Transnistria is a Russian backed, breakaway state sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine. During the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s, the region erupted into full-scale civil war killing over a thousand people and displacing many more. In the aftermath, the Republic of Transnistria was declared and to this day remains a semi-independent state with its own army, the judicial system, and border controls despite being recognized by nobody other than the three other breakaway states of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Transnistria is a land seemingly stopped in time. Whilst Wild West Capitalism has replaced Communism through the ever-powerful Sheriff corporation which runs throughout the country, the republic is still littered with remnants of the USSR from hulking Lenin statues to giant hammers and sickles adorning modern Russian backed banks. The months of May and September see enormous demonstrations of military strength in the form of Soviet-style army parades complete with battle tanks roaring down the main streets, Russian special forces, and rocket launchers!
Why Visit Transnistria?
Transnistria forms the least visited part of Europe’s least-visited country of Moldova. It offers unique travel opportunities that few tourists will ever see. This is a breakaway state that only a couple of years ago renamed their KGB police force. It’s a republic that offers a vast array of untouched history from the Soviet Union back to the days of Tsarist Russia and the Ottoman Empire.
For nature lovers, Transnistria is a gem. We offer kayaking tours down the river Dniester with overnight camping at an abandoned Young Pioneer camp. We offer hill-climbing expeditions deep in the far north of the country and step over the trenches still left over from the Transnistrian civil war.
One of the best things about visiting Transnistria is that no visa is required. Transnistria is like a very unique version of Russia, so you can visit and get the Russian experience without the tiresome visa process!
The modern history of Transnistria
Transnistria was an early crossroads of people, cultures, and empires from the Slavs to the Ottoman Empire. The modern history of Transnistria began when the territory was incorporated into the Moldavian ASSR of Ukrainian SSR around 1924.
During the 1920s and 1930s, 20,000 Romanians living in Transnistria fled to Romania. By 1935 the MASSR had a mixed Ukrainian (46%) and Moldovan (32%) population, which was estimated at 545,500. Under Stalinist rule, populations who were not Ukrainian, Russian, or Romanian were pressured to russify, and their numbers would decline further. After a brief initial period of liberalization and freedom, groups such as the Poles in the Soviet Union were subject to harassment, dispersal and mass terror. This trend increased in the late 1930’s, as a result of the 1937-8 Polish Operation of the NKVD as well as the ceasing of educational instruction in the Moldavian ASSR for all non-Romanians populations in their native languages which was replaced by Russian.
In 1941, Transnistria was conquered during Operation Barbarossa largely by Fascist Romanian forces. The Soviet Union regained the area in spring 1944, when the Soviet Army advanced into the territory driving out the Axis forces. Many thousands of Romanians of Transnistria were killed or deported to gulags. Transnistria was then incorporated into the Moldovan SSR.
After WW2, the Moldavian SSR became the subject of a systematic policy of Russification. Cyrillic was made the official script for Moldavian. The industrial areas in the Moldavian SSR were concentrated in Transnistria, while the rest of Moldova had a predominantly agricultural economy. By 1990, Transnistria accounted for 40% of Moldavia’s GDP and 90% of its electricity production.
The 14th Soviet army had been based in Transnistria since 1956 and was kept there after the fall of the Soviet Union to safeguard what is probably the biggest weapons stockpile and ammunition depot in Europe, which was set up in Soviet times for possible operations on the Southeastern Theater in the event of World War Three. Russia was negotiating with the Republic of Moldova, Transnistria and Ukraine for transit rights to be able to evacuate the military materiel back to Russia. In 1994, the 14th Army headquarters were moved from Moldovan capital Chişinău to Tiraspol.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika in the Soviet Union allowed the political liberalisation at the regional level in 1980s. The incomplete democratisation was preliminary for the exclusivist nationalism to become the most dynamic political force. Some national minorities opposed these changes in the Moldavian political class of the republic, since during Soviet times, local politics had often been dominated by non-Romanians, particularly by those of Russian origin. The language laws presented a volatile issue as a great proportion of the non-Romanian population of the Moldavian SSR did not speak Moldavian. This displeasure with the new policies was manifested in a more visible way in Transnistria, where urban centers such as Tiraspol, had a Slavic majority. The scenes of protests against the central government of the republic were more acute here.
