Monuments, tanks and ghost towns.
Thursday 28 May 2015
There’s a myth that socialist republics don’t know how to have a good time – an image of drab, mirthless citizens, passionless rhetoric and the death of individualism. It’s all absolute nonsense of course, and in all my travels around the world I’ve found that nobody throws a street party like the Communist Party do.
This post features assorted anecdotes and reflections from six of the largest public parties I’ve ever been to; celebrations of military strength or workers’ unity, located in everything from former would-be communist utopias through to modern-day socialist republics and post-Soviet frozen conflict zones.
International Workers’ Day / May 1st / Moscow, Russia
Where I come from, May Day is celebrated by dressing young children up in white and training them to dance around a wooden pole with lengths of ribbon tied to their waists. It’s quaint and strangely charming, in its own peculiar way.
Over in the socialist world meanwhile, May 1st is celebrated with beer and meat and tanks. Here it’s not an ancient pagan ritual that’s being observed: instead, May 1st is recognised as International Workers’ Day.
May Day originally began to take on socialist overtones back in the late 19th century. It dates from May 1886 to be precise, and Chicago’s ‘Haymarket Affair’ – which saw four protestors shot dead by police during a public assembly calling for a standardised, eight-hour work day. Of course, the early socialists loved the idea of a holiday held in honour of the proletariat; by 1904, the International Socialist Conference was calling on, “trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on the First of May.”
In Russia, socialist gatherings on May Day were strictly forbidden by the tsar – not that it stopped illegal festivities. Following the February Revolution of 1917 however, International Worker’s Day was embraced with vigour by the Soviet Union. It would become a significant fixture in the annual calendar, a day met by parades and marching bands in Moscow, where, in later years, leading politicians would wave down at the crowds in Red Square from the top of Lenin’s Mausoleum.
The tradition continues to this day, now under the official title of ‘The Day of Spring and Labour’ – and it has remained constant, save for a 13-year hiatus immediately following the break up of the Soviet Union.
I travelled to Moscow for May Day in 2012, with an image in my mind of colourful parades and marching soldiers. That wasn’t exactly the experience I had, though. Russia’s general election had been held just two months earlier, on March 4th – and Vladimir Putin had swept the board, with 63.6% of the vote. A lot of people didn’t like that, however. A lot of people said he’d cheated. Particularly amongst the younger generation, the urbanised, Westernised students and intelligentsia of Moscow, there was a significant number who hit the streets to protest what they considered a rigged election result.
On March 11th, roughly 15,000-20,000 people gathered in demonstration – and for a time, such protests became a regular occurrence. The opposition MP Ilya Ponomaryov lead the charge, declaring: “We must be the government’s constant nightmare and build up to a crescendo of protests at the time of Putin’s inauguration in early May.” Over the next few months hundreds of people would be arrested, and many injured in armed clashes with the police.
It was a strange time to be a tourist in Moscow.
My first experience of International Workers’ Day in a former socialist country was not one of parades and celebrations, so much as angry placards, police brutality and lots of shouting. I joined the crowds of factory workers assembling on Tsvetnoy Boulevard, preparing to march towards Red Square under flags and banners; but even here police kept a tight watch over the scene, corralling the marchers between crowd barriers and barking warnings into megaphones.
A little further along the boulevard, and almost in mockery of the socialists, supporters of the Pirate Party of Russia had gathered into their own marching bands, waving anarchist flags and chanting challenges to Putin’s government.
As the chanting grew, the protesters became more agitated – and the police responded in kind, closing rank around the demonstration.
A moment later the first demonstrator was dragged out of the crowd by his head, screaming in defiance as the police pinned him to the ground and attached handcuffs. It happened so quickly, I didn’t even see what started it, why this particular man was targeted… but the result it had was to drive the crowd into a heightened state of aggressive rebellion. Things were getting ugly.
I raised my camera but amidst the noise and the chaos, one of the police officers caught my eye. He gave me a long look, and wagged his finger in disapproval. I put my camera away. I’d been in Russia just a matter of days by this point, and I had no idea what the rules were – how much, or little, a foreigner with a camera could get away with. And so I left my camera in my bag after that, and resolved to watch the protests from a safe distance.
