A taste of Totalitarianism: My Day Trip to Transnistria

A taste of Totalitarianism: My Day Trip to Transnistria

On the occasion of current events, I am giving you a flashback of something I never wanted to report on on this travel blog, because it is something I did not particularly like.  A Day Trip to Transnistria. Having a taste of Soviet-Union-like vibes might sound fun to some, but faced with the reality of life in a totalitarian regime, most of you might shudder and retreat, and I still do not get the popularity of Transnistria other than that it’s a 1980s Soviet theme park to the occasional visitor. But curiosity won in the end, and soon enough I was off on a short trip to a blast from the past, one I tolerated for the best part of six hours before hotfooting it back into significantly more Western Chisinau.

On 24 February, Russian troops invaded neighbouring Ukraine, starting an unprovoked war on a peaceful independent country, following continuous aggression, annexation of some of its territory and supporting pro-Russian separatists in its eastern provinces. Despite international efforts of talking which led to nothing, Ukraine is now under a major war. What does the Russian regime want? What is this strange bunker mentality? Do they hanker for the Glory Days of the Soviet Union?  Which brings us to Transnistria, a small country that broke away from Moldova, one of the former 15 Soviet republics, and, like many, culturally quite different from Russia.

Transnistria
House of Soviets, the City Council Chamber of Tiraspol

What is Transnistria?

Short history excursion: Transnistria, going by UN definition, is part of the Republic of Moldova. Going back the region was settled by people from what is today Poland, and remained part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was briefly under Ottoman rule (yes, that’s the Turks) and was handed over to the Russian Empire at the end of the 19th Century, where it was settled with Ukrainians, Poles, Romanians and Germans, then became part of the Soviet Union as  part of the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Republic.  Which was part of the Ukrainian Soviet republic.

Just after the start of the Second World War, in 1940, Moldova and with it, Transnistria,  became a “separate” Soviet Republic I remained part of the Soviet Republic of Moldova and was heavily industrialised, accounting for almost half of Moldova’s gross domestic product.

The other “House of Soviets” and seat of the government

In 1941, the Axis forces (Italy, Japan and Germany) occupied the territory and the Soviet Union, one of the Allied Forces, regained it in 1944 as the war was coming to an end.

With the Soviet Union central administration allowing for more liberal politics under Gorbachev since the mid-1980s, a Russian minority which held government posts opposed the leaning of Moldova towards its Romanian/Bessarabian culture, especially in the cities of Transnistria, and that political elite proclaimed Transnistria a separate Soviet republic, while the Republic of Moldova proclaimed independence and joined the United Nations.

Several upheavals, recurrent activities of civil war and a lot of Russian military and financial support later, talks mediate d by Russia, Moldova, Ukraine, the EU and the US, reached the current Status Quo of Transnistria being an Autonomous Region of the Republic of Moldova, with many issues remaining.

Tiraspol, Transnistria
Ice Cream (and kvass) always work – something I learned in Soviet Union

Why Am I so bothered?

Well. I grew up in the German Democratic Republic, deep in the provinces, in a village. Enough to provide me with a good basic education, far enough from its cities to keep me out of

Getting into Transnistria

Now, this couldn’t be any easier.  When I took the train from Chisinau to Odessa, the train stopped in Tiraspol, the largest town in Transnistria, and one could easily get on and off there. Interestingly, no one came to check our passports on the train. PS: As Transnistria is officially seen as part of Moldova, it is better to leave the way you came to avoid potential issues when entering and leaving Moldova. For example, if you enter from Ukraine, better to leave via Ukraine, and likewise, from Moldova.

I took a minibus from the Piata Centrala just off the main Stefanu cel Mare Boulevard. A lot of white mini buses pretty much in the centre of the market, with bilingual signs for Tiraspol in their front window. All road traffic is subject to a border control, with quite an impressive border, tanks and all, built up on the main road between Chisinau and Tiraspol.

As a foreigner, I had to go to a separate window, where a military officer asked me in speedy Russian how long I was intending to stay, so I said, “just for the day” got some slip of paper attached to my passport and sent back to the minibus. It was brief, friendly, if somewhat intimidating with a couple tanks parked by the roadside and quite a few large guns around. The bus stopped a few times, until it chucked out at the Tiraspol train station, a large tidy yellow building that is quite obviously a train station, and everyone got off. There is also a Change Office in the Station, very useful, because Moldovan Lei are usually not accepted – you have to use Transnistrian money. Don’t ask about ATM. There were a couple but I did not use them.

Tiraspol Train Station
Where you arrive and leave: Tiraspol Train Station

A stroll through  Tiraspol – from the Station to the Kvint Factory

As I walked down Lenin Street towards the presumed centre, I was shocked by how quiet everything was. Like some strange time capsule.

