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Published: October 20th 2016
Massive bust of Lenin outside a neoclassical community centre in the rural village of Chitcani, 6km outside of Tiraspol.
Ever wanted to know what life was like back in the USSR? Transnistria - a 'state' within a state, recognised only by themselves - is about as close as you can get.
When Moldova declared independence from the Soviet Union, a sliver of land just to the east of the Dniester River didn't want to go with them. There was a short civil war in 1992 which was ended by a ceasefire. These days, the Moldovan government recognises Transnistria as an autonomous territorial unit; Transnistria regards itself as an independent republic but is not recognised as one by any UN member state. Nevertheless this "country that isn't" has gone on to develop its own constitution, government, parliament, flag, national anthem, currency, military, police, postal system and licence plates. This promised to be interesting.
No place proud of its ex-USSR status can exist without a bit of bureaucracy - and indeed having been given a slip of paper at the border, I then needed to go with my host in Tiraspol - the 'country's' capital - to register my stay in person. I don't recall ever having to do this anywhere else.
And if I wanted a proper Soviet experience
Typical Communist style apartments on the main bouelvard of 25th October Street.
then I was certainly going to get one regarding my accommodation. The hostel that I rang the night before was full, but they arranged something else for me in the centre of town. Maxim, a local, was on-hand to pick me up from the bus station and it turned out that it would be in his apartment that I would be staying. I have always noticed the old Communist-style apartment blocks on my travels through Eastern Europe but I never thought I'd ever stay in one - well, that was about to change, as I hauled my bag up a cold, dark, foreboding, concrete stairwell. It was just like in the movies. As for Maxim himself, he was a nice and interesting chap and I enjoyed learning about life here through our conversations. Perhaps the most interesting thing that I learned was that people here can quite easily get up to five passports; if you were born here before 1991, then as someone living in a former Soviet state that is currently not recognised as anyone's official territory (according to Russia - although they stop short of recognising Transnistria as a sovereign state), you could be considered stateless and are
With a statue out the front of it of - you guessed it - Lenin.
thus eligible for a Russian passport. All Transnistrians have a Transnistrian passport and are also eligible for a Moldovan one; and if you have Romanian or Ukrainian heritage then you can get passports for those countries too - with the Romanian one giving you EU access. It seems there are quite a few Jason Bournes here! Among other things, I also learned that bribes and corruption are just part and parcel of living here and that in fact it can be more help than hindrance sometimes.
The main thing that Maxim complained about however was Sheriff - a large corporation that owns the main supermarket chain, the main petrol station chain, the main mobile network, a major TV station, a construction company, the country's main spirit producer, a Mercedes-Benz dealership, an advertising agency and two bread factories. It even owns the city's football club and football fans may actually have heard of it; Sheriff Tiraspol, who regularly play in the Europa League and played Spurs a couple of times in recent years.
Basically, Sheriff pretty much has a monopoly over the whole Transnistrian economy.
I welcomed staying with a local (it was nice to have my own room
Proudly Soviet-looking tribute to some of Transnistria's finest.
again too) although I did wonder who I was going to socialise with and what I was going to do here. This was because I had left behind my travelling partner of the last week behind.
The previous night, Mel and I shared one final meal together but none of us had enough cash to pay for it and only one of us could settle the bill by card; knowing I needed to get more cash out the next day to buy a new wallet (for just 2€!) off a street vendor, I asked Mel to pay the bill with her card, knowing I would pay her back the next day.
Now, Mel would be far from the first person I have pissed off with my late starts - incidents in Barcelona
come to mind - and she probably won't be the last. Some things never change. But keen to catch the 10am bus to Tiraspol, my late start ensured that 10am would be the time we actually left the hostel. But I still had to get cash out and buy my wallet - and the next bus was at 10.30am. However thanks to the ATM only giving
Commemorating those who died here during WWII.
