I CAN’T THINK OF A GREAT MANY BETTER PLACES TO SPEND A FEW RELAXING DAYS ON HOLIDAY THAN THE HEAVILY ARMED BREAKAWAY REPUBLIC OF TRANSNISTRIA.
This is a country which doesn’t, technically, even exist. This unrecognised recognised nation is lost somewhere in the Post-Soviet no man’s land between Moldova and Ukraine, and in Transnistria, Russia is the Mother Land, Lenin is still revered and the T-34 tank rules the street.
I was sat in the back of a Marshrutka, a battered old mini bus, as it sped through the chaos of Chisinau, Moldova’s capital city. I had my passport, a few Euros in hand and I was heading towards the Moldovan frontier. I had no idea if I would even make it through the border, let alone onto Tiraspol, the largest city in the Transnistrian Republic.
Transnistria is an anomaly. It’s a small wedge of land east of the Dniester River which governs itself but is recognised by only three other nations, all of which are themselves also unrecognised territories. Moldova claims it is an autonomous province, and they and the UN claim it doesn’t exist as a nation state. With no international recognition, the region is seen as a wild land from the outside, especially by the Moldovans. In Chisinau, everyone I spoke to told me not to go. They said it was dangerous, or simply, boring and that either way it wasn’t worth the risk to visit such a potentially volatile place. None of them had ever actually been over the border though- but one guy I met had been there, and he said it was ‘f*cking crazy’. He told me of Lenin statues still towering above buildings, T-34 tanks on the side of the road- that Tiraspol was the last surviving haven of the Soviet Union. He had me at Lenin statues. I had to see this place. The next day I jumped on the mini bus and was hurtling towards Transnistria.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Moldova, where the majority of the population speak Romanian, saw this as the prime opportunity to declare their independence. The region of Transnistria was then part of the Moldovan Soviet Republic, however the majority of the population here spoke Russian, and importantly, saw themselves as Russian- not Moldovan. So they also declared independence in 1990, but from Moldova. Then, in 1992, events escalated to war, as they always tend to in these tricky political situations.
Eventually the Russians stepped in and using tanks managed to establish a ‘peaceful’ ceasefire. Ever since, Transnistria has effectively governed its own affairs, except not even the Russians have recognised their independence. This became a country which didn’t exist, a Soviet frozen conflict zone- and I wanted to see it from the inside.
As the mini bus neared the edge of Moldovan territory, I was on edge. Actually, that’s an understatement. I was shitting myself. This is one of those regions the Foreign Office advises against all travel to. Moldova doesn’t want anyone going there. There’s no embassies, there’s no outside help if anything goes wrong. Entire armies are lined up on every side of the river, just waiting for something to kick off. This is the darkest of political black holes, a place accused of gun running and drug smuggling. And I didn’t even speak a single word of Russian.
I had heard in Chisinau that it was simple to cross the border these days, but in years past the border officials were renowned for extorting bribes and just generally causing trouble for any visitors, even denying entry or demanding large sums to leave again. I wouldn’t know until I tried though, and bribing a KGB agent to illegally enter an illegal country would make for a most interesting story.
The first check point was on the Moldovan side. There were heavily armed guard posts, but the officials were simply waving everyone through- the mini bus didn’t even have to stop. There’s no immigration or customs here, as the government insists that Transnistria is still a Moldovan province, and why would you get any stamps to not leave Moldova?
Easy enough. A mile or so down the road and we were in no man’s land. The mini bus slowed as we neared more check points. This time there were tanks, and all the guns were pointed the way we’d just come. These were the Russian ‘peacekeepers’. Blue helmeted, AK-47 wielding soldiers waved the traffic through. Again, almost too easy.
The final check was the Transnistrian border. I was feet away, and it definitely looked real from here. This time I had to get out, and this was where I expected the worst. I entered a small, non de script white building, where two immigration officials were checking documents. On their arms were displayed the letters KGB (in Cyrillic) along side a hammer and sickle. This was the real deal.
When it was my turn, I handed over my passport. The official looked at it curiously, then asked with a smile if it was my first time here. This was too nice. I wasn’t being dragged off to be interrogated, or help at gunpoint until I handed over enough US Dollars to finance a renegade nuclear weapons programme. He spoke perfect English and asked for the address of my hotel, then he gave me a slip of paper with an exit date and time which allowed me to stay for 24 hours, and wrote down the location of the immigration office in Tiraspol in case I wanted to extend my stay. In shock at the ease of the process I mumbled thanks, and then got back on the bus. I guess they’ve realised that to be recognised as a proper country, it’s best to stop acting like a rouge, maverick nation.
I was now in the breakaway Republic of Transnistria. On the drive to Tiraspol, the largest city and capital of the country, I passed check point after check point of both Russian soldiers and Transnistrian soldiers, and there were tanks and armoured vehicles sighted along the river and by the bridges. The whole country is heavily armed and ready for war. They might have only a fraction of the population of Moldova, but the armed forces of both sides in this long running dispute are roughly the same size. And that’s without counting any of the ‘peacekeepers’- it’s a pretty easy guess as to whose side Putin would be on.
