A cold war relic. The last remnant of the Soviet Union. The only place in Europe that didn’t get the memo about the Berlin wall coming down. Strange flags, statues of Lenin, vodka for a dollar, and more hammers and sickles than you could shake a stick at. I’d run many a Transnistria tour and found it lovely. Why not move there?
Transnistria is an unrecognised breakaway state, sitting on a sliver of land between Moldova and Ukraine. The 500,000 people living there are mostly Russians and Ukrainians who didn’t like the idea of a post-Soviet nation, and fought a brief civil war against Moldova for it. The capital city is Tiraspol. Until 2012, Transnistria was run by President Smirnov. Despite accusations of being a dictator, he left peacefully when democratically voted out of office. They miss him now.
Of the exactly 8 expats living in Tiraspol, 7 are professional footballers, paid ridiculous sums by local oligarchs for football vanity projects. The eighth is my mate Tim. Quite why he decided to set up a hostel here, not even he can say. When I called him to complain about how expensive England is, he had the answer. “No worries, I can sort an apartment, $200 a month. It’ll be Soviet style.” Sounds great, I thought. As Transnistria doesn’t officially exist, it doesn’t have an airport. And because Moldova — the country it fought to be freed of — is the least visited country in Europe, getting here ain’t easy. I opted for Ryanair to Bucharest. From here you can jump on the old Soviet train network to Moldova’s capital, Chisinau. This train goes once daily in both directions. It takes up to 16 hours, and is usually empty enough to mean you get your own room. Chisinau is cheap. Hostels are less than ten bucks, and great if you love bedbugs and cold water. There’s a splendidly cheap bar crowded with unusually friendly and beautiful women, and the “missed-the-memo” ambiance was a perfect prelude to crossing the border into Transnistria.
My apartment in Tiraspol was exactly as was promised — Soviet Style. Everything, and I mean everything (apart from the wireless router) dated from before the wall came down. But it was cheap, and the cost of living, in general, is insanely low. Food costs next to nothing. Vodka is $1 a litre, beer about $1.10 for 2 litres and cigarettes are less than 35 cents. Wages here average around $200 dollars a month. You can arrange Russian classes for $10 an hour, but the teachers might not show up. This is down to the old red curse — there’s very little to buy, and what there is to buy is so cheap there’s no real yearning to work or earn more money. Whether this is positive or negative depends on your take on things.
For the first few days, my pocketful of change did me proud. But then, as it does, my cash ran out. In a world with Visa, MasterCard, and Amex, this isn’t usually much of a problem. But in this country that doesn’t officially exist, it is. Transnistria has its own currency, the Transnistrian Rouble, that can’t be used anywhere outside the country, and it’s the only currency any place will take within the country. You simply can’t use cards anywhere. Apparently, there are a few cashpoints that dispense Russian Roubles (that then have to be exchanged), but they’re hard to find.
I headed to the Sheriff supermarket armed with my bank card and my passport, queued about for half an hour, handed my card and passport to a lady, who took another half an hour filling in forms and signing scraps of paper. Like magic, after a mere three hours of waiting, I had my cash. Pockets full, I decided to do a little shopping in the Sheriff Supermarket. Sheriff is THE company in Transnistria, and they own everything. Car shops, gas stations, every supermarket… They are what in the old times would be considered the state monolith, except they are private, and owned by ex-President’s son. By sheer fluke, no doubt, he created his business empire at the same time his daddy was President.
Tim had told me that he had a group of Norwegians visiting for three days, and he would be showing them around. I happened to bump into them and they told me that when they entered the country, the border guards had kept them for three hours thinking they were spies. The next day that the local KGB paid a friendly visit to check on them, and they decided to leave early. I was advised to lie low for a few days, so I complied. This was fine, as I stocked up on vodka and the internet in Transnistria is surprisingly fast.
After my exile was over, Tim insisted that we went to ‘the beach’. There are two beaches connected to the Dniester river, both with a sludgy muddy sand littered with Soviet era fairgrounds, swimming pools and cool little food and drink kiosks. Without wanting to come across as dirty old man (I’m still only 34, after all), the women of Tiraspol and Transnistria are frankly out of this world. They dress to the nines just to go to the supermarket, so a trip to the beach tends to be quite a treat, with the latest thong fashion being a definite nod to western decadence. Sadly for the ladies, they don’t get the same visual treat, as the gent’s beachwear of choice is usually tight budgie smugglers teamed with mighty bellies.
Living in Transnistria was a lot more fun than I expected. I also found that it was even more Soviet than it appears. There are a lot of positive aspects they can be proud of, such as the cost of living and decent public transport. On the other hand, there are the corrupt police and local KGB registering your every movement. An apt description would be that Transnistria looks like what the USSR would have done, had Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika worked. In that respect that it reminds me a lot of China. Mao, Lenin, or any number of Communist heroes might be looking at you from everywhere, democracy might be of secondary importance, but the actual political system is Wild-West capitalism where anything goes.
When I eventually did leave (vodka delayed my departure) I decided to take the bus. Four years ago, I had to pay a lot in bribes to get out, but this year I’d registered with the police and was given a special piece of paper. What was written on it, I don’t know, but it got me though the border without a word being spoken. And that was that, I no longer lived in Transnistria.
It really is a lovely place. Just don’t slag off the president, or his son.