me 100 lei notes (I wanted 110 lei), I didn't want to get 200 lei out and at 10.20am, still a way from the bus station, I suddenly found myself with not enough money to pay Mel back, pay for my wallet and pay for the bus ticket. Most people would sacrifice buying the wallet to make the bus but I had just got all this Moldavian lei out to buy the wallet - which I really wanted - and I wasn't coming back to Moldova so I wanted to stay and buy it. But Mel wasn't willing to wait any longer however as she had plans for later in the day and fair enough. I paid her what I owed and decided to stay behind to buy the wallet and withdraw more money, bringing our partnership of a week to an abrupt end - I would have three whole days in Tiraspol so was in no rush to get there while Mel only had today and was keen to make the most of it. In the rush, surrounded by the chaotic crowd, I'm not even sure if either of us even said the word goodbye; it certainly wasn't the
Perhaps the only place in the world where I have seen this.
way I wanted things to end but off she took, probably never to be seen again, time against her to catch her bus. It left me needing to get out another 50 lei and I took my time buying some more water and some breakfast before catching the 11am bus to Tiraspol.
The problem with having a currency - and indeed a country - not internationally recognised is the fact that visitors can't withdraw the local currency from ATMs. My card didn't work at two ATMs and at the one that it did, all I could withdraw was Russian roubles or US dollars. I didn't see any of the many bureau de changes open so I was pretty much stuck with no local cash - the Transnistrian rouble. When a checkout lady at a supermarket shakes her head with that deadpan, Slavic face when I ask if I could use my credit card there, I then realised that I would have to go hungry as I literally couldn't pay for anything that night. I probably should have thought his through a bit better. Thankfully, I managed to procure some local cash from Maxim when he got home later that
The river after which the country is named has beaches!
night. Ah, the quirks of this 'country' are starting to make themselves known!
Transnistria is surprisingly expensive. Not so much food, but accommodation here cost three times as much than in Moldova and the local tour I wanted to do for sure isn't worth 40€ but there just isn't anything else to do. And I did want to learn a bit more about the place and to go to some places a tourist - not that there are too many - would not normally go.
My guide for the day was Roman, another young local. For 40€, I was kind of expecting to be chauffeured around - but no, this was basically a glorified walking tour. In any case Andrei was also another friendly guy who could speak decent English and as this was a one-on-one tour, I had a personal guide for the day. Curious about many aspects of life here, I asked him about his thoughts on whether Transinistra should be independent (paraphrasing: "yes, but then I not sure how much that would change things - I just don't want any more bloodshed"), corruption (paraphrasing: "you have to pay off your professors at the university to pass
The Badge Of Transnistria
The official coat of arms, if you will. Celebrating 26 years of being a 'republic'.
your exams - so at the end of the day you're not learning anything") and Putin ("he's an interesting character"). Roman is an ethnic Russian and doesn't speak Moldavian/Romanian and we also discussed how similar Russian and Ukrainian are. It seems they are about as far apart as Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian and Montenegrin are apart from each other – so not much. In terms of English, Roman had learned it by himself from watching movies and meeting Tim, the American that owns the hostel and the one who put me in touch with Maxim.
Tim himself has an interesting story; he met a Ukrainian girl back in the US and followed her to Odessa before breaking up with her and moving to Tiraspol where he then met another girl. He can speak ten languages apparently, to varying degrees and has been living in Tiraspol for six years. He has now just recently moved to Chisinau.
We start off with a walking tour of Tiraspol which basically involves a walk down its main (and very wide) boulevard, home of the two main government buildings which both have Lenin statues out the front. There is a large square with the Suvorov
Noul Neamt Monastery
Monastery situated in the village of Chitcani, 6km from Tiraspol.
Monument in the middle of it and where a local art fair was taking place against the background of some really annoying local music being played by a band in celebration of a referendum vote six years ago where the population of Transinistra voted in favour of remaining independent of Moldova with a view to eventually joining Russia at some stage in the future. This meant there were loads of Russian flags and face paint around. Given Transnistrian history, seeing Russian flags flying everywhere would not have been a surprise in any case, given their influence here. Beside a tank memorial honouring those who died here in WWII is an eternal flame and the graves of the key players in the independence movement from Moldova, who died during the civil/independence war with Moldova in 1992.
