Frozen Conflict

Travel Diary 2007.

Most of us take it for granted on a daily basis, but where we’re from is a huge part of who we are. Our nationality placed us in some kind of universal context, both uniting us and setting us apart from the rest of the world. Even the most earnest member of the global village will concede a nationality of some kind. But what if your country doesn’t exist?

I made three journeys to the Transdniester Republic, or Transnistria as it is sometimes known in the West, during 2006/2007 and was posed the question – was this Soviet styled nation a steely show of self determination from a people tired of being pushed around, or the comfortable safety-seeking of those who want nothing more than the certainties of yesteryear?
To the people that live in the Transdniester Republic – or Pridnestrovskaya Moldavskaya Respublika – to use its official name, is far more than a figment of their hearts and minds, it is a living, breathing nation state with its own parliament, mint, army and culture. But to the rest of the world it is a rogue statelet, which broke away from the infant republic of Moldova in an effort to retain the old securities of the Soviet era and preserve their Slavic heritage.

Following the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the subsequent abolition of the Imperial Russian Empire, a civil war raged between 1918 and 1920. When hostilities had ended it was the Dniester River that formed the distinct border between the Soviet Union to the east and Romania to the west. Whilst the river caused a physical divide, this gulf was further widened by both ideology and alphabet. These factors became the basis of the conflict that exists today. The foundation of the modern Transnistria’s claim to independence can be traced back to 1924 when the Soviet authorities, having seen off the White Russian challenge to the 1917 Revolution, carved up the Ukrainian Soviet and created the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Republic on the left bank of the Dniester River, alongside the eastern border of Romania.

As the Soviet leaders became the architects of their own demise in the late 1980s, alarm gren in the Dniester region over growing Modovan nationalism and the possible reunification of Moldova with Romania. A 1989 law which made Moldovan an official language added to the tension and Transnistria proclaimed its secession from the Soviet Union in September 1990. Casualty estimates range from 700-1500. An uneasy peace has existed to date vouchsafed by a Russian peace keeping force based in Tiraspol. In the west it continues to be portrayed as a hotbed of smuggling, money laundering and illegal arms sales, the home of the all-controlling Sheriff Company and the site of a vast Soviet weapons dump. Analysts continue to warn of the political instability caused by the fragmentation of Eastern Europe – some 18 independent statelets have been declared since the collapse of communism in 1989.
Shortly before I left for Transnistria there was a large explosion on a mini-bus that impacted on a passing tram. It claimed the lives of 8 and wounded 46, 2 of whom where Russian soldiers. The lack of international airline carriers to Moldova necessitated a dog leg journey that saw me flying to Romania’s capital Bucharest where I then bought a train ticket on the overnight express. The temperature in the old Russian carriages was near 45°C as we pulled out heading for the border where the rolling stock would be changed to the larger 5ft Russian gauge.

After a noisy, restless night I arrived in Chisinau the capital of Moldova. Tiraspol is only a 90 minute drive away and soon I was entering the no-mans land of the Moldovan / Pridnestrovian border where, luckily the entry formalities amounted to filling in a form mercifully printed in both Roman script and Cyrillic with my hotels destination and dates of stay. I had read many travellers tales of woe. Corrupt border guards were said to regularly demand money from foreign visitors. Maybe because I had a local guide I was not taxed by the unsmiling soldiers. My hotel, the Drushba lived up to my preconceived idea of what a Soviet hotel should look like – all marble slab and heavy wood carving. On each landing bored women in aprons sat at tables. With my guide Anna, a contact made in advance on the internet, I took to the streets of Tiraspol. The heat hung like a velvet curtain in a sauna. The roads were wide enough for parades and lined with sub-tropical trees, flower beds studded with leggy Marigolds. Trucks strolled up and down watering both plants and the asphalt. One miserable night was spent at the Drushba. Mosquitos plagued the hours of darkness; I finally smeared the last pest at 5 a.m.

In an unexpected turn of events Anna offered me a room at her flat for the remainder of my stay. This was both cheaper and offered me a much closer look at the way people lived in Tiraspol. I was surprised to learn that her husband was a corporal in the Russian army. My remaining two days were spent strolling around the city getting my bearings and planning my next visit in greater detail. I returned to Pridnestrovie at the start of September to cover the Independence Day parade and to visit a school for their traditional ‘Day of Knowledge’, the ritualised Soviet 1st day of the school year at the school where Anna taught English.There had been another explosion in the interim period. On a trolleybus one Sunday 2 fragmentation grenades were rolled down the aisle and exploded.
This time I flew to Odessa via Warsaw. The omens were bad when I raced through the airport in an attempt to catch my connecting light. I only just made it, what chance did my luggage have of flying with me? Precisely none, I waited by the empty carousel in Odessa wondering just what to do with only a Nikon camera body in my hand luggage. The next day came and still no bag. I decided to buy a 50mm lens and use my one battery charge sparingly. To augment this I went to the market and picked up a serviceable Zenit camera and a 6 pack of cheap film.

