The Last Part of the USSR
I watched as he shifted forward, shuffling his feet in a straight line. After a few metres he turned 360 degrees and shuffled back again, following the exact same route.
“It’s the moonshine,” declared Tim, my guide. “It sends them into a zombie state.”
Having seen a few things in my life I thought I was quite unshockable yet this scene was disturbing me. I couldn’t help but watch the man with his glowing red cheeks, and his head hung low in his almost rhythmic shuffle. He was muttering something to himself in what appeared to be Russian. And then, as though Paul McKenna has miraculously appeared and clicked his fingers to dehypnotise him, he quickly snapped out of his zombie state.
Reaching as far as the counter to the lady who had also been observing him, he ordered a beer and returned to the same area that he had been shuffling in. This time actually taking a seat.
The bottle of beer he purchased confirmed my thoughts. In a place where vodka is sold for less than $1 a bottle, no wonder some of the locals had a drinking problem.
I was in Moldova Transnistria, a piece of land between the river Dniester and the eastern Moldovan border with Ukraine. According to Dark-Tourism.com, Transnistria was once part of the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic during the Soviet era. Transnistria broke away and declared itself independent in September 1990 before Moldova which broke away from the USSR nearly a year later.
Although it has its own border from Moldova, it is not officially recognised as such, making this ‘country' an interesting region to visit.
Transnistria describes itself as an open-air Soviet museum with its Soviet character fully intact. There’s evidence of Russia everywhere from a giant bust of Lenin which sits outside a disused cultural centre in Kitscani to the soviet tank proudly on display at Main Parade Square – marking the symbol of their victory during the Great Patriotic War (the war of the West during the Second World War).
Nearby is a war memorial, a heroes’ cemetery with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. An eternal flame burns brightly in memory of the fallen.
Transnistria’s history is a complicated one. Founded in 1792 the region was dominated by the Russians. In 1940 the region was formed as part of the MSSR incorporating its previous Ukrainian region and a province of Romania. It was when the MSSR broke away from the USSR in 1990/1991 that tensions began between Transnistria and Moldova. Transnistria stating that their territory within Moldova should be void.
On 3 March 1992 the conflict turned violent and fighting began, causing Russian forces to intervene.
More than 800 people lost their lives here. The largest of the casualties being in the Bender, the region’s second largest city. This is where the conflict became violent and bodies were left in the streets for days whilst people hid for their lives indoors. The two bridges which cross the banks of the river once playing an important role in the bloody conflict.
Photographs, news reports and weapons of war are soberly displayed within the Tiraspol National United Museum as a reminder of its past.
Since the conflict Russian peacekeeping troops have a strong presence here, protecting the border between the two regions. The Russian flag and flag of Transnistria displayed on both bridges.
The conflict still remains unresolved, but the half a million people who here live have peace. Unlike Moldavians, they speak Russian instead of Romanian and although Transnistria has strong ties with Russia, the people here are politically unbiased and just want a peaceful life.
There are no foreign embassies here so as a tourist I am not protected. Luckily my British stature is more welcome than that of an American. It is forbidden to take photos of soldiers and military buildings, although I manage to get a glimpse of the KGB building which sits outside the walls of Bendery Fortress, concealed in the grounds of a Russian Orthodox church.
I am here on a tour. Having searched the internet for things to do within this ‘country’ there was a lack of Transnistria-only tours with one man dominating Google. American born and bred, Tim came to Transnistria years before, and after joining a Russian rock band, decided to stay. Today he provides personal guided tours and acts as a PR for the region, accompanying documentary makers on their plight for a story.
We eat at the Love Cafe, one of the best restaurants in town. It’s name (along with the rest of Transnistria), doesn’t really make any sense.
I meet the head of Bitcoin within Transnistria. I listen as he boasts about the cost of Grey Goose and how much (or less) he pays for an apartment here. His assistant sits on the next table. He is not permitted to sit with us. He drinks his Coke through a straw with a bored expression on his face. I am intrigued by this larger than life man on my table who is waving at the waiter every few minutes demanding something more.
As I ask him what he does here for fun, his face lights up as he tells me about the local nightclub, how he is some kind of celebrity here, being one of the few expats. Except for the football team, who he makes out are his best buddies. His friend from Holland, who is one of the stockiest guys I have ever seen, joins us at the table. They proceed to down the bottle of red wine whilst he hastily clicks his fingers at the waiter for a new bottle.
I wonder what brings these kind of people of a place like this. Possibly the same as what drew me to this ‘country,’ – the lure of tank museum shows, the open-air Soviet status or the fact that this is one of the cheapest countries I have visited.
It turns out to be the latter.
“It’s cheap,” he says. “Wouldn’t you want to live in a place where you can get a penthouse for peanuts?” And the Wifi is the third fastest in the world.”
Cheap it may be but if I had to describe Transnistria in one word, it would definitely be corruption. This is a land where an elite dominate the nation. Where the parliament pay themselves $100,000 a month whilst the average wage is $300. Doctors aren’t paid more than $300 a month therefore accept any bribe to provide better healthcare.
It’s a world where the football stadium costs €124 million, and girls as young as 12 smoke shisha in Andy’s Pizza. Where one company called Sheriff dominates the country’s resources and where they also run the government.
Can anything surprise me here?
Even the money doesn’t seem real. The hexagon-shaped plastic coins in currency here are the only place in the world where you’ll find them. The territory seems more like a trading ground for the elite who continuously tinker with exchange rates making the country a black market mecca.
There is so much cover up here. Even the road to the monastery seems hidden behind old Soviet factories. I spend time with our driver who is ex special forces. Although joining the forces is mandatory, he seemed to be more of a handy-man, only firing a gun twice within his full year’s service. “There were no funds for ammunition,” he admits.
As I sleep that night in an old soviet-building with a gas mask proudly displayed on the worn sideboard, I feel as though I have stepped into a movie set. Tomorrow I can leave this bizarre motion picture but for the people of Transnistria who live within a place where disparity clearly reigns, this relic of communism will still be their reality.
N.b. I took my Transnistria travel with Tim from Tiraspol Hostels. Tim was really informative and friendly and his passion for the place shines through. I definitely recommend him.