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  • Ilinca Stroe

Romania’s Second Unifier: Alexandru Ioan Cuza

There’s a Romanian saying, “Tot ce-i trei e bun” (“Good things go in threes”). It means that you have to try something twice and then once more to succeed - or, in other words, success comes with the third attempt, the third time round. Indeed, that is the case with Romania’s Union: in 1918, when King Ferdinand and Queen Marie of Romania accomplished the unification of all the provinces inhabited by Romanians (i.e. Wallachia, Moldavia, Transylvania, Bucovina and Bessarabia), it was the third time such a nation-wide project had been initiated. Having detailed the first such attempt in another post on unifier Michael the Brave, let us focus this time on the second unifying enterprise, conducted by ruler Alexandru Ioan Cuza.

It was January 1859. In Moldavia and Wallachia, the modernising nationalist project of the paşoptişti/forty-eighters, promoted through the 1848 Revolutions, had failed, politically. The Crimea War had followed, with the Russian Empire, posing as the defender of (Orthodox) Christianity, fighting over the two Romanian provinces against an alliance of the Ottoman Empire, the Kingdom of Piedmont, the French Empire and the United Kingdom. Russia lost. Moldavia and Wallachia gained, overall, more independence, but remained vassal states of the Ottoman Empire under the provisions stipulated in the post-war Treaty of Paris (1856).

Of the latter, article 22 reconfirmed Ottoman suzerainty over the two Romanian provinces; art. 26 allowed for the establishment of a national army in charge of maintaining internal order as well as border control; art. 27 mentioned that Turkey was only allowed to interfere with the two principalities’ internal affairs if it had the approval of the signatories (which were also guarantors) of the Treaty. Most importantly, art. 24 stated that His Majesty the Sultan was to convene representative Ad hoc Divans in both provinces, to determine the popular will regarding the principalities’ definitive form of organisation.

The two Ad hoc Divans convened in Moldavia and Wallachia in 1857. They were consultative assemblies made up of representatives of the Church, the boyars, the bourgeoisie and the peasantry, and their common requests included: the unification of the two principalities into a single state called Romania; and the establishment of a hereditary monarchy in future Romania, set up by a foreign prince from a western European dynasty whose descendants should be brought up in Romania’s religion. The Treaty of Paris guarantors took note of that ideal. A formal union was established, with open borders between the two principalities which, however, continued to be governed by two distinct Divans and governments, as two distinct vassal states of the Ottoman Empire.

So it was 5 January 1859 and the Ad hoc Divan of Moldavia elected Alexandru Ioan Cuza as Prince of Moldavia. The Treaty of Paris said that ruling princes had to be elected by the Divans in Moldavia and in Wallachia. It didn’t say the ruling prince/s could not be one and the same person. That notion was dropped in Bucharest by the delegation of the Moldavian Divan on its way to Constantinople, where they were expected to report on the result of its January 5 elections. The unionists in the Wallachian Divan picked up on the idea and on January 24 they elected their own Prince of Wallachia: Alexandru Ioan Cuza.

Clever or even tricky? Perhaps. But when conflicting powers and empires are constantly blocking your hopes and ideals just because of your geopolitical location, what resources are left to you but cleverness? It worked, and with that the union became a fait accompli. The Treaty of Paris guarantors were faced with the reality of a de facto Romania they hadn’t quite approved of, and hadn’t it been for the solid support of the French Emperor, Napoleon III, Turkey might have wanted to react militarily to the new inconvenient reality. Instead, it finally acknowledged, in 1861, Alexandru Ioan Cuza as the ruler of the Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia [1], even though not, as yet, the unification of the two provinces per se.

But who was Cuza, the man who, like Michael the Brave in 1600, enabled a personal union of Moldavia and Wallachia, paving the way for the coming of age of the state of Romania? Born into a family of Moldavian boyars, Alexandru Ioan Cuza was an officer in the Moldavian Army, where he reached the rank of colonel. In 1844 he married Elena Rosetti and in 1848 he participated in the Moldavian Revolution, standing out as a passionate liberal unionist. As a consequence of his revolutionary zeal, he was taken prisoner and transported to Vienna, but released thanks to British intervention. Coming back to Moldavia, in 1858 he was appointed Minister of War and representative of the city of Galaţi in the Moldavian Divan. [2]

As an elected ruler of the Principalities, Cuza shunned luxury, ceremoniousness and opulence, challenged those in his camarilla with his sarcastic sense of humour, was honest, reliable and compassionate, but had, of course, his own weaknesses. Women were one of them, and it is quite unbelievable that his wife Princess Elena, who was apparently sterile, loved him so much that she agreed to live in a ménage à trois with Cuza’s mistress Maria Obrenovici, a beautiful blue-eyed brunette whose two children by her husband Elena adopted and raised as her own. [3]

But Cuza’s reign was primarily characterised by his determination to catch up with the West on several fronts, and the ensuing reforms he conducted. Thus, in 1862 he completed the constitutional and administrative unification of the two principalities, unifying their parliaments and governments, adopting the name of Romania and Bucharest as its capital city, and initiating the necessary diplomatic efforts for the recognition of the Union. In 1863 he secularised the estates of the Church, transferring the Church’s property to the State to “enhance the country’s welfare” [4]. In 1864 he carried out the agrarian reform, by which agricultural estates were de-feudalised and 460,000 peasant households received plots of land, as well as reforms in education, with the establishment of compulsory primary schooling and the first Romanian universities in Iaşi and Bucharest, and the judiciary system, including the enforcement of new, French-inspired Civil and Penal Codes. [5]

Historians say Cuza’s reign was short-lived because provisional: in 1859 he was elected ruler, in 1866 he was

made to abdicate and leave the country. (He died in Heidelberg in 1873, cared for by his incredibly loyal wife.) However, his seven-year reign meant a huge leap forward for Moldavia and Wallachia in so many areas, from education to the military. Moreover, Cuza apparently needn’t have been forced to abdicate, as he agreed to give up the throne by virtue of his old, Divan-period creed: the country had to be ruled by a foreign prince that could supersede rivalries between autochthonous political factions.

So, when all is said and done, Alexandru Ioan Cuza appears like the right man at the right time and for the right period of time. He was there for the country when someone had to take over the unionist project, and he left when the country needed a foreign prince to take over and complete the process of Romania’s Independence. (Prince Carol I did, the uncle of King Ferdinand, his successor who was to accomplish the Great Union.) At the end of the day, Cuza, Romania’s second unifier, was the missing link – not many people in history have that privilege or skill.

Notes & Sources

[1] “Alexandru Ioan Cuza”. Wikipedia. Accessed 17 October 2018. <https://ro.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexandru_Ioan_Cuza>


[3] <https://adevarul.ro/locale/alexandria/alexandru-ioan-cuza-calitati-defecte-era-fapt-omul-spatele-simbolului-istoric-micii-uniri-1_5885d71b5ab6550cb8b6c602/index.html>

[4] “Alexandru Ioan Cuza”. Wikipedia.

[5] <https://www.descopera.ro/istorie/16952635-povestea-mai-putin-cunoscuta-a-lui-alexandru-ioan-cuza-omul-cuza-a-fost-un-personaj-tragic-al-propriei-sale-vieti>

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