Tiraspol: Support Your Local Sheriff

“I’m the urban spaceman baby, here comes the twist: I don’t exist”.

I have been told by a couple of my friends that the fictional character I most resemble is The Doctor – intelligent, geeky, relatively asocial, probably asexual, a mostly solo traveller generally to places off the beaten track that tourists don’t go. And just like The Doctor, much as I would like to think so, I’d often not in complete control of my travels; I go where my transport takes me. He has a TARDIS; I generally have local minibuses. And sometimes these minibuses take me through time and space to weird out-of-kilter places.

Roadsign / billboard in Tiraspol proclaiming the 24 years since the foundation of Transnistria.
Roadsign / billboard in Tiraspol proclaiming the 24 years since the foundation of Transnistria.

In this particular case, the minibus from Chisinau took me back in time to the Soviet Union, circa 1985; where statues of Lenin still stand, war memorials to fallen Red Army platoons take pride of place in the centre square, and motivational billboards in Cyrillic letters complete with hammer and sickle motifs shout out from the side of the highway. A place where 5 year plans still feel like they’re met, and full employment is still seen as the norm rather than the ideal, even if that takes a small battalion of street sweepers (I counted 7 in one place, all with brooms) where one would do.

A small battalion of street sweepers in suburban Tiraspol.
A small battalion of street sweepers in suburban Tiraspol.

This is Tiraspol, capital of the republic of Transnistria (which doesn’t exist, being recognised only by the republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which, er, also don’t exist), and one of the odder places I’ve ever been to.

Transnistria is a breakaway part of Moldova on (mostly) the Eastern side of the Dniester River that’s been claiming independence since about 1991; no-one else agrees but equally no-one’s pushed the point either way. It has its own police, money (the Transnistrian Ruble – possibly the least convertible currency in the world since it legally does not exist), postal service, etc, and to all intents and purposes operates as a separate state, but legally belongs to Moldova. It’s about twice the size of Luxembourg, but due to its very linear shape it looks much smaller on a map.

[As an aside, there’s an interesting argument to suggest that neither Transnistria nor Moldova should even exist – prior to 1940, Moldova was part of Romania and Transnistria part of the Ukrainian SSR of the Soviet Union. As part of the treaties near the start of the way, including the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Soviets were ‘allowed’ to invade the southern and western parts of the region then known as Bessarabia and incorporate them into a ‘new’ Soviet republic they called the ‘Moldovan SSR’. Given many of these treaties were subsequently deemed ‘void’ later in the war, in theory the borders should have returned to their pre-war state. Obviously the Soviets being on the winning side ensured that wouldn’t happen.]

Billboard commemorating 70 years since the liberation of Tiraspol by the Soviets.
This billboard commemorates 70 years since ‘the day of the liberation of the city of Tiraspol from the Nazi invaders’ (translation of the sign) by the Soviets.

This means there’s always been a bit of a social divide in Moldova between the majority Romanian and minority Russian ethnic cultures – linguistically and stylistically. When the Soviet Union broke apart in 1990/91, there was a fear amongst the Russian speakers that the new Moldovan government’s aim was, not just a kind of cultural assimilation but even, in the long term, union with Romania, and this would have left them critically under-represented and possibly discriminated against; they felt their only action was to push for separation and independence.

The brief war that followed wasn’t really that notable and kind of fizzled out into a stalemate. Neither side directly won, but equally since the war neither side has really tried to push the point further.

This split is one of the stumbling blocks to future Moldovan membership of the EU (there are several others, notably the fact Moldova has the worst performing economy in Europe). The EU really don’t want another issue like Cyprus within its borders. However neither the Moldovan government (loss of face) nor the EU government (a dogged belief in the inviolability of the post-Soviet borders, and the fear that an independent Transnistria would align itself far too closely with Russia for comfort, possibly even with a view to eventually annexing it like eastern Crimea) mean that option isn’t on the table yet. Yet, if the price for EU membership for Moldova was the loss of Transnistria, the general public on both sides of the internal border would be happy with that – Transnistrians would get their independence and the Moldovans would be rid of the Transnistrian millstone.

The MiG-19 Monument, Tiraspol, on '60 Years of October' Square.
The MiG-19 monument. Yep, a dedication to a Soviet aircraft.

Culturally therefore it’s Russian. Everything is written in Cyrillic, the main language spoken is Russian (or at least Ukrainian), and the whole country feels like it looks ‘East’ for inspiration rather than ‘West’. The nearest big city the locals flock to for shopping, university, etc is Odessa (100km away) in Ukraine rather than Chisinau (75km away). Indeed, on my visit there were booths where people were being encouraged to sign a petition requesting that Transnistria become a part of Russia, rather than be re-incorporated into Moldova or even become an independent state. There were queues at these booths.

Bender Fortress, Transnistria.
The Fortress in the town of Bender, close to the Moldovan border, as seen from a distance from a passing minibus.

There isn’t a lot to do in Transnistria for the average tourist, but then it’s not really a place for the average tourist to go. Most people who come here are people like me, checking it out simply because of its weird political situation. There aren’t too many tourist sites – even the big fortress at Bender is mainly used as an Army base and therefore visible only in passing.

The tank, in Tiraspol centre.
Probably the most famous sight in Tiraspol – a Soviet-era tank allegedly driven up a ramp and ‘left’ to rust. It says “For Families” on it.

