His homeland is recognized by nobody except the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization. When Evgeny Ushinin became aware of that uncomfortable fact, he began studying languages. He started with Japanese before moving on to Portuguese, Flemish and Italian. He also took on the Cypriot dialect of Greek, Arabic and Turkish. He already knew Russian, Romanian and German from his school days.
Now, Ushinin speaks a dozen languages. He wrote his Ph.D. thesis on "Turkish Influences on the Languages of the Eastern Mediterranean" and translates Japanese mangas into Russian. Sometimes, he plays guitar and sings northern Japanese and Bulgarian drinking songs in the city library. But his homeland is still not recognized. "Nobody knows Transnistria," he says. "My Japanese friends think it's an island. They confuse Moldova with the Maldives."
In some places, Transnistria is just a few kilometers wide. On a map of Europe, it looks like a worm squashed between much larger animals, pressed as it is between Moldova and Ukraine. As a result, being Transnistrian is something of a challenge.
Officially, it is known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, as a white-haired woman standing next to Ushinin notes. The woman is Victoria Piletskaya, the popular Transnistrian poet. Together, the pair -- the linguist and the poet -- represents the majority of intellectual life in Tiraspol, perhaps the least-known capital city in Europe.
Transnistria, located on the eastern banks of the Dniester River, has an area hardly greater than the US state of Rhode Island (or the German state of Saarland) and is home to a half-million people who see themselves as Russians, Ukrainians or Moldovans. More than anything, though, they see themselves as Soviet citizens. The breakaway region has its own military, its own constitution, a national anthem (called "We Sing the Praises of Transnistria") and a symphony orchestra which is known abroad.
The region's official currency, the Transnistrian ruble, is pegged to the dollar but is nevertheless treated like Monopoly money on global financial markets. The five-ruble bill is graced with a picture of the Kvint distillery in Tiraspol, honoring one of the country's biggest exports: cognac. Other products sent overseas include bed linens, weapons, cable and workers, with the men heading east and the women going west. Putin and Obama are the main subjects of conversation.
'We Are Not Ephemera'
Evgeny Ushinin and the national poet are sitting in Club 19, located in a rear courtyard off of October 25th Street. It is one of the few places in the city where independent thinking is practiced. The most recent topic debated was: "Should the press only say good things about the government?" The poet says: "A country has to recognize itself. That is the most important thing." "Victoria is right," Evgeny replies and looks at her admiringly. "We are not ephemera. We exist." It is simply a matter of believing strongly enough.
The Bender Fortress, which looms above the Dniester not far from Tiraspol, is one of Transnistria's primary tourist attractions, and inside is a monument to the Baron of Münchhausen. It is, perhaps, an odd place for such a monument on the surface; the baron is primarily known as a fictional character who was fond of stretching the truth. But he is famous for having ridden a cannon ball into the clouds to escape captivity -- and it is here in the Bender Fortress where the event is supposed to have taken place. Almost anything is possible in this country of delusion and desire.
Tiraspol, the capital, is far from being rundown. The trolley buses run on time, the curbstones on Karl-Liebknecht Street and Gagarin Street have been freshly painted and the parking lots are clean. It seems as though the city comes straight out of a 1960s Soviet propaganda file, as though a model student is being presented to the school director. As though they are expecting to be rewarded. The current edition of the daily Pridnestrovia is on display in city newsstands. The front page headline: "In the Spirit of Friendship between Russia and Transnistria."
Not far from Club 19, two flags are hanging out of a window. It is the diplomatic quarter of the Transnistrian capital and consists of a single floor of a building where South Ossetia and Abkhazia have their representations. They are two other leftovers of the Soviet Union that are preoccupied with a single desire: That of returning to the folds of the Russian empire. That, too, is difficult to explain to one's Japanese friends.
Transnistria has nominally existed since 1989, when the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic abolished Russian as its official language and replaced it with Moldovan. One year later, Moldova joined several other Soviet republics in declaring independence, whereupon the Russian-speaking eastern part of the country -- the region on the other side of the Dniester -- declared its own independence from Moldova and sought to return to the Soviet Union. By the time the Russian 14th army arrived, a thousand people had already been killed in the conflict that ensued.
Hammer and Sickle
Now that Crimea has been annexed by Russia, Transnistrians are full of hope that their own government might be able to pull off a similar coup. "Maybe Russia will recognize us soon," says Oleg Korshan, chair of the central committee of the Pridnestrovian Communist Party. The somewhat doughy, solicitous 37-year-old sits in front of a wood inlay portrait of Lenin. "We could become a Russian enclave, like Kaliningrad."
Transnistria is the only place in Europe that still flies a national flag depicting the hammer and sickle -- prominently displayed in the upper left corner. The country's secret service is still called the KGB and its parliament is known as the Supreme Soviet. An enormous statue of Lenin looms above the square in front of the parliament building, his granite cape flying out behind him like that of a superhero.
Many travelers refer to Transnistria as the last remaining piece of the Soviet Union. "Unfortunately, that is completely inaccurate," Korshan says. "Our country simply honors its history. But it has allowed capitalist elements. We are a mixture," he adds, saying that his personal ideal is that of China or Belarus.
A coffee-table book about Leonid Brezhnev is on display and a picture of Stalin hangs in the entryway in memory of the Great Patriotic War and the liberation from the Germans.
"We have been anxiously following the nonsense that the fascists in Ukraine have been performing," Korshan says. "We welcome President Putin's desire to unite Russian soil." Korshan's telephone rings and he excuses himself -- his ring tone is the Soviet national anthem. When the call is over, he says gravely, his brow furrowed: "The president has spoken with Chancellor Merkel about Transnistria." When Korshan says "president," he means the Russian president. And his voice sounds as though he had just spoken with Putin himself.
Korshan's communist party is small, but is fully supportive of the government with its single seat in parliament. The other two parties in parliament -- called Renewal and Breakthrough -- likewise back the government. All three compete to see who can be the most enthusiastic supporters of Putin. An opposition in favor of reuniting with the Republic of Moldova does not exist. "That would be a betrayal of those who fell," is an oft-heard sentiment -- even from those who were just children at the time of the civil war.
Ill-Defined Status Quo
In February, Transnistria's speaker of parliament wrote a letter to the Duma, Russia's parliament, in Moscow. It was formulated as a friendly reminder that Transnistria too wanted to be annexed into the Russian Federation, even if merely as an exclave on the model of Kaliningrad.
For years, Russia has been delivering gas to Transnistria free of charge and also subsidizes the country's pension fund, but it has never recognized the territory as an independent country, despite the overwhelming desire among the populace to become part of Russia. Perhaps it is better for Russia to maintain the ill-defined status quo. Despite pledges to the contrary, Russia has never withdrawn its 2,000 troops stationed in Transnistria. They represent a significant hurdle to Moldova's potential NATO membership.
The situation has remained largely unchanged for two decades. Nina Shtanski, Transnistria's foreign minister, wrote her Ph.D. dissertation in Moscow about possible solutions to the region's conflict -- and concluded that there weren't any. As long as only one half of a married couple is in favor of divorce, the marriage is destined to continue. In photos, the 37-year-old Shtanski, who has been in her current position for two years, looks like a cross between Sarah Palin and Italian model and actress Monica Bellucci -- and she is said to be an entire head taller than Putin. She is certainly someone who would have a lot to say about the situation in Transnistria.
It is difficult to imagine that the foreign minister of a country that is cut off from the rest of the world has much to do besides wait for instructions from Moscow. But Nina Shtanski's schedule would appear to be crammed. Her press office asks