A very green capital

However, quite a green, pleasant time capsule. As long as there was greenery, I wasn’t bothered, despite some “Soviet Art” – several colourful pipelines that appear to have survived 40-plus years from the Soviet Union, and rather simple buildings, but all pretty well kept. I did find the slight “28Days later” vibe somewhat disconcerting, see, it was 2018, before the streets were wiped clean by COVID-19 curfews.

Pleasant Soviet-era suburban residential building

After a pleasant but somewhat people-free stroll, I popped into the Kvint factory. It sounds like some weird chemical but Kvint is actually a reputed distiller of brandy. It wasn’t exactly cheap, the shop/visitor centre was exactly friendly, and I had no interest to go scrambling for cash and then try to haul it back home in my hand luggage. So I was in and out in two minutes, consoling myself with the fact that the spirit of the Soviet Union lives on here in the gruff attitude and total disregard of non-Russian speakers.

The Kvint Distillery of Tiraspol

Central Tiraspol – to the House of Soviets

Crossing onto Karl-Liebknecht-Street, named after the well-known World War 1 German revolutionary, things looked up a bit. Still, barely any one on the streets, but at least there were some portraits of real humans on display instead – winners of some municipal competition. At the same time, I felt gently pushed back 40 years to Eastern Germany, the first of many nudges that left me quite uncomfortable

Laureates of a city competition

A few hundred metres on, I actually found a supermarket, but still no cash.

By the time I got into the city centre proper, I had found a small kiosk that changes money, either Moldovan Lei or Ukraininan Hryvna, into the Transnistrian Currency called, surprise, surprise, the rouble. They do have some rather funny looking plastic money that even beats the featherlite aluminium Eastern German coins, although I was not so lucky, receiving some bank notes and metal coins.

Nicely maintained green spaces in Tiraspol, Transnistria
Tiraspol Transnistria
Sturdy little Soviet-era UAZ van used as an ambulance, but some Western influence is evident

It was a Saturday morning, and apart from a cup of instant coffee and some fruit at my apartment, I had not eaten, so I went in search of breakfast. In Chisinau, that meant several French-style patisseries,  Scandinavin-style open sandwiches and a variety of fresh eggs, but in Tiraspol – starvation?

There were no kiosks, snack bars, nothing. Mid-1980s Moscow in the middle of winter had more snack bars than Tiraspol.

So along I walked, slightly spooked how quiet everything was. And with it came a different kind of spookiness, one that threw me back about thirty years or more, to growing up in Eastern Germany.

 

Banners celebrating Republic of Transnistria
Banners celebrating the Republic of Transnistria

This is very strange, since this was not my first trip to the old Eastern Bloc, but the first one where they appeared to actually believe in communism. Everywhere I looked, there were colourful banners celebrating the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), Russian Federation flags, a lot of Socialist regalia I hadn’t seen for decades. And more and more, a cold sweat started creeping down my back.

Don’t get me wrong, I did not have a bad childhood in Eastern Germany, but the fall of the Wall came just as I was a teenager embarking on higher education. I have no idea whether I would have had access to it, or to the life I have now without the Soviet Unions reforms and the overthrowing of the Eastern German regime, one I had no role in, being a teenager with a sheltered village upbringing. I decided despite the strange and unpleasant vibes to continue my visit.

Tiraspol Theatre
Tiraspol Theatre, decked out in patriotic banners

I do admit that Tiraspol is not an unpleasant city at all – very green, and now I had found a main street, there were some cafes and restaurants. And normally I am a sucker for the 1950’s wedding cake architecture. This is the city council of Tiraspol now.

House of Soviets in provincial wedding cake 1950s style

Central Tiraspol – 25 October Street

And once I had located a large cafe, I shot a few more pictures then sat down to a very large cappucchino, served with a straw, and a large piece of very creamy sweet cake, reminiscent of a German “Danube wave” cake.

A restorative very large coffee and cake

Then I continued to walk on, down the main boulevard, which is 25 October Street, a pleasant tree-lined boulevard, and this is where all the main shops and most of restaurants and sights are.

I am not sure what the internet is like in Transnistria, but advertising pillars are big in Transnistria. Most of them advertise bus and minibus transfers to major cities in Russia. Note that although Transnistria officially belongs to Moldova, Russian is the predominant language here.

These advertising pillars were everywhere in Tiraspol

All the buildings looked in pretty good and habitable condition. I must say they are not the prettiest, but I have certainly seen worse.

Tiraspol Transnistria
Old and old-ish in Tiraspol, Transnistria

To the Outskirts: Suvorov, Tank and Lenin Monuments and Transnistrian Government

Although Tiraspol is a relatively small capital city with about 160000 inhabitants, it does go on and on and you can walk a good few kilometres to see the major attractions in it centre. For those lazy at walking, buses and trolleybuses ply the central boulevard (25 October Boulevard) too, some going as far as the neighbouring town of Bender.

