Comrades! Have you ever wondered what became of the socialist dream? What happened to the society of equals? Where all those Red Army generals, KGB colonels and go-getting Moscow tycoons went when they retired? It — and they — live on in Transnistria.
Transnistria is a breakaway republic of a breakaway republic of the old Soviet Union: youthful yet venerable, ambitious but dreamy, dirt poor and damn profitable. No bigger in size than Devon or Rhode Island, this sliver-thin nowhereland lies both on the eastern bank of the Dniester, one of the oldest geopolitical fault lines in Europe, and at the threshold of an heroic new age.
On the 17th floor of a residential apartment building in the capital Tiraspol is the headquarters of the First Republican Television Channel. In its control room, a technician volunteers, “Putin is a hero for us. He makes us proud again.” The sign above the desk reads, “Do Not Litter”.
Nikoluk was a big, generous man with a salt-and-pepper goatee beard, fist-flattened nose and immense hands. He introduced himself as a “maximalist”: buying the best food, cooking the largest quantities, snatching the most beautiful women in the country and — when necessary — marrying them. “No one calls me a minimalist,” he warned in a voice loud enough to shake snow off the roof. He was an engineer, head of the Union of Builders, and the least cautious man in Transnistria.
In an icy parking lot, he loaded an oil drum barbecue with charcoal and set it alight with a blow torch.
“We will eat kostitza,” he declared, flourishing two platters of home-cured pork cut as thick as his thumbs. When he threw them on the grill one could almost hear the pig squeal. “No T-bone steak ever tasted as good.”
In front of the Supreme Soviet looms an enormous statue of Lenin, his granite cape flying out behind him like that of a superhero. The breakaway republic has its own government, currency and army yet remains unrecognised by any sovereign nation, Russia included.
Vladimir Putin has said his country reserves the right to stand up for ethnic Russians living outside its borders. Most Transnistrians wait for the president to act, even though 500 miles of Ukrainian territory separates their isolated mini-state and Russia. Transnistria — like Ukraine — is vital to Moscow as a buffer against the West, and as a potential route for delivering energy to Europe that is the foundation of the Russian economy. When neighbouring Moldova applied to join the EU, the Kremlin blocked its wine exports and threatened to cut off the natural gas supply. One senior Russian official warned the Moldovans, “We hope you will not freeze.” Russia refuses to withdraw its 2,000 ‘peace-keeping’ troops from Transnistria, so as to create a hurdle to Moldova’s potential NATO membership.
At Tiraspol’s central square stands a statue of Alexander Suvorov, the tsarist general who seized Transnistria for Russia in 1792. The nine reasons why tourists visit Transnistria include “an abundance of fruit and vegetables” and “KVINT cognac at wholesale prices”. To perpetrate the division between it and its estranged western half, the republic’s tourist board also once declared, “Compared to Moldova, Transnistria is like the Riviera.”
Moldavcabel — owned by the Russian conglomerate Sevcabel — is one of the biggest manufacturers in Transnistria. Its painting Day of Energy — 24 December 1918 celebrates Lenin’s plan to electrify the Soviet Union. Moldavcabel has also been named as a secret weapons maker. Transnistria once had secret arms factories, or so assert western rumour-mongers. The separatist republic was alleged to have hidden 14 weapon production units within legitimate works like Electromash and Pribor, owned by the Russian aero-engine manufacturer MMPP Salut. Like much of the country’s industrial landscape, the buildings appeared grey and rusted, and often seemed to be abandoned, until one noticed the new surveillance cameras and busy employees’ parking lots. Only then did one understand why the rumour-mongers remain so vociferous.
At the Epiphany as many as one thousand Transnistrians plunge into the frozen Dniester, dipping themselves three times to honour the Holy Trinity, to wash away their sins from the past year, and to experience a sense of spiritual rebirth. No figures exist for subsequent cases of pneumonia.
Comrades, I ask you what is Transnistria? A utopia where men and women, united in their common historical choice, are forging a selfless post-Soviet identity? Or a Trojan Horse within which “children of the sun” conjure up new illusions while practising yoga? Or perhaps the enclave is simply a profitable contrivance, slyly constructed by ambitious go-getters, where common people are all but irrelevant, apart from in giving legitimacy to the elite? All I know for sure is that Transnistria — the only place never to accept the collapse of the USSR — is part of a world where there are no more certainties.
Back in the USSR: Heroic Adventures in Transnistria is available from Unbound Books