Stephanie Craig is the History Fan Girl. She has combined her love of history with travel and has been exploring Eastern Europe the last year. She recently visited the breakaway region of Transnistria, which I thought was an interesting place which more people probably need to know about. Here is Stephanie…
This story starts with a Pinterest article. It ends facing down a public squat toilet in a bus station in Odessa, Ukraine.
In the middle, there’s another squat toilet, two bribes, a kind immigration officer, two ethnic slurs, two Russian tanks, a game of computer solitaire, and some cognac.
Oh, and a gargantuan statue of Vladimir Lenin.
There are countries out there you’ve never heard of before. There are countries that have been erased from maps but refuse to die. There are countries that haven’t been born yet.
And there are countries that exist on determination and the backing of a foreign army.
Transnistria is this kind of country.
It’s a country that wishes the Soviet Union was still around. They celebrate communist leaders, have Soviet parades, and flash the hammer and sickle wherever they can. But why?
It starts with a bad marriage. The country of Moldova, once upon a time, wasn’t a county either. The USSR created Moldova out of two leftovers-Bessarabia and Transnistria.
Bessarabia, like most of its Balkan neighbors, had been traded from empire to empire over the years. Under Ottoman control at the beginning of the 19th century, it was a spoil of war handed over to the Russian empire. Then, during the Russian Revolution, the Kingdom of Romania swooped in and claimed it.
Moldovans, for the most part, liked this arrangement. They are Romanians, both ethnically and linguistically. Further, Romania liked having Bessarabia in the fold.
During the Second World War, the region was returned to the USSR, but the people of Moldova still clamored to be reunited with Romania. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviets imprisoned, executed, and deported tens of thousands of Moldovans.
Before the creation of Moldova, Transnistria (or Trans-Dniester) was an autonomous region of Ukraine. As ethnic Russians in Ukraine, the descendants of Russians who had moved south to colonize the area centuries earlier, they were left relatively to themselves in the greater Soviet Union. When they were moved paired with Moldova instead of Ukraine, it had little impact on their day-to-day lives as ethnic Russians. The USSR would always there to protect them and prop them up.
Until one day, the Soviet Union collapsed.
Moldova, Independent but Looking?
Ethnic minorities in newly formed countries are always nervous and with good reason. Moldova proclaimed independence from the USSR, but there were rustlings about rejoining Romania. When the talk got too hot, the Transnistrians balked.
They proclaimed their independence from Moldova. There was a war, supported by Russian troops, who have remained to this day. Although a cease-fire was signed twenty-five years ago, the region has achieved semi-autonomy but no further progress towards real independence. And while Russian money and resources pour into the country, even Soviet throwbacks like Vladimir Putin won’t recognize it as a nation.
Enough with the History Already
I promised all kinds of juicy details, and all you’ve gotten up until now is a history lesson. I get it; you want to get to the cognac.
But first, back to Pinterest, the glossy website full of spectacular photos of far-away places, taunting me that I haven’t done enough, haven’t seen enough. About a year ago I came across an article from Wired about a photographer who had gotten permission to visit Transnistria for two weeks and take portraits of officials. One photograph caught my attention. it was a woman standing proudly in front of the red and green Transnistrian flag. Judging by her hair, jewelry, and the cut of her dark long-sleeved dress, the photo could have been taken fifty years ago. Only the telltale signs of digital photography gave it away.
Yes, I took a trip based on a photograph. If I hadn’t seen it, who knows where I’d have traveled instead. But I saw it, and that’s how I ended up in a taxi waiting for my driver to pay a bribe.
That Will Be 5 Euros
Everything I’d read says, when entering from Moldova, 1) go by train or bus, 2) refuse to pay a bribe and 3) make sure you get your immigration card.
I failed all three.
Running late in the morning, I asked the driver at my Moldova hotel to take me. He was a sweet kid who’d driven me before. I assumed he would be familiar with getting to Tiraspol.
Crossing the border, the guard was more interested in getting a 5-euro bribe from my driver than checking my passport. Ten minutes into the country and the local police keeping patrol by a memorialized Russian tank were similarly interested in my driver’s wallet and disinterested in my presence. I didn’t worry too much about my status yet because I was getting dropped off at the bus station and would head straight to the immigration office there. But these bribes stressed out my driver, who became uncomfortable at the thought of leaving me alone.
After I paid the driver (covering the bribes) and convinced him in broken Russian (our only common language) that I would be fine, I headed into the bus station.
My mind was prioritized like this:
1. Find a Restroom
2. Get Immigration Card
3. Buy bus ticket to Odessa
4. See entire country in single afternoon
And That Will Be 5 Rubles
I am never more annoyed at how easier male travelers have it as when I’m facing a squat toilet. It’s not the humiliation of having to get completely undressed from the waist down that’s the problem, it’s how much time this adds.
I ran into the station panicked. By the time I found the restrooms, I had let out an audible sigh of relief.
“It had been close, but I was going to be okay!” I thought — until I remembered that I didn’t have the right currency to get in. The woman sitting in front of me guarding the door felt no sympathy as I bounced from leg to leg getting directions on where to exchange my Moldovan Lei for Transnistrian Rubles.