Roman then took me across the Dniester to catch a minibus to a "Soviet village" where there is a colourful monastery complete with a bell tower offering sweeping views of the area including Tiraspol, Moldova and Ukraine. We also hit the village's community centre which also has a Lenin statue out the front of the classical building that houses it.
After dipping my feet in
Old Milking Shed
Milking shed of an old Soviet agrarian commune now long since abandoned.
the cold-ish Dniester - I'd never swim in it due to its dirtiness - Roman then handed me onto his girlfriend Nastia, who took me to an abandoned Soviet commune. It was a self-sustaining place - everyone lived off the land and future generations were thought in an on-site university the agricultural techniques they needed to know to continue their way of life. These days, the commune has been long abandoned and in the surrounding village, locals farm crops to make a living and I got to see real rural life in the former USSR. But there is something about abandoned places that sparks interest and imagination; imagining how things used to be when they were fully functioning, what the place was like, pondering how and why the place has fallen from its former glory into destitution and disrepair. Some abandoned places - like the UFO in Bulgaria
- really inspire the imagination and indeed still look amazing; seeing an abandoned university building where students were taught agriculture, a derelict milk shed where cows were milked, a former shearing station where sheep were sheared and a smoked-out factory chimney - OK, maybe this wasn't so inspiring. But it did inspire my photography a
Abandoned Sheep Shearing Building
Part of an old Soviet agrarian commune outside of Tiraspol.
bit - indeed many photos I've seen at displayed at exhibitions are of abandoned places, focused on the theme of lost glories.
Talking to Nastia about possible future glories, it saddened me somewhat to hear about the lack of opportunity to really further yourself here. The tertiary education system is completely corrupt, there isn't much work available and the corporate ladder here is rife with nepotism - so you're not so much trapped under a glass ceiling but buried underground in a nuclear bunker. With the possibility of getting multiple passports however, at least Transnistrians have options; many make for Moscow, some for Chisinau and others perhaps for Kiev or Bucharest if they can - but then they need to somehow get the money to get there. It's not that life here is bad; but the chances to move somewhere more exciting and with more opportunities - like for example, the EU - is somewhat limited.
I then had one of the more unusual and entertaining evenings I've had on my travels. At a youth club, it was open-mic night - sort of.
People were split into two teams and individuals would sing off against each other. Sort of.
Abandoned University Building
This was once where youngsters in the old Soviet commune would learn how to continue their agrarian way of life.
With your direct opponent put in a corner with headphones on so they can't hear what is going on, you then sing a song into the mike, which gets recorded. You - and everyone in attendance - then get to experience the horror of hearing yourself sing on playback. Your opponent then comes out of hiding and hears your recording - played backwards. The backwards recording then gets played to your opponent block-by-block; and after each block, they then have to imitate/sing what is being played in each block - often with hilarious results. Once they have finished imitating all of the blocks, what they have just sung in blocks is played back to them - but played forwards this time. If they - and you - have done a good enough job singing, then they should be able to identify the song being played. It is all a good laugh and a good way of building confidence for those who are a bit shy. Obviously, not everyone is Sam Smith or Adele, so hearing the tone-deaf and those with zero singing ability attempting to play the game is quite frankly, very, very funny in a slightly excruciating way. Paradoxically,
Life In Rural Transnistria
Folks living in a rural Transnistrian village (even they had drab Communist apartment blocks) wait for a bus into Tiraspol.
it seems that the worst you sing, the less chance your opponent has of guessing what you have just sung. Imagine how fun it would have been if they were not singing Russian songs I didn't know.
The lack of smiling here, while cultural, does have an impact and coupled with the fact that I know no Russian and that Maxim, Roman and Nastia apart, there is otherwise zero English here, it got to the point where I didn't really want to leave the apartment and have to endure these awkward interactions. Also the eerily quiet streets, the rows of Communist style apartments, the spectre of a big brother-like state watching over you and perhaps the unwarranted fear of being stopped by the police for bribes - this was what it was like in the USSR and it made me feel uncomfortable.
