhov Russian Drama Theater in Chişinău and the Russian Drama and Comedy Theater in Tiraspol, both of which performed solely in Russian, and the Licurici Republic Puppet Theater (in Chişinău), which performed in both Romanian and Russian. Members of ethnic minorities manage a number of folklore groups and amateur theaters throughout the country.
See also: Music of Moldova