Adventures in Unrecognized Statehood

An afternoon in Tiraspol, capital of the breakaway Republic of Transnistria, nominally a part of Moldova, but with different official languages and its own currency. Oh, former Soviet Union, you are so delightfully odd!

Seal of the Republic of Transnistria, where the hammer and sickle is alive and well. The other two sides have its name written in Moldovan (Cyrillic script) and Ukrainian, the three official languages of Transnistria (in comparison to Moldova’s Romanian (same as Moldovan, Latin script).

Our decision to go to Tiraspol, I realized more in retrospect, was mostly Maki humoring me because he knew I really wanted to go. Mostly, I’ve been fascinated by the place, and Transnistria more broadly, as long as I’ve known about it — some six years or so. A breakaway republic, recognized only by South Ossetia, Abkhazia (similar breakaway regions of Georgia) and Nagorno-Karabakh (similarly dubiously independent from Azerbaijan), Transnistria embodies so many of the contradictions and oddities that made much more in the context of the greater Soviet system, and it is no coincidence that it is perhaps the one place I’ve been where Soviet symbols and even Soviet-era infrastructure is alive and well, carefully maintained and brought up to date. Mostly my curiosity revolved around how things worked. What was it like to cross the border? How did money work (Transnistria has its own currency)? How many Lenin statues would I see? Maki kindly (and enthusiastically, I might add) humored me, and I think we were both enriched and fascinated by the way-stop en route back to Odessa.

Soviet legacies in Tiraspol. Clockwise from top left: the ubiquitous carbonated water machines of the Soviet era; the beer and kvas stand (too small to see here: the sign that says “piva net” — no beer); Soviet-era apartment complex; a Soviet “Friendship” building, with a portrait of Putin to boot.

After stopping at a grocery store to pick up some wine, Maki and I asked around and navigated to the bus “station,” where we looked for a marshrutka to Tiraspol, before being hawked by a man in a van who offered us the fare for 20 lei each, if I remember correctly (just under $2). We were the only non-Transnistrians in the car, it quickly became evident, which would present complications at the border. Though nothing significant, I might add. Transnistria’s calmed down considerably as of late. News flash: apparently they even have reasonably fair and competitive elections, though they’re not recognized as such because the whole country is thought to be illegitimate. Fascinating stuff, really. Fascinating. Anyway, we got to the border, and we started filling out our customs form and got in line among the other non-Transnistrians. We had been only in line a couple minutes before our driver comes back in, takes our passports and declarations, and puts them together with a 10 lei note (less than $1, might have been 10 Transnistrian rubles, slightly less), and headed inside the booth. He returned a couple minutes later with our passports and a sly grin. “That’s how we do business po-russki [the Russian way],” he explained. And with that, we were in Transnistria. After a quick stop in Bendery (another city in Transnistria) to drop off two of the passengers, we were in Tiraspol before we knew it, greeted almost immediately with images of an enormous Lenin statue. As we neared the city center, our driver helpfully wrote out directions for getting back the cheapest and fastest way (city bus to a marshrutka to the border, walking across, and marshrutka from there to Odessa), even leaving his phone number, should we have any problems. Seriously, we always manage to find the nicest people ever. And there we were, in Central Tiraspol. Oh hey, House of the Soviets. Hi, Lenin! It had been too long.

It’s hard to find many so centrally located Lenins these days (Kharkiv stands out as a particular exception — now, he’s mostly been relegated to back lots or taken away entirely).

Lest we forget where we were, the city offered plenty of reminders:

The Tiraspol movie theatre (left), Right: Sberbank (Russian): “To Tiraspol with Love,” and another “Tiraspol” building along the main drag.

Our first order of business was getting some cash, as our Moldovan leis would get us nowhere in Transnistria, other than as trading currency for Transnistrian rubles.Alexander Suvorov, a general in Catherine the Great’s Russia, stands out as a particular darling of Transnistrian currency (he helped make Tiraspol into a more important city), though we were delighted to find Taras Shevchenko gracing the 50 ruble note (sadly unpictured), continuing our Taras Shevchenko theme.

Also, the first currencies I have seen that has a cognac factory gracing one of the notes (the 5 rubles)!

After we stopped into a restaurant for lunch, we wandered around, taking in the sites in this weirdly Soviet place. While I have been in many places that feel very post-Soviet, Transnistria has the particular distinction of feeling not post-Soviet but rather Soviet. Take the city buses, for example, Soviet era, but with a colorful coat of paint to make them seem newer and brighter.

Soviet monuments, too, seemed central and kept up in a way that is unmatched in most post-Soviet places. Most exciting to me was this time capsule, set to be open in just under 5 years.

“To the generations of Tiraspolitans, who will greet the 100-year anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution.” To be opened on November 7, 2017.

Also, other assorted monuments, including this one to Alexander Suvorov:

And, of course, more Lenin!

From there, we stopped into the history museum, where we paid a small fortune (ok… it was like $3, but given that citizens of Transnistria get in for about a quarter, we did feel like we were getting a terrible deal). We learned all about their history, though the museum disproportionately covered the civil war period just after the fall of the Soviet Union. With monuments to it outside.

And, the requisite WWII memorial, complete with tanks.

Obviously being in Transnistria would not put an end to our standard traveling practices. Hello, Moldova ice cream.

Maki’s predictable kvas (fermented bread beverage) and my requisite ice cream.

Another necessary stop was a visit to the post office, mostly because I was curious how mail worked. We were promised it worked like normal, and we paid for Moldovan stamps. One of the postcards came to me, written as a nice surprise that waited for me in my mailbox, a baby time capsule of sentiment. It was stamped “Tiraspol” and “Moldova.” Evidently, they’re in enough agreement to get mail on its way.

We also paid our respect to Shevchenko in street form:

And also this unmarked statue we thought MIGHT  be Shevchenko, but we weren’t sure. At the time it seemed more likely than it does now, but whatever. They do favor an era of Shevchenko that looks rather like this, at any rate.

We then headed onwards, catching a bus to the outskirts of the city, not far from a textile factory that Maki had wanted to see, largely because his Kharkiv apartment was stocked with sheets from the Tiraspol Textile Factory, explicitly not labeled for sale in Ukraine. Oh, former Soviet Union, I love you.

And then, we were on our way towards Ukraine. Last views over Transnistria:

Before we knew it — Transnistria is a TINY country — we were at its border. And, spending our last Transnistrian rubles (the ones we wanted to spend — we did save some bills) on water at the border stop, we braced ourselves for border complications. To our delight (but also slight disappointment), there were no problems. They took the other side of our customs form and without hardly a second look, passed us through. And as we crossed the swamp land that separates Ukraine from Transnistria, we were amused and also pleasantly surprised to see, off in the distance, the very train we had taken into Chisinau two days earlier, making its way to the city.

The train is most definitely off in the distance!

Farewell, Transnistria, you were a great adventure in unrecognized statehood!

Border point, taken surreptitiously.

And with that, we crossed back into Ukraine, passing quickly through Ukrainian customs and finding a marshrutka back to Odesa. It dropped us off at the very outskirts, and we caught a cab into the center, where we found a hotel and a much-needed meal. Thanks, Moldova, for a fabulous adventure!








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