Out on the fringes of the former USSR, in one little pocket of Eastern Europe, the trauma of the Soviet Empire's collapse has never quite been shaken off. Since 1990 a little-known strip of land between Ukraine and Moldova has encased itself in an isolated world where Lenin still looms large. It has its own border control, passports, currency, and everything else you normally need to be a real country--including a population that's double the size of Iceland’s. Its Soviet credentials are impeccable: It's being run as a corrupt leader-cult lead by an elite group of weapons smuggling crooks who'll sooner gut your face than quote Marx. Yet its sovereignty is recognized by no one, and therefore it isn’t a real country. Its name is Transnistria, but in the eyes of the world, it simply isn't there.
I headed out to Transnistria last September to help celebrate its 20th anniversary and to hang out with a weapons smuggler and assassin wanted by Interpol.
Trasnistria’s birthday party was full of the tropes any grand dictatorial spectacle worth its weight in salt requires: War veterans and government dignitaries carrying a flag down the central podium; kids out in force, waving banners and spinning choreographed gymnastic routines, convoys of display floats stuttering by, and the city’s prettiest young hopefuls standing on top of tanks.
For a small fake nation, there are an awful lot of soldiers...
And militarized Brownies...
And pubescent boxers.
We weren't 100% sure what was going on at this point, but someone we asked said this Balkan Zorro character was meant to represent Western Imperialism. Maybe Western Imperialism wouldn't have been able to pull such audacious shit on everyone if the East stopped making him look like the coolest motherfucker in town by turning up to parties in double denim.
One of the reasons Transnistria has been able to bob along proudly asserting its independence while keeping its legal owners, Moldova, at bay is the MASSIVE weapons stockpile they keep hidden up on a hill somewhere in the north--a useful nest egg they’ve been sitting on since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The country is lorded over by kingpin Igor Smirnov, a once small-time Russian factory director who landed a job in the wrong place at the right time, allowing him to seize power at the moment of Transnistria's formation in 1990.
That's Igor up there with the nice, grey, short-sleeved suit. Despite a look that sits uncomfortably between Dennis Hopper, Ming the Merciless, and Del Boy, Smirnov has built a personality cult around his proclaimed greatness as liberator of the region. Meanwhile, he's set up his own form of dynastic rule by handing power of Transnistria's large industrial resources and successful state-owned enterprises to his sons.
Pictures of this massive creep pepper the streets of Transnistria's capital Tiraspol as a constant reminder of his all-consuming power. Most of Transnistria's citizens – trained to be patriotic but ultimately politically disengaged – are generally unwilling to speak out against him.
Perhaps as an antidote to their predicament, people in Transnistria love to drink. They’re sprawling drunk at lunchtime and every night is New Year’s Eve in Cardiff. In the main square, after Igor's podium was swept into the back of the truck a bunch of bands from Moldova and Ukraine were rolled out to entertain Tiraspol.
If you think being a pop star in Britain must be depressing, imagine how suicidal you'd feel if you were in a Moldovan mega-pop outfit whose only fans were in a country that didn't really exist.
We headed to a club which broke the euro-pop mold and played out a trance remix of "Wonderful Life" by Hurts, to the glee of tables headed by fat men eating chicken wings. It was pretty obvious these were the guys who are running the show around here (gold watch + chicken wings = mafia). There were also a lot of very tall blonde women who lost their shit when they found out we weren't from a made-up country.
How much do you think they want to get out of Trasnistria?
Moldova and Ukraine regularly enforce and lift various petty economic sanctions against Transnistria as part of the perpetual stalemate negotiations over the region's status, and the people of Tiraspol and Transnistria's unseen environs beyond are starting to feel the effects of this isolation. People repeatedly declare their love for the homeland, but they all admit that job opportunities are limited and that their only hope in the long run is to get the hell out.
Most of the Trasnistrians are keen to make a break for Russia, and speak wistfully of relatives who have already made the leap and have found success abroad. They can do that if they can get their hands on a Russian or Moldovan passport – the Transnistrian ones issued by the state are worthless on the global scene, much like Transnistria's Monopoly money currency.
Next week we meet the murderer wanted by Interpol who's running things in Trasnistria. Whoop!
WORDS: ALEX HOBAN
PHOTOS: HENRY LANGSTON AND ALEX HOBAN