Victory Day / May 9th / St. Petersburg, Russia
If May Day in Moscow hadn’t been quite what I’d expected, then at least it wouldn’t be long before I found it. The following week I was in St Petersburg, where the celebrations for Victory Day on May 9th offered the postcard-perfect example of a socialist street party; with all the banners, the flags, the military vehicles and marching soldiers I could ever have hoped for.
The veterans took to the streets in the early morning.
Outside the Hermitage, along the canals and right up to the foot of the exquisitely domed cathedral – the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood – they walked the streets; the men and women of the former Soviet Red Army. Some walked with family, others alone, and before the parade began they met the people, the locals, visitors and tourists, shaking hands with the younger generations. Girls would give them flowers, so that by the time the march began in earnest many of these old veterans were burdened with hefty bouquets of roses, camomile and carnations.
Russia’s Victory Day celebrations have been happening since 1946. They commemorate the end of the Second World War – the Great Patriotic War, as it’s known here – with the signing of a surrender document by German leaders on 9th May 1945. Traditionally it would be marked with fireworks and a parade, a real demonstration of military might, and for a long time it was celebrated throughout all of the 16 Soviet states.
I was somewhere around the centre of Nevsky Prospekt when it began. From the moment the brass band first became audible, booming away somewhere to the south of us, the crowds flocked to the sides of the fenced-off street and pressed themselves together into solid, human barriers. I had to stand on tip-toe to see over the wall of bodies, caps and flags, but soon enough the parade marched into sight.
First came the band, bass drums crashing beneath the deafening horns, and then rank after rank after rank of men marching in perfect, crisp formation. There were soldiers, then sailors, and workers and unionists and all other kinds of social parties dressed in uniform and marching under gaudy, painted banners.
Next came the vehicles – polished old cars in mallard green, motorbikes and trucks, antique APCs that looked as though they’d just rolled out of the nearest military museum and onto the streets. The veterans rode on open-top trucks, sat up high, festooned in flowers, as they waved down to the cheering crowds around them. In between the vehicles, the able-bodied marched on foot… and as the parade went on, some familiar faces began to appear. I saw a painted portrait of Josef Stalin, wreathed in flowers and carried between a gaggle of elderly women; another man marched with a sandwich board around him, showing the face of Vladimir Lenin.
It can be easy to feel detached when visiting a different culture – to fall back to that sensation of being a fly on a wall, a spectator at events that ultimately don’t concern you. Watching the babushkas march past with their great big portraits of Stalin certainly enhanced this sense of otherness.
As the veterans passed by, a cheer of gratitude rose up from the crowd: SPA – SI – BA! SPA – SI – BA!
The atmosphere was explosive, emotion ringing from every syllable; and I got to thinking about how these men and women, the wrinkled veterans from another continent who paraded before me in their brassy, polished wagons, these octogenarians draped in flowers, had, in fact, been the teenagers who ended the Second World War. They had fought on the same side as both my own grandfathers – and the Soviets, more so than any other nation involved in the conflict, deserve the credit for stopping the Nazi war machine in its tracks.
The more I thought about it, the more these celebrations began to feel deeply personal; and so I joined the cheering crowds, not as an outsider, but instead as simply one more grateful human being.
In St Petersburg the military parade exuded an authentic, vintage feel, as the original Soviet trucks passed through narrow streets, beneath the awnings and ornate balconies of grand, pre-revolutionary residences. The badges, the band, the perfect formation of the marching regiments and the dated military vehicles – all of it plastered in a liberal spread of Soviet symbolism – had the look and feel of a page right out of a history textbook.
I wondered how the same day must look in Moscow, in the vast open spaces of Red Square, with police and protestors still engaged in their violent clashes… and I felt as though perhaps I’d picked the better option.
If the parade in St Petersburg had felt like a museum exhibition, it was at least in part because these symbols, the portraits and the banners, spoke of a time that is, in Russia, largely consigned to the history books. For all their communist chants and flags, the КПРФ (KPRF, or Communist Party of the Russian Federation) were nevertheless marching beneath the portraits of dead dictators. At best, this was a form of political taxidermy; at worst, an unfashionable pantomime.
There are other places in the world however, where socialism is very much alive… and where street parties such as this are more than clockwork renditions of the past, but rather vibrant and contemporary celebrations led today by those same dictators who once ushered in the people’s revolution.
