Transnistria (PMR)

Tiraspol & Bender 

& Moldova

  - darkometer rating:  8 -

Transnistria is a "breakaway republic" that "officially" is part of the Republic of Moldova, but unilaterally declared itself an independent state, with Tiraspol as its capital. However, this self-declared statehood is not recognized by any other country. Moreover, in 1992 a bloody civil war flared up briefly. Russian peacekeeping troops have been guarding the border between the two opposing sides ever since. 
To this day, Transnistria retains a curiously "Soviet" character, which is another element that makes it interesting to the dark tourist – together with the traces of the 1992 war. To actually travel to this exotic "geopolitical no-mans land" has its somewhat adventurous elements, but that's in a way an attraction in itself. And it's doable.     
More background info: The country "officially" calls itself the "PMR" ('Pridnestrovskaya Moldavskaya Respublica'), although the short name Transnistria (or Transdniestria) is more widely used informally. Tiraspol is the "capital" of the PMR, and Bender (or 'Bendery' in Russian, 'Tighina' in Romanian) is an important town on the "border" with Moldova. All the inverted commas here have to be put in precisely because the status of the country remains so contested. In fact, the country is not recognized as an independent state by any other country. (Except by two other breakaway provinces, namely Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have been trying to split away from Georgia for years – the vested interests in their recognizing the PMR are thus only too apparent. Now that Russia has, following the recent conflict with Georgia in the summer of 2008, recognized these Caucasian provinces as independent States, it remains to be seen what Russia's longer-term standpoint in the Moldova-PMR question will be …for the foreseeable future, however, it's likely that nothing much will change.)
In particular, the PMR is not recognized by Moldova – and this remains at the heart of the conflict. A proper solution does not seem to be anywhere in sight. To this day, the border between the "PMR" and Moldova is secured by Russian soldiers. And you have to wonder what would happen if they were not there …
Let us first delve a bit further into the history behind it all: the 'PMR' declared independence in September 1990, i.e. even earlier than Moldova (which followed suit by formally seceding from the USSR in August 1991), i.e. early on in the process of the break-up of the former Soviet empire. Transnistria used to be part of the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic (MSSR) during the Soviet era.
So what brought about the conflict between Moldova and Transnistria in the first place? Well, there's an immensely convoluted and complicated historical background. Suffice it to say this much here: in 1940 the previously Ukrainian region of today's Transnistria was joined with what was the Bessarabia province of Romania, which, as part of the dealings between Hitler's Germany and Stalin's USSR (Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), was thus incorporated into the Soviet Union. Together they formed the new MSSR.
In 1941, Romania, as an Axis ally of the Nazis during World War II, reclaimed Bessarabia and also took over territory east of the river Dniester (Nestru) – hence the designation 'Transnistria' – extending even further east than today's Transnistria (even including Odessa). This territory, incidentally, was then also used for the deportation of Sinti and Roma as well as Romanian Jews (a less well-known chapter of the Holocaust, but no less deadly for the victims).
At the end of the War, the MSSR was reinstituted, again including former Bessarabia, now Moldova, as well as the small strip of land east of the Dniester, Transnistria. (While parts of the transitional 'Transnistria' under Romanian rule ended up part of Ukraine again).
When the MSSR broke away from the USSR in 1990/91 and the Moldovans declared those artificial wheelings-and-dealings during WWII "null and void", the Transnistrians argued that the equally artificial inclusion of their territory in Moldova should then no longer be valid either. Moldova disagreed. Transnistria insisted. (They also had fears concerning a possible reunification of Moldova with Romania).
The conflict became violent, and peaked in 1992 when war broke out, notably in the Transnistrian town of Bender, or Bendery, which is located on the "other", i.e. western, bank of the river, with a strategically important bridge across it (more fighting took place in Dubossary too).
Russian forces eventually intervened to bring the military conflict to a halt. And to this day Russian peacekeeping forces are keeping the lid of this volatile pot from being blown off again.
An important element in the conflict is partially ethnic, or at least cultural. While Transnistria considers itself to be part of the larger Russian cultural area (official PMR propaganda keeps emphasizing that the Transnistrian region had never been part of the Ottoman empire or Romania), the Moldovan side leans more towards the West, increasingly so in recent years since the latest enlargement of the EU (which Moldova ultimately strives to join).
