Transnistria is a no-go to most government advisories, but when you’re an hour away in Chisinau and there’s the opportunity to take a Soviet tour and see some do the last remaining Lenin statues, you have to go for it.
I used a company called Transnistria Tours for my day trip and opted for a pick up & drop off because I’d heard the border could be tricky alone. As it turned out, some other people from the hostel were planning to go as well so we all shared the cost of the car.
Transnistria is a self-proclaimed state between Moldova and Ukraine, though no recognized countries recognize it (Transnistria is recognized by South Ossetia and Abkhazia, neither of which is recognized by the UN). Transnistria declares independence from Moldova in 1990 at a time when Moldova, a predominantly Romanian-speaking country, was looking to join Romania. The people of Transnistria speak Russian and use the Cyrillic alphabet and didn’t like the idea of being minorities in the new county so instead opted for independence. Moldova didn’t go for it and invaded in 1992, which lead to a several month long war that saw a lot of violence and many victims, particularly in the city of Bender. They reached a ceasefire later that year, but the territory is still controlled in part by Russian peacekeepers. Although no countries recognize it, Transnistria has its own currency (roubles), police force, passports, banks, and essentially functions like an independent state.
Crossing the “border” into Transnistria was way easier than I’d read. You need a passport to enter but they can’t stamp it because they’re not officially a country. Instead they give you a little slip that allows you entry for 10 hours. And it’s that easy!
Our first stop was Bender, the second biggest city where we met our guide, Anton. He was born in Transnistria, and because at the time it was in the Soviet Union he has Russian, Moldovan, and Transnistria passports. Apparently if you were born after, it’s a lot more complicated for people.
For the most part, Bender just felt like any other city. It felt a bit cleaner and even better developed than Moldova, and people were just going about their days as normal. But a few weird things did stand out. The Transnistrian flag was everywhere, and it features a hammer and sickle in the top right corner, which is just unheard of basically every where else. It felt like being inside a history textbook to see the flag flying around on all the buildings and monuments.
Another weird thing was this company called Sheriff that seemed to own everything. Shopping centres, banks, gas stations, and everything else seemed to sport their logo. Anton explained that Sheriff owns pretty much everything in the country and has a total monopoly. They still price things fairly, but they can pretty much do what they want in the country. We visited one of their markets and exchanged some money for Transnistrian roubles. I bought some local cognac there as well called Kvint that we were told was good. (It was!).
Next we headed to Tiraspol, the capital. It was a really short drive and we passed lots of monuments commemorating the 1992 conflict. We eventually got out at the biggest monument, featuring a Soviet tank and plaques with the names of all those who died fighting for Transnistrian independence. Anton explained there were a lot of volunteers who came from countries like Russia, Estonia, and Latvia to fight as well.
Across the road from this monument was the parliament featuring a massive statue of Lenin out front. This was another one of those moments where I felt like I was back in my history class looking at old photos. I think because he is so iconic in history it feels surreal to see the statues in person just walking down the street. Transnistria is a Democracy, and so parliament houses all the elected officials. The last election has two main parties, one led by Sheriff and the other independent, and was observed by Russian peacekeepers.
We walked down one of the main streets and visited some different monuments as well as city hall, which also featured a massive Lenin head. I asked Anton why there was so much symbolism left over from the Soviet era and he said it was about respect for their history. A lot of the people in the region were quite happy during the Soviet era – he told us his Dad preferred when Transnistria was a part of the Soviet Union, which was interesting.
Our last stop was lunch at a Ukrainian style local restaurant. It was delicious. We tried a local beer and I had amazing dumplings with spinach and cheese and I could have again every day for the rest of my trip. Cherries also seem to be quite big here so we had these amazing mascarpone and cherry crepes for dessert.
Overall, it was an unreal day. Based on all the travel warnings, I was surprised at how normal life was in Transnistria. Besides seeing all the Soviet relics, it was so interesting to learn about the country and their fight for independence. Their hope is that Russia will recognize them as a country soon which may encourage others to as well, but for the time being they will continue as an unrecognized Republic.