Nichita Smochină was born on the confines of historical Moldavia and Bessarabia: the entire Transnistrian region was at the time part of the Russian Kherson Governorate. As he himself later recounted, the bountiful eastern bank of the Dniester was home to a thriving Romanian community, or, as he put it, a veritable "Romanian California". His later research traced the first Romanian presence in that area to the Dark Ages, revived by the Cossack Hetmanate's border policy, particularly in the 1650s. According to him, there were two main stages in the migration and resettlement of Moldavian peasants to what became his homeland. The first was under Moldavian Prince George Ducas (late 17th century); the second under Russian Empress Catherine the Great. Smochină spoke in detail about the Romanian colonies of 18th-century "New Russia", that reached as far east as Oleksandriya.
The Smochinăs themselves were descendants of Romanian yeomen (răzeși), originally from Moldavia, and reportedly spoke an archaic variant of the Romanian language. The literary historian Al. Husar, who met Smochină in the 1940s, recalled that his use of the eastern dialect had the "scent of ages", and "seemed to me a wonder of the Romanian language."
Smochină's place of birth was Mahala village, on the eastern, non-Bessarabian, shore of the Dniester. After completing his primary education in Dubăsari (Dubossary), he went to a Russian Cadet school and, reportedly, worked as a clerk for Dubăsari Tribunal. He was interested in philology and, with time, became one of the few Romanian experts in the study of Old Church Slavonic. When World War I erupted, he was serving in the Imperial Russian Army. His services were rewarded with the Order of St. George and thus joined the ranks of Russian nobility.
The February Revolution caught Smochină behind the Caucasian Front. He was appointed military delegate by a Congress of Peoples in Tbilisi, sent over to Petrograd for negotiations with the Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies (summer 1917). As he later noted, he happened to hear a speech given by Vladimir Lenin, leader of the ultra-revolutionary Bolshevik faction, who was working to topple the Russian Provisional Government. Smochină was intrigued by Lenin's promise of self-determination for all of Russia's minorities: "As a Moldavian, I found this issue to be one of greatest interest". Smochină was interested in finding out Lenin's level of commitment in this respect, and was received for an interview (as he recalled, this was only possible because one of Lenin's bodyguards was originally from Mahala).
According to Smochină's own rendition of the encounter, when asked about his vision on the Moldavian question, Lenin began by stating: "You Moldavians have no interest in fighting on the side of Russia, who for centuries now has been enslaving your kind. Culturally, Moldavians are far more advanced than Russians." The thing to do, Lenin said, was for Moldavians to take up arms and fight against the two "oppressors": Russia and "landowners' Romania". According to Smochină, Lenin openly agreed that Moldavians, Bessarabians and Romanians were in essence the same demonym: "Take inspiration from your Romanian blood brothers, but, again, beware of falling into the paws of Romanian boyar exploiters. [...] all Moldavians are Romanians". The Bolshevik theorist appears to have incited the Transnistrians and Bessarabians to spread the flame of revolution into "boyar Romania", to "drown the hell out of the Romanian king and set up a Soviet Romania". Reportedly, Lenin also urged the Transnistrian delegate to personally to sabotage the war effort on the Caucasus Front, fraternize with the Ottomans and demand "peace without annexations or indemnities".
As some Romanian historians have noted, "Lenin was not about to curb [a nation's independence], but did not specify in sufficiently clear terms what would happen if they should want to achieve self-determination in any social order other than communism."
Smochină returned to his place of origin, which was being progressively included in the newly emancipated Ukrainian People's Republic, and began defending the interests of local Romanians. As head of the Mahala Zemstvo, he tried to prevent the breakdown of social and military order, and narrowly escaped with his life after being pursued by the Bolshevik committees. In December 1917, after a pro-Romanian Moldavian Democratic Republic had taken root in Bessarabia, he and Gheorghe Mare were involved with the separatist Congress of Transnistrian Moldavians in Tiraspol, where they flew the Romanian tricolor. Smochină stated: "We love our Country so much, that even our icons look to Romania." By 1918, he had become Prefect of Tiraspol, then regional envoy to the Central Rada of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.
