A month-long monument hunt, and what I learned along the way.
14 September 2013
The unrecognised country of Transnistria is a post-Soviet “frozen conflict” zone, situated between Moldova and Ukraine in Eastern Europe. Formally known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (or ‘PMR’), this breakaway state proudly celebrates its Soviet heritage – statues of Lenin line the streets, while the Transnistrian flag is the only flag in the world to still feature the hammer and sickle emblem.
Eager to find out more about this reclusive and marginalised would-be nation, I braved the heavily militarised Transnistrian border; arriving in the capital of Tiraspol just in time for Independence Day.
Transnistria: The Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic
A few weeks ago I was sat in a trendy beer garden in Bucharest with a Romanian friend. I told him I was planning to visit Transnistria, and his response was a cocktail of surprise and disgust.
Why do you want to go there?” He asked. “This is a stupid place.”
Moldova itself was once a region of Romania, before Russian influence moulded it into the ‘Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic.’
In 1991 this Soviet republic became an independent state, but there are those on both sides of the border who regret the divide.
Two days later, in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau, we sat chatting with a local student named Marin. “We are Romanians really,” he told us, speaking on behalf of the Moldavian people. “We are the same blood, but Russia has made things complicated between us.” The truth of his words was clear to see. I spotted graffiti tags in the capital reading, “fuck off Russia.” Meanwhile, on 31st August, during our brief stay in Chisinau, the city celebrated the Limba Noastră festival. Translating to ‘Our Language,’ this public holiday recognises Romanian – and not Russian – as being the national language of Moldova.
Marin’s father had fought in the 1990 War of Transnistria, and he told us that for him it was a very sad place.
This small strip of land east of the River Dniester, sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine, remained pro-Russia even after the 1991 fall of the USSR. Tensions between Moldova and its breakaway state erupted into conflict, but the problem was, Transnistria had served as a major labour pool for Soviet industry – and Leninesque President Igor Smirnov was sitting on one of the largest stockpiles of weaponry in Eastern Europe. The conflict reached an uneasy ceasefire in 1992, which has remained in place since.
Depending on who you speak to then, Transnistria could be described as the breakaway state of a breakaway state.
The next day we hit the road. Little more than an hour south of Chisinau, the first checkpoint was operated by Moldavian authorities. A simple barrier crossed the road, where a uniformed guard pulled us over to take a nonchalant glance at our passports. It’s not as if you’re leaving the country, his shrug seemed to say.
“Good luck,” he added.
Welcome to Tiraspol
Bribery seems to be something of a national sport in Transnistria.
“Don’t give them any more than five Euros at the border,” our contact had advised. “But they’ll ask for more, once they see your foreign plates.”
We passed a checkpoint manned by a team of uniformed soldiers. They wore guns at their sides, while behind them, poorly disguised beneath a camouflage net, a Soviet tank stood watch over the road. The soldiers waved us through, and we made it a few hundred metres before being flagged down at the next checkpoint.
The next set of guards signalled us to park beside the road, and we queued in line for visas at a small office unit; the temporary kind that you might see serving administrative duties on a construction site. While the visa was easy enough to acquire (the usual stack of forms, signed in triplicate), next we were asked to pay road tax.
It took us half an hour of negotiations, stood across a desk from a middle-aged soldier who sat dead-eyed beneath the green and red flag of Transnistria. We got off alright – paying around €5 – although the car behind us was persuaded to hand over more… accounting for some administrative fee, or other.
After an hour at the border we were back on the road, a road signed only in Russian, and by the time we reached the outskirts of the Transnistrian capital we were once again stopped. This time it was a highway patrol. Apparently we’d passed through a no-drive zone in our confusion, and the eager officers were hungry for their own slice of the pie. Given the alternative of a trip down to the police station, we paid them their dirty money and were back on our way.
By the time we arrived in Tiraspol we felt cheated and abused, apprehensive of what the following days would bring.
“You’ll be fine once you’re in the city,” our host assured us. “It’s just the road police you need to watch out for.” This turned out to be sage advice.
After my experiences of touring North Korea, and from what I had already heard about Transnistria, I was anticipating the cowed gazes of oppressed masses trapped in an austere dictatorship.
Instead, I was met by calm confidence – disinterest, even – from the huge crowds that had gathered in the capital to celebrate Transnistria’s independence.
The next 24 hours were a carnival of guns, drums and drunken Russian tourists.
The population of Tiraspol is usually in the region of 135,000, of which 41% are Russian, 33% Ukrainian and 15% Moldavian. However, on this day of festivities the city was full to bursting; it seemed most visitors were here to reminisce the good old days.
