Traveling to Former Soviet Union countries?
If you are really interested in countries of the Former Soviet Union (FSU), Transnistria should be high on your list. Officially the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), Transnistria is a self-proclaimed republic wedged between Moldova and Ukraine. It is considered part of Moldova by the UN. It’s formally recognized by only three non-UN states: Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia, which are also post-Soviet frozen conflict zones. However, the PMR controls the border between Moldova, has its own currency (ruble), flag, constitution, national anthem, coat of arms, and they even have their own president. After the fall of communism and USSR, Moldova and Transnistria fought in the War of Transnistria from 1990 to 1992. The Moldovan government stopped influencing Transnistrian authorities and the area still remains the biggest problem of stability in Moldova.
We were reminded to bring our passports. It’s also a good idea not to have luggage in your car since the border control inspects the trunk. I put my camera bag in front of me so it wouldn’t look like luggage. We drove about 1 hour from Chisinau to Bender, the border town of Transnistria.
Entering Transnistria is like going to another country. The first thing I saw was the Russian soldiers between the Moldovan and Transnistrian border. They are called the ‘peacekeeking’ soldiers dispatched from Russia. Shortly after we passed a Russian tank, we went through customs with our passports. Moldovans can enter Transnistria with just an ID but everyone else should have a passport. Since Transnistria isn’t an official country, they can’t stamp on the passport. Instead, they gave us a small paper slip that says we are only allowed to stay for 9 hours. Multiple-day travel is also possible but you’re required to make all the arrangements before entering Transnistria.
There is also public transportation leaving from Chisinau to Transnistria, but it’s a good idea to accompany someone who knows what to do, especially if you want to stay overnight. It’s not recommended to travel alone especially if you don’t speak Russian.
The capital city of Transnistria, Tiraspol
We drove to Tiraspol, the capital city of Transnistria after crossing the border at Bender. The first thing I saw was a Friendship Bridge next to the highway, painted with colors of Russian flag and Transnistrian flag. About twenty minutes later we arrived at Tiraspol. But first we started our tour, we went to a local supermarket called ‘Sheriff’ to exchange our money into Transnistrian rubles. An ATM and credit cards don’t work here if you don’t have a Transnistrian bank account. The Sheriff is a local company that owns most of the businesses in Transnistria: supermarkets, gas stations, football stadium, and so on. About 12 Transnistrian rubles is worth about 1 US dollar. We wanted to collect every denomination of banknote and coins as a souvenir. Also, I wanted to buy the high-quality cognac they produce here.
When we got out of the car at the parking lot, a local guy started talking to Stephen, who is fluent in Russian. “What did he want?” I asked. “Asking money for his bus fare”. I did a double-take to see that the guy who was dressed in a nice suit– not someone who’d be mistaken as a beggar. Was it a usual scam or was he just short of a few rubles to get to work? We’ll never know. It happened again in front of the Parliament of the Soviet Building. The guy said something like “Just because” for the reason, he was asking for money. Strange.
Was I in Moldova or Russia?
Everywhere I looked, there was a Russian flag next to the Transnistrian flag. There are also lots of propaganda flyers (not that I read any Russian but you could tell from the context) and posters. The war heroes from the War of Transnistria were buried next to the eternal flame. Like other Russia-influenced countries, there are many monuments and statues that are related to Russian and Transnistrian history are here. The Monument of Alexander Suvorov, the founder of Transnistria, is in the central square of the city.
We were told the living standard in Transnistria is quite low. People are always short of money, there are not enough jobs here, and the republic doesn’t have Russian support anymore. But I wouldn’t have known from the appearance of the city. The streets in Tiraspol are well paved and wide. But there are not many cars other than trolly buses. What there was a lot of are posters of PMR and Soviet coat of arms.
Russia granted the people of Transnistria to obtain a Russian passport even though Russia doesn’t allow dual citizenship. We saw a huge line outside of the Russian embassy. In Tiraspol, you can also see the one-of-a-kind places like the embassies of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
We went to see Lenin statues in front of the Parliament Supreme Soviet Building and House of Soviets before heading to lunch at a Ukrainian restaurant.
As a lover of souvenirs, I wanted to get memorabilia from Transnistria. But Transnistria not being tourism-oriented, it would be almost impossible to find something to buy if you are not with someone who knows. Victoria, our guide brought us to a local bookstore which is one of the only places for souvenirs.
An afternoon in Tiraspol was surreal.
This must be what it’s like to visit Russia. Well, sort of. Surrounded by Russian flags, Soviet coat of arms, Soviet-style architecture, the Russian language, and Russian people, I would have thought we crossed the border to Russia if no one told me where we were going. We were told to be careful with our cameras especially around the police or near the government buildings. When was the last time I visited a place like this? I couldn’t remember. I could feel that the atmosphere was a lot more rigid here. Was it just the character of people or because of the hardship of living?
The best time to visit Transnistria
The best time to visit Transnistria is the 9th of May, on Victory Day. Each year on the 9th of May, Transnistria stage an elaborate Victory Day celebration in the capital Tiraspol to remember the victims of WWII, known as the Great Patriotic War. You can see how they celebrate, meet and talk to locals, visit their capital Tiraspol, understand their religion – Russian orthodox, see their country, history and discover how they live and what they have to offer. This is a glimpse into the closest living relic of the Soviet Union.