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It’s no secret that I absolutely love Eastern Europe and the former Soviet countries. I can thank my class “Politics in Post-Soviet Countries” during my junior year of university for beginning my love affair with the region. I even managed to live in Zagreb, Croatia and Sofia, Bulgaria for 7 months while interning at the U.S. Embassies in those cities. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to most of the Balkan countries and absolutely adore the region. However, the Eastern European countries have been a bit more tricky. Even though Romania borders Bulgaria, it took me several years after moving away from Bulgaria to finally visit the country. In my quest to visit all European countries, Moldova was next on my list and I was able to combine it with a trip to Transnistria. Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of Transnistria – crickets. To be honest, I’d never heard of Transnistria until my friend asked if I wanted to join her for a day trip. Never one to say no to a new and unusual adventure, I booked my flight and joined her on a day trip from Chișinău to Transnistria.
Table of Contents
- Is Transnistria a country & where is it located?
- Transnistria & its connection to Russia / USSR
- Transnistria War
- Day trip to Transnistria
- Is Transnistria Safe?
- First Impressions of Transnistria
- Things to Know When Visiting Transnistria
- What to See in Bender, Transnistria
- What to See in Tiraspol, Transnistria
- What to See in Other Parts of Transnistria
- Final Thoughts on Transnistria
- Map of Transnistria
- Like the Post? Share It!
Is Transnistria a country & where is it located?
If you’ve never heard of Transnistria, you’re not alone. Transnistria is an unrecognized state that split away from Moldova during the collapse of the USSR. Even though it is an unrecognized state (only formally recognized by three other unrecognized states – Abkhazia, Artsakh, and South Ossetia), it is a de facto independent semi-presidential republic. While the UN considers Transnistria to be part of Moldova, the Moldovian government has granted Transnistria special legal status and declared it the Administrative-Territorial Units of the Left Bank of the Dniester.
Transnistria has its own government, parliament, military, police, currency, postal service, and border control. However, any exports from Transnistria going into Ukraine must be registered with Moldovian authorities. Interestingly, most Transnistrians have another citizenship including Moldovian, Russian, or Ukrainian. However, out of a population of 470,000, there are about 20,00-30,000 people who don’t have citizenship besides Transnistrian (effectively leaving them stateless). There are three embassies located in Transnistria – Abkhazia, Artsakh, and South Ossetia.
Transnistria is located about 2 hours from Chișinău, the capital of Moldova. It’s landlocked between Moldova and Ukraine. Due to its small size, you can explore the entire region in a day. When I took a day trip from Chișinău to Transnistria, I was able to explore smaller villages as well as the cities of Bender and Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria.
Transnistria & its connection to Russia / USSR
Transnistria has had a long and complicated history with Russia/USSR. While most assume that Transnistria formed during the fall of communism in 1990, the origins of the state date back to 1924. From 1924 – 1940, the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (Moldavian ASSR) was an autonomous region of Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (Ukrainian SSR, mostly now modern-day Ukraine). Modern-day Moldova was part of Bessarabia, a historical region in Eastern Europe that joined with Romania in 1917 (after much back-and-forth and a legislative vote in favor of unification).
Monument to Russian General Alexander Vasilyevich Suvorov-Rymniksky in Tiraspol
The establishment of Moldavian ASSR was very controversial, with not all high-ranking USSR members agreeing with the decision. The initial idea was for this region to spread communist ideas from the USSR and Ukrainian SSR into Bessarabia and eventually Romania. In 1940, under pressure and seeing no help from France or the United Kingdom, Romania ceded Bessarabia to the USSR and the USSR combined Bessarabia with Moldavian ASSR, creating the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (Moldavian SSR). Moldavian SSR remained part of the USSR until it declared independence from the USSR in 1991, becoming modern-day Moldova.