International Workers’ Day / May 1st / Havana, Cuba
In 2014, I spent May Day in Havana, Cuba. While Russia’s displays of military pride and socialist unity had certainly been impressive, here in Cuba – an actively and passionately socialist state to this day – the size, the scale and the enthusiasm of the nation’s socialist celebrations put those of their European cousins to shame.
By the time May 1st came around, I’d already had a bit of time to get to grips with Cuba; I had arrived with no money, and been taken in by a local family. I’d explored an abandoned nuclear power station, and the ghost town once built to house its workers. I had climbed all over the rooftops of the capital, and I’d even spent a night in a police cell. There wasn’t much left that Cuba could do to surprise me – which was handy, because when the Cubans celebrate International Workers’ Day they do it in a big way.
Over here, May Day is known as ‘Día del Trabajo’ (‘Labour Day’), or simply, ‘Primero Del Mayo’; and in the island’s capital it is celebrated with a street party on a scale I had never experienced before in my life.
On the year that I attended, more than 600,000 people gathered in the streets of Havana to march beneath banners featuring slogans such as, “The Unity of the Workers is the Guarantee of the Revolution”; and, “Socialism or Death!” It began on Avenida Paseo – and early, at that. I had barely enough time to grab an egg tortilla and chuck back a strong, earthy Cuban espresso at my casa familiar, before heading out the door and traipsing through the Vedado district of the capital at around 7:30am in order to reach the assembly point.
Even at that time in the morning, it was devilishly hot. The streets were mostly closed to traffic around the city centre, and the gathering crowds expanded rapidly until the road was filled with bodies. By around 8am the first samba bands had started playing, and then the parade began to move: first with a barely perceptible ripple that murmured through the crowd, and growing eventually into the stamping march of a thousand feet.
Whistles were blown, drums were beaten senseless, chants rose up from the bodies ahead and behind. Somewhere in front of us, a man called out, “Viva la revolución!”
“Viva la revolución!” the crowd responded, an echo that boomed and reverberated down the entire length of the parade.
“Viva Fidel!” came the next call and response; then, “Viva Raúl!”
The march featured workers’ unions, labour and social organisations, with participating groups arriving from no less than 70 different countries. During the course of the parade I spotted representatives of Russian, French, Chinese and British communist organisations; while Latin America was particularly well represented by groups who proudly waved the flags of Colombia, Honduras, Chile, Mexico and others. The Venezuelan socialists carried huge portraits of their late president, Hugo Chavez – while the Brazilians danced their way through the streets in full samba gear.
The noisiest of them all though, were the native Cubans.
The union of health workers led the march, with a banner that translated to, “Workers United in the Construction of Socialism.” Everywhere I looked, there were placards and signs that bore the faces of Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro, or Che Guevara.
Ulises Guilarte, secretary general of the Confederation of Cuban Workers, made a statement later declaring the event to be an, “authentic message to the world reaffirming our unity and unwavering support for the Revolution, Fidel and Raúl.” And it was true – while it is always tempting for an outsider to make assumptions about the nature of a dictatorship, the feeling of love and admiration in this crowd was impossible to misinterpret.
Soon enough, our target came into sight: the Monument to José Martí, a brutalist pillar rising high above the Plaza de la Revolución.
I was about three hours into the parade by this point, and I was almost dead on my feet. The sun had risen high in the sky, and there was no hiding from the cruel Caribbean heat. I’d either had far too much coffee, or not enough – my brain was aching and the shouts, the chants, the whistles and the incessant samba drumming were beginning to send me mad. There was no escaping it, though… no way to get off this train once it had started. I was hemmed in on all sides by thick, stamping crowds, and all I could do was push on through to the end of the march.
As we approached the plaza, the noise intensified. We passed stalls set up with public address systems, that blasted out amplified samba music and crackling messages to the crowds; “Viva la revolución! Viva Fidel! Viva Raúl!”
Moving like a river of flesh, the crowd of hysterical socialists dragged my near-lifeless body at last into the Plaza de la Revolución. The space opened up around us, a vast sea of banners and heads and flags beneath the towering outline of Che Guevara rendered six storeys high across the Ministry of the Interior building along with the slogan, “Hasta la Victoria Siempre”: “Until the Everlasting Victory, Always.”
