The breakaway republic of Transnistria declared its independence 30 years ago, but not even Russia recognizes it as a country. Transnistria is both nostalgic for the Soviet era and prosperous thanks to Russian funds. And a trip there is the closest you can get to visiting the USSR.
“It’s like North Korea here — we can’t leave the country.” Dimitri, around 30 years old, takes a passport out of his pocket. Delivered by Transnistria — a “country” recognized by no state, not even Russia — the document allows him to travel to only two places in the world: South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two Georgian enclaves also claiming their allegiance to the Kremlin. Only one issue: There is no airport in Transnistria, so escaping is only an imagined possibility.
The young man could ask for a Moldavian passport: After all Transnistria, which borders Ukraine along 450km like a snake, is officially part of the country. But the procedure is long and costly. “The government does not want to give us documents that would allow us to vote. They’re scared of who we would put in power!” He smiles. Here, Moscow fascinates while Europe repels, and Western journalists are banned from staying.
Transnistria was built through historical wars and ethnic mixing — it was invaded by Greeks, Romans, Tatars, Ottomans and Romanians. Now, they talk, eat and dream in Russian. The 500,000 inhabitants believe they were shackled at the beginning of the 1990s when Moldova, which speaks Romanian, forbade them to speak Russian. After that, the distrust never stopped: In a 2009 referendum, 97% of Transnistrians voted once again to be reattached to Russia.
They even display a clear nostalgia for the USSR. Here, there are no bell towers in the middle of villages but Lenin statues and cultural centers celebrating a time when equality was not a vain word. More than a trip to the fringes of Europe, Transnistria offers a trip down memory lane like few that exist in the world.
The Soviet Saint-Tropez
“Stop saying we are in the USSR! Back then, we only needed one job to make a living, now it’s two,” says our driver ironically, who is also an accountant making barely €500 a month. “At the time, we could also drive only two hours to go swim in the Black Sea. Since then, Ukraine has taken up all the seafront, and Moldova does not have access to the sea anymore. Men from Transnistria are not allowed to go. The Ukrainians are afraid we are Russian spies,” he says.
Nostalgia peaks when locals meet at the “Back to the USSR” café to eat cabbage salad or bortsch, a beet soup with some floating pieces of meat. The atmosphere is decidedly kitsch and even looks like a theme park: A phone identical to the one used by Winston Churchill to call Joseph Stalin is hung in the entrance, pictures of Lenin overlook the large staircase while an old piano and gramophones set the musical mood.
In the countryside, the trip back in time is even more spectacular. At the entrance of the villages of Sucleia and Slobozia, mosaics celebrate the bravery of communist workers. “Old people are extremely nostalgic for the 1960s. Moldova was a small paradise back in the days, some kind of Soviet Saint-Tropez. We were richer and it was warmer than in the rest of the USSR,” says Dimitri.
A collector's USSR memorabilia in Tiraspol.
Nostalgia and cheap electricity
In Kuchurgan, in the south, locals are getting ready to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the town. In the cultural center, the theater’s stage is decorated with large draped fabrics to welcome traditional dances, children’s poems and speeches. The festivities are in 48 hours and a singer takes the microphone to practice a nostalgic lament: “I want to get my old village back. We knew neither jealousy nor hate. We went to the neighbors’ without being invited.”
Gratitude for Russia is on everyone’s lips and appears completely rational: It funded the electric plant responsible for the city’s wealth and supplies all of Moldova. Up until today, it provides them with free electricity … or almost: The bill is sent to Moldova, which refuses to pledge allegiance to the Kremlin and has been displaying a visible European inclination since Maia Sandu was elected president of Moldova last year.
This free electricity makes Transnistrians much richer than other Moldovans. Most factories in the country (metalwork, fabric …) were set up by Russians, as they did in the enclaves of Ossetia (in Georgia) and Donbas (in Ukraine). It was a strategy to ensure the Kremlin’s influence in the Soviet republics of the past. More capitalist Bitcoin miners have also settled there in the past few years to take advantage of some of the cheapest electricity in the world.
Gratitude for Russia is on everyone’s lips and appears completely rational.
The capital city, Tiraspol, seems more prosperous than Moldova’s Chisinau. In the center, a “hipster” café opened for the rare Western people who have ventured here. They spend hours in flea markets, looking for Soviet era relics: Lenin busts, hats and jackets from the Stalinist period. Stalin is not far, in a big building at the entrance of the capital. In front of him, a statue of Lenin, bigger than any other, surrounded by the Russian and Transnistrian flags — the latter also adorned with the hammer and sickle. It is here that the President of Transnistira Vadim Krasnoselsky is based.
The Sheriff of Transnistria
The “country” also has its Constitution, its Parliament, its central bank and currency — the Transnistrian rouble, whose faded square and triangular plastic coins look like they’re out of a board game. A few hundred meters away sits the Soviets’ house, now city hall.
The Sheriff’s name — the “boss” of the region — is displayed at every street corner. Cigarettes, alcohol, newspapers, mobile phones, constructions: Nothing gets past him. An estimated one out of five residents work for his conglomerate. The oligarch, a former KGB spy, also built a gas station, a brand new supermarket and the biggest football stadium in the country. It's been a source of pride for Transnistrians who saw their team — the Sheriff’s Tiraspol — win against Real Madrid in last year’s Champions League.
But it is hard to ignore the checkpoints and sand bags at the entrance of villages. They were put there at the end of April, and no one knows if they were launched by Russians or Ukrainians. Since then, Russian soldiers inspect passing cars, guns in hand. There are 1,500 Russian soldiers in Transnistria, but it is not to be seen as an interference from Moscow: “Russians are not here to invade us, but to keep the peace,” says Dimitri.
Here, they do not scare anyone. “These Russian troops get themselves talked about a lot, but in reality they mostly recruit here,” says Claus Neukirch, a German in charge of Moldovan operations for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). “Even if it wanted to, Russia has no way of increasing the quota. It would mean having soldiers leave Russia and fly above Ukraine, which is totally impossible.” These troops have very little military equipment, a few T62 tanks at most. “We cannot really talk about a military power,” says Neukirch.
Women arrive at a polling station as part of Transnistria's presidential elections on Dec. 12, 2021.
An explosive warehouse
Transnistria is much less belligerent than a lot of people would like to believe. It displays some kind of neutrality in the Ukrainian conflict and for good reason: Most of its exports go to the European Union and trade with Russia keep decreasing. Even though he is close to Moscow, the president released a statement in which he neither condones nor condemns the war in Ukraine. His position is in stark contrast to that of other enclaves such as Abkhasia and South Ossetia in Georgia, which have clearly stated their support to Vladimir Putin.
Transnistria is being pragmatic: Although it claims its independence, its football club plays in the Moldovan championship. The coach, Yuri Vernydub, left the team in February 2022 to enlist in the Ukrainian army.
Even though he is close to Moscow, the president released a statement in which he neither condones nor condemns the war in Ukraine.
What is more worrying is the amount of ammunition stored in the north of Transnistria, in Cobasna. Regarded as the most important stock in all of eastern Europe, it is only a stone-throw away from the Ukrainian border and could contain about 20,000 tons of munitions, grenades and rockets: “It’s an extremely old warehouse and no one knows exactly where it is,” says Neukirch.
Shots were heard near it in the spring. If the site was to catch on fire, it would cause an explosion at least equivalent to Beirut’s port two years ago. A dormant volcano in short, much like this sleeping “republic” which refuses to lend an ear to the sound of bombs and wallows in a glorified past.