Meanwhile, the union of Bessarabia with Romania had been effected on the western side of Transnistria, whereas the region itself was made part of the Bolshevik Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, as the Moldavian Autonomous Oblast. Smochină's experience of Bolshevik rule was painful, and he recalled war communism as a trauma: "their entire property taken away, [Romanians in Transnistria] were left naked, downtrodden, worse off than during slavery". He escaped Soviet Ukraine on 25 December 1919, and crossed the Dniester into Greater Romania, settling in the former Moldavian capital of Iași. According to Smochină, his relatives were exposed to violent Bolshevik reprisals: his father and his female cousin were shot, and the rest were deported to Siberia. His wife Agafia escaped with him, but Alexandru was left behind. He joined them in 1922, when a courier commissioned by the father took him over to Iași. In Romania, the couple had another daughter, baptized Claudia.
While in Iași, Smochină met with jurist Ioan Teodorescu, who helped him enroll at the Iași University Department of Philosophy and Law. He graduated in 1924, having by then also studied Psychology with Constantin Fedeleș. Smochină joined up with other Transnistrian refugee students during his college term, and militated for increased awareness of their situation; however, he was also a critic of all Romanians arriving from Russia, noting that the Russian education system left them poorly trained and superficial. He first began associating with a circle of Bessarabian Romanians, and became friends with Bessarabian Peasants' Party founder Pan Halippa, heralding humanitarian projects to feed and integrate refugee children. It was during those years that Nichita Smochină befriended the senior historian and nationalist politician Nicolae Iorga, a professor at the University of Bucharest. As early as 1922, he was invited by Iorga's Cultural League for the Unity of All Romanians to attend their Curtea de Argeș Congress and speak about Transnistrian grievances.
Nichita Smochină also joined the Romanian Freemasonry (the "Vasile Alecsandri" Lodge), and, according to his own recollections, lectured other Masons on the plight of Transnistrians. Smochină met celebrated novelist Mihail Sadoveanu, who was later the Grand Master of a Freemasonry branch. There was mutual dislike between the two: Smochină accused Sadoveanu of trafficking Freemasonry's services, of not being moved by the fate of Transnistria, and of ultimately destroying other Masons who crossed his path. The Transnistrian activist despised two other figures from Romania's left-wing Poporanist camp, Alexandru Mîță and fellow Mason Gheorghe Stere, both of whom he depicted as unprincipled agents of Bolshevism.
This phase coincided with Soviet Transnistria's elevation in administrative status—that is, the establishment of a Moldavian ASSR on Oblast territory, in the newly proclaimed Soviet Union. Although refugees were convinced that the Soviet Union was "a prison of the peoples", Smochină and some of his colleagues gave positive review to the move, seeing it as an implicit recognition of Moldavian (and therefore Romanian) self-rule.
From 1924, Smochină's overviews of Transnistrian Romanian life were published with regularity in Iorga's Ramuri and Drum Drept magazines. In 1924, the former published his contributions to the ethnography of Romanian communities located between the Dniester and the Taurida Governorate. He was also a contributor to the Transylvanian review Societatea de Mâine, with a 1925 article on Christmas customs as preserved over the Dniester. He was later a manager of Tribuna Românilor Transnistrieni ("Tribune of the Romanian Transnistrians"), published from 1927 to 1928 in the Bessarabian city of Chișinău. The review had contributions from various Bessarabian Romanian activists (Halippa, Ștefan Bulat) and reported on new cases of human rights abuse in the Moldavian ASSR, such as the forceful relocation of Romanians away from the Dniester.