Finally, at journey’s end, we came to stand beneath the towering form of the Monument to José Martí. Here the international delegates were gathered, the VIPs and leaders of communist parties from around the world; from China to Great Britain. Some carried wreaths of flowers, others banners and flags. At least one party waved a sign calling for the immediate release of the Cuban Five. Above them all meanwhile, at the feet of Cuba’s beloved revolutionary philosopher, a small man in a white shirt and straw hat stood waving down at the thousands of marchers.
By tradition, it would usually be Fidel Castro himself who addressed the May Day crowds – but with Fidel in hospital, here was President of the Council of State of Cuba, Raúl Castro.
Since the Castro brothers arrived in November 1956, at the head of a revolutionary force of 82 men aboard a yacht called the Granma, they have ruled over Cuba for longer than any other non-royal leaders in recorded history; Fidel held the reigns of the Communist Party of Cuba for the first 52 years, and Raúl for seven years after that.
Raúl once said, “I was not chosen to be president to restore capitalism to Cuba. I was elected to defend, maintain and continue to perfect socialism, not destroy it.” At 83 years old however, and with elder brother Fidel now confined to a hospital he’s never likely to leave, it seems he may be running out of time.
Victory Day / July 27th / Pyongyang, North Korea
In North Korea, International Workers’ Day is celebrated with prim, neatly-organised rallies and military parades – but it’s only one of a number of important dates marked on their calendar. Perhaps the most significant celebration in the DPRK is the ‘Day of Victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War’; which falls on 27th July each year.
The festival commemorates the end of the Korean War, with the signing of an armistice agreement on 27th July 1953. That agreement would call for the retreat of both sides from the front lines, creating the Korean Demilitarised Zone which continues to exist today.
While the two Koreas still maintain that same uneasy stalemate (no peace treaty was ever signed), the people of North Korea will be quick to tell you that Victory Day commemorates the day they won the war. Of course, there’s no point commenting on the fairly obvious fallacy of the statement; that particular conversation is doomed to go nowhere, other than ending, most likely, with a polite yet uncomfortable agree-to-disagree scenario. It’s likely that they’ll pity you, discreetly and politely, for the disadvantages of your second rate Western education.
If you want to get the most out of a trip to North Korea, it’s always better to keep your mouth shut, go with the flow, then un-bottle and analyse your disbelief once you get home.
On Victory Day, the citizens of Pyongyang are given a day off work to spend celebrating with their families. When I attended the festivities in 2012, my group seemed to spend a lot of time walking through parks – we passed barbecues and games of basketball, children laughing and playing, old women singing karaoke to their grandchildren over crackling 1980s hi-fi systems. At a carved pagoda in one corner of the park, the older generation danced to traditional folk music and beckoned members of our group to come and dance with them.
However, and as is often the case in North Korea, there was still that nagging voice in the back of my head: what if they’re only actors? it kept hissing at me.
There are many who’ll claim that tourism in North Korea is nothing more than theatre, and that visitors are surrounded from dawn to dusk by government-groomed actors put in place to give the illusion of normalcy. In fairness, there’s certainly an element of theatricality to the rigidly controlled tourism experience in this country; I encountered plenty of it during my tour of Pyongyang. There were certain people, certain conversations or interactions, which felt too uncomfortable, too forced, to seem like anything other than an illusion constructed for the benefit of foreign guests.
(There was another time, at Kaesong, when our group visited a waterfall in the mountains right at the same time as a school outing – several dozen happy children in school uniforms playing carelessly beneath the crashing water. Nearby, a couple of families had gathered for a barbecue. It wasn’t until we left, passing through the parking space beside the highway, that we realised everyone else we’d seen had arrived at the waterfall on the same coach; and furthermore, the schools had all broken up by then for the summer holiday.)
It’s tempting to apply that same cautionary logic to the Victory Day celebrations in North Korea… to imagine families shipped to the park in advance of our scheduled tour, purely for the benefit of giving visitors an illusion of happy people living normal lives. Right after we left they would no doubt be shipped back to the gulags – to the rice fields – to their grey world of hard labour and summary public executions.