Like most Soviet cities, Tiraspol has its fair share of monuments. Starting with the most traditional one, a Soviet-style bronche of Alexander Suvorov, the official Russian founder of Tiraspol. An Officer in the various war the Russian Empire led t the time, he conquered the area from the Ottoman Empire and officially “founded” Tiraspol, as well as neighbouring Odessa, in around 1792, although there had been a fortress and Tatars and Moldavians living here for centuries. The monument is from 1979.

monument to Alexander Suvorov, Tiraspol
1980s monument to Alexander Suvorov, the Russian who founded Tiraspol

Next up, and pretty much opposite glorious Suvorov on horseback, is a “Memorial of Glory” commemorating the Second World War, the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and the Transnistria War. It has several elements, including a WW2 Soviet tank and the most recent addition, a Chapel dedicated St. George added in 2011.

"Memorial of Glory" Tiraspol
“Memorial of Glory”, softened by a recently added chapel

If you walk along the memorial, you will come to the Dniestr River, a pleasant stretch of city riverside and a pleasant picnic spot. You totally could take a bottle of Kvint or two, a bag of stuff from the supermarket, and have an outdoor party. I didn’t have time for that –        and party of one with a bottle of Kvint would not have a good outcome for me!  Not wishing to overstay my welcome and having booked tickets for the balled in Chisinau that night, and headed on blister-ridden feet to my last itinerary item: another Soviet, another statue living a long ans prosperous life past Soviet times, whereas all the other Lenin statues I know off have been dismantled and scrapped, or displayed in “statue parks” if they were lucky.

First I had to walk a bit longer in the street with the perennial Christmas decorations until I spotted a large block in the distance. I was also pleased to see a more Western-style display of civic pride on the middle of the street, a stylised heart bearing the city’s name.

October 25 Boulevard – where most of the attractions of Tiraspol are

Then I reached the grand finale of my “Terrifying Tiraspol” Tour: a Lenin, as high as three houses, on a pedestal even bigger, bearing some wings. If Lenin had been a man of faith, one could have thought he were some kind of archangel. The Parlament Building of Transnistria, aka the “Highest Soviet” made a fine background of late 1980’s brutal style, thrown down quickly before the Soviet Union collapsed in a heap.

Day Trip to Transnistria
The much-photographed Supreme Soviet – AKA the parliament building

By that time, I had enough, and I hopped on the next available bus that, oh wonder, would take me to the train station and a marshrutka back to Chisinau, where I wandered its great Central Market, bought a few kilos of grapes off a trailer and some fine herbal tea and had a great Moldovan Afternoon Tea until my ballet Performance (“Spartacus” by Aram Chatchaturjan! Absolutely great, see it if you can!) started.

There are other “Attractions” which I skipped on my Day Trip to Transnistria

I hope not too many… the first and foremost lure of Tiraspol (and Transnistria) is to see one of those “breakaway countries” off the old Soviet Union that refuses to be part of the new World Order and an independent state that isn’t Russia and that is usually a bit politically backwards, Russia-affiliated and often a bit unstable. You get the choice in the region – Abchasia, Chechnya, Nagorno-Karabakh, Southern Ossetia… of all these, Transnistria is perhaps the safest, easiest to travel to, and probably deepest steeped in Soviet ideology.

So, what did I miss?

Well, for someone who crawls into every church on the way, I made the grand omission of the Christmas Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Church with very colourful icons.

Nearby is the “Zeleniy Rynok”, a fresh market, similar to Piata Centrala in Chisinau, with some great seasonal produce, but alas, no time.

And of course, several monuments I sadly missed, one commemorating WW2 in the shape of a real MiG19 jet (from the 1950s) and a bust of Yuri Gagarin.

How to get into Transnistria

Two ways are possible – by minibus and by train. The most straightforward, and in my opinion, perfectly enough to just take a look, is a day trip from Chisinau. Just go to the Centre of the Piata Centrala, where you find a bank of while minibuses, who Say “Ebnder-Tiraspol” at the front and buy a single ticket at the counter. After about 45min you reach the “border” which looks a bit scary, but the Transnistrian Military is friendly enough and will issue a “Day Visa” by sticking a piece of stamped notepaper in your passport. All you have to do now is leave using the same route within the time period noted on the sheet of paper.

If you stay overnight, you need to register with some state authority called OWIR, or the local police. Often a decent hotel will do the registration for you. Also highly recommended if you stop over on the Chisinau to Odessa train.

If this all seems a bit much, you can take a tour with a Transnistria-based operator. From studying Russian to seeing all the 15 Lenin statues of Transnistria, they have a tour for everyone.

If you are wondering what life under a Socialist regime is like (quite simplified, I hasten to add) by all means, visit. It is cheaper and safer than North Korea. And you might tire of it quickly, and the cities of Chisinau and hopefully soon,again, ODesa are just an hours ride away.

Map of Tiraspol with the main points of Interest

 



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