The rebels in eastern Ukraine aren’t the first pro-Russian secessionists to kick up tension in the region. In 1992, pro-Kremlin rebels carved out a de facto state on a narrow strip of land between Moldova and Ukraine. Transnistria, the de facto state of half a million people, has since created its own currency, passports and a notoriously strong police force. In July, while fighting raged in Ukraine, I visited Transnistria to get a sense of what life is like once breakaway factions get their way.
The territory is officially recognized as a rebelling region within Moldova’s international borders. The 1992 War of Transnistria is a frozen conflict, meaning there was never a peace treaty, and that it’s technically still under an incredibly drawn out ceasefire.
It’ll come as no surprise that it’s not exactly an easy place to get to; there are no commercial flights and its neighbors are fairly hostile. I entered from the west, via Romania and Moldova. Traveling through, whenever I mentioned I was on my way to Tiraspol—the rebel capital—people told me I was crazy. “It’s the Gaza Strip of Eastern Europe,” said one man. Another warned me I’d get my throat slit the first night if I mentioned I came from Europe, adding that the police would arrest me for no reason. None of these people had actually been there.
I knew, of course, that this was mostly people parroting propaganda they’d heard from their own government—the war, technically still on, was fought between Transnistria and Russia on one side and Moldova and Romania on the other. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was any truth wrapped up in their fears.
Twenty-four hours after I arrived in Transnistria I was arrested by police in full tactical gear and stuffed in a car that had been hastily parked up on the pavement.
I arrived by train on a Monday morning and filled out an immigration form. Outside the station a wide boulevard led downtown. The street was lined with identical housing blocks, each with a small lawn of grass; all of it yellow and uncut. After a few minutes of walking the road became busier and the sidewalk better maintained. Shops began to appear on the roadside. Some of them had small black and white Cyrillic script above their doors. I had no idea what anything said.
The local currency, the Transnistrian ruble, isn’t recognized as legal tender anywhere else in the world, so if you want to change your money you have to do it at an exchange. I swapped over some Moldovan Lei and asked where I could find a hotel. Another customer overheard and pointed me towards a massive apartment block in the distance.
Soviet nostalgia is strong throughout Transnistria; statues of Lenin and other Soviet heroes decorate main boulevards and leafy parks. But the USSR isn’t just a fond, hazy memory; Transnistria has maintained the same security infrastructure from Soviet times—the security intelligence unit is still called the KGB, and the state uses the same Soviet system of citizen informants to control the population.
The Soviet military unit, known as the 14th Army Guards, played an important role in the 1992 war. Initially Russian military personnel defected to join the fight alongside newly formed Transnistrian militias; eventually, the entire regiment switched sides. The 14th Army Guards have evolved over the years and are now part of what Russia calls peacekeeping forces. Moldova, on the other hand, views them as occupying troops, which is maybe because there are 1,200 soldiers stationed there maintaining a vast stockpile of heavy weapons—the largest in Europe by many estimates.
I spent my first day exploring Tiraspol. When I had trouble finding the address to Migration Services to register—required within 24 hours of entering the country—I asked people on the street. Some ignored me, or walked off as soon as they heard me speak, but others tried to help. I pointed at the address written on a card I was given when I entered the nation. Everyone scratched their heads, pointed vaguely this way or that and wandered off.
After eventually finding the place and registering, I walked through some of the city’s parks. Along the riverside there was a promenade, and across the water a sandy beach. At dusk, as the day’s heat began to dissipate, the parks and promenade filled with families and young couples. A couple of people even sat down next to me, smiled and tried to start a conversation – though since it was in Russian these interactions were always cut pretty short.
After Crimea was annexed by Russia in March the parliament in Transnistria formally requested Russia also annex them. This briefly put the tiny republic at the top of the news cycle, with journalists claiming that Russia may open up a new front in their European takeover. The New York Times ran the headline: “Moldova Is the Next Ukraine”.
The less spectacular reality is that Transnistria has been asking Russia to absorb it since before Russia was even a country, requesting that Moscow declare it a republic within the Soviet Union. Since the Union dissolved they have asked Russia to annex them multiple times. It’s possible that other parts of eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian rebels are currently fighting Ukrainian military and pro-government militia units, will follow a similar path, becoming a pro-Russian de facto state rather than official Russian territory.
The morning after my stroll I set out to change some more currency. The exchanges look like small banks, and the one I walked into had a security guard at the entrance and attendants sitting behind a thick wall of glass. When I handed over a £20 note the men behind the desk all began muttering amongst each other. One of them picked up the phone, while another—who spoke in broken English—told me, “One moment.”
Both seemed kind of nervous, but I didn’t think much of it at the time—it’s hard to predict that you’re about to be arrested when you haven’t done anything wrong.
A man wearing black boots and sunglasses walked in and started talking with the guard. Soon—less than two minutes after the man behind the window began making phone calls—two police officers rushed in wearing bulletproof vests, holding their batons out towards me. The plain-clothes officer rushed me from behind, grabbing my arms as the two uniformed officers flanked me either side.
As I was being pushed out the door, the man behind the counter yelled after me: “No worry. They think you bank robber.”
I had no idea what was going on. “What’s happening? I didn’t do anything,” I said as the three police officers stuffed me into a car.
They responded in Russian. I wished I knew Russian.
After a short drive we parked up in front of a police station. The officers walked me inside and stood with me inside a large holding cell, while other police walked by and stared. Shit, this could actually be very bad, I thought. No nation recognizes Transnistria—there are no embassies or consulates. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to visit while the situation in Ukraine was so hot. Shit, I’m going to end up imprisoned in a rogue nation.
A new pair of police officers led me out of the room and up the stairs into an office, where two more cops were waiting for me, one sitting behind a bulky desktop computer that looked like something out of a mid-1980s office supply catalog.
“Is this about a bank robbery?” I asked, nervous, almost shaking.
The man behind the desk stared at me. Then he laughed.
I laughed, too.
He typed into his computer. I could see he had Google Translate open. “No bank robbery. You are suspect murder.”
I stopped laughing.
“A murder? Someone was shot?”
The officer shook his head and ran his finger along his neck. “Knife.”
“Where were you six July?”
“England. I only arrived in Tiraspol yesterday. Check my passport; it’s in my hotel room.”
The office phone rang and the uniformed officer picked it up, talked for a minute then hung up. He relayed some information to my interrogator, whose face immediately softened. “You talk truth. You were in England.”
The interrogation dragged on for another three hours, but that was mostly because of the language barrier. Once the phone rang everything became easier; the interrogator allowed me around to his side of the desk to type my answers into Google Translate.
“Man killed in robbery. Man have a lot of pounds that were stolen,” he told me over the shared computer screen. “Exchanges must notify police when pounds transferred.”
Top tourist tip: if you're planning to go to Transnistria, take Russian rubles and change those up instead.
The police asked me to write down everything I did on July 6. They also asked me to detail where I came into possession of the pounds I'd tried to exchange. Google Translate copied my statement into Russian and I signed both papers.
When we finished, an officer walked me downstairs and out the door towards the street. He shook my hand, turned to me and smiled: “Freedom.”