Under the Russian Protectorate

Under the Russian Protectorate

At the turn of the eighteenth century, Peter the Great's Russia supplanted Poland as the predominant power in Eastern Europe and began exerting its influence over Walachia and Moldavia. The Orthodox tsar announced a policy of support for his coreligionists within the Ottoman Empire, and Romanian princes in Walachia and Moldavia began looking to Russia to break the Turkish yoke. Peter's ill-fated attempt to seize Moldavia in 1711 had the support of both Romanian princes. After the Turks expelled the Russian forces, the sultan moved to strengthen his hold on the principalities by appointing Greeks from Constantinople's Phanar, or "Lighthouse," district as princes. These "Phanariot" princes, who purchased their positions and usually held them briefly until a higher bidder usurped them, were entirely dependent upon their Ottoman overlords. Within the principalities, however, their rule was absolute and the Porte expected them to leech out as much wealth from their territories as possible in the least time.

Exploitation, corruption, and the Porte's policy of rapidly replacing Phanariot princes wreaked havoc on the principalities' social and economic conditions. The boyars became sycophants; severe exactions and heavy labor obligations forced the peasantry to the brink of starvation; and foreigners monopolized trade. The only benevolent Phanariot prince was Constantine Mavrocordato, who ruled as prince of Walachia six times and of Moldavia four times between 1739 and 1768. Mavrocordato attempted drastic reforms to staunch peasant emigration. He abolished several taxes on the boyars and clergy, freed certain classes of serfs, and provided the peasants sufficient land, pasturage, and wood for fuel. Mavrocordato also published books, founded schools, and required priests to be literate. These reforms, however, proved ephemeral; discomfited boyars' undermined Mavrocordato's support at the Porte, and he was locked away in a Constantinople prison.

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