Stepping back in time to look at life in last outpost of the USSR
Transnistria, between Moldova and Ukraine, was born out of war
Transnistria, a breakaway republic of Moldova, is sometimes referred to as the last outpost of the Soviet Union. Travellers are warned about bandits dressed as police — or the police, who rob foreigners down to their underwear.
Because it is an unrecognised state — the UN considers it to be part of Moldova — there aren’t foreign embassies or consulates. Transnistria is recognised only by South Ossetia, Artsakh and Abkhazia; also unrecognised states themselves.
Vice News describes the country as a hotbed of smuggling, illegal weapons sales, assassins, mafiosos and blonde bombshells eager to trade sex for tickets out. The Economist labels the country as "the black hole that ate Moldova".
But being in a place that still has the hammer and sickle of the USSR on its flag and statues of Lenin, on May Day 2018, were just too tempting.
Sandwiched between Moldova and the Ukraine, Transnistria is a small strip of land on the east side of the Dniester River and the city of Bender on the west side. It has a population of 500,000 with almost 160,000 people living in the capital, Tiraspol. Russians account for the largest ethnic group (34%), followed by Moldovans (32%), Ukrainians (30%) and Bulgarians (4%). The lingua franca is Russian.
Transnistria was born out of war and a complicated history. In November 1990, conflict flared up between Transnistrian separatists and Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic forces. By 1992, the conflict — largely armed by stockpiles of Soviet-era weapons — had escalated to the extent that both Romania and Russia were involved. Romania provided Moldovans with additional weapons and armour, and Romanian volunteers entered the conflict.
The Russian 14th Army, stationed in Transnistria, effectively armed the separatists. In August 1991 after the failed Soviet coup, the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic declared independence. The Soviet Union was dissolved in December that year and Transnistria became the USSR’s last outpost.
The Transnistria war ended in 1992 when the Russian 14th Army shelled the heck out of Moldovan forces. So May Day and Victory Day (May 9) are pretty big deals in the country. There’s a mural in Tiraspol depicting a Red Army soldier with the Soviet flag on the top of the Reichstag, symbolising the fall of Berlin in 1945.
The region has passed through the clutches of conquerors, empires and great powers: the Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, the Mongols and more, which makes it another reason to visit.
Armed with a fistful of euros — Transnistria is outside the international banking system — I headed out from Chisinau, Moldova’s capital city. My 1200cc Suzuki Bandit was uninsured — none in Moldova would provide cover.
Since Moldova considers Transnistria part of its territory, there is no Moldovan side of the border, just a police checkpoint. This has led to some strange consequences. For example, Russia’s Gazprom provides Transnistria with natural gas, which Tiraspol doesn’t pay for. Instead Moldova incurs the debt, currently about $6bn. The kicker is Transnistria uses the gas to generate electricity that it sells to Moldova. This makes the theft of the Optimum mine look like amateur theatricals.
The Transnistrian border, decked out with the hammer and sickle, was a relative breeze. Border officials in Soviet-style uniforms processed my paperwork. Where are you staying? How long will you be in Transnistria? The usual questions. The officials didn’t stamp my passport but gave me a slip of paper.
Crossing into Transnistria was easier than getting into Moldova from Romania. The Moldovans had held me up, fixated on the false notion that I was entering the country to find a mail-order bride. None of the Transnistrian officials asked for a bribe.
Tiraspol isn’t exactly a bustling metropolis, so it didn’t take that long to find the communist-style apartment block in a clean and quiet neighbourhood that I had booked on Airbnb. It was spacious, affordable and modern. The Wi-Fi was fast.
English is not spoken widely, perhaps because there are hardly any tourists, so basic Russian helps a lot.
Then it was off to find a drink. Instead of gangsters in black leather coats, prostitutes on street corners and comatose alcoholics slumped in doorways, young mothers pushed prams and people went about the daily activities of buying food and getting on and off trams and buses.
As I sat in a cafe on the edge of a park, its MIG monument surrounded by pigeons and children, and knocked back a cold beer, I was struck by how normal it all was.
Capitalism is muted in the country. The son of a former president is said to be a silent partner in Transnistria’s second largest company Sheriff, which owns a chain of supermarkets, petrol stations, a construction company, a TV channel, mobile phone network, a football team and so on.
Yet small shops and marketplaces abound, selling everything. While booze and smokes are dirt cheap, wages are particularly low. Transnistria is a developing nation with far less inequality than SA.
Exhausting Tiraspol’s tourist sites, cafes and bars does not take long. Statue of Lenin, check; overrated Moldovan and Transnistrian wine, check; plastic coins, check; ogle pretty girls, check. So I left the capital and headed out to the countryside: farms, smallholdings, villages and minor towns with communist statues, Orthodox churches, a peloton of bicyclists on the Tour de Transnistria, a long sunset overlooking the Dniester River and the obligatory Russian drinking session.
In the small city of Rybnitsa, I met an old seaman who taught me how to drink like a Russian. You need a large beer and 50g of harsh vodka (a double in SA). The ratio of vodka shots to beer was at least two to one.
After several rounds, he invited me back to his apartment. On the way we picked up two of his friends, young ladies working at a wine store, and four bottles of wine. The seaman turned up his sound system and blasted the Scorpions Winds of Change, a song celebrating the end of the Cold War. The ladies prepared snacks and opened up all four bottles at once….
But make no mistake, Transnistria is not a free society. The state is omnipresent, daily life is ordered, and people follow the rules. Vladimir Putin’s Russia props up the economy.
While taking photographs at the side of the road and just generally loitering, an unmarked Lada pulled up behind my bike, and two uniformed men sat in the car and stared at me. I took the hint and cleared out.
Transnistria isn’t a gangsters’ paradise. It is an interesting and beautiful place to take the family for an unusual vacation. They have their issues, but so do all countries.
As for May Day in Tiraspol? I sat in a wooded park, drank beer and ate braai meat while children joyfully screamed through on the amusement rides. I listened to Russian pop music, watched kids do tricks in the skate park, and took in a gorgeous sunset. I spent the evening watching football in a bar and the waitress eventually put my drunk ass into a taxi.
Somewhat depressingly, nobody offered me a tall knockout blonde to take home.