Today, Transnistria is the only “country” in the world to still have the sickle and hammer on its flag. Additionally, it is a satellite state of Russia. Although it has never been formally recognized by Russia for political reasons (there’s no economic or political benefit for Russia), Russia informally runs the state. Border control is carried out by Russian troops and there are 1,200 Russian troops present in Transnistria as peacekeeping troops. There are also several military bases in Transnistria with Russian troops, including one in the center of Tiraspol. Additionally, Russian money keeps the Transnistria economy afloat, and the country is not-so-secretively funding Transnistria.
Fun Fact: I visited Transnistria on June 23, 2018 and later found out that the United Nations demanded the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping forces on June 23, 2018. What’s the likelihood of the date being the same!?
Following democratic local elections in Moldavian SSR in 1990, Moldova declared the supremacy of Moldovian laws over Soviet Union laws. Additionally, border crossings were opened between Romania and Moldova, and there were discussions about reunifying the two countries (over two-thirds of all Moldovians have Romania descent and Romanian is the official language of both countries). Fearing closer ties with Romania and distancing from the USSR, Transnistria declared independence from Moldova in 1990. With strong ethnic ties to Russia, there were fears in Transnistria of joining Romania. In 1991, Moldova declared independence and became its own country.
While the first armed conflict between Moldova and Transnistria took place in 1990 (followed by sporadic fighting), intense fighting between the two sides didn’t start until early 1992. On the same day that Moldova received full UN recognition, full-blown fighting between the two sides began. Fighting would continue for another 6 months and account for 1,000 deaths as well as 3,000 wounded. A ceasefire was signed in July 1992 between the Presidents of Russia and Moldova. However, the conflict still remains unresolved.
A monument depicting Russian soldiers protecting the children of Transnistria during the Transnistria War. The Russians are still seen as the heroes and saviors of Transnistria.
While the Russians supplied weaponry and troops (unofficially) to Transnistria during the fighting and helped negotiate a ceasefire, they have never fully recognized Transnistria – much to the dismay of Transnistrian citizens. Even though the Russian military and government are still regarded as “saving” Transnistria, there is no political reason for Russia to recognize Transnistria, leaving it in a state of political limbo. After declaring independence from Moldova in 1990, Transnistria was hoping to continue being part of the USSR. However, after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Transnistria became a landlocked state between Moldova and Ukraine. It had, and still has, no political or economic superiority that would make it worthwhile for Russia to recognize Transnistria. Thus, Transnistria continues to operate in political limbo while optimistically hoping that Russia will someday acknowledge it as a country and even incorporate it as part of Russia.
If you’re looking for an interesting perspective on everyday life in Transnistria as well as the complicated political history and Russian connection, check out this insightful article.
Day trip to Transnistria
A day trip from Chișinău to Transnistria is quite easy! Bender, Transnistria, the border town, is only about 90 minutes away from Chișinău so it’s easily doable for a day trip. Additionally, due to visa restrictions, it’s actually much easier to just visit Transnistria for a day rather than spend time overnight.
How to Get from Chișinău to Transnistria via Public Transportation
Your first option for getting from Chișinău to Transnistria is via public transportation. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend this option as potential issues can arise and having a local guide is better. However, this is still totally possible and quite easy. The Chișinău Main Bus Station is located only a few blocks away from the Military Museum. From the outside (and similar to most other Eastern European countries), the bus station looks like complete chaos. There are buses everywhere and people running frantically in all different directions. However, once inside it is actually quite easy to navigate. Thankfully, the Moldovian alphabet is in Latin, not Cyrillic, so it is easy to find what you need and where you need to go. Just remember, coming back from Transnistria, the signs will be in Cyrillic.
- Chișinău Main Bus Station: Mitropolit Varlaam St 58
There are buses every 30 minutes or so from Chișinău to Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria. Inside the bus station, they have all the relevant information including bus connections and the correct stand number where to collect that bus. As of 2019, the buses to Tirapol went from stand 13 and you can buy the ticket for the bus right next to the stand. The tickets will cost about 2 Euros. Just a reminder – the buses are nothing like what we are used to in the United States or Western Europe. They’re usually much smaller and barely still functioning (but totally safe so don’t worry!).
I didn’t look but have also read that there are buses from Chișinău to Bender. They seem to leave just as frequently as buses from Chișinău to Tiraspol.