Coming back as a proud owner of nearly-fake currency, I paid the entrance fee, ran to the nearest stall, and, seeing the porcelain foot grips of the squat toilet on the floor in front of me, gritted my teeth to silence my very real shriek.
Sign Here to Admit You Broke the Law
Should you sign papers in a foreign language you don’t understand? Should you write a confession in English on a form that you can’t read?
No. You definitely should not.
I am a nineties girl, which means I’ve seen Broke Down Palace more than a dozen times. There are many lessons to learn in this movie. Classics like: If your ear hurts, make sure it’s not a cockroach. And, don’t order cocktails on someone else’s hotel room bill because the waiter will remember and testify against you in your drug trial.
But the biggest lesson from that movie is never sign a confession you do not understand.
But I did.
After checking the box on my first to-do item, I moved on to getting my immigration card. The small immigration office was empty and I went outside to see if I could find someone to help me. In front of the station, a uniformed officer in a very authoritative hat listened to my story. When I was done explaining what I needed (an immigration card) and why I didn’t have one (the border patrol didn’t give me one), he looked at me confused.
Then he blinked. And he kept blinking, without talking, for a long time.
“You don’t have an immigration card?” he asked me.
I didn’t know if it was a language barrier or if it was a rhetorical question. I repeated my entire story again, skipping the bribes, and finishing with “so that’s why I had my driver bring me here so that I could get one.”
I tried to communicate with my eyes: See, kind officer whose uniform is sufficiently fear-provoking, I came to find you so I could get it. I didn’t know I had to get it when I crossed the border. Please don’t put me in prison.
He stared some more. I was still a free woman, but this wasn’t going well.
Finally, he asked, “You come to my country illegally? Like a Mexican to America? You broke the law?”
I had proof that I tried to show my passport at the border, but I don’t know if I could explain Snapchat Spectacles or if that evidence would be admissible in my immigration trial. Would I need a lawyer? Would I need to call my parents from a former Soviet prison?
I repeated my story a third time.
“Come with me. You will pay a penalty, and then you leave.”
Back in his office, he changed his mind. Deciding I was scared enough, he told me he would write me a warning. All I had to do was admit on paper that I had knowingly broken the law. Then I’d be free to explore until the last bus out of town. He told me exactly what to write, and I had to copy it on the second set of forms. Then I signed the line confessing to a crime.
After I had signed, he explained the bus tables to me and gave me point-by-point directions to make sure I wasn’t there after nightfall.
Then he gave me copies of the forms and, chuckling, told me to show my friends my souvenir of when I “broke the law like a Mexican.”
This is Not Soviet Disneyland
Free from the immigration office, I headed out the door, hitting the highlights and trying to see something beneath the Soviet façade. I went to Kvint, the Transnistrian spirits company, to buy delicious aged Cognac for pennies. I played dinner order roulette at a restaurant with Russian-only menus and a Russian-only staff. I stood under the giant statue of Lenin, built long after the fall of the USSR.
I watched an elementary school let out for the day, seeing parents coming to greet the children. Uniformed men picked up sons and daughters and walked them home holding hands. I saw an older gentleman in bicycle shorts do pushups on the edge of the Dniester river before starting on a set of jumping jacks.
I saw parents, younger than me, taking their toddlers to play on the Russian tank on the main square. They walked them through the graves of the soldiers who died in the war and put down flowers. Were they even born before the USSR collapsed? Is this version of Soviet life the only one they’ve ever known?
Across the street, two teen girls dressed in matching dance leotards sang Katy Perry songs.
There is a legacy of the Soviet Union here, and nostalgia. There are labyrinthine rules that keep outsiders out and citizens in. There are shops full of goods to buy, but international law keeps many countries from doing business here. You can buy a Snickers, but you can’t eat at a McDonalds. Everyone kept asking me if I had foreign cigarettes they could have, thinking the ones for sale in Tiraspol are garbage.
Ten Hours or Twenty-Four
If you can enter Moldova, you can go to Transnistria. But you can’t stay long. You get ten hours. If you register and have a place to stay, you can spend one night.
What can you learn about a place in ten hours?
You can check the box on all the greatest hits, which I did. But you can’t know a people, or figure out a complicated situation. I’ve read accounts from people who’ve overstayed their visa or worked through lots of red tape to get permission to stay longer. I should have done that.
I left with so many questions. I want to know how a country so obviously capitalist pretends to have a communist core. I want to learn the differences between patriotism to Transnistria and patriotism to the former USSR. I want to overhear a table having lively political debates at one in the morning.
This Story Ends in Odessa
Getting out of the country was the part I had been the most nervous about before my visit. I was worried I’d lose my immigration card or there’d be some political dustup at the wrong time. But everything was fine. The border agents asked for no bribes. One came on board the bus to check our passports, while the other played computer solitaire at his desk.
This story ends with a squat toilet in Odessa, Ukraine. The bus station in Tiraspol had been frustrating, but the frustration was part of the experience. How can you visit the last holdout of the Soviet Union without inconvenience? Where’s the fun in that?
This Ukrainian one was a nuisance. Neither a cool story nor an adventure, it was simply an unglamorous fact of life in the ground in front of me, symbolizing nothing. I thought back fondly of the other toilet, the one behind the self-imposed iron curtain. That one was something.