But here’s the problem I have with that surprisingly popular theory: if you keep ordering people to have fun, there’s a danger that they will. And, if you do it to enough people, often enough to give the impression over the course of a seven-day tour that the whole country is in a permanent state of enjoyment, and then you keep that going in order to successfully cater to a year-round visitor economy… how long before the fiction starts to become reality?
Watching children laughing and playing in the park that day, I wondered if any of it really mattered to them. These were not actors, they were simply and exactly what they looked like: happy children. Happy children living in a country where life is hard, free time is limited, healthcare – although free – just isn’t really all that good; a country where food is scarce, political history is brutally rewritten, and citizens are not allowed to leave. There’s a whole lot wrong with North Korea… but, contrary to what the news would have you believe, there are nevertheless a lot of North Koreans who have a genuinely enjoyable life.
The celebrations for the Day of Victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War peaked a little later on, with a mass dance organised in a city centre square. What looked like coming on for a thousand youngsters had gathered, dressed in shirts, ties and traditional Korean gowns, to perform the age-old movements that they’re taught in schools across the country.
“Do you dance?” asked one of our tour guides, stood beside me as we watched the performance. I think I nodded, though I didn’t fully understand the question. Was it personal? Or perhaps it was a cultural question – does your country dance? do you have traditions like this?
I realised the misunderstanding soon enough, as she hopped straight into the crowd of dancing teenagers. Most of them had been paired up – boy-girl, boy-girl – but our guide found a mismatched pair of girls amongst the mass and separated them. She called us over, myself and the other Western tourist stood beside me.
I didn’t have time to decline, as I was swiftly introduced to a terrified young girl, matching the pace of the moving bodies as I bowed, took her hands, then – hopelessly – attempted to keep up with the dance.
The youths that filled the square were formed into rings, each ring made from pairs of dancing partners. We foreigners soon became the focus of all eyes, as we clumsily mimicked the bobs and bows, the raising of hands, the twirling and carefully choreographed steps of this traditional Korean dance.
Our partners had shrunk away from our touch at first… but the more mistakes we made, the more, it seemed, we endeared ourselves to them. Soon they were smiling, laughing even, and by the end of our five-minute session in the ring, I felt I had become the entertainment of half of Pyongyang – not just the other dancers, but the myriad of parents and grandparents who stood watching on all sides of this public space. But it was real, it was authentic human connection and shared emotion, in a place where such things can often be difficult for visitors to experience.
By the time the sun went down and fireworks came up over the pyramid silhouette of the unfinished Ryugyong Hotel, it seemed at last as though we’d seen a tender side to the DPRK. Though the pretext for celebration – the ‘Victory’ itself – may have been debatable, at least on this day, away from the monuments and museums, the dogmatic historical lectures and guided tours, we had had the chance to experience humanity en masse; and this traditional dance, the costumes, the movements learned in sessions after school throughout the year, had more in common with my own experience of May Day back at home, than did any of the other celebrations on this list.
Limba Noastră / August 31st / Chisinau, Moldova
Perhaps it’s a mistake to label this next festival as a socialist street party; after all, the Moldovan national holiday known as ‘Limba Noastră’ – ‘Our Language’ – may have been born during the days of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, but, given its roots in a movement that saw Moldova creeping away from Russian influence in favour of its pre-socialist Moldo-Romanian heritage and the notion of self-determinism, if anything this could perhaps be said to be an anti-socialist street party. Nevertheless, it seems fitting to mention it here for the sake of its role in the narrative.
Limba Noastră began in 1989, when the Popular Front of Moldova held a demonstration in Chisinau putting pressure on authorities to recognise Moldovan – and not Russian – as the official language of the state. By that point, the USSR’s grip was rapidly weakening and many citizens of the MSSR were beginning to look west, in recognition of their former kinship with Romania.
Myself and a few friends stopped in Moldova while en route to Transnistria – little knowing that we were walking into Chisinau on the day of one of the nation’s largest public holidays. Many of the central streets of the capital were closed to traffic, a stage had been set up and crowds of people filled the wide boulevards.
Walking through the capital that day, we drifted through a strange mixture of old and new, contemporary Moldova and the traditions of days gone by. In a park near the centre, we watched two young boys wrestle on a plastic mat – the props looked like mass-produced 1980s Soviet stock, while the referee who held the microphone was dressed in traditional Moldavian costume.