Beneath Tiraspol’s towering monuments to the USSR, its Soviet banners and busts of Lenin, a sea of Russian tourists filled the wide streets as they danced to modern pop music, or guzzled obscene quantities of vodka in the park.
It was like walking through the worst Russian stereotype you could hope to imagine, and, while this festival held in honour of the USSR is quite possibly unique in the modern world, I have to admit I didn’t particularly enjoy it.
While Transnistria’s Independence Day is archetypical of the way many people view this breakaway socialist republic, over the coming week I would discover that in many ways it rather masks the authentic, un-documented attractions which serve to make Transnistria such a rich destination to explore.
Transnistrian Tourism: Things to Do in the PMR
Travelling in Transnistria was one of the most refreshing experiences I’ve had for a while.
If you look on travel sites such as TripAdvisor, you’ll find just two or three suggested attractions in the country. Meanwhile, a popular travel blog that I checked prior to my visit had claimed there was nothing to do in Tiraspol; they recommended visiting for the sake of saying you’d been, but doing it in a day trip from Moldova – rather than staying overnight. Even journalistic pieces by the BBC and others have denounced Transnistria as an uninteresting travel destination, notable only for its misguided politics.
The truth is very different.
The capital itself is a simple city, with little on offer in the way of entertainment. However, the clean, wide streets with their neatly whitewashed curbs are lined with a good selection of bars, restaurants and even nightclubs, while the supposed curfew mentioned by some commentators is utter nonsense – late night drinking is not just permitted in Transnistria, it seems to be actively encouraged.
Citizens of Tiraspol appear to be content, comfortable, and in some cases really rather affluent. Sweethearts walk through the city’s green parks hand-in-hand, or hang ‘love locks’ on the bridge that spans the Dniester. On one afternoon a pedestrianised street in the centre was overrun by an outdoor art class, young children drawing sketches of trees and monuments. You can buy literally anything you need in the city (from new shoes to a replacement USB cable), and the prices are some of the lowest I’ve encountered in Europe.
There may not be much to do in Tiraspol, but after the chaos of Independence Day had subsided, I found it a very pleasant place to be.
Outside of the capital meanwhile, there is a vast amount to see and do around Transnistria itself… but only if you look for it. Russian is the only language spoken here, and even in restaurants it’s rare to find a menu in English. What’s more, the country is so undocumented by western tourists that there really is no guidebook – you’ve just got to get out there and find it for yourself.
You shouldn’t conclude though, that getting about in Transnistria is in any way difficult. While my (limited) comprehension of the Russian language perhaps allowed me to get more out of the experience than others, the foreign tourists I met at the hostel managed just fine without. Each evening over beers I was hearing reports of bizarre monuments or abandoned brutalist structures in distant rural locales.
We felt like true explorers, discovering new, undocumented wonders each day.
Public transport in the PMR is regular and cheap, either by trolley bus or marshrutka. For the price of 3 Transnistrian Rubles ($0.27 USD) you can get from the centre of Tiraspol to nearby towns such as Chitcani, Bendery or Vladimirovca, each of which boasts a range of further attractions.
I took it slow, visiting four towns during my five-day trip. In that time I saw the beautiful Noul Neamt Monastery; a war museum on an old, disused Soviet train; a military cemetery; a vast monolith in the hills; and more statues of Lenin than you could shake a manifesto at. On top of that, if, like me, you have an appreciation for the beauty in decay, then Transnistria offers it by the truckload. Head out into the countryside and you’ll find factories, train stations, theatres and monuments; abandoned, preserved, and ripe for exploring.
Capitalism in the PMR
Despite voicing an enthusiastic support for the tenets of Marxism-Leninism, Transnistria is in no way a communist state.
The currency used in the PMR is the Transnistrian Ruble. As you might imagine, it’s an unrecognised currency… and that means you won’t be able to take it out from an ATM. Rather, you’ll need to draw out US Dollars or Russian Rubles before changing them up at one of the many booths scattered about the streets. Virtually nowhere seems to accept bank cards.
There is clearly a lot of money in the PMR. It’s a kind of free market socialism if you will; the residents of Transnistria enjoy free healthcare, free education and a heavily subsidised public transport system… but they also pay a flat rate tax set at 10%.
My host, Timoti at the Tiraspol Hostel, referred to it as “Wild West capitalism” – everything is for sale, and business is unrestricted. Given the proliferation of communist insignia in Transnistria though, you’d be forgiven for getting confused.
