1. About Transnistria
2. Facts and Fictions
3. Crossing the Border
5. Leaving Sovierland
To understand Transnistria, you need to know a little about the History of the region. Please note what follows is simply a summary of what we were told and what we read in books, so this article might contain approximate statements.
Transnistria is a region in the Republic of Moldova situated east of the river Dniester. Back in the 18th century, today’s Moldova was divided in two parts: West of Dniester was a Romanian part called Bessarabia; and East of the river – today’s Transnistria – was ruled by the Russian tsar.
In 1812, Bessarabia was annexed to Russia. One century later, in 1918, they declared independence and decided to join Romania.
In 1940, the land of Bessarabia was occupied by the Soviet army and about 300 000 Romanians living there were deported to Siberia. That year, Moscow decided to unite Bessarabia and Transnistria.
A year later, the united territory fell in the hands of Romania (at that time allied with Nazi Germany, most probably to stand up against USSR). During that time, most of the Jews living in Moldova were deported to Auschwitz.
In 1944, today’s Moldova fell once more in the Soviet hands. In eight years the soviet sent once more about 300 000 Romanians in labour camps in Siberia.
It is only in 1991 that the Republic of Moldova (including the territory of Transnistria) declared its independence from Russia. So Moldova was independent but within Moldova, Transnistria fought for its own independence. The early nineties were the stage of a bloody civil war during which Russia supplied weapons for Transnistrian rebels. Followed years of uneasy peace. Until today, about 5000 Russian troops remain on this narrow piece of land – the self declared Republic of Transdniestr.
Today, Transnistria has its own currency, its own government, its own police, its own army, own border guards and own borders! The territory is famous for being one of the last places on earth where you can see standing statues of Lenin along with the symbols of USSR: the hammer and the sickle.
It seems that most of the money which is made in Transnistria comes from illegal arm sales, female slave trafficking, money laundering, etc. The economy is said to be in such a bad state that the country is sometimes not able to pay the poor wages of the state employees…
We read in a travel guidebook about a corporation called Sheriff which is omnipresent in Transnistria. Sherriff owns the country mobile network, petrol stations, liquor stores, bread factories… and even the Tiraspol football stadium and football team!
… and one last odd thing. We heard that citizens of Transnistria don’t need a Visa to enter North-Korea 😉
Not much happened that morning until we cycled past a police check. At that moment we guessed we would soon arrive on Transnistrian territory. There is no official border on the Moldovan side because Moldova doesn’t recognize Transnistria as a state, so there’s only a police check.
A moment later, we are stopped by a soldier wearing a Kalashnikov-like gun. He gives a brief look in our panniers and sign us to go to the next officer who will check our passports. We are asked to fill an entry form with our name and some details about our trip to Transnistria.
One of the border guards asks us in broken English where we are going, so we explain him we are only passing across Transnistria, on our way to Ukraine. As we know we cannot stay for the night in Transnistria unless we officially register, we tell him we will enter and leave today.
Happy that everything went so well, we get back to our bikes. We were just about to leave when the same border guard comes back to us and asks us once more for our passports. He gives us sign to come in a room at the back of the building. At this moment, we know we will be asked for money and we are already determined not to leave even one dollar here…
The room at the back of the building is pretty empty. A map of Transnistria is hanging on the wall. The border guard number M-111 asks us to sit at his desk. He takes whatever printed paper in front of him and says in broken English : “Transit Transnistria, you need to pay money!”
We perfectly know this is just a game of intimidation, we should not pay to cross Transnistria. As we guessed something like this would happen, Tina learned some sentences in Russian saying “We know the law and we know that we don’t have to pay!” . Anyway, we carry only very little cash with us…
“Transit Transnistria, need pay money!”
It’s been 20 minutes he repeats more or less the same sentence and we keep telling him we don’t have money and we know we don’t need to pay. We would like to tell him we know a man who crossed a month ago and who didn’t pay but our Russian is too poor… So we don’t know what to do except being firm and patient.
JP: While we are sitting inside, our bikes are outside the building. I suddenly get frightened. What if somebody put some drugs in one of our panniers and then ask us to pay because we carry some drug?! We’ve heard such stories… Hum, I don’t think anybody else than the officer M-111 sees us as a potential source of dollars. I shouldn’t be paranoid.
After a while, our man stands up, annoyed, he tell us to wait a minute and comes back with another guard who speaks better English:
Officer M-084: “If you transit to Ukraine, you have to pay, it is like this for 20 years!”
JP: “No, we know we don’t have to pay!”
Officer M-084:“Then you cannot enter Transnistria! Go back to Moldova and cross to Ukraine elsewhere in the South.”
JP: “Hum… You say we pay for transit, but what if we go to Tiraspol and come back to Moldova, it is not a transit so it is free, isn’t it? ”
Officer M-084: “From Moldova to Tiraspol and back, you don’t have to pay… ”
And that’s finally how we managed it. We simply agreed we would come back to Moldova tonight.
