During my last trip to the unrecognised Soviet socialist republic of Transnistria, I couldn’t resist the urge to engage in a little recreational trespassing; and amidst these grim tower blocks and the hulks of failed Soviet industry, it’s hard to imagine a more desolate and post-apocalyptic setting for it.
As Russian military strength continues to manifest itself more markedly in the east of Ukraine, there are many left speculating as to when and where Putin’s influence will eventually rest. In a recent speech he gave in Moscow’s Red Square, the Russian president spoke about the Crimea… but he also defended Russia’s prerogative to fight for the rights of ethnic Russians, in whatever country they might find themselves residing.
This raises serious questions for all those neighbouring former Soviet states, in which a large number of citizens still identify according to their Russian heritage; Kazakhstan and Belarus, the Baltic States of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia.
Perhaps most pressing, however, and certainly the least discussed of these Russian enclaves is the narrow strip of land known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic; or, Transnistria.
It’s rare enough for Transnistria to be given the spotlight, perhaps because this would-be socialist republic remains largely unrecognised by the rest of the world. The self-styled ‘Soviet Socialist Republic’ has continued to celebrate strong ties with Russia, ever since its violent break from Moldova following the fall of the USSR. Their flag features a golden hammer and sickle, Russian serves as the de-facto language and the streets of Transnistria are littered with Soviet symbology and vast busts of Lenin.
But, perhaps most telling, Transnistria’s unrecognised borders are guarded against its neighbours courtesy of tanks, artillery, ammo reserves and at present, around 2,000 troops on loan from the Russian Federation.
According to Russia, this involvement in Transnistria is motivated by a desire to protect the local way of life. To defend Transnistrians’ right to speak Russian, and to help preserve their unique culture; in fact, the whole place feels a little like entering a pocket universe in which the Soviet Union never ended.
However, many observers cite other, more nefarious motives behind Russia’s military investment in this seemingly insignificant strip of land. Geographically, it provides a strong foothold into Eastern Europe; when added to pro-Russian Belarus in the north, and the recently acquired Crimea to the south, Transnistria forms the fourth wall in a ring of Russian influence which almost perfectly surrounds the troubled nation of Ukraine.
Other commentators talk of illicit trade and industry – of the Soviet munitions plants which were historically situated in the Transnistrian region, the booming weapons trade and large-scale money laundering which many will tell you still goes on in this secretive ‘puppet republic’.
When I took a trip to Transnistria towards the end of last year, not only did I make a tour of Tiraspol, the capital, but I also spent over a week exploring the outlaying towns and villages of this peculiar region.
In a village south of Tiraspol, myself and a couple of companions entered an old theatre building where a vast bust of Lenin stood watch over a front courtyard. The place seemed unused at first glance, its pompous neo-classical facade beginning to crack, the communist symbols in its stonework faded and worn with age.
Once you’ve spent a bit of time exploring remnants of the former USSR, it becomes easy to read Soviet symbology as a sign of abandonment. In Russia, Bulgaria, Ukraine for example, a hammer and sickle carved in stone, a bust of a former leader, is often an indicator of state facilities long-since disused. Here in Transnistria though – where President Shevchuk still holds parliament in the Dom Sovetov (‘House of the Soviets’) – these rules are reversed.
Inside the theatre, we stepped into a large, open hall dominated by an antique mural. It was a typical socialist affair, all scenes of harvests and happy workers beneath feel-good slogans stencilled in Cyrillic.
Then a door opened, quite suddenly, and a man stepped through to join us. Before the door closed I glimpsed what appeared to be a ballet class in the next room. This man – presumably a parent of one of the young girls dancing – eyed us suspiciously as we took photos of the mural, of the faded grandiosity that surrounded us in this dusty space.
“Krasivoye zdaniye,” I said to him in Russian, by way of explanation. Beautiful building.
The man gave a slow half-nod, but continued to eye us suspiciously until we left.
While little enough is known to either confirm or deny the allegedly large-scale manufacture of Russian weapons in present-day Transnistria, the signs of heavy industry in general, however, are rife. Beside the train station in Tiraspol for example, a large factory site is hidden behind eight-foot concrete walls topped in razor wire, while stern guards stand watch at the entrance. Given the high visibility of this central location, I’d guess there’s nothing untoward going on behind those walls… but in an authoritative nation filled to the brim with concrete, barbed wire and road blocks manned by Russian tanks, it wouldn’t be all that difficult to hide a weapons factory.
Along with another backpacker from the hostel, I hopped on a marshrutka bus that was heading north and east from the city, in the direction of the border with Ukraine. We saw the turning easily enough, marked by an otherworldly obelisk of rusted steel pipes, broken Cyrillic characters.
The factory was located beside a small residential estate just outside the city limits. Behind the bland apartment blocks, set back from a patch of muddy grass that served the role of a village square, a four-storey shell reared up to cast its grim industrial shadow across the landscape.
A handful of residents floated about the apartment buildings, but no one seemed to care when two foreigners strode past and wandered straight inside the nearest open doorway of the old factory.
Inside, the place was a wreck. A shell. A series of gutted concrete chambers sprinkled with shattered tiles, twisted metal and tangled up in a decade’s growth of vines and creepers. The extent of the damage, the methodical destruction combined with names scratched deep into what vestigial clumps of plaster still remained, suggested that the place had long since served as a popular spot amongst local kids, graffiti artists. Reaching the fourth floor, we drew level with the top of a nearby tree – where tossed clumps of plaster hung from the branches like some kind of grim, industrial Christmas tree.
We’d spend the next few hours in that complex, hopping over bricks and girders, poring through the faded manuscripts that lay torn across the attic floor. As we moved from one building to the next, sometimes we’d pass outside… sometimes we’d move through the gaze of locals as they flitted from one grey building in the village to the next.
But nobody cared.
The only pair of eyes that ever rose to meet our own, were those of an elderly woman who stooped as she shuffled from one metal skip to the next. I think she was mostly concerned that we might be rival foragers moving into her territory.
Our illicit tour took us from the attic of one building, down into the musty basement of another. We explored factory loading bays, engine rooms and storage vaults whose thick steel doors hung heavy and wide open.
In a country still frozen in conflict, an anti-nation full of secrets and steeped in authority, where Russian tanks and soldiers prowl ceaselessly along heavily militarised borders, it was amazing quite how much uninterrupted trespassing two foreign backpackers were able to get up to.
I could only conclude that if the government of Transnistria were hiding a full-scale arms manufacturing ring somewhere in this small strip of land, then it certainly wasn’t hidden anywhere near here.
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