Of myth and legend: Transnistria, Moldova
Tamara Sheward couldn’t imagine what the Eastern European nation of Transnistria was like: mainly because it doesn’t even exist. She decided to travel there anyway.
As we approached the border, it dawned on me: my parents were liars.
“Don’t be afraid,” they’d coo to me, the chubby monsterphobe cowering beneath the covers. “It’s not real, and if it’s not real, it can’t hurt you.”
Legions of vampires, werewolves and slimy closet dwellers had been vanquished with these words. So why was I quaking in my boots as we rolled towards Transnistria?
The Republic of Transnistria does not exist. As a landmass alone, it’s real enough; a 4000 square-kilometre snag tucked into an obscure corner of Eastern Europe. But to speak of Transnistria as an actual nation, or as their agitprop spinmeisters insist, “Europe’s newest country”, is where the story blurs like a vodka afternoon.
Officially, Transnistria is a part of the Republic of Moldova, a real country famous for its sunflower crops and ill-gotten human organs. Home to a half-million strong population of mostly Russian and Ukrainian speakers, Transnistria declared its independence consistently recognised by nobody – in 1990 following the then-Soviet Moldova’s moves to break from the Transnistrians’ beloved USSR. Following a brief Russian-backed war with Moldova and succeeding years as a “frozen conflict” zone, international observers have called Transnistria a lot of things: “the black hole of Europe” (European Parliament), a “mafia, corrupt and bandit regime” (Moldovan president Vladimir Voronin) and “a cold-water gruelfest” (me). The astute reader will recognise that none of these fit the Macquarie definition of “country”.
Because of its bizarre position between quaint paracosm and gangster’s paradise, to speak of the rogue republic is to heavily employ the ironic quote: the “country” has its own “national” anthem, “postage stamps” and “currency”, none of which are worth diddly beyond the bribe-hungry “army”-protected “international borders”. The guns, though, are very real.
Transnistria is less known for any “must see” attractions than for being a veritable supermarket of drugs, girls and weapons. Firearms from Transnistria have been found in uprisings everywhere from Chechnya to Baghdad, while 70 surface-to-air missiles are reportedly missing from their munitions cache, allegedly Europe’s largest. Who needs snow domes when you can take home a semiautomatic?
Transnistria has been described as a living, breathing Soviet museum, a European Cuba without cigars or cool cars. Nowhere is this more evident than in the capital, Tiraspol.
At first glimpse, Tiraspol could be any backwater in modern-day Russia: the grey, puddled roads are empty but for the rare car – invariably either ancient Ladas held together with pig lard and string, or Mafia Mercs. Solitary bums and babushkas shuffle past shops selling lumpy dressing gowns and pointy boots in unpopular sizes. The benches have no planks to sit on and electrical wires sag like a Siberian bra. But to stroll down the hammer-and-sickled ulitsa Oktober 25, the main street named in honour of the Bolshevik Revolution, is to harken back to an era when Lenin loomed and Joe was everyone’s Uncle.
My boyfriend Mick and I pretty much filled our rubbernecking quota on the first day. We cowered beneath the caterpillar treads of a mounted Red Army tank and tried not to fall in the fire commemorating the ubiquitous Unknown Soldier. We took snapshots of grim, blocky war memorials and marvelled at enough Soviet kitsch to fill a zillion trendy boutiques. Forbidden to enter any official buildings, we loitered beneath statues of what appeared to be Lenin in a Superman cape and chortled at stern photos of “The Honorable Citizens of City Tiraspol” lining the wall of the Dom Soviet (Soviet House).
Transnistrians aren’t the most gregarious people in the world. Living a wholly notional existence on an average wage of under USD$40, it’s probably hard to find much to be exuberant about. But the booze is cheap and nothing says “life’s good” like ten vodka shots for five dollars. Invited to drink with a group of local women at Tiraspol’s sole bar that didn’t resemble a gulag, everything was going swimmingly until we called for more Stolichnaya.
The blonde, a law student, furrowed her brow. “Why aren’t you drinking Moldovan wine? It’s the best in the world.”