On 2 September 1990, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic was unilaterally proclaimed as a Soviet Republic separate from Moldova by the “Second Congress of the Peoples’ Representatives of Pridnestrovie”. However, on 22 December, the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed a decree “regarding the measures that would bring the situation back to normal in the Moldavian SSR”. The decision stated that the proclamation of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian SSR was null and void.
After Moldova became a member of the United Nations on 2 March 1992, then Moldovan President Mircea Snegur authorized military action against PMR forces which had been attacking police outposts loyal to the Moldovan government on the left bank of the river Dniester, and on a smaller section of the right bank around the southern city of Bendery.The PMR forces, aided by contingents of Russian Cossacks and the Russian 14th Army, consolidated their control over most of the disputed area.
Forces of the 14th Army stationed in Transnistria, fought with and on behalf of the PMR side. PMR units were able to arm themselves with weapons taken from the stores of the 14th Army. The Russian 14th Army’s role in the area was crucial to the outcome of the war. The Moldovan army was in a position of inferiority which prevented it from regaining control of Transnistria. A cease-fire agreement was signed on 21 July 1992.
Things to Do in Transnistria
For history buffs Transnistria is a gem. There is a whole host of Soviet relics, castles, and fascinating architecture to take in. On our Chernobyl and Transnistria tours we explore the capital of Tiraspol before heading over the river on an old Soviet barge to explore the war torn villages left untouched since the civil war. On our ultimate Transnistria tours we explored every major city in the republic from mad max fishing towns in the South to Russian Army defended hydroelectric dams in the North.
How to get to Transnistria?
Transnistria can be reached by a relatively short drive from either Odessa in Ukraine or Chisinau in Moldova. There are also fairly regular trains that connect each city and stop in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria. However, we recommend driving in with a trusted local contact who can negotiate Transnistrian border control.
In the capital Tiraspol, there are two main options. The luxury and overpriced Sheriff owned hotel or the classic Soviet relic, Aist, which is not for the faint hearted but is also an experience you will never forget. For those on a budget, YPT’s partners own a small hostel in the city for around $10 a night. Across the rest of the country, hotels vary as small towns and villages are usually motels or homestays whilst other less visited cities such as Dubasari have very affordable and comfortable options available.
What to Eat in Transnistria
For an isolated post-Soviet state, the food options in Transnistria may surprise you! You won’t find any Mcdonalds or Burger King here, but Transnistria has a range of western style and traditional local restaurants with very affordable food. It’s position on the Dniester River means an abundance of fresh fish and they use this to make some damn fine Sushi! One of the main food chains is Andy’s Pizza which sells a range of tasty western and local dishes.
The nightlife in Transnistria is rather unique. There are an increasing number of nightclubs that are very much Russian style. The main street in the capital of Tiraspol has a range of karaoke bars, nightclubs and late night bars. In other cities in Transnistria the nightlife is more limited, but YPT always manages to find a party somewhere when required!
When it comes to shopping, Transnistria is no Milan or Paris. However, you can pick up a range of bizarre souvenirs, valuable antiques, and Russian army equipment! We often visit flea markets on our tours to the country where you can pick up Soviet relics for rock bottom prices and we visit bookstores that sell flags, magnets, and propaganda posters from the republic. Want a ten foot poster of Vladimir Putin observing a nuclear missile test? Of course you do!
When is the best time to visit Transnistria
For the true Soviet vibe, winter is a good time to visit Transnistria. If you want the Russian party atmosphere that fills the evenings in summer, then the warm season is for you. However, if you want to catch one of the infamous military parades Transnistria is famous for then you need to visit in either May or September. 9th of May sees the republic celebrate Victory Day which is the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War. The 2nd of September is Transnistria independence day, both events are marked with nationwide celebrations and of course, a Soviet military parade.