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Inside Transnistria: Where communism never died

With the current tensions between Ukraine and Russia, the discussion once again resumed concerning whether Mr. Putin is attempting to reassert the dominance of Russia in the Soviet Union’s old ‘sphere of influence’. After all, Putin did work for the KGB, the secret service of the Soviet Union, and as many commentators have suggested, he may still explore communist ideals, yearning for the days when Russia was the de facto and de jure eastern hegemon. 

All this talk of how the spectre of the Soviet Union never went away may hold some truth, but in talking about contemporary Russia, people never fail to miss another place areas in which the Soviet Union never died. There remains one tiny place, not visible on most maps, that sees itself as the last outpost of the Soviet Union.

This is Transnistria. Officially known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, this tiny, Rhode Island-sized strip of land is an unrecognised breakaway state that is wedged between the Moldovan-Ukrainian border. Internationally recognised as part of Moldova, only three other unrecognised or partially recognised breakaway states have ‘officially’ recognised Transnistria as its own entity. These are Abkhazia, Artsakh and South Ossetia, other states who are locked in a languid post-Soviet ‘frozen conflict’ zone. Given that they are shunned by the majority of the world, the four maintain a friendly relationship of necessity and have formed the Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations. 

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Transnistria is perhaps the strangest state on earth, owing to the fact that it is locked in a time long since departed. Its flag is the only flag on Earth to retain the hammer and sickle, the ultimate symbol of communism. Even states that have maintained a communist structure, such as China and North Korea, do not have the symbol on their flags. This is because Transnistria is closely linked to communism and the USSR, and without the USSR, it would have never been born. 

The region was part of the Soviet Union’s creation, the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic from 1940, which forcibly took from parts of Moldova and Romania, and remained so until 1990 and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Then, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic was established with the main hope of remaining within the Soviet Union, should Moldova seek to unify with Romania or independence. Following the wave of self-determination in the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moldova chose the latter in August 1991. 

Due to this stark contrast in visions for the country, a short military conflict ensued from March 1992 until June, when the former Soviet 14th Guards Army entered the conflict, siding with Transnistria and firing against the Moldovan army. 700 people were killed, and since then, Moldova has exercised no control or influence on the Transnistrian authorities. The ceasefire was signed on July 21st, 1992 and has, for the most part, been upheld to this day.

As part of the agreement, a three-party Joint Control Commission between Russia, Moldova and Transnistria supervises the security arrangement in a demilitarized zone, comprised of 20 localities on both sides of the Dniester river. 

However, the country remains in a Soviet limbo, and its political status remains unresolved. It is unrecognised as a state internationally but has a de facto independent semi-presidential republic, with its own government, parliament, military, police, currency, postal system and vehicle registration. 

Although it remains very poor, it has all the infrastructure of a recognised country. Russia is the country’s main benefactor, and without it, it is sure that Transnistria would collapse, and once again be swallowed by its mother country, Moldova. 

Reflecting the quagmire that Transnistria finds itself in, due to a 2005 agreement between Moldova and Ukraine, all Transnistrian companies that wish to export goods through the Ukrainian border must be registered by the Moldovan authorities. Adding to this, most Transnistrians have Moldovan citizenship, but many also have Russian, Romanian or Ukrainian citizenship. 

Clearly, the ghosts of the past are not going anywhere, with both Transnistria’s enemies and allies retaining a significant influence in the region. Russia’s continued military presence in the region has been hailed by the Transnistrian authorities as necessary, but have been criticised by Moldova and their allies as an act of foreign occupation. 

Unsurprisingly, Transnistria has also been dragged into the current Russia-Ukrainian crisis. On January 14th, 2022, Ukrainian intelligence claimed that they’d found evidence that the Russian government was planning false flag “provocations” against the Russian soldiers based in Transnistria in the hope of justifying an invasion of Ukraine. Of course, the Russian government denied all claims of this. 

(Credit: Alamy)

But what about Transnistria itself? There have been many claims by outsiders that Transnistria is a mafia state, as it sticks to the main facets of communism. Aesthetically, politically and culturally, it is locked in the days of the Soviet Union, a stark departure from both Moldova and Ukraine. Political and civil liberties are restricted, and you’ll go to jail for publicly criticising the presence of the Russian forces. 

As was the case with the Soviet states of old, from the outside, the country seems to plod along just fine. 

In terms of the region’s capital, Tiraspol, it is something akin to the TV show The Prisoner. Like a set for a film, the majority of the architecture is Soviet, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Soviet Union never ended at all. The two primary signifiers of this are the Stalinist Palace of Culture and the Statue of Lenin, denoting exactly where Transnistria wants and tries to be. 

Continuing this reverence for all things Soviet, on the opposite side of Tiraspol’s central square, a monument plaza features a Soviet T-34 tank, which commemorates the Soviet victory in World War II. There’s also an eternal flame for those who fell defending the city in 1941 and those who liberated it in 1944. There’s more, too. There are also several monuments dedicated to those who fought in the Soviet-Afghan War and the War of Transnistria. 

For Transnistria’s doubters, who see it as simply a deluded enclave obsessed with the past, Tiraspol’s leading football club, Sheriff Tiraspol, became the first-ever Moldovan side to reach the group stages of the Uefa Champions League in 2021. As well as beating Ukrainian juggernaut Shakhtar Donetsk 2-0 in their opening game, they also secured a historic victory away at Real Madrid, winning 2-1. This is a mind-blowing feat when you consider the perpetual limbo of the region.

A strange land, with a complicated past and present, Transnistria is a walking-talking monument to the days of Soviet hegemony. If you ever find yourself in the region, it’s worth making a foray into all things hammer and sickle, as the lessons you can learn are manifold.

Watch a documentary inside Transnistria below.