Transniestria is a breakaway state squeezed between Moldova to the west and Ukraine to the east. When the Soviet Union was coming undone and the various republics declaring independence, Transniestria went against the grain and fought a war to stay in the Soviet Union. While no nation recognizes this fledging state (with the exception of other, unrecognized breakaway states) it has its own military, immigration control, parliament, police force, postal service and passport, making it de-facto independent. It is the only nation in the world that still has the hammer and sickle on its flag and is very proud of its soviet heritage. When I first heard about it, it sounded like it might be the closest thing to the Soviet Union that exists today, so last month, I traveled to its capital, Tiraspol, to see for myself.
On the way there, while passing through Romania and Moldova, everyone I spoke with had strongly negative feelings about Transniestria. I was told that it was ‘worse than Afghanistan,’ ‘the Gaza strip of Eastern Europe,’ and that if I spoke English or mentioned that I came from the West that my throat would be slit. No one had actually visited the territory for themselves though. Transniestria, with Russian aid, fought Moldova with Romanian aid in their war for Independence so the negative response, while more extreme than I would have thought, was somewhat expected.
Moldova had the stereotypical Soviet architecture. The suburbs of its capital were filled with towering apartment blocks, each one the same as the one next to it. Everything seemed built with right angles in mind, either in large squares or rectangles. But that was all draped in neon lights, brightly colored paint and billboards. Transniestra had none of that glamour. Each building had a small sign in black and white, written in Russian, that identified what it was, but they all looked the same—especially to someone who does not read the language. For some reason, a large number of streets in Tiraspol were torn up either in whole or part and it did not seem like there were any plans to repave. There was actually almost no construction going on at all. There were also statues of Lenin, Stalin and other Soviet heroes scattered about. There was a complete absence of graffiti, homelessness or drunks. In sum, it looked a lot like my image of the Soviet Union.
But it was also a much happier place then I would have thought. In the evening, when the air began to cool, the parks filled with young couples kissing and parents who brought their children to play. In at least two parks women rented small cars that children could peddle and everywhere you looked there were kids laughing, pretending they were drivers. Each night that I sat down in a park, friendly locals approached and started a conversation. It seemed most people only spoke Russian, so the dialogue never went very far but the intent was still there. There was also a river that ran along the edge of the city and two large beaches where people swam and sunbathed.
I’d say that Transniestria today is much happier than the Soviet Union was, but then again I never visited the USSR and my view of it is distorted through the lens of my birth nation—much the same as the Romanians and Moldovans who told me Transniestria was a dangerous wasteland. It’s a place you should really see for yourself.