The wrestling match ended abruptly, as one boy brought the other down face-first onto the rubber, locked in a powerful choke. The crowd cheered, and the referee presented the victor with his prize: a live chicken.
The boys embraced, and, together, they paraded around the ring to be met by an uproar of applause from the gathered crowd. Above them the chicken flapped noisily, its feet clutched between their small fists.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I love Moldova.
Independence Day / September 2nd / Tiraspol, Transnistria
The breakaway republic of Transnistria, a self-declared state between Moldova and Ukraine, makes a lot of noise to celebrate its ‘successful’ war for independence… even despite any kind of formal recognition from outside of its borders.
Transnistria has a long precedent for self-determination. During the inter-war period of 1924-1940, when the region officially fell inside the borders of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, it existed as the Moldovan Autonomous SSR with its capital in Tiraspol. For the second half of the second century however, it would be absorbed within the Moldavian SSR governed from Chisinau.
Later, in 1989, as Gorbachev moved forwards the slow process of dismantling the Soviet empire, Moldova made a number of significant steps away from Russia. That’s what the last party on this list was all about – Moldova changed its official language back to Moldovan, and Cyrillic was replaced by Romanian-style Latin script. They adopted the colours of the Romanian flag, even borrowed the Romanian national anthem; and as Romania itself adapted to the end of the Ceaușescu regime, many in Moldova believed that a full-scale union between the two countries was inevitable.
But such a merger did not appeal to everyone. A 1989 census suggested that ethnic Russians and Ukrainians living in the Transnistria region far outnumbered the ethnic Moldovans. These citizens felt closer ties with the east, than they did with Romania and the west; and they feared being cut off from their shared Russian culture and language, to become, instead, silent minorities in a newly formed ‘Greater Romania.’
There were protests in Transnistria, and by the following year local leaders announced their plans to succeed from the new Republic of Moldova: with a declaration of independence made on 2nd September 1990, proclaiming the formation of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Of course, it didn’t end there. The first violent clashes occurred in November that year, and by 1991 Moscow was backing the region’s separatists in a discrete military coup – which resonates only too well with more recent events in Ukraine. By 1992, Romania joined the conflict as well, offering support for Moldova’s attempts at regaining control over the Transnistrian region.
A ceasefire was declared on 21st July 1992 – an uneasy truce that holds (with support from militarised borders and a heavy presence of Russian tanks and soldiers) to this day.
I’ve already written about my visit to Transnistria – I’ve shared my tour of Tiraspol, the capital, as well as exploring abandoned factories in the suburbs of the city. While I spent roughly a week or so in this unrecognised country, it was Independence Day that originally drew me in; and it would ultimately dominate my perception of Transnistria for those first few days.
Transnistria has a population of some 2.3 million people; Tiraspol itself, 139,000 – but that figure seems to double around the time of the September 2nd celebrations, when the hotels and guesthouses fill up beyond capacity and begin to spill over into the streets in the form of noisy, militaristic parades.
Russian is the default language of Transnistria, and it seemed as though the vast majority of visitors came from Russia herself. I’d imagine, for a lot of them, it might have felt like stepping back in time to the good old days: the monuments, the tanks and flags, hammers and sickles, sunshine and vodka. Transnistria feels like a time capsule on any day, but here and now, as the streets filled up with Independence Day parades, it was as if the USSR had never ground to a halt.
Veterans took the train down from Moscow, dressed in their old service fatigues and polished-up military medals. Other supporters dressed more casually – shorts, sandals, caps, shades, and t-shirts stamped with Che Guevara or a golden hammer and sickle.
It felt as though these symbols meant a lot of different things to different people. For some it was a revival, a flashback. For others, perhaps, a guilty pleasure – I saw sleeves rolled up to reveal tattoos of Soviet emblems on white, clammy skin, as if they were seeing sunlight for the very first time.
For others groups, the pro-Russia Transnistrians at their core, these emblems were badges of pride, symbols around which an identity had been built at great expense; because, pride aside, being a Transnistrian must be difficult. Neither neighbour, Moldova nor Ukraine, recognises the sovereignty of Transnistria – so without their own airport or harbour, citizens have a choice between renouncing their identity for the sake of a better passport, or forever remaining a geographical prisoner.
