Waiting for a Soviet Reunion
The self-declared state of Transnistria is a microcosm of Putin’s ideal Eastern Europe
For many post-Soviet states, the last 25 years have been an exercise in nation building, slowly extricating themselves from long heritages of Russian control. But in little Moldova, a mostly Romanian-speaking nation squashed between Romania and the Ukraine, there’s a small strip of land where you can still find the Soviet hammer and sickle flying over government facilities.
The Moldovan government doesn’t approve of this symbol. And you can certainly bet they don’t approve of thousands of Russian soldiers tromping around the region either. But there’s very little the state can do about any of this, because it’s all happening in the self-declared independent Pridnestrovian Moldovian Republic, better known as Transnistria.
A sliver of land between the Dniester River and Ukraine (in some places just a few miles wide), the primarily Russian-speaking Transnistria rejects Moldovan rule, pledging allegiance to Moscow and displaying Soviet relics as a symbol of its devotion to the notion of a regional Russophone empire. They’re not alone in yearning for a bygone Soviet era either: While we think of the U.S.S.R. as a hot mess in hindsight, many post-Soviet states (and minorities within) remember it fondly for tamping down ethnic conflicts, ensuring basic rights, and shelling out heavy subsidies that ensured a basic standard of living.
To many observers biting their nails over Vladimir Putin’s perceived expansionist policies, this kind of Soviet nostalgia is nightmarish. Putin rode to power on express promises to restore Russia’s global greatness. As an ex-KGB man, that has involved restoring some Soviet symbols at home, playing to these Golden Era memories. It’s also involved patriotism-building promises to protect Russian speakers abroad, especially those discontent with post-Soviet realities and longing to reconnect with Mother Russia. Many believe his dedication to a Novorossiya has fueled Russia’s territorial expansions in the Ukraine and ambitions beyond. And many fear that Transnistria, with its open arms towards Moscow, is both a model of Putin’s vision of a future of regional pro-Russian client states, and the next potential flashpoint for his neo-imperial inclinations.
After the former Soviet Union began to fall apart and Moldova moved towards independence, Transnistrians, wary of how Moldovan nationalism and language policies might affect their lives, decided not to follow, eventually fighting a war from 1991 to 1992 to retain their freedom. During the conflict, Russia offered Transnistria military and financial assistance, and then just never left. What’s more, Moscow has bankrolled Transnistria’s state-building venture for the past 25 years, although it still doesn’t officially recognize their independence. That’s probably a big part of why, in a 2006 referendum, 97 percent of the population expressed interest in joining Russia outright—an inclination that plays into Putin’s claims that aggressive action is needed to protect the rights and self-determination of Russian-speaking communities (and potential client states).
For a long time, Transnistria’s Russian-supported, Moscow-aligned de facto independence was just the status quo. Occasionally, Transnistria drew attention for its shady business practices, intense isolation, and frozen-in-time, Soviet wonderland feel. But for the most part, its borders with Moldova and Ukraine remained silent and steady. Yet in recent months, as Russia’s expansions into Crimea and other regions of southeastern Ukraine have intensified, Kiev has started to challenge Moscow’s access to Transnistria. Partisans in Transnistria have in turn called on the Russian state for protection. And waiting in the wings, observers like America’s John McCain and Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili have started to speculate that Russia might soon try to make a show of force in the enclave, living up to its regional patriotic and empire building ambitions, and possibly accelerating its expansion beyond Crimea.
This spring, as tensions continued to build, bringing the bizarre, self-declared state into sharper international focus, photographer Thomas Van Den Driessche decided to visit Transnistria’s capital, Tiraspol, on behalf of The Story Institute. Arriving just as the nation began simultaneous celebrations commemorating the 70th anniversary of the conclusion of the Great Patriotic War (Russia’s name for World War II) and the 25th anniversary of Transnistria’s self-proclaimed independence, he proceeded to document the trappings of pseudo-Soviet life, not just at the state level, but in the lives of everyday Transnistrians. The following 10 photos especially speak to just how deep the region’s love of Mother Russia runs, and how eager many are for the Novorossiya era.
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A heroic statue of Vladimir Lenin stands before the Supreme Council of the Pridnestrovian Moldovian Republic, the self-declared state’s version of a parliament in Tiraspol. Rather than a symbol of communism’s persistence in the really quite capitalistic-to-oligarchic region, the statue represents Transnistria’s loyalty to Russia and fond memories of its existence within the Soviet system.
During the 70th anniversary celebration of the conclusion of the Great Patriotic War on May 9, locals in Tiraspol climb on top of a Soviet T-34 tank, a local monument to the struggle. In the background, they wave Russian flags. Such flags show up all over the parade route that snakes through town, signaling a genuine desire to restore the region’s historic ties with “Great Brother Russia.”
Russian and Transnistrian flags hang side-by-side as a tank moves along one of Tiraspol’s main avenues for their patriotic parade. The city prides itself on its cleanliness, especially relative to neighboring Moldova and its capital of Chisinau. This obsession with self-presentation and the grandeur of the spectacle has a distinct Soviet propaganda resonance to it—forcefully visualizing the potency of the state and its ability to provide a modernizing, life-improving sense of order.
Nasta, a four-year-old girl, wears a replicated Soviet soldier’s uniform during the day’s celebrations. Transnistria’s national ideology fosters a sense of connection to Russian identity even in those too young to remember the Soviet Union, perpetuating a fundamental Russophone patriotism into the future.
Nadesha Bondarenco, editor-in-chief of Bravo, the newsletter of the Transnistrian Communist Party, holds a communist flag while standing before a bust of Lenin. She explains that her party only holds one seat in the 43-member parliament these days, noting that under President Igor Smirnov (who ruled Transnistria from 1990 until 2011) the nation was “misled” into a corrosive, unequal capitalist reality.
Igor Nebeigolova, the Atman, or Commander, of Transnistria’s 4,000-strong Cossacks, stands in his office in front of a regimental flag and behind a ceremonial (we hope) mace. Nebeigolova says that his forces, under the supervision of the state’s security apparatus, stand at the ready to spill their blood for their “small motherland,” in hope of one day rejoining “the great motherland, as in the time of the Empire.”
Andrey, a 30-year-old Transnistrian who runs the local “Transnistria Tour” agency, works out at a public park. The agency ferries outsiders through very cheery itineraries of the finest examples of Transnistria’s Soviet symbols, artistic achievements, and (at least projected) industrial prowess. This public infrastructure mostly dates from the Soviet Era, but is still put to good use by Tiraspol’s populace. An acrobatic workout is part of Andrey’s daily routine.
Fadeiev Yakov heads back home after participating in a commemoration of the Great Patriotic War in the Transnistrian town of Bendery. Yakov participated in the Battle of Berlin, and fondly recalls the raising of the Soviet flag over the Reichstag. He sports a number of martial commendations, though it’s not clear whether they’re from the war, or thankful tokens of an eternally war-ready and quasi-military state.
Members of the Transnistrian Presidential Military Guard take a breather after the Great Patriotic War commemorations in Tiraspol. Their uniforms are extremely ornate, reminiscent of the high pomp and ceremony of the Soviet era.
Vadim, a young Transnistrian boxer, practices his footwork just minutes before entering the ring to compete in an amateur competition in Tiraspol’s House of Culture. Boxing, bodybuilding, and other shows of muscular force are quite popular amongst the youth of Transnistria. This is a reflection of the sporting culture and equipment left over by the Soviets, who were dedicated to showing their prowess not just in industry, but in athletics, especially those focused on outward demonstrations of the strength, health, and grit of the modern Soviet man.