Language is an important factor too: Moldova, because of its historic associations with Romania, reintroduced Romanian as the country's official language – without calling it 'Romanian', though. The official designation is "state language" (limba de stat) or "our language" (limba noastra). This move thus excluded the Slavic part of the population, i.e. the majority east of the river. To this day, Russian remains the predominating language in Transnistria – and even Romanian, officially referred to here as "Moldovan" is still written in the Cyrillic alphabet (as in Soviet days), whereas in Moldova the Latin script reigns supreme, and the official 'Moldovan' – i.e. Romanian, really – is spoken, even though most people can still speak Russian and use it as a lingua franca, unofficially, as it were.
It's a lot more complicated than this mini-account can cover, but for the purposes of this website, this has to be it in a nutshell.
What is important to remember is that the conflict remains unresolved at its heart and its status is merely that of ceasefire, albeit a fairly stable one for the last decade and a half. (But then again, WWII was never properly concluded with a peace treaty either until 1990, similarly the Korean War is not officially over, although the ceasefire remains intact, so this is hardly the first such case.) Despite lots of ideological and propagandistic sabre-rattling (and the occasional minor skirmish), the conflict has been rather 'cold' for a while now and the border has become somewhat more "pervious" for the people – and for visitors.
However, it's still a somewhat "lawless" place which one should not wander into without assessing the current situation and possible risks. Crucially, one has to avoid getting into any sort of trouble while in the PMR, also given that you're pretty much out of reach of embassy or consular help there. (Embassies based in Moldova are de facto unable to exert any influence on Transnistrian territory, and as it's a non-recognized state there are naturally no consular representations of other countries within the PMR.) So tread carefully. If you do go, though, the exoticness of the place can be very rewarding indeed for the traveller with a taste for such things.
What there is to see: The "thrill" of entering Transnistria, apart from its volatile status as such, is the fact that it still looks so Soviet. Visitors who remember the USSR often report a certain time-travel element of their experience in the PMR. Indeed, Tiraspol in particular, with its giant Lenin heads, memorials, socialist-realist murals and slogans, offers the visitor mostly that weird experience of going "back to the USSR".
A highlight is the House of Soviets (city hall), not just because of the truly marvellous Lenin bust in front of it, but more so because of the line of huge photographic portraits on either side of the square around Lenin, apparently a "who's who in the PMR".
On the other hand, there's a lot of modernity contrasting with that old USSR-like element – for instance, the spanking new state-of-the art "Sheriff Tiraspol" football stadium on the outskirts of town, or the "Sheriff" supermarkets everywhere. ("Sheriff" is the ubiquitous near-monopoly brand name here – thanks to some, er, well …let's say government (-related) involvement in the company …). Also, the cityscape looks remarkably tidy and clean. Parts of the city centre do indeed have an open-air museum feel.
A particular site relevant to dark tourism may be the war memorial near the main parade square. Its centrepiece is an old Soviet tank as a symbol of the victory in the Great Patriotic War, aka (in the West) the Second World War. Beyond is a newer memorial/cemetery dedicated to the victims of the 1992 violence. At the far end is another separate monument to the Soviet casualties suffered in Afghanistan. From here you can also cast an eye at the parliament building, which is otherwise more or less out of bounds for visitors, or so the advice goes (also regarding photography). In front of the palace stands a particularly impressive Lenin statue – with a flying red marble coat.
A pretty unique place is also the bookshop on the main street where you can also purchase PMR posters (complete with coat of arms, flag and the words to the "national" anthem) amongst other (often stunningly kitschy) things – and of course books (in Russian mostly), including some really old ones.
Bendery, the site of the worst fighting in 1992, has another monument to the conflict – however, it's right by the bridge across the Dniester river, and because of the Russian peacekeeping corps' military checkpoint at the bridge head you can't take photographs here, and perhaps should avoid walking in this part altogether. The centre of town is a different story, and parts of it are rather neat and pretty, esp. the well-kept park.
The central square was the scene of some of the grittiest violence in 1992, where corpses of the men killed in the shooting were left in the streets as no one dared to go out into the open for days.
Now, everything has been tidied up. In a side street, though, a building still shows obvious scars of the conflict in the form of bullet holes in the walls – and next to this a plaque serves as a memorial to two of the men killed here. There's a dedicated museum about the "tragedy at Bendery" displaying photos and artefacts (shells etc.) from the time and the build-up to the conflict. The ladies in attendance – eyewitnesses of the tragedy – can show you around and comment on the exhibits (in Russian, so no good if you can't speak the language and don't have an interpreter with you).
