We Visited A Country That Doesn’t Exist: Transnistria
My guess is you have never heard of Transnistria. That’s because it is a country that really doesn’t exist. No country on the planet actually recognizes they exist as a sovereign state. Not even Russia!
It’s a weird place, a thin strip of land wedged between Moldova and Ukraine. Historically, 2/3 of Moldovans are descended from Romanians. Back when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, this tiny region of Moldova filled with ethnic Russians didn’t want to stop living the soviet dream, kind of like Bernie!
They declared independence from Moldova (aligned with Romania) and fought a civil war that ended in a ceasefire two years later in 1992. Thirty years later, it’s like being in the old USSR. Like the Russians, they build moving war monuments.
The Transnistrian government is the only one in the world that still uses the Soviet hammer and sickle on its flag, passports, currency and postage stamps.
Since their currency is only recognized in Transnistria, you cannot exchange their rubles outside the country or send a postcard home using their stamps. Their “coins” are plastic and look like guitar picks!
Their passport is useless. Monuments to and pictures of Lenin are everywhere. This is their Parliament building.
Transnistria has had a reputation for illegal arms trading over porous borders for the last three decades. In the past, you were warned that their KGB would crack down on you if snapped pictures of their municipal buildings. Border crossings can be tricky–since no one officially recognizes them as a country. Bribes used to be customary. But we didn’t experience any problems as they are trying to be more tourist friendly. You get a registration card allowing you to stay in the country for 24 hours. If you stay longer, you have to register with the local police.
Not wanting to be interrogated by the KGB wearing hammer and sickle badges, we hired a local guide named Dmitri to bring us from Odessa to the capital of Tiraspol. He’s an interesting guy who grew up here, but has lived and worked abroad. His perspective is fascinating.
So the first thing I notice is that Transnistria appears kind of western, aside from the soviet icons. There’s a big banner over the road with a friendly guy pitching phone service. Seems modern and friendly to me.
Dmitri proudly proclaims that they have strong industry (cotton refiners that supply Williams Sonoma) and technical expertise, owing to soviet acclaim for scientific proficiency. He thinks they have a better chance at economic success by partnering with an eastern alliance of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, etc. because then they don’t have to “cave in” to western demands.
It appears to be relatively prosperous so I’m kinda buying it. He claims they have only one communist in Parliament and that their ideology isn’t reflective of the soviet relics we see everywhere (and signs like the below with the happy soviet family).
But as we walk and drive around, I notice the name Sheriff on everything. Which is odd, because that’s such a wild west American name. It’s on their modern soccer stadium, grocery stores, gasoline stations. So I google it and learn that Sheriff Corporation, run by an ex-KGB oligarch, monopolizes and largely controls every aspect of life in Tiraspol. Hmmmm.
I later learn that Sheriff Corporation owes its fortune to illegal trade in cigarettes, alcohol, and food made possible by the poorly regulated border with Ukraine. But since the 2014 Revolution, Ukraine has clamped down on the border and illicit trade through Odessa. And Moldova signed a pact allowing it to have beneficial trading terms with the EU.
Russia provides nominal support, free natural gas for heating in the winter, and a military “peacekeeping” presence, but they have never formally acknowledged the break-away republic as legitimate (and they won’t because that would give legitimacy to the two breakaway republics from Russia!). So Transnistria is being squeezed now between east and west.
We walk the town and come to the farmer’s market. The people are warm and friendly, offering samples of different kinds of cheeses, meat, and sausage. For some reason, the meat market doesn’t smell nasty like it normally does elsewhere. We pop into a couple cafes for coffee and homemade pie. Everyone seems friendly and one cafe owner gives us those coins to keep.
We stop in a little park where Lenin welcomes you again. Dmitri brings a historian out to relate stories of the past. She is kind and eager for us to learn their story.
We stop at a flea market. It’s interesting because this was supposed to be such a bizarre place, but then you meet the people and they are no different than us. Except they are very warm and friendly, perhaps intrigued by the foreigners. Actually warmer than people we met in Ukraine. An old guy sells us some cool soviet medals and as I go to shake his hand, he does that warm handshake with two hands on mine.
By the way, we also found that on our trip to Russia two years ago, we found the everyday people to be very warm and kind. So you may not agree with their ideology or leaders, but you can appreciate the connection with people.
Dmitri is fascinating and provides a completely different perspective than any we’ve read online. He is rabidly pro-Transnistrian independence, but anti-Ukraine independence. It is a little uncomfortable at moments, given that we just came from drinking shots to Ukrainian independence.
He takes us to the Bender Fortress, site of a key battle in their history because of its location above the Dnieper River. It is impressive, but we are hungry.
So we pull up to an old soviet canteen, the kind of place blue collar workers would have gone for lunch. When I was a kid, seeing CCCP (USSR) on Red Army tanks and hockey jerseys invoked some measure of dread, the sign of an imperious, evil empire. And there it is.
You walk in and the architecture and murals are so vintage soviet, somewhat reminiscent of the subway stations in Russia.
We open the door and you may as well be in Moscow circa 1962, complete with the large lady in red scooping food from a ladle on to your plate.
The food looks pretty horrible, kind of Russian chic drab. The peppers stuffed with rice and meat are excellent. And while not as good as mine, the meatballs are surprisingly delicious.
But mostly it is cool being surrounded by Lenin and old USSR stuff, the scary stuff of my childhood.
It has been a fascinating experience few people ever take advantage of because it’s so scary sounding. But in the end, I think we connected with people we’d normally never get to meet and learned a different perspective, which is invaluable. Plus we leave with a passport stamp and currency no one one the planet even recognizes!
We unload our luggage from Dmitri’s car and get into a small car with Sergei for what turns out to be a scary, miserable, 8-hour drive to Brasov, Romania that should put us in by around 10. A few minutes in, he holds up his phone with google translator asking, “Can my wife come with us?” I think for a second and say, “Da,” which is Russian for yes.
Turns out she’s a lifesaver, even from the backseat. Sergei drives a tad better with her in the car, uses his seatbelt, and she lightens the mood. Plus he doesn’t text and drive when she’s with us.
Peace out from sitting in sweltering sun at the Romanian customs control for an hour. Based on the picture above, it looks like Romania could be a surprisingly beautiful place to visit. Read about our 7 days in Romania here. Love to all!