The absence of common global brands such as, say, McDonald’s and Starbucks, appears at first glance to be a statement of defiance against Western commercialism. However, it’s actually the result of UN restrictions, which place heavy limitations on foreign investment in the PMR.
Instead small enterprise thrives, with locally managed shops, bars and restaurants taking the lion’s share of the market. You can walk down Tiraspol high street and buy an iPad from a nameless electronics store… or enjoy typical Russian cuisine at independent venues such as Andy’s Pizza. While many in Tiraspol would probably still opt for a Macdonalds if it weren’t for the trade embargo, the lack of familiar capitalist branding gives the place a refreshing feel.
That’s not to say Transnistria is without its investors.
Three main companies seem intent on carving up the profits of a micro-nation open to bidders; Kvint is a distillery based in Tiraspol, now grown fat on lucrative profits and with a main factory which features on the 5 Transnistrian Ruble banknote.
Then there’s IDC, an American technology and telecommunications firm who own the local mobile network, as well as a string of consumer electronics outlets.
But the largest name in Transnistrian commerce is Sheriff.
The company owns petrol stations, supermarkets, a television channel, construction company, a mobile network, two bread factories and a distillery. The firm also lends its name (and petrodollars) to the nation’s premiere football team: Sheriff FC.
Sheriff or ‘Шериф,’ was founded in the early 90s by two former officers of the Transnistrian Interior Ministry; Viktor Gushan and Ilya Kazmaly. Some claim that the Sheriff name is a front for money laundering on a vast scale, while a 2004 report by the BBC intimated that former president Igor Smirnov is the true wizard behind the curtain.
Rumours abound that Transnistrian profits come largely from the sale of weapons. Numerous high security plants around the country have been linked to arms manufacturing, while some would have you believe that this unrecognised nation is merely a Russian puppet: a pool of weapons industry and money laundering, hidden behind a veil of autonomy.
Passing a checkpoint near Bendery by bus, I spotted a tank with a Russian flag painted on the side of its turret.
The two countries clearly enjoy close ties, both culturally and in terms of military resource; but how deep those ties go is anyone’s guess.
“Sixty per cent of the industry of the old Soviet republic of Moldova is on our side of the Dniester River,” reported local radio star Andrej Smolensky, in a 2010 interview with an Australian journalist. “Our reality is exploitative capitalism.”
Whatever the truth may be, it seems reasonable to conclude that black market economy is responsible for a reasonable proportion of Transnistria’s evident pockets of wealth.
Escape From Transnistria
According to local law, all tourists planning to stay more than 24 hours in Transnistria need to register on arrival with the local militia. Failure to do so is liable to result in heavy fines (and/or bribes) at the border.
Going on local advice, I decided not to bother. This didn’t pose a problem during my stay, and not once was I asked to show my passport or any accompanying paperwork. However, it did make things a little more exciting when it came time to leave.
I had arrived by car, and my friends left the same way – apparently getting stung at the border, where they were ordered to pay fines in recompense for their unauthorised stay.
Despite threats of reporting the incident to the ‘Office of Corruption,’ the guards wouldn’t budge; they had these tourists in breach of a legitimate law, and wouldn’t give up so easily .
Three days later I finally left the country myself, taking the train from Tiraspol to Odessa in Ukraine. This required a little stealth however, as my lack of papers would have displeased any local border guard. I was in no real danger – the guards would simply demand a fine, an amount of money which was considerably more significant to them than it was to me. Nevertheless, it made for good sport.
Transnistria doesn’t own its own trains, and those stopping in Tiraspol are generally controlled by Moldova, Ukraine or Russia. As the train’s staff would likely consider Tiraspol as a part of Moldova, I only needed to get onboard to be – effectively – across the border.
Picking up a ticket from the train station, I waited in a nearby park. The station’s platform was busy with officials, checking passports and documentation for the passengers waiting to board. As soon as the train pulled up I dashed around the end of the building, onto the platform and hopped quickly onto the closest carriage. One of the border guards saw me, but he was already too late: as far as the rest of the world was concerned, I had already left the ‘country.’
I gave the guard a cheerful wave from the window, as the train set off towards Ukraine.
 By all accounts, Transnistria’s new President Yevgeny Shevchuk is intent on cleaning up corruption in this breakaway state. It was his initiative to introduce the new position of ‘Corruption Officer,’ a government representative ascribed the job of protecting the interests (and wallets) of tourists within Transnistria. We were told that his number would act like a free pass when it came to harassment from greedy officials – that simply threatening to call the Corruption Officer would deter police and border guards who had untoward designs on your cash.