Location: far away in the tourism-wise comparatively uncharted parts of Eastern Europe, sandwiched between the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine, a narrow strip of land clinging onto the eastern banks of the river Dniester (Nestru in Romanian/Moldovan), and a small bit of its western bank too (at Bendery) – from the Moldovan perspective of things this is officially the easternmost province of the Republic of Moldova, and as Transnistria's claim to being an independent state is not recognized by any country in the area (or indeed worldwide), that's what it is "on paper". In reality, you do cross a very palpable border into a very palpably separate and different country when going there from Moldova.  
Google maps locators:
Tiraspol, central square – [46.836,29.611]
Bendery, bridge head – [46.832,29.489]
Access and costs: quite restricted but possible. 
Details: Western (more precisely: non-Ukrainian) visitors should not try to enter Transnistria via any route other than the comparatively easy route from Chisinau, capital of the Republic of Moldova, from where a road leads directly to the border checkpoint at Bendery. Transnistria does not have an international airport, and passenger train services to the country are currently still suspended. In theory, you could use one of the buses or "Maxitaxis" (a kind of shared taxi minibus or converted van, like a dolmus in Turkey or the "marshrutkas" in other former Eastern Bloc countries).
But you're best advised to hire a chauffeured car with a driver who knows what he's doing. It doesn't actually cost that much to do so – ca. 50 EUR or so. There's a language issue, though: understanding some Russian is not only helpful, it's almost indispensable to make such a trip feasible. It can probably just about be done without, but the difficulties and hassle could multiply.
EU citizens can enter the PMR without a visa proper if staying no longer than 10 hours (otherwise it's a full registration process – requiring an official invitation or hotel accommodation). Normally a 10-hour visit should be enough anyway. For this you merely have to fill out a visitor's entry form at the border, one half of which you keep and have to return on exiting the PMR. Expect thorough checks by border soldiers (car boots in particular) – the notorious erratic hassling by border guards in order to obtain bribes from travellers has gone down a bit, but cannot be ruled out altogether. Some kind of fuss is very likely. But if you're lucky you can make it through the border proceedings in half an hour.
Remember, however, that once you're in Transnistria you are out of reach of embassy support – the country being unrecognized means no embassy staff can go there or do anything to help you if you get into trouble. So do tread carefully!
Getting to Moldova's capital Chisinau (pronounced "Kishe-now" in Moldovan), the obvious starting point for a trip into the PMR, is quite easy these days (visas no longer required for citizens of the EU, the USA or Canada), but the easiest way, flying in, can be expensive. No budget airlines serve Chisinau's airport (and are unlikely to start doing so any time soon), so you’ll have to use regular scheduled connections with the national airline Air Moldova or with a handful of other carriers – direct flights, offered from a number of European cities, can set you back ca. 400-500 EUR or more, plus costs for connecting flights, if required.
Accommodation in Chisinau can be surprisingly costly too – the city currently lacks a mid-range category of hotels, so it's either a good upscale hotel, charging nearly Western rates, or else a potentially grotty budget pension/hostel, which squeamish travellers probably wouldn't want to contemplate.
Living costs vary – eating out in more westernized places can cost accordingly, but there are lots of local cheap eateries – or there’s the option of simply self-catering and buying provisions at the many (super)markets or food stalls. Wine is incredibly cheap – and often of superb quality (esp. Moldovan wine, whereas the cognac from Transnistria is regarded as the better variety).
Note that Transnistria also has its own "independent" currency, the Transnistrian Rouble, which, like the country, is not recognized anywhere else, so don't change too much money. Prices are generally somewhat lower in the PMR, but there isn't much you can spend it on. Except: the fabled Transnistrian cognac, with Kvint being a brand name well-known even abroad, (obtainable from the Kvint factory outlets in Tiraspol or from any supermarket), which is also a lot cheaper here than in Moldova.   
Time required: as indicated, a day trip not exceeding the maximum 10 hours stay in the PMR for which no visa or registration formalities are required should suffice to get a pretty good taster of the place. Such a trip can be divided into about two hours in Bendery (taking in the war museum) and a few hours more wandering the streets of Tiraspol. Driving time from/to Chisinau is about one hour each way.
Combinations with other dark destinations: Since travel into Transnistria is only really feasible from Moldova's capital Chisinau as a base, exploring that city is well worth it too.