This day was more than just a street party for many – it was the ultimate expression of self-will.
In truth, I found the parade quite heavy going. It was a hot day and the noise – the shouting, the marching bands and crackling loudspeakers – was overwhelming in its enthusiasm. The wide streets had been cleaned immaculately for the parade, the pavements whitewashed, and now these were lined by row upon row of spectators as the city’s main boulevard erupted into a colourful chaos of boot-stamping and flag-waving.
The soldiers were young, smart and keen, both male and female regiments marching in the parade. As they passed in perfect formation down Tiraspol’s broad Ulitsa 25 Oktober, they would all turn and salute the president’s podium.
Later, we retreated to the park beside the river. It was amazing how much the atmosphere changed within just a few short paces from the central boulevard – passing through the trees, away from the streets towards the riverfront promenade.
We stopped for food here, in the shade on the edge of the park, at a stall selling grilled meat, vodka… and not a lot else, by the look of it.
In the queue I got chatting to an Austrian man. His wife was from Tiraspol, and he came to the parade every year, he told me. We spoke in German – and when I reached the front of the queue, he ordered his recommendation on my behalf. It was a classic local fast food meal for me: barbecued shashlik, a few slices of hard bread, a scattering of raw onions and a large plastic glass of neat vodka.
We took the meal and sat with our styrofoam plates beneath the trees nearby; where families had settled for picnics, children chased dogs, and people threw frisbees beneath the green canopies. The sounds of the military parade faded from here, the heavy noise of celebration to be replaced by bird song and children’s laughter.
The sun was shining, the conversation flowed, and soon enough one plastic glass of neat vodka had turned into a few. When I headed back towards the main street a little later, it all seemed to make a bit more sense. The soldiers were still stamping and shouting, but with a couple of vodkas inside me I found it all the more bearable.
As the parade came to an end, the militaristic performance gave way to a host of cultural events. A carnival procession took over the boulevard, with banners and costumes and women dressed in full bridal dresses. Moldavian folk music blasted out of loud speakers, and people danced in the streets.
Stalls on every corner sold vodka by the plastic glass; one tent offered free samples courtesy of a local winery. What had started as a stuffy, starched display of military precision had completely broken down into a colourful, drunken celebration of national identity.
Meanwhile, the symbols of Transnistria’s militaristic existence were themselves repurposed – as climbing frames and playgrounds. The equestrian Monument to Suvorov was overcome by a wave of children, who climbed up and all over the plinth at the horse’s feet. Beside the war memorial on the main drag meanwhile, an ornamental tank had also become a plaything for the next generation of young Transnistrians.
Later that evening a local prog rock band took to the main stage – think Pink Floyd, but in Russian – and they played on through the sunset.
I’ve read a lot of accounts where visitors to Transnistria describe the place – the people, even – as ‘unfriendly.’ Journalists and bloggers alike have played up the chilly temperament of the locals, or made a big fuss about bribery, corruption, the lack of a tourism infrastructure. I didn’t experience Transnistria in these ways, though… and I can’t help but feel that those who did were missing the single most important defining characteristic of this place.
Because the very essence of Transnistria, the issue upon which its nationhood has been built, is a rejection of Western (or unionised) European culture in favour of remembering cultural ties with Russia and the East.
Western travellers visiting Romania, or Moldova, or the Baltic States for example, might find themselves treated like celebrities of a sort… with young people almost lining up to practice their English. In Transnistria however, it was only a generation ago that people fought and died for the right to speak in Russian. They have bled, to prevent their little non-country from slipping into union with their increasingly Westernised neighbours. The assumption that many foreign visitors make therefore, that these people, like any other people of the modern world, ought to be able to respond to questions thrown at them in English, is liable to cause confusion at best – or at worst, come across as deeply offensive.
You don’t need to be good at Russian. Just buy a phrasebook, have a go. They’ll like that. It’s not that they don’t want you here. It’s not that they’re unfriendly; but in a nation that still awaits recognition from any of neighbours, and where people clearly remember the pain of their struggle for independence, the choices they have made in defining their culture are not up for negotiation. This is the way they do things. This is how it is in Transnistria… and if you can get onboard with that, then you’ll find that these people throw one hell of a party.
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