There is one train a day from Chișinău to Tiraspol (with a stop in Bender) and it is operated by Moldovan Railways. However, it doesn’t operate every day so make sure to check beforehand if you want to travel by train. I didn’t do any additional research about it because I tend to avoid trains in Eastern Europe (buses actually are faster and much more efficient than trains in this region).
How to Get from Chișinău to Transnistria via a Guided Tour
The easiest way, hands down, to explore Transnistria is through a private tour guide. With a limited amount of hours in the state due to visa regulations, a tour guide is able to provide you with transportation, insider knowledge, and deal with any issues that might arise (see below under “Is Transnistria Safe?”). My friend and I coordinated our trip with Transnistria Tour and they did a phenomenal job in organizing everything and making sure we saw all the relevant sites.
- Transnistria Tour: firstname.lastname@example.org
They offer quite a few different tours depending on interests. We opted for the Soviet and Classic tour, which they combined together for us, making it a full-day program (each tour is typically 2-3 hours long). We also had the tour company pick us up in Chișinău, transport us to our guide in Transnistria, and then drop us off again in Chișinău. We paid a total of 180 Euros for the full-day tour and transportation to/from Chișinău. Our contact person beforehand was Andrey and it was super easy to communicate with him. I’d highly recommend using Transnistria Tour (and no, this isn’t sponsored by them!) – they were reasonably priced, catered the tour to our wants/needs, picked us up directly from our hotel, and had insider knowledge about Transnistria only possible to acquire from a local.
Visa for Transnistria
The visa situation and passport control for Transnistria is a bit complicated. You won’t get an exit stamp from Moldova upon entering Transnistria and won’t get an entry stamp from Moldova upon leaving Transnistria. To the Moldovian government, you’ve never left Moldova (even when entering Transnistria) because they believe that Transnistria is still part of Moldova!
Russian soldiers run Transnistria’s passport control. Upon arriving at the border, our driver parked the car and we went into a little house (kind of like a shipping container). The individual at the counter spoke broken English. She asked for our passport and how long we planned on being in Transnistria. She then took our passports away for a good 10 minutes or so. I’ll be honest, I got a bit nervous because everyone else immediately got their passports back except me and my friend (we are both American). However, within 10 minutes, we got our passports back and continued on our way.
You will not receive an actual stamp in your passport. Instead, you will get a small slip of paper and will need to show it upon leaving Transnistria. Most visas are given for 10 hours. Anything beyond 10 hours requires additional information and registration. Supposedly, as of February 2018, you can stay up to 45 days in Transnistria. However, I have never read or seen that anywhere officially and was never given an option for a visa longer than 10 hours.
I’ve heard stories of people having to bribe passport control officials. I did not experience this and heard this is becoming less and less of an issue.
Is Transnistria Safe?
This is a tricky question – in terms of violence, robbery, etc., Transnistria is totally safe. However, it is a very censored state and there are multiple stories of foreigners being detained for several hours/days by Russian soldiers due to breaking a random, obscure law or simply for no reason at all. One of the benefits of hiring a tour guide and going with a local is 1) they speak the language and can communicate if issues arise and 2) they were able to tell me what I could and could not photograph. To be honest, I could pretty much photograph everything. However, when it came to military bases and soldiers, that was totally off-limits (as with most countries!). I always erred on the side of caution if I was unsure.
I’m not going to lie, Transnistria has been accused of human rights violations in the past. It is still very much a closed-off, narrow-minded, Soviet-thinking state. They still refer to their secret services as the KGB and most rights are not granted. Freedom of expression is quite limited (they say it is allowed but it’s mainly for show and appeasement) and freedom of religion is almost non-existent. Supposedly, Transnistria is starting to open up a bit and human rights violations are decreasing.
Just remember, if you do get in trouble in Transnistria, there are no embassies and embassy staff in Chișinău will not, and can not, intervene on your behalf. So be cautious and respectful when traveling within Transnistria!