Chisinau has less of a 'dark' attraction than Bendery or Tiraspol, but it too has elements of old "Eastern-European-ness" about it, even though increasing westernization is very visible. And there are a few places worth the dark tourist's attention too, e.g. the atmospheric Jewish cemetery east of the city centre, the old synagogue and the ruins of the Yeshiva (Jewish school) slightly north of the centre. There's also a modest memorial to the former Jewish ghetto.
Slightly south of the city centre is a huge Soviet style war memorial, complete with parading soldiers, an eternal flame and socialist-realist murals/reliefs about the heroic war efforts of 1941-1945 (i.e. the USSR's involvement and eventual victory in it).
Beyond stretches a similarly well-kept war cemetery, and beyond that the regular central cemetery. This has some particularly elaborate headstones with modern (photography-based) images of various kitsch, some of it surprisingly cheerful in nature (my favourite: an almost life-size photo-reproduction on black marble showing a young woman feeding pigeons in what must be Venice – incredible!).
What until recently had been a pleasant inner city lake, just east of the centre, has been drained for a clean-up operation that was never completed, so now it's left as an overgrowing wasteland surrounded by dried-up promenades and defunct pleasure boating stations.
Further away, a combination with travelling to/from Romania is conceivable (there are in fact train connections between Chisinau and Bucharest – a possible option for avoiding the expensive air fares). In theory, a combination with travelling to/from Ukraine appears an obvious option – however since crossing the border between Transnistria and Ukraine is not easily possible (or advisable), it's less of an option in reality.  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Chisinau has a pretty city centre with some old Orthodox churches and nice parks. In fact, for an Eastern European capital city with its usual share of characteristic monotonous concrete blocks of flats once you're outside the old town centre, it is surprisingly green all round, taking some of the drabness away from the concrete greyness of such residential areas.
The main (only?) sight of significant mainstream tourism attraction in the Moldovan countryside is the monastery site and village of Orheiul Vechi, about an hour's drive from Chisinau. On top of a rock promontory encircled on three sides by a sharp bend in the river, sits a chapel and a cross, and inside the rock, there's a cave system, part of which is occupied by a resident monk, who will let you have a look around (but remember to switch off your mobile phones – for him they are representative of the evils of the modern world). Below the rocky hill lies the village of the same name, with many pretty old peasant houses painted in deep blue, one of them a folklore/country museum (even sporting a text panel in English!).
Combining Transnistria/Moldova with Romania is perhaps an even more appealing option from a non-dark tourism perspective. In particular, the vast nature reserve of the Danube Delta is not far away to the south. Nor are the Carpathian mountains to the west.
Preparation: There are no printed guidebooks as such about Moldova, let alone Transnistria, though the Lonely Planet guide to Romania has a chapter. Of a more entertaining kind, Tony Hawks' "Playing the Moldovans at Tennis" is recommended prep-reading. It recounts the British comedian's experiences in Moldova from the mid 1990s, when a foolish bet had him go to the country in an attempt to play the then national football team and beat every single one of them at tennis (I won't give away whether he succeeded or not). But that's just the setting for some marvellous insights into the country (often hilarious and touching at the same time). The book has a chapter about Tony's own day trip to Transnistria as well. Many things have changed for the better since then (and partly thanks to the charity he set up after his visit too); but it's still a superbly observant account of the place, still largely valid, and it is very compassionate about the Moldovan people.
You can't really say the same about the book that many people encounter first when looking for travel guidebooks to this part of the world: the spoof guide to "Molvania" (a made-up name for a fictitious country, of course, but unfortunately similar to 'Moldova'). Whether or not it is in fact meant to be loosely based on Moldova (or Romania or both or whatever), it basically revels in painting a very mean picture of the new Eastern Europe as inefficient, corrupt, underdeveloped and (at best) unpleasant as a travel destination. The book is probably aimed at an armchair readership who are content with such an image because they'd never go to any of these countries anyway. Many people who know and are fond of Eastern Europe, however, can easily hate this "Molvania guidebook" for merely perpetuating outdated prejudices. Be that as it may, it cannot be denied that there's still fun to be had reading it, so long as you don't project the made-up content onto the real Moldova but rather take it as light comedy in its own right (as opposed to satire).
Real and useful information about the country to read up on when planning a trip has to be gleaned from the Internet.
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©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2017