The ‘sights’ in the capital Tiraspol (the only place I really visited) are limited to such things as the statue of Lenin outside the parliament building, the tank (!!) on the grassy ramp next to the high street that serves as one part of the war memorial to the Transnistrian dead (the wars commemorated in the square are the independence war in 1991/2, WW2, and the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In my younger days I wrote a poem about that war for a school assembly. No copies of that poem exist. I’m not disappointed by this), the Dniester riverfront and promenade (nice for a walk), a few parks, and that’s about it.

The War Memorial in Tiraspol centre.
More of the war memorials. The Afgan war memorial is the broken column on the right. It was designed that way, yes.

A street in Tiraspol centre.
One of the main streets in Tiraspol. Many are named after communist leaders, thinkers, or activists, like Karl Liebknecht.

Waterfront at the River Dniester, Tiraspol.
The River Dniester itself – after which Transnistria is named. You can go boating on it.

Quite a bit further out to the west is the stadium of Sheriff Tiraspol FC, the leading Moldovan football side which seems to be bankrolled by a rich Transnistrian businessman who’s related to the previous president of the republic. Sheriff is a petroleum business, amongst other things, and has a monopoly on petrol stations in the republic. Indeed, the arms of the Sheriff business stretch across much of the republic and there’s not much where their money doesn’t come into play. Not just Soviet then, but modern Russian too.

Sheriff Stadium, home of Sheriff Tiraspol FC.
Sheriff Stadium, home of Sheriff Tiraspol FC, as seen from a passing minibus.

Tiraspol also has something called ‘Freedom’, aka the ‘Anti-Café’. It’s quite an interesting concept – it has refreshments like tea, coffee, and biscuits, but also music, computer games, air hockey, etc, but rather than paying for everything individually, you pay for a period of time and in that time everything you want is free. I was there as a ‘guest’ of my couchsurfing host’s 14 year old son, and I ended up watching him and his friends play Fifa14 on the Xbox…

Park Gates, Pobeda Park, Tiraspol.
The Park Gates, Pobeda Park, Tiraspol.

I spent much of the rest of the time in the city doing simple things like sitting in the park. That may sound strange, but if there’s one thing that Communists have done well, it’s town planning, and specifically local amenities. The main park in the city – which you may not be at all surprised to learn is called “Victory Park” – looks and feels about as Soviet as it’s possible to get. It’s very pleasant inside, with large open areas where people can sit and look at statues/fountains. It’s also a good place to people-watch, although most of the people I saw were watching each other’s tongues rather than paying attention to nosy-parkers like me. There’s several other parks scattered across the city; it’s quite a green place.

Church in Kirov Park, Tiraspol.
‘Presentation of the child Jesus Christ’ church, Kirov Park, Tiraspol.

The journey in was quite rough. It’s not very far from Chisinau to Tiraspol but the roads heading out the city are pretty dire. Either that or the minibus I was on had virtually no suspension; I was being bounced around all over the place. In addition, the stereo was blaring out some kind of Russian-language retro electro-dance music; I’ve noticed this kind of music is quite common in non-Western-looking ex-Soviet states; it’s very popular in the Central Asian republics. To be fair, Moldova itself does key-in to a certain retro vibe – the first song playing in one of the Chisinau minibuses was an early Kylie number; lucky (lucky) me …

The minibus to Tiraspol in Bender.
One of the Chisinau-Tiraspol minibuses, waiting at the bus station in Bender.

The border crossing was pretty painless, although apparently incorrect. After a long straight road surrounded by trees, you reach what seems to be a hastily-constructed barrier, staffed by armed guards. When the bus stopped, a border guard came on and checked everybody’s passport. When he noted I was British, he indicated I ought to get off and go to a roadside booth to explain why I’m in the country, and then be ‘stamped’ in (there are no stamps, which is a shame, but my passport details are recorded). After doing this, I then got back on the bus.
Apparently, what’s also supposed to happen is that they give me a piece of paper to fill in with my registration contact details, which I then have to give to the local police station in order to register me as being in the country (if I stay more than 24 hours). They never gave me this paper.

In the event I was registered with the local police just fine; and all I needed to do to leave Transnistria is show the ‘border guards’ a little white piece of paper. No idea what’s written on it since it’s in Cyrillic, and while I can read the typed Cyrillic letters, I never got to grips with the written ones . I barely do cursive English writing because generally there’s no point & I like to be able to read my own writing clearly, but that’s a rant for another post.

The Barefoot Backpacker and his couchsurfing host (Olga) in her flat in Tiraspol.
Me and my couchsurfing host in Tiraspol, Olga.

For the record, all that ‘registration’ involved for me was going to the local police office with my host, my couchsurfing host confirming their address, and then the office seeing my passport and giving me what effectively amounted to a visa, with a ‘valid until’ date on it. I assume that if you’re staying in a hotel, this process is even simpler as the hotel would do it for you.

In general though, I have to say (and whisper it quietly), I preferred Tiraspol to Chisinau. Possibly because it felt more ‘normal’ as a city, grid-like and structured rather than the chaos and randomness of Chisinau, and partly because maybe more of it looked more like how I perceive a small town to look – one long main street with shops, multitudinous side streets coming off it with smaller shops, churches, and residential accommodation. Like a small English (or even American) town. Or maybe that’s just me.

Statue of Lenin outside the Transnistrian Parliament Building
Parliament, Tiraspol. Yes, that is Lenin.

I concede I do have a weird ‘thing’ for Socialist art and memorabilia though, so maybe Tiraspol just felt like a live-action open-air museum.

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Two Days in Tiraspol, Transnistria

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