First Impressions of Transnistria
I found Transnistria to be quite secretive. Even around noon on a Saturday, the streets were completely empty (even in the capital city!). Someone asked me on Instagram if I photoshopped people out of my photos – nope, there was just no one around. The entire time, I felt like something was off. Even while taking the private tour, it felt like there was some sort of cooperation or agreement between this tour group and the Transnistrian government.
Main street of Tiraspol – completely empty on a Saturday afternoon. So bizarre!
The Russian economic influence is felt everywhere! The Russian government is pumping so much money into Transnistria. The minute we crossed the Moldovian-Transnistrian border, the bumpy and pothole-filled Moldovian roads gave way to perfectly kept Transnistrian roads.
You’ll immediately notice that “Sheriff” is everyone. The company “Sheriff” was founded by two individuals who used to be part of the Moldavian SSR special services (aka Soviet intelligence services – aka KGB agents!). The company has close ties to the first President of Transnistria, Igor Smirnov (who was born and raised in Russia). Sheriff owns absolutely everything – gas stations, TV channels, advertising agencies, various factories (bread, spirits, etc.), mobile phone network, hotels, local soccer team, and stadium, etc. Anything that is perceived as private business is owned by Sheriff. Effectively, Sheriff controls the entire political and economic situation in Transnistria.
This is an interesting article about Sheriff and the role of the company in everyday Transnistrian life.
Things to Know When Visiting Transnistria
- Transnistria has its own currency (Transnistrian ruble) and can obviously only be used in Transnistria. I was only there for about 6 hours so I never even exchanged money (the tour guide wanted payment in Euros).
- The phone situation is difficult. Owned by Sheriff, it’s actually a network and doesn’t require a SIM card. I’m still confused on how to get access to it but was told it was possible. Once again, I was there for less than a day so it didn’t make sense to get on the network (and who knows how much access they’d have to information on my phone!).
- As mentioned several times, it is pretty much a puppet state of Russia although not formally recognized by the Russians.
- There are still operating collective farms in the state that are indicated by giant sickle and hammer metal signs/plaques.
What to See in Bender, Transnistria
Bender was probably the most Soviet-looking city in all of Transnistria, even more Soviet than Tiraspol! When arriving in Transnistria, most people tend to stop in Bender first as it is the main border town between Moldova and Transnistria. Along the border, you’ll immediately see the Dniestr River. It forms the natural border between Moldova and Transnistria, and the official border actually runs through the river. Because most of the river belongs to Transnistria, Moldova can’t use it for transportation (people or goods). I only saw one small boat on the river the entire time I was there.
Built in the 1500s, Bendery Fortress was initially constructed by the Ottoman Empire after conquering the area. The fortress was the site of several small conflicts between the Ottoman Empire and Sweden. However, by the early 19th century, the fortress and surrounding area were conquered and part of Russia. During WWII, the fortress was occupied by the Germans and until recently, the fortress was used as a military base by the Soviet Union/Russians.
Actually, on one side of Bendery Fortress, there were a bunch of Russian tanks and over 50 Russian soldiers doing military drills. I wasn’t allowed to take photos of this but it was super fascinating to see this fortress as a tourist site and then have military operations going on next door in broad daylight!
If you could see through these windows, you would see all the Russian tanks and soldiers!
House of Culture
Like most Soviet cities, one of the main meetings points is/was the House of Culture. While we were in Bender, there was a children’s dance performance going on here. The Culture House is the center of bigger affairs in Bender, local meetings, and, as the name suggests, cultural events. This building is used by citizens of all ages and is meant to be a central meeting place of culture in the city of Bender.
Memorial to the Victims of the Holocaust
Prior to WWII, Bender had a thriving Jewish population. By the 1930s, over one-third of the population was Jewish and Yiddish was the second most spoken language behind Russian. However, during WWII, most of the Jewish population was killed and the Jewish population that wasn’t killed ended up emigrating.
Additionally, surrounding countries/regions deported their Jews to what is now Transnistria during WWII. It is estimated that around 200,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews were deported to this area and died within the boundaries of Transnistria during WWII.