I also seemed to be the only tourist in Tiraspol - while I hate it when there are too many tourists, in places like this, it is a little reassuring when you see at least another couple of tourists knocking about, which is where hostels and their atmosphere help - knowing that you're at least in the
This dude in the village next to the old Soviet commune asked me to take his picture.
same boat with the other hostellers.
All of these factors put together meant that I couldn't really wait to leave. Also in this respect, I was looking forward to getting back to more familiar surrounds of Western Europe - as well as a couple of weeks of no travelling in Zurich and London before setting off again for India.
In terms of the people here and their stern faces however, at the end of the day, I do believe that it is simply how the people here outwardly express themselves and that I've found that people here are actually quite friendly, though they did seem more so when I was with locals Maxim, Roman or Nastia. You must remember that the word Communism contains "commun-" - 2/3 of the word "community". That if anything, the spirit of togetherness and looking out for each other is one of the good things that Communism has left behind, particularly in the smaller communities.
So while Transnistria doesn't physically appear too much different from anywhere else - perhaps the wide boulevards, Communist-style apartment blocks and Soviet statues apart - it really is the atmosphere and the feeling of being here that sets it apart.
Around it are the graves of key players who died in the war of independence (or civil war if you're on the Moldovan side) in 1992.
On my last day, I decided to visit the Tiraspol United History Museum.
Now many people seem to look at the idea of Transnistria being a "republic" as being a bit of a joke. But looking through the exhibits detailing the civil/independence war in 1992, this was no joke - many people actually died over this and the Transnistrian government look upon them as heroes and freedom fighters. It's a shame that everything in the museum was in Russian, meaning that I couldn't really understand everything I was looking at and what was going on, but I got the gist of most of the exhibits. Also displayed were some Transnistrian art (some quite impressive), Transnistrian artefacts from both world wars and a small ethnographic exhibit.
Later that evening, I had a long chat with Maxim over dinner, which Maxim was so kind as to cook up for me, for free. He has gone above and beyond in terms of his hosting. Among the most interesting nuggets of information that I learnt from our conversation were; that the owner of the Sheriff corporation really is the sheriff - it is generally rumoured, suspected and even accepted by some that
View From The Bell Tower
Looking over towards Ukraine. In the foreground, is the Ascension Cathedral of the Noul Neamt Monastery.
he has killed people off who were negatively affecting his business interests, and that he has pretty much everyone in the police force paid off and under his thumb...apparently; that Maxim believes things would have been better if the Soviet Union had stayed together or at least become like what the EU has become now - all the small former SSRs have been all left a little isolated since the break-up; the perspective that a healthy Russian economy means a healthy Transnistrian economy that would help his business; and that the EU have actually acted as bullies to nations such as Moldova and Ukraine by insisting on trade deals that allow EU companies to enter each country to compete and do business while Moldovan companies will not be allowed to trade in the EU until they reach EU product standards that they cannot afford to attain.
Some other observations made during my time in Tiraspol;
- Tiraspol is tiny, really. 150,000 people apparently although Roman thinks it's probably less. Everyone knows everyone here. There isn’t a great selection of eateries – you are limited to 7 Fridays Café, Mafia or Andy’s Pizza. In central Tiraspol, that is pretty much
Inside The Bell Tower
Beautiful and colourful frescoes on the ceilings of the ground floor of the bell tower in the Noul Neamt Monastery.
- The supermarkets reminded me of Cuba a bit. Though much better than Cuba, there just isn’t that much selection.
- I like how the weight of a meal is printed for every dish on all the menus here. Then you know exactly how much you are getting and can work out the most value-for-money items. It was the same in Chisinau and in Romania too.
So while there isn't that much to see and do here, my experience in Transnistria has perhaps been the most immersive I have had on my European trip so far and perhaps on the entire trip so far. Despite my discomfort with the general atmosphere here, I tried my best to embrace things and overall I do believe that this has been a rewarding experience and that I have learnt so much - which was the main goal in coming here. Being in a far-off place where you can't read and don't speak the language - that is part of what travelling is all about isn't it?
Pe curind / До свида́ния (da svidaniya),
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