Romanian researcher Petre Popescu Gogan describes Smochină as: "a man of The Law, with a calling for human rights and the rights of peoples [...]. Asked to have his say on the issue of Minority Rights, [he] worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and took part in international congresses on the matter." From 1930 to 1935, the Transnistrian scholar was in France, where he furthered his studies. He was sponsored by Iorga, who awarded him a scholarship and put him up for the Romanian School of Fontenay-aux-Roses, receiving some more assistance from Halippa. He focused his research on recovering old texts from sources such as the Bibliothèque Nationale and Musée Slave. In the end, he took a Ph.D. in History, with Ferdinand Lot as his doctoral advisor. He also began teaching Romanian at Société pour la Propagation des Langues Etrangères, a learned society funded by the University of Paris. At the time, Smochină's first account of the 1917 Lenin interview was published by Le Prométhée, the propaganda outlet for the Georgian Government in Exile. He also built contacts with the White émigré cells, meeting with philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev.
Concentrating on informing the world decision-makers about the Transnistrian question, Nichita Smochină was, in 1930, a delegate to International Congress of National Minorities (a League of Nations partnership). While in Paris, he also set up the Aid Committee for Moldavian Transnistrian Refugees, and campaigned for the international condemnation of reported Soviet mass murders in Transnistria (1932). At the time, Smochină's pro-Romania group was challenged by the Soviet-funded Association of Bessarabian Émigrés, whose platform was the whole absorption of Bessarabia into the Moldavian ASSR.
His scholarly work included a biographical sketch on Danylo (Dănilă) Apostol, the 18th-century Moldavian Hetman of Left-bank Ukraine. It saw print in Romania in 1930, together with his monograph on Moldavian mercenaries fighting on either side of the Great Northern War. The Apostol book was then reprinted in the popular history collection Cunoștințe utile ("Useful Knowledge"). In 1933, Paris' Librairie Universitaire J. Gamber published his monograph on Ion Brătianu, the founder of Romanian liberalism, focusing on Brătianu's trial for sedition in 1850s France. The work was reviewed by Revue des Questions Historiques, which noted that Smochină's style lacked "order" and "clarity", and could prove chronologically inaccurate. At around that time, the Transnistrian researcher announced that he was also preparing an overview of the Freemasonry's contribution to the first union of Romania (1859).
In January 1935, Smochină launched a new periodical, titled Moldova Nouă ("New Moldavia"). Its opening manifesto, expressing a program of the Cultural Association of Transnistrians, promised to provide the Romanian public with a "generic culture" on the Moldavian life in Soviet lands, and to follow the principles of "objectivity, scientific truth [and] the national idea". This multilingual review, put out by an editorial headquarters in Iași and the Brawo printing press of Bucharest, only survived until 1936. Before closing down, the review had featured his essay Republica Moldovenească a Sovietelor ("The Moldavian Republic of Soviets"), later published by Cartea Românească as a volume. In 1935, also with Moldova Nouă, Smochină released his French-language study Les Moldaves de Russie Soviétique ("The Moldavians of Soviet Russia"), illustrated with samples of Romanian folklore from the region—songs about cultural isolation and the impact of Russification. He was also contributing to Iorga's academic journal, Revue Historique du Sud-Est Européen. His essays there included the 1936 review of the Moldavian ASSR's standard primer Kuvyntu nostru, evidencing the agitprop aspect of Soviet education, the vilifying of "kulak" elements in Transnistrian society, and the plagiarizing of Romanian textbooks.
Some two years later, Smochină, using the pseudonym M. Florin, began contributing to the Poporanist review Însemnări Ieșene, where he reviewed the work of Bessarabian folklorist Tatiana Gălușcă-Crâșmaru. He followed up in 1939 with Din literatura populară a românilor de peste Nistru ("Samples of Romanian Folk Literature in Areas over the Dniester"), a communication for the Cluj-based scientific review Anuarul Arhivei de Folclor. It notably samples Transnistrian mournful lyrics about forced recruitment during the Russo-Turkish Wars. That year, he carried out ethnographic interviews within the Romanian Transnistrian exile community, on behalf of the Romanian Academy. As argued by ethnographer Constantin Eretescu, such contributions made Smochină "the most significant researcher of folk culture in that area."
