Transnistria: What it’s Like to Visit a Post-Soviet ‘Frozen Conflict’ Zone

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.

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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.

Transnistria_State_FlagWhy 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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

Transnistria - The Last of the USSR - 24-DRThe 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.

Transnistria - The Last of the USSR - 4-DRAfter 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.

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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.

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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.

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Transnistria - The Last of the USSR - 27-DRThe 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.

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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.

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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.

Transnistria - The Last of the USSR - 14-DRThere 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.

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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.

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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.

Transnistria - The Last of the USSR - 9-DRRumours 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.

Transnistria - The Last of the USSR - 11-DRGoing 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 [1].

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.

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[1] 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.

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Comments are closed.

  1. It’s strange that you weren’t killed there for that word – “transnistra”. This is a very rude insult to the locals.

    • Hi Ashok.1) I visited Bendery, Chitscani and a few other places I can’t remember names of. Most of the villages are worth a look though. Some days I just got on random buses, and went for an adventure!2) Yes, absolutely. Just hop on a marshrutka somewhere along the main street in Tiraspol, pay the driver a few coins, and see where you end up.3) You can get inside some – in fact, I just wrote another post about exploring an abandoned factory in Transnistria!I’d recommend spending a full week in Transnistria, if you want to see some of its hidden treasures as well as the main tourist spots. Hope this information helps… enjoy your trip, it’s an incredible place to visit.

  2. Thank you for interesting article about my country. Have you been to Transnistria this 2013 year or earlier?

    • You’re very welcome! It’s great to hear from a local, and I’m very glad you found the article interesting. You can probably tell that I enjoyed my time in Tiraspol a lot… but I still tried to show both the good and the bad.

      I visited this year – September 2013, just in time for Independence Day.

  3. I’ve been slowly making my way through your site. I usually enjoy your posts, but I particularly enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing

    • Hi Matt, thanks for reading and commenting! I’m glad you liked this one – it has definitely been one of my favourites from the last few months.

  4. Darmon Richter did a excellent job again at bringing the non-sensationalist truth to journalism! Mr. Woods did a excellent job showing that despite the fact the world is flat these days and everything is available to everyone, that pop-culture paranoia can still have great impact on the minds of the isolated and ignorant! Your report is 90% effective.. I only take issue with the bribery being over played a bit.. I have lived here 4 years and NEVER paid a bribe to anyone! Never been stopped by police on the streets and have NEVER seen a crime! (Not even a normal fist fight in a bar) never once! Crime is virtual non existent here in Transnistria. Wild West Capitalism reigns supreme, and mix it with beautiful intelligent girls, a small bit of socialism and the cheapest prices in ALL of Europe, and it makes and exquisite cocktail indeed! Everyone is welcome to come join the party! We give Free Tour and Free Vodka to all guests! Just email – tiraspolhostel@gmail.com

    • Thanks a lot for sharing this, I think an insider’s perspective – and experiences – are invaluable here.

      Regarding the bribery I mentioned, I was trying to set the scene for the benefit of people who hadn’t travelled in Eastern Europe at all. So, when I said “Bribery seems to be something of a national sport in Transnistria,” perhaps it would have been fairer for me to say:

      “Bribery seems to be something of a national sport in the former USSR.”

      It’s just something that foreigners ought to be prepared for in this part of the world.

      The fact of the matter is that during my week in Transnistria, I was aware of three occasions when officials asked for unofficial payments. I was present for two of these. One time we talked our way out of it, and the other, when we really were in the wrong, we paid up – but the money appeared to go straight into the pocket of a police officer.

      The introduction of an ‘Anti-Corruption Officer’ does appear to be a very progressive move on the part of the new president though, and perhaps suggests that bribery is becoming less prevalent in Transnistria than it remains to be in other CIS and former-USSR nations.

      We travelled by car, but everyone I spoke to who had entered on the train reported nothing of this kind whatsoever. Plus, we didn’t have the number of the anti-corruption officer handy when we paid our fine – and chances are this would have made a big difference.

