Letter from: Transnistria, Europe’s isolated, unrecognised republic

Letter from: Transnistria, Europe's isolated, unrecognised republic

Transnistria is a Russian-speaking sliver of land between the Dniester River and Ukraine. When Soviet Moldova established Romanian as its official language in 1989, Transnistria declared its independence, despite a lack of international recognition. What's it like to be there on independence day?

6 October 2015
Text Stephen Glennon

Entering Transnistria is easy; staying there rather less so. At the border, armed guards loiter beside camouflaged tanks, and the frequent Chisinau to Tiraspol bus, which already has to do a lot of weaving back and forth to stay intact on the potholed Moldovan roads, has to do even more between the several hundred metres of barriers leading up to the checkpoint. Those without a Transnistrian passport enter a small office where they receive a piece of paper containing all their document details and a time, ten hours hence, by which they must be out of the “country”. We manage to secure press accreditation by means of endless paperwork, and additional documents for the Independence Day celebrations, which enable us to stay overnight and even take photographs.

Even at 8.30am, an hour before the beginning of the celebrations, the streets of Tiraspol are thronging in the fierce sunshine. The main boulevard, 25 October Street, is lined with Russian-supplied military vehicles daubed with Transnistrian red-green-red stripes, from tanks and armoured cars fitted with rocket launchers to motorcycles and sidecars with mounted machine guns. People mill around, posing for family portraits in front of the tanks. The street has been ground up under the weight of these tanks, leaving regularly spaced indentations that serve as a reminder of the brute force of these vehicles even when they are sitting quietly.

By the time the parade starts, the crowds have gathered around Suvorov Square, under flags of Transnistria (or, to use its more official name, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR)), and the white, blue and red of Russia. A drone hums ominously over the crowds, almost inaudible until it is directly overhead. Miniature Transnistrian flags bearing the slogan “25 years of PMR” are waved enthusiastically as the motorcycles come through, followed by the armoured cars, but the biggest cheer erupts as the tanks rumble past, churning up the street even more, making the ground beneath us shudder, and belching blue-grey fumes into the air. From the crowd’s applause, it feels as though I am the only one who thinks that the display as pathetic as it is intimidating. Such an overt attempt to show power merely highlights a lack of it. As an individual, however, I realise I am entirely powerless in this place.

I find that my status as an outsider is underlined with monotonous frequency. After having been shunted around by a number of important-looking men in pristine suits because of a problem with our paperwork, I have begun to tire of handing over my passport to anyone who requests it, and of being ushered here and there, and heads in the crowd constantly turning to scrutinise me. I am therefore thankful when the parade ends, rounded off by a set of synchronised drills by a squad of well-rehearsed soldiers.

After too long in the beating sun, the crowd quickly disperses to shady side streets where small stages have been set up for dancing, singing and food and drink. The occasion is now a family event, and where moments earlier the tanks had rolled past, groups of children now contentedly draw pictures in coloured chalk on the tarmac. One group has drawn a large tank, with “Our Defenders” written under it, and most of the others are focussed on colouring in pictures of smiling people waving Transnistrian and Russian flags. The drone hovers overhead, and the kids wave at it.

I stand to the back of a small crowd listening to some traditional singing, and several people start dancing with boozy abandon when a lively number starts up. Suddenly, someone grabs me by the wrists and whirls me into the mass of bodies. I am suddenly in the middle of a large circle of people all laughing and singing and chatting, still unaware of the futility of speaking to me in Russian. I explain my linguistic shortcomings, and, far from expelling me from the group, it only serves to increase interest in me. The middle-aged woman who grabbed me is N, and she speaks about ten words of English. That’s more than enough for the moment. She introduces V, her brother. They are both a little tipsy, and soon we are being ushered to sit with a group of their friends, who thrust some excellent Transnistrian cognac at us. From the gestures of the male members of the party as I sip it, it appears that drinking it all in one go is meant to have a beneficial effect on my virility. I give it a shot, but don’t notice any immediate results. Perhaps several more will be necessary.

“You are good people,” says N — a statement that I can’t quite fathom: all we have done is invade her apartment, eat all her food and drink all her booze

Cut to an hour later, and we have gathered something of an entourage. N and V are still with us, and we have picked up a group of teenage boys who attend an English-language school in Tiraspol. To say that they are thrilled by us is an understatement. As we pose for photos, they extract promises from us that we will come to visit their school. Their teacher, they tell me, really loves native English speakers. They have, of course, gleaned from me the information that I am not married, and they are, of course, very anxious to rectify this mysterious anomaly. V has decided that we must come to his home for dinner, and is insistent, gently directing us away from our group of fans as they excitedly tell us all the things they love from the outside world. “This Transnistrian beer is shit,” they say, “We want Guinness!”

As the afternoon melts into evening, we eat pelmeni in V’s home after meeting his pregnant daughter in his seventh-storey apartment, with neighbours constantly popping in for a chat. “You are good people,” says N — a statement that I can’t quite fathom, seeing as all we have done is invade her apartment, eat all her food and drink all her booze. “No, you are,” we respond, and we mean it. Wine flows freely, and I have never felt as welcome anywhere else in the world — a strange feeling given we're in one of the world’s least welcoming states.

We return to Suvorov Square in central Tiraspol in the evening for a concert featuring a number of well-known Russian singers, and afterwards a red and green firework display signals an end to the festivities. The sparks blast into the sky from either side of the park, and I turn in unison with the crowd, oohing and aahing as the show builds up to a final, spectacular set of explosions in the night sky.

On the way back to V’s apartment — he had insisted we spend the night — two kids chase each other around in circles in front of us. One bears a Transnistrian flag, the other a Russian flag. They joust playfully with the flagpoles, giggling all the time. Up ahead, there is a queue of people waiting to take photos with their loved ones in front of the “I ♥ Pridnestrovia” sign on 25 October Street. It is remarkable how easily the people I encounter reconcile their strong desire to meet and communicate with people from different cultures with their patriotism for their homeland and its deliberate and wanton isolationist policies. But sometimes trying too hard to make sense of things, especially when there is cognac involved, only serves to confuse matters more. Instead, I link arms with N and V, and walk back to their cosy apartment in not-so-cosy Transnistria.

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