Mick and I stared at each other, flummoxed. Was this a dissenter? Or were “making sense” and “Transnistria” simply mutually exclusive?
As she poured us some of the enemy’s elixir, she spoke eloquently of her love for her “country” and its right to exist. Three glasses in and I was almost convinced.
“Yes,” the scholar sighed romantically. “It’s good to be in the USSR.”
I informed her there was no such thing anymore as the USSR.
“Well,” she smiled, as my head exploded. “Whatever.”
The small industrial city of Bendery, a twenty-minute ride from Tiraspol, is as much of a contradiction as the Transnistrians themselves.
The streets are wide and clean, but the monstrous blocks of flats that line them are all pockmarked cement, riddled with bullet holes and decay. The town’s only would-be draw – a 16th century fortress – is blocked from view and used for covert military purposes. Bendery, rigidly controlled by Russian “peacekeeping” forces, actually means “belonging to the Turks”. And above a drab trolleybus stop, a sign reminds passengers they are in a “Beloved City of Blossoms!”
One of the only places the colours of nature can be found is at the camouflaged and heavily guarded roadblock at the entrance to town. All vehicles are searched by armed men, jeeps prowl and young soldiers ogle bathers at Bendery’s “beach”, a depressing strip of mud oozing into the steel-grey Dniestr river.
In accordance with the paranoia that comes with being corralled in a dead-end town by pimply men with guns, Bendery had a muted air to it. The marketplace was subdued, quite possibly due to the fact that the only goods going were flyblown meat, shower sandals and plastic bags. The pizzeria – de rigueur in every Eastern European burg – was silent but for our cackles as they delivered our “Tropikal” slices smothered in ketchup. The only person who didn’t look like she was going to commit suicide in the next five seconds was a freckled girl operating a street soda fountain. “Avstralya?” she gasped, passing us a five cent tarragon pop. “Kangaroo!”
With such a high military presence and no other foreigners around to shake down, I was nervous about hopping the trolleybus back to Tiraspol. But by 5pm, the blockade was abandoned. The soldiers had swapped their weapons for weed whackers and were clustered round a desiccated nature strip. Beneath a hammer and sickle-topped monument espousing “peace” and “progress”, Transnistria’s best and brightest were doing the gardening.
Dragged from our minibus at the Transnistria/Moldova border for “inspection”, we feigned nonchalance as a portly soldier riffled through our bags.
“No problem,” the guard said, clapping his hands together. “Now,” he said, his babyface stretching into a grin. “Present!”
Our faces fell. He had already thumbed through our wallets, and knew we had enough dollars to keep him in ketchuppy pizza for years. I sighed and waited for the outburst as Mick passed him a measly handful of roubles worth about $10AUD.
“Ooh!” he squealed, his face lighting up with a glee usually reserved for fifth birthday parties. He collared a passing soldier. “Look! Present!” His colleague, obviously well-versed in kickbacks, looked at the sad wad and shrugged.
Mick and I turned to leave but the stout man blocked the door. “No,” he said gruffly, and disappeared into another room. “Wait!”
We trembled in silence. Was he going to get his superiors? Were we about to ride the graft-go-round at the most degenerate border in Europe?
A door slammed, and the soldier trundled towards us holding a spanking new Lonely Planet guidebook. Worth about four times as much as the baksheesh we’d given him, it had obviously been pilfered from another hapless rube caught at the border. “For you!” he beamed, grandly passing me the book. “Present!”
We bit our lips, shook his hand and burst outside in a convulsive fit of guffaws. Watching us retch with laughter as we boarded the bus, the perplexed soldier fingered his gun, no doubt wondering if he should give chase.
We weren’t scared of him though. As we rolled into Moldova, he simply ceased to exist.
Tamara Sheward is the author of Bad Karma: Confessions of a Reckless Traveller in South-East Asia. (It’s good. BUY IT! Ed.) and she’ll be surely pumping out plenty more out-there adventure novels worth the read. So watch this space. (I would put in her website, but it takes me to a strange walking strawberry cartoon. Is that Tam’s website? I did say she’s out there… Ed.)