As religion beyond Orthodox Christianity is still quite censored in Transnistria, I was surprised to see a Memorial to the Victims of the Holocaust in Bender. There is also talk of erecting a Holocaust memorial for Roma victims as they were killed in mass numbers during WWII in Transnistria.
House of Happiness
This uninviting building, technically called the Marriage License Bureau, is actually nicknamed the “House of Happiness.” After telling my tour guide about my boyfriend, he suggested that we come back and get married here! This is the official location of most local marriages. As intriguing as I find the idea, I think I’ll pass… :)
Old Soviet Port
During the Soviet era, there was a thriving port in Bender along the Dniester River that made transporting goods easy and efficient throughout the region. The old port building is now dilapidated and a place frequently used by the homeless or squatters (although the local government is cracking down on this).
It’s a great example of Soviet architecture as well as the traditional Soviet symbols.
Monument to Fighters for Soviet Power
An impressive monument, this is dedicated to the fighters for Soviet Power. I didn’t find out more information about this statue and there isn’t really anything online about it. However, it definitely is a great example of a Soviet monument and typical Soviet artwork/symbols.
Memorial of Remembrance and Sorrow
This memorial is dedicated to the fighters of the Transnistria War in 1992 as well as the lives lost during the war. It specifically honors those who defended Transnistria against Moldova. As Bender is on the border between Transnistria and Moldova, the majority of the fighting took place in this city.
Rumor has it that the tank used in the memorial is pointed in the direction of Moldova to warn of future conflict. This was one of the first things I saw when entering Transnistria and one of the last things I saw when leaving Transnistria. Even though the war was almost 30 years ago, it is still evident in everyday life and remembered through various memorials and monuments.
What to See in Tiraspol, Transnistria
As the de facto capital city of Transnistria, Tiraspol is much more reminiscent of a small town than a capital city. As I mentioned in my first impressions, the streets were entirely deserted on a Saturday afternoon. They were setting up for some concert so crowds were gathered around the stage area. However, for a weekend, I was shocked at the lack of activity in the city.
I will note that the city is extremely green with lots of parks and other open spaces. It’s a totally walkable city and easy to see everything in just a few hours. All the tourist sites are located along the main street, 25th October Street.
Word of caution: make sure you are allowed to take a picture of what you are photographing. Supposedly, there are certain buildings off-limits in Tiraspol. I had no issue at all with any of the buildings but always asked my guide before photographing governmental buildings.
The seat of the Transnistrian government, the Transnistria Parliament Building is reminiscent of typical Soviet architecture. The most impressive aspect is the giant Lenin statue outside the building. Rumor has it that it is one of the largest Lenin statues still left in the world. Although the Transnistria Parliament has a unicameral legislative body (also called the Supreme Soviet), the government is effectively not democratic and seen as a puppet of the Russian government.
Even though my tour guide told me it was fine to take this photo, I was still a bit scared and refused to get any closer to the building with my camera!
Located in this building is also the Ministry of State Security, previously known as the Transnistrian KGB until 2017. The powers granted to the Ministry of State Security are quite extensive and really only need the approval of the Transnistrian President. As they are responsible for dealing with informal and state “threats,” the Ministry of State Security can delve into personal affairs with little oversight.
I had previously read that photos were not allowed of this building and Russian soldiers will detain you if they see you taking photos of it. However, I asked my guide if it was fine for me to take a photo and he said absolutely. Maybe the rules have changed!? If in doubt, always ask your guide!
Memorial of Glory
Located across the street from the Transnistria Parliament Building is the Memorial of Glory – commemorating Transnistria’s involvement in the Eastern Front of WWII, the Soviet-Afghan War, and the Transnistria War. This memorial also has the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It is surrounded by a WWII tank with the words, “To The Motherland!” as well as an eternal flame honoring those who died defending the city from the Germans in 1941 and liberating it from the Germans in 1944. This was one of my favorite pieces of history in the entire state – do not miss it!
This was just a small section of the memorial!