We come back to our bikes, cycle by a tank hidden under branches, we are officially in Transnistria! Even though we feel released we managed to enter, we are both a bit stressed about how we will get out …
We soon reach Tighana (or Bender as it is called here), the only Transnistrian city on the Western side of the river Dniester. Couple of teenagers stare at us in amazement.
Tiraspol, the “capital” of Transnistria is only couple of kilometres from Bender. Like it is the case in Moldova, expensive black cars with tainted windows testify that, even though the average salary here is less than a hundred Euro per month, there are people with loads of money…
Here we cannot pay with Moldovan’s banknotes. We cannot use any of our credit cards either. Even the banks accept only local Transnistrian credit cards. This sounds like a joke, the only option for us is to exchange money to get couple of Transnistrian banknotes 🙂
In the centre of Tiraspol, most of the buildings are soviet-style squarish beton buildings. A massive tank is displayed next to the main avenue, probably commemorating some victory of the Transnistrian rebels in the 90’s. An imposing statue of Lenin stand proudly in front of the presidential palace.
In the afternoon, we have a walk around Tiraspol with a girl we contacted to discuss about Transnistria. Listening to her stories shows us a different side of Transnistria and we realize that what we heard until then was only the point of view of outsiders…
Where is the reality?
We can think that inhabitants of Transnistria are manipulated to be Pro-Russian and therefore Anti-Romanian, but in a way, people out of Transnistria are also manipulated and full of prejudice about what they call the “USSR open-air museum”. One thing is sure, what we see here in Tiraspol is not nearly as shocking as what we expected after reading about Transnistria. Yes, there are statues of Lenin but other than that, everything is pretty much like in any other city of this size. The atmosphere isn’t heavy, the people we see in the streets of Tiraspol could be in any other city. Sorry to demystify a bit Transnistria 😉
When we ask our Transnistrian friend why there is a huge picture of Vladimir Putin on the other side of the street, she answers: “because he’s the president of Russia, people love Russia. Russia helps us” When we ask her in what way Russia helps them, she says that Russian government gives about 20 dollars a month to Transdniestrians pensioners.
Our friend is quite surprised to hear that in the West, Russia isn’t usually perceived as a country where you can have an easy and comfortable life, neither a very democratic country, and most people don’t dream about working in Russia…
Later we pass by the House of Soviets in front of which stands another statue of Lenin. A bit further down the street is a “wall of fame” of people that the inhabitants of Transnistria should respect because they were good to Transnistria or just good people. From Yuri Gagarin to Igor Smirnoff (the former president of Transnistria), there are about fifteen monochrome portraits of former USSR heroes along with Transnistrian figures.
We’ve been hesitating all day about where to exit Transnistria. The easiest would be to go back the way we came as we agreed with the border guard but we know it was just a game. Our friend ensures us we shouldn’t have any problem crossing the border to Ukraine, so we decide to go for it and cycle across Transnistria.
The tree lane road is very wide and in perfect condition. There are pretty few cars and that’s great because people drive more or less like on a highway in Germany, overtaking in the third lane while racing at about 200 kilometres per hour. By the road, some people are collecting walnuts. They came with old rusty bicycles and couple of old plastic bags.
It is already dark when we reach the Transnistrian border. Like this morning, we are asked to come in the building and pay. This time the border officers speak only Russian and say that we have to pay because we don’t have any exit stamp from Moldova in our passports! They perfectly know we cannot have any exit stamp from Moldova because a Moldovan stamp would mean Moldova officially recognize the end of their territory at the Transnistrian border, and therefore recognize Transnistria as a state! Like this morning, Tina repeats couple of times in Russian that we know the law and we won’t pay until they get tired of us…
They actually sent us to custom check but we knew this was another trap. We wanted to avoid custom check so instead we went to another officer and when nobody seemed to be interested in us anymore, we cycled away. Entering Ukraine was just a formality, couple of smiles and another stamp 😉
Tina: Now, with no exaggerating, for me the moment we were safe out of Transnistria was just as if an enormous stone had fallen out of my heart. I can imagine there are people living happily there, I believe one can meet good people and bad people in Transnistria as well as elsewhere on the planet; and I certainly didn’t have time to understand everything in one day, but what I know for sure is that I was happy once we got out… that’s simply how I felt after the whole day of anxiety since the first border guards had tried to scare us out and then the second ones keeping me in their office talking in Russian; after listening to the point of view of a guy in a pizzeria and then the young girl we met , yes, I felt anxious.
When we finally entered Ukraine, I gave a big hug to JP and we ate a whole package of biscuits and a chocolate to calm down but still I didn’t sleep well that night. Maybe the next time, it will be different…
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