Transnistria, officially the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, is an Eastern European territory with a strong Soviet vibe. Technically, the country does not exist. Transnistria is considered a part of the Republic of Moldova, and isn't an officially recognized nation of its own, despite declaring independence in 1990, followed by a war in 1992. I attended this year's Independence Day celebrations in Transnistria, hoping to understand what the place and the people are all about. Here's what I saw.
My journey into Transnistria began two days ahead of schedule, when my travel buddy and I accidentally crossed the border in the middle of the night, driving through via Ukraine. The shortest distance between the capitals of Ukraine and Moldova (where we were headed) takes you through Transnistria, and boy, were we caught off guard.
The border greets you with the Transnistria state emblem, which bears a prominent hammer and sickle. While you can freely enter without a visa, you are issued a pass that allows you to stay for up to 10 hours. There was a road toll of 58 Transnistrian rubles (a currency that cannot be exchanged outside of their borders; about 3.40 USD); when I asked if I could pay in the Ukrainian currency, the border guard mulled it over, then more than doubled the price. From then on, the road conditions went from bad to worse, so it's anyone's guess as to what that payment was really for.
Still on the way to Moldova, exiting Transnistria on the other side about 20 km later, there was another checkpoint. Upon inspecting our passports and papers, a border guard made us pull off to the side, and in extremely limited English, demanded "coins". Assuming this was another low-key bribe, we opened our wallets, offering euros and Ukrainian hryvnia, but after some back and forth, we learned he only wanted "coins from U.S.A.". Fortunately I had a couple of quarters, and we were waved through with a smile.
Following a day of exploring Chişinău, Moldova, a tour guide picked us up and drove us back to Transnistria for Independence Day. The border crossing went much smoother having a guide who spoke the main language (Russian) and knew the drill. The morning began with a military parade around the main street in the capital, Tiraspol, interspersed with speeches blared over loudspeakers and patriotic videos played on a large, permanent outdoor screen.
In all the parade was tamer than I expected for a micronation still fighting for recognition nearly three decades in. I guess I was expecting something more DPRK-style, but sadly they did not roll any tanks down the street, or fire any rockets, so it all felt a bit quaint—with a total population of only half a million people, the crowd was even smaller in size than that of a DJT inauguration. But what it may have lacked in scale and overeager bravado, one thing that did give it that eerie dystopian flair I longingly sought was how much affection they showed for Russia. The Russian flag and Russian colors were displayed in equal measure as their own, on every state building and every flagpole, which I later learned the reasons behind.
In Transnistria, the 2,000 Russian soldiers stationed there are called the "peacekeepers". These peacekeepers, in the words of our tour guide, prevent the Romanians of Moldova (who are Not Friends and also "joined the Nazis in WWII") from taking over. Should the kind peacekeepers leave, the subsequent invasion that the tour guide seemed certain of would mean the abolishment of the rogue government, Moldova collecting taxes, or—god forbid—joining the EU.
I also learned that since Transnistrian passports are not valid outside of Transnistria, every citizen carries a second passport, mainly from Russia (the cool kids), Moldova, or Ukraine. Despite all the fawning, Russia is included in the list of countries that don't recognize their status as a nation. Cold.
After the military parade, there was more or less a state fair, where different local businesses showed off their goods: shoes, furniture, clothes, arts & crafts. Then we went on a guided tour to see mostly monuments and state buildings in Tiraspol and Bender, the second largest city.
The little I knew about Transnistria prior to visiting was that they love their Soviet symbology. Lenin statues, red stars, and hammer & sickles are indeed aplenty, and they even have an un-ironic Soviet restaurant called CCCP. But it's not quite the bleary walk back in time that Wired and others led me to believe.
The city is clean and modern. They have excellent public transit, and a university that evidently teaches programming classes.
Sure, there are locked and loaded Russian tanks stationed along the borders, but the small-town vibe makes it feel safe. Their government appears to be your standard 20th-century democratic republic: they vote in elections, have political parties (Communist, Labor, Democratic, etc), and have a parliament and an executive branch. Presidents are elected for a six-year term, and there's a six-term limit.
I don't know how the situation in Transnistria will sort itself out, but weekly meetings with the Moldovan government seem to be fixed in a multi-decade stalemate.
As other Eastern European nations work diligently to bring themselves up to standard for joining the EU, Moldova is thwarted not only by Russia's presence in Transnistria, but also Gagauzia, another autonomous region within their borders that has also declared itself independent.
Like Ukraine and their situation in Crimea, Moldova's prosperity and status as a nation largely remains entangled in Russia's grip on power in the region.
For now, one thing's for certain: witnessing the living history is far outside the norm for most Westerners, and Transnistria remains a unique and bizarre place to visit.
[ALL PHOTOS: KATHERINE LEIPPER]