The House of Soviets
The House of Soviets, also known as City Hall, is one of the most impressive architectural feats in the city. With another Lenin bust outside the building, it is not to be missed on a tour of Tiraspol. While I was taking a photo of the building, a limo drove by – a huge juxtaposition between the small wealth held in the state versus the vast poverty.
Palace of Culture
A staple of every Soviet city, the Municipal Palace of Culture is the central meeting place for cultural events and bigger meetings. Similar to the House of Culture in Bender, it’s the main location of cultural life and activities in Tiraspol.
Shevchenko Transnistria State University
As the main university of Tiraspol and Transnistria, Shevchenko Transnistria State University was initially founded in 1930 as the Institute of Public Education in Moldavian ASSR. In 1992, the university officially moved to Chișinău, where it continues to operate under the same name. Thus, the university is split between the two cities, both claiming to be the original university founded in 1930.
Shevchenko Transnistria State University in Tiraspol works closely with Russian universities for proper international accreditation. There are 54 different majors offered with the official teaching languages of Russian, Moldovian, and Ukrainian.
As I visited on a Saturday, I didn’t see any students around. However, it would have been interesting to visit on a weekday and even visit a class (if it is allowed) – I’m very curious about the teaching style!
Tiraspol Drama and Comedy Theater
Located at the end of 25th October Street, the Tiraspol Drama and Comedy Theater routinely hosts plays, comedies, and other theatrical events. It is one of the main locations for cultural events along with the Palace of Culture.
What to See in Other Parts of Transnistria
There is not a lot to do in Transnistria outside of the main cities of Bender and Tiraspol. However, the Noul Neamț Monastery and Monument to the Jassy-Kishinev Offensive are both located outside of these cities. Even though they aren’t part of the two main cities, they shouldn’t be missed!
Noul Neamț Monastery
Founded in 1861, Noul Neamț Monastery is located halfway between Bender and Tiraspol. It was closed by Soviet authorities in 1962 and used as a hospital before it was reopened in 1989. Since 1992, it has been run by the government of Transnistria (not really allowing separation of church and state!).
Visiting Noul Neamț Monastery was the biggest eye-opening experience in terms of the influence of the Russian government and Soviet ideology. While driving to this monastery, I passed a still-functioning collective farm, indicated by a giant metal sickle and hammer sign. Once I arrived at the monastery, our tour guide asked if I was religious. After stating I was, I asked him if he was religious and he replied:
“My religion is Karl Marx.”
Russian money is clearly at work here. Unlike most monasteries and Orthodox churches, the painted facades were in pristine condition – something only possible through lots of money and investment! My friend remarked that she had never seen painted facades so perfectly intact and vibrant.
Remember: when visiting an Orthodox church or monastery, women must have their hair covered!
Monument to the Jassy-Kishinev Offensive
For the best views of Transnistria, head to the Monument to the Jassy-Kishinev Offensive. The Jassy-Kishinev Offensive refers to a Soviet offensive against German forces that took place during WWII in 1944. The Soviets were able to surround the German forces, resulting in a Soviet victory. It also allowed the Soviets to move deeper into Eastern Europe while forcing Romania to change allegiance from the Axis to the Allied forces.
This monument arguably gives the best views of all of Transnistria. Because the state is quite small, Bender and Tiraspol, as well as the Transnistrian border, can all be seen from this viewpoint. Make sure to stop here while going between Bender and Tiraspol!
Final Thoughts on Transnistria
I would highly recommend a day trip from Chișinău to Transnistria, it’s easy to organize and no more than a day is really needed to see everything in Transnistria. That being said, make sure to check any warnings beforehand to make sure it is fully safe to visit the state. As Russian movements and policies are constantly changing, it’s better to be safe than sorry!
As I mentioned above, it is easiest to organize a guided tour through Transnistria Tour – they’ll cater it to your wants and needs, making for a perfect day trip! Transnistria is unlike any other place I’ve ever visited before and is definitely an eye-opening experience. With the Soviet architecture and yearning for the past, Transnistria is the closest you’ll get to experiencing life in the former USSR!