Moldova, and especially Chisinau, is a bustling, chaotic place. The streets are in disrepair, and the roads are manic. What struck me most on entering Tiraspol was the order. There was no chaos here. There were big lane highways, the streets were clean, and everyone stopped for the red lights. But it wasn’t exactly bustling.
At the train station I changed my Euros into local currency. That’s right, they print their own money and have their own currency. The Transnistrian Rouble. Although you can’t exchange it anywhere else in the world, it’s a mighty statement of independence and legitimacy.
I’d decided to spend the night in Tiraspol, so after warily walking down the streets for a while I came to Hotel Timoty, and attempted to check in. Very few people in Transnistria speak English. This was a problem, as being very English, like most of my fellow countrymen and countrywomen, English is the only language I have ever learned, and unfortunately is probably the only language I will ever have the ability to learn. I blame the schools for this.
As I bemoaned the lack of language education in my home country, the fellow behind the counter looked at me abruptly, clearly condemning me for not speaking his language. He slowly picked up the phone and dialled a number, before handing it over to me. On the other line was a friendly female voice, speaking heavily accented English.
With check in completed over the phone, it was time to see all the wonders and delights that the breakaway Republic of Transnistria has to offer the erstwhile traveller.
When Transnistria broke away from Moldova, they decided to keep in place a Soviet style government. As neighbouring countries moved into the world of capitalism, Transnistria entrenched itself further with socialist economic policies. Recently however, the government has distanced itself from this ideology, and privatisation has occurred on a vast scale, to the point where a local company called ‘Sheriff’ has a huge monopoly on, well, everything. Even the huge sports stadium. Although this is perhaps less of a capitalist economic policy than sheer cronyism- but hey, a rouge state’s got to do what a rouge state’s got to do.
Transnistria, and especially Tiraspol, really does look like the last outpost of the Soviet Union. Due to the Soviet style government lasting longer than anywhere else in the Eastern bloc, the country still proudly and nostalgically displays its communist past publicly. My first stop was the towering House of the Soviets, on October 25th Street, the main road which cuts through Tiraspol, and the main ‘tourist’ route in the city. It’s like taking a walk back through a strange, parallel time portal. It’s both communist and modern.
Outside the House of the Soviets there was even a quaint bust of Mr Lenin himself, although this was nothing on the huge statue of the man which still stands further down the street, right outside the modern government buildings. His cape billows behind as he guides Transnistria to glory!
Then there’s the tank. A T-34 tank to be precise. This is a memorial to the Transnistrian War of Independence, and serves as much to instil a sense of militarisation in Tiraspol’s citizens as to commemorate the losses from conflict. The tank was surrounded at times by families, the parents encouraging their small children to pose and take selfies on the turret. Slightly unnerving, but when the whole world is against you, it’s harder to critique a nation’s sense of military duty.
The conflict is still very much alive in the country’s mind. The war memorial was a popular place, and fresh flowers were laid alongside the graves. Transnistrians are fiercely proud of their autonomy, but equally aware of the price that was paid for it. That’s why the long lasting political stalemate with Moldova will not be resolved easily, or quickly.
Dining options are limited in Tiraspol for the non Russian speaker. Luckily, the Romanian fast food chain Andy’s Pizza has a presence here. After frequenting the city’s tank and Lenin statues, you can relax with a glass of fine Transnistrian Cognac (Kvint- honestly top notch liquor), and point at the beautiful picture menu to order some passable food. Down the street there’s a more expensive restaurant called Seven Fridays, the food here was delicious, and the picture menu even more beautiful to look at than that of Andy’s Pizza.
The following morning, the lovely English speaking hotel employee took my passport and entry card to the immigration office to extend my stay until later that same day. The comrades of Tiraspol seemed to spend a lot of time wandering around, so I planned on doing the same for a few hours. There isn’t a huge amount going on, although it’s the perfect getaway if you’re really into Soviet nostalgia. There’s even a small fun fair in the Victory Park if you decide to bring the kids. It did look slightly deserted and unused when I visited, but things will probably heat up in summer when the beaches open along the river and the vodka starts flowing.
Before setting off back to Chisinau, I stocked up on Kvint. For roughly five Dollars a bottle from the local Sheriff supermarket, I got a fine 10 year aged cognac. For a country that doesn’t exist, they sure know how to make good, strong liquor. Maybe they need it to cope with the existential question of existence itself.
The last step was the border crossing again. I found another Marshrutka at the bus station easily enough, and crammed in with the other passengers heading to Moldova. Exiting the country was even easier than entering. An official came on board, checked a few passports and took away the entry paper I’d been given at the border. No bribes were needed and no threats of indefinite incarceration by the KGB were received. Within two hours, I was back in the chaos of Chisinau, the order and discipline of Tiraspol left far behind the tanks, checkpoints and AK’s of the soldiers on the borders.