Tiraspol was a short 100km drive in a taxi that was driven by Viktor. He spoke excellent English learned in the Soviet naval intelligence and wore a Juventus tracksuit. The drive was going well until he told me as we approached the border that he couldn’t take me all the way to Tiraspol due to his not having the correct paperwork for his pistol that he stashed under his seat. I crossed the border on foot. In the first office I came to a bribe was being negotiated, a book was held open by an Ukrainian soldier and banknotes wer being dropped into it by a man with a much overloaded van. I greeted the guard on the Pridnestrovian side with a cheerful ‘my name is Mikhail I am a journalist’ adding ‘death to the fascist occupiers’, the only passable Russian phrase I knew. It worked a treat, he cracked a smile and I showed him my press credentials and I was in and untaxed. Anna came down in a car and picked me up for the short ride to the city.

The next day was the day of knowledge at the school ‘Gymnasia Talent’. The welcome was hosted by the head boy and girl in the crammed hall. As best dressed parents and children, clutching bouquets of flowers, lined the walls the flag was marched in. The teenage flag bearer led the way, behind him following a pair of 9 year olds marching the goose-step. Speeches followed the ceremonial watering of the schools symbol – a flowering cactus. 6 year old first years clutched the microphone and earnestly swore to do their utmost. The proceedings ended with the priest blessing the gathered with holy water.

The following day was the parade, the 16th anniversary of independence. Elite paratroops wearing red berets crisply marched by, female platoons struggling with their camouflage aerobics were juxtaposed with Cossacks led by a man with a walrus moustache. There were a surprising number of young soldiers, 16 year old conscripts who were smiling for my camera or hungrily smoking cigarettes as they marched in loose rank back to their barracks.
Before I left Tiraspol I went to the hospital and visited one of the victims of the grenade attack on the trolleybus. A man named Lyosha Babushkin was on the bus that Sunday; he remembers hearing the metallic spring of the pin and then the roar of percussion and smoke. He was most concerned with the infant daughter in her pram. He stumbled from the bus and then lost consciousness. His daughter was protected from the blast by her buggy. Lyosha was lucky, there was a specialist surgeon giving a lecture in Moldova’s capital Chisinau. He was promptly operated on, his liver was patched up and a big chunk of metal removed from his skull. The perpetrators remain unknown as does their motivation for the carnage.

My journey back to Odessa was not as smooth as I would have liked. Sitting bored at the checkpoint I took some sly photos with my mobile phone of the sniffer dogs. The taxi had just changed gear and was metres from the gate when the soldiers ahead ran out the barrier blocking our way. Ordered back I fumbled to erase all the pictures of the border crossing. Handing over my phone for inspection I was surprised to hear some words of English, ‘this is a nice gift’. We haggled and reached a compromise, 10 Hryvnia and we were on our way. I think it was the press card that saved my £250 phone and converted the bribe to what amounted to only £1 after I checked the exchange rate. My lost luggage was waiting for me at the airport and also arrived back in London.

I made one final trip to Transnistria in the following February. I chose to take the path of least resistance and flew via Frankfurt to Chisinau where I was picked by Anna and Sasha. There was a suggestion of border tax when I thought I had filled I my immigration card incorrectly. Anna told me that the guard said ‘if he’s made a mistake that’s 20 Euros’. I hadn’t made a mistake and Anna’s presence stopped them from forcing the issue.

Winter is not a kind month in Tiraspol. Stripped of leaves the cracks began to show on the houses and flats. Icy winds followed me around during my week long visit that culminated in my baggage going missing again on the return journey. It remained lost for a miserable month before turning up unexpectedly with nothing missing.
In trying to place this enigmatic territory in some kind of context I began to consider that Pridnestrovie's historical legacy should not be misinterpreted as an adherence to Communism. Their symbols provide comfort far in excess of our superficial reading of them as Soviet icons. Most people seek some kind of certainty and stability in their lives. There is an undisguised longing in many older folk for the Soviet Union. I wonder whether our society would have toppled its cherished effigies if Darwin’s Origin of the Species had crushed our belief in the Deity, if evolution had won out over creationism. As to what the future holds it must be taken into account that Moldova shares a common language with the European Union’s most recent addition, Romania. Many commentators predict its eventual reunification with the democratised Romania meaning that the border of the EU will be the left bank of the Dniester River. There is a long way to go before that happens, the interested parties must come to the table and thrash out a solution. As unlikely as that seems at present you only have to look at the intractable situation Britain had in Northern Ireland for 30 years to see that solutions can be reached if the will is there.

Further reading:

Boonstra, J. Moldova, Transnistria, and European Democracy Policies. [Internet]. Available from:,-transnistria-and-european-democracy-policies
King C. (1999). The Moldvans, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, California.
Maksymiuk, J. Moldova: Transdniester Conflict Was Long In The Making. From:

Official Sites:
Lenin in front of the parliament building in Tiraspol.
Sheriff are more than a supermarket. Sheriff has grown to include nearly all forms of profitable private business in this small nation, and has even become significantly involved in Transnistrian politics.
September 1st, the Soviet 'Day of Knowledge', the first day of the school year.
The school 'Talent' in Tiraspol. New students pledge to do their best. The cactus is the schools emblem.
Babushkin was taking a tram one Sunday with his infant daughter. A fragmentation grenade was rolled into the tram, they both survived.
Ivan at Tiligul Tiraspol FC.
Sightless buskers.