      Either way, anybody interested in visiting Transnistria should not be put off by this in the least. It really is one of the safest and most fascinating destinations I’ve ever been to – I wholeheartedly recommend the experience.

  5. My novel, Reason To Be Fearful, is partly set in Transnistria, and you can buy it from Amazon (this is a shameless plug)!

    • So long as it’s literature, plug away. I generally only delete the comments plugging viagra, furniture warehouses, Delhi car hire, etc.

  6. A corrupt little arms manufacturing hole living in the last century, loving the good old days when your neighbor better be your best friend so that hopefully they wouldn’t report you to the KGB for complaining about the corruption. If you want to see even more of how it was in the Soviet Union than in Russia itself, this is a must see place.

    • Well, that’s not the point I was making above – but fine, I bow down to your superior wisdom. Would you like to write a guest post on here sometime?

  7. So the people would rather eat a McDonalds hamburger than the local food but it is nice to this writer that it is good not to have the signs et al. It is ok to see Lenin’s, a despot who orchestrated the murder of millions, statues and tanks and military museums all over. But it is such a peaceful place.
    One has to wonder why the UN has sanctions that keep some investments out.
    And the most evident police corruption just trying to get into the place says wonders for this utopia of Communist delights.

    • You don’t get out of your own country much, do you? You should try it sometime.

    • Td Woods – your comments are very shallow and demonstrate a lack of understanding what the author is conveying.

  8. Hi
    Great blog, do you have the number for the Corruption Officer ??? So I have it when I go there

    • As a matter of fact, I do:

      +37 35 33 945 78

  9. Great article. We got off pretty lightly on the bribes all things considered – totally worth it. N.

  10. Hi, it was nice to meet you in Tiraspol!
    And I enjoyed reading your report about it!
    Concerning flags: my own country (Austria) has hammer&sickle in it, too. As a such, Transnistria is not the last one. 😉
    I as well took the train to Odessa, but the officals ‘caught’ me minutes before the train arrived. I started arguing with them, that it can’t be that they start controlling that late… well with the train in the station, me not willing to give money, they told me to get lost… 🙂

    • Hi Tom, it was great meeting you too! I wonder where in the world you are now…

      As for the flag – you surprised me, as I was picturing the red and white flag of Austria. Then I looked it up and found the Austrian coat of arms – wow! Amazing image. Looks like a cross between the Albanian and USSR flags. I stand corrected!

      Glad to hear you managed to get out of Transnistria without getting fined… 🙂

  11. Great story – thanks for sharing! Not to be picky, but perhaps helpful to future travellers – is it not 10 hours instead of 24 to not require registration? I ended up registering as I left by bus, but it was a tedious process 🙂

    • That’s interesting, and you could well be right. I remember them saying it was urgent, and that we should register that very night ideally.

      Anyone thinking of visiting Transnistria for themselves – take note!

    • After talking yesterday with a friend who lives in Tiraspol, I think I can clarify this better –

      If you visit Transnistria just for the day (ie. without stating a destination address), then you need to register if and when you later decide to stay for more than 10 hours in the country.

      If you enter the country with the intention of staying for longer (and you provide a destination address on your immigration card at the border), then you have up to 24 hours before you need to register.

  12. Setting the standard, again, bloody great as always

    • Thanks very much! I had a feeling you might enjoy this one…

  13. A real eye-opener this one. Sounds like a pretty cool place to visit. I’m not keen on “things to do” on holiday anyway, I’d rather just “be there”.
    And anywhere with no McDonald’s that has “fuck off Russia” graffiti is fine by me.
    Thanks for this one, really enjoyed it.
    You lucky lucky man.

    • Hi Dale, glad you enjoyed the post.

      The graffiti was in Chisinau – you certainly wouldn’t see something like that in Tiraspol. Particularly around Independence Day, the city feels rather like a Russian holiday resort.

      Anyway, I completely agree with you re. the refreshing lack of McDonald’s.

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