His main activity in advancing the cause of Transnistrians was creating the Association of Transnistrian Romanians. It was designed to give further support to the Romanian refugees from that region, who were estimated at 20,000. Smochină himself estimated that there were in all some 1,200,000 Romanians living in the Moldavian ASSR, forming 80% of the native population—this remains the highest such estimate, significantly ahead of the number advanced in the 1910s by activist Alexis Nour. By the late 1930s, Smochină was contributing to Iorga's summer school program in Vălenii de Munte town. Physician G. Brătescu, who attended these conferences as an adolescent, notes that Smochină gave "frightening accounts" of life in Transnistria. Brătescu, who was also being introduced to Romanian Communist Party propaganda, also recalled that local communists dismissed Smochină's discourse as "fabrications by a provocateur, a bitter enemy of communism."
Smochină's political and scientific activities were affected by the 1940 Soviet occupation of Bessarabia. He escaped Chișinău in time, but his research material was left behind. The Stalinist regime declared him a persona non grata, and Soviet censorship repossessed and banned all of his published volumes. Smochină was to accuse the Soviet authorities of vandalizing the Chișinău printing press where he was publishing a voluminous scientific work, reportedly lost in the process. As a representative of the Transnistrian community, Smochină attached himself the Bessarabian Circle of Bucharest, presided over by Gherman Pântea. Also escaping the occupation, Claudia joined her father in Bucharest, where she married the Bessarabian-born linguist Diomid Strungaru.
The family was in Bucharest in 1940, when the loss of Northern Transylvania plunged Romania into a political crisis. Smochină deeply admired Conducător Ion Antonescu, who was Romania's dictatorial ruler from 1941 to 1944. The Transnistrian ethnographer preserved Antonescu's image as a "great lover of the nation" and an "honest man", particularly since Antonescu promised to revisit the Bessarabian-Transnistrian issue "with an axe". According to his memoirs, Smochină accompanied the Conducător on all of his visits to Nazi Germany, where Antonescu reportedly imposed respect on German dictator Adolf Hitler. At that time, Romania formalized its alliance with the Axis Powers and, in summer 1941, joined Germany's sudden attack on the Soviet Union. During the early stages of war, the Romanian leader appointed Smochină his personal adviser on the issue of Transnistria. His work for that year included the brochure Masacrele de la Nistru ("Massacres on the Dniester"), which accused the Soviets of committing various crimes against the Romanian populace.
Moldova Nouă was reestablished, with the subtitle Revistă de studii și cercetări transnistriene ("Review of Transnistrian Studies and Research"), publishing Smochină's German-language work Die Rumänen zwischen Dnjestr und Bug ("The Romanians between the Dniester and the Bug"), detailing the activities of Romanian boyars in "New Russia". The magazine went out of print in 1942, but was replaced with the anonymously titled Transnistria, published by Smochină until 1944.
His son Alexandru N. Smochină also had contributions to the wartime press, writing for Octavian Tăslăuanu's nationalist review Dacia. He graduated from Iași Law School in 1940, while also completing officer training. Following the reconquest of Bessarabia and the crossing of the Dniester, the Antonescu regime created a Transnistria Governorate, which had Gheorghe Alexianu as the chief administrator and Gherman Pântea as the Mayor of Odessa. Alexandru Smochină was taken off active duty and made Second Prefect of Transnistria's County Berezovca.
However, Smochină Sr. found himself ill at ease with the Governorate's military and civilian administration, noting instances where Governor Alexianu and Gendarmerie commander Constantin Vasiliu derided their Bessarabian subordinates. Additionally, Smochină described the Odessa Massacre, ordered by Antonescu in retaliation for a supposed Jewish plot against the Romanian command, as a grave error on the Romanians' part: as he noted, both he and Pântea had been informed that the building supposedly bombed by Jewish activists had in fact been mined by the retreating Soviets. Smochină also claimed that Ion Antonescu saw Hitler's war on the "three occult forces" (Jews, Freemasons and the Catholic Church) as a "great mistake" which could lose Germany the war. In Smochină's account, the Conducător had gone on to state: "[Hitler] could have easily lured the Jewry on his side, and after the war he'd have been able to wrestle with it, but not in this destructive manner, that one is not humane."
On July 2, 1942, Smochină was made an honorary member of the Romanian Academy. He was at the time working under anthropologist Traian Herseni, involved in a large interdisciplinary effort to collect and systematize the folkloric creation of Transnistrian Romanians; his contribution was featured in Gheorghe Pavelescu's 1943 monograph Aspecte din spiritualitatea românilor transnistrieni: Credințe și obiceiuri ("Aspects of Romanian Transnistrian Spirituality: Beliefs and Customs"). The investigation also aimed to react against decades of Soviet anti-religious campaigns, and consciously excluded all folklore which showed Soviet-era influences. In Tiraspol, Alexandru Smochină took up a like-minded project, founding the Moldavian Circle, which disseminated propaganda and popularized Romanian historiography.
For a while, Smochină Sr. was in the Crimea, helping Romanian historian Gheorghe I. Brătianu to recover the letters addressed by his ancestor, Ion Brătianu, to Nicholas I of Russia. He maintained contacts with local Russians and helped anti-communist surgeon Pavel Chasovnikov (Ceasovnicov) in receiving Romanian citizenship rights. In his native area of Dubăsari, the scholar played host to Romanian students coming in from Bucharest and from Odessa's Romanian Cultural Institute.
By early 1944, the Axis had been dealt major defeats on the Eastern Front, and the Soviets began their menacing Dnieper–Carpathian Offensive. The change of fortunes alarmed Bessarabian and Transnistrian activists: Smochină, Halippa and Boldur joined others in a diplomatic effort to convince the Western Allies that Bessarabia needed to be part of Romania, but the military situation prevented them from ever leaving Romania. The subsequent Battle of Romania evacuated Romanian administration from Transnistria, Bessarabia, and even parts of Moldavia-proper. In August 1944, King Michael's Coup toppled Antonescu and took Romania out of the Axis. Smochină claimed to have personally been helping Antonescu in negotiating a separate peace with the Allied Powers, days before the regime fell. After Antonescu's arrest, the former Transnistria adviser lived a secluded life, and focused on writing his works of history.
When a Romanian communist regime came into existence, Smochină's works were officially censored, and the remaining copies were tracked down and confiscated. According to Popescu Gogan, he was especially sought after for his Masacrele de la Nistru. The Soviet occupiers picked up Smochină Jr., who was at the time living in Romania with his wife and daughter, and working as an attorney. According to one account, this was case of clerical error: they deported Alexandru to the Gulag only because they mistook him for his father. The story was contradicted by more detailed research into the period. It surfaced that Alexandru was interrogated for his wartime activities in Berezovca and Tiraspol. He was thus formally accused of promoting Romanianization, of spying against the Soviet state, and of causing some 964 million руб of damage to Transnistria; found guilty, he was given 25 years of hard labor, to be served in Amur Oblast.
Smochină Sr. went into hiding. He used aliases and tried to make himself lost in the Carpathian Mountains, but was tracked down by the repressive apparatus. He ended up in prison, and, as he recalled, was subjected to numerous beatings. His academician's title, his pension and his right of attending the Romanian Academy Library were all removed from him (see List of purged members of the Romanian Academy). His son-in-law, Diomid Strungaru, was stripped of all positions in academia, and had to work at a clothes iron factory.
By 1955, with Destalinization in full swing, both Smochinăs were unceremoniously released. Alexandru was picked up from his place of exile, and dropped back to Romania as a released prisoner of war, with no papers on him. (Since this rendered him effectively a nonperson, he was forced to support himself by menial labor.) Smochină Sr. was kept under tight surveillance by the Securitate secret police, whose reports summarized his career in nationalist politics: "before the year 1944 he edited and managed various publications with anti-Soviet content, drafted and printed a significant number of anti-Soviet books and generated large-scale propaganda efforts to support the Antonescu war through conferences, lectures and by other means." Himself a former prisoner, Pântea was being pressured into becoming a Securitate informant on Transnistrian activities in Bucharest.
In December 1959, Securitate agents intimidated Smochină from attending the funeral of former Bessarabian dignitary Grigore Cazacliu, but, during interrogations, he denied knowledge (or feigned unawareness) of a plot to enthrone Constantin Tomescu as Bessarabian Metropolitan. Securitate sources claimed that the Bessarabian-Transnistrian underground was planning a set of measures to occur after the future "liberation of Bessarabia", and that Smochină was discussing a return to Chișinău. According to other such reports, Smochină was fully aware of being followed around by Securitate operatives, and tried to protect his friends by avoiding contact with them.
Allegedly, Nichita Smochină found understanding from Romania's new national communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu. He claimed that, in 1965, Ceaușescu asked him to retrieve those documents which showed Antonescu's move to a separate peace; driven by a Securitate guard to Caransebeș, where he had allegedly buried the evidence back in the late '40s, Smochină only recovered three empty crates. Ceaușescu allowed him to receive a new pension, but he was denied reintegration into the Academy, with the suggestion that such a move would dampen Romania–Russia relations. These were openly tested by the Bessarabian community in February 1967, when Halippa presented Ceaușescu's Council of State with reports on the existence of oppressed Soviet Romanians. These included a polemical note by Smochină, who condemned the Soviet-endorsed delimitation of a "Moldovan people" in Bessarabia, and in general the ideology of "Moldovenism". A month later, Halippa advanced Smochină's name among those of Bessarabians who could serve as specialists for the Romanian Communist Party's ISISP foundation of social science.
Smochină was recovered by the Romanian and Soviet schools of Slavistics, commissioned for translations from Slavonic documents which were published by either the Romanian Academy or the Moscow Academy of Sciences. He was allowed back at the Academy Library, but still banned from authoring contributing original books of his own. In the 1970s, he published articles in a specialized magazine based in Thessaloniki, Greece, and donated his documents and manuscripts to the National Archives of Romania. Strungaru was also allowed back to work in universities, and Smochină moved in with him and Claudia.
At that stage, exiled Bessarabians could profit from the relative tolerance of Romania's national communist system, and began organizing themselves into advocacy groups, even establishing links in the West. Smochină himself tried to mediate between the two competing factions: one represented by Ion Păscăluță (and supported by Halippa); the other headed by Anton Crihan.
Smochină died in Bucharest, on December 14, 1980. His work and life were again in public focus after the 1989 Revolution overthrew Ceaușescu. His main ethnographic research was featured in the 1996 anthology Românitatea transnistriană ("Transnistrian Romanianness"), published in Bucharest by Editura Semne. On July 3, 1990, he was posthumously reinstated honorary Academy member.
Smochină is also remembered by the authorities of Moldova, the Bessarabian state created by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, where Alexandru Smochină was formally rehabilitated in 1996. Moldovan President Mihai Ghimpu awarded Smochină Sr. posthumous Order of Honor insignia in April 2010. Smochină is not honored in Transnistria-proper, which is ruled by a breakaway pro-Russian regime. Reportedly, Alexandru Smochină tried to visit his ancestral home in Mahala (where a Smokine family still lives), but was prevented from entering the premises by a group of local Russians.
Nichita Smochină's memoirs (or Memorii) were published, care of Editura Academiei, in 2010 and 2012. The editor is Vlad Galin-Corini, son-in-law of Diomed Strungaru. Commentators have described the book as a revelation, in particular for its detail on the various public figures whom the Transnistrian ethnologist had met before 1944. According to Galin-Corini, these works were also rejected by editors in Moldova, because they make brazen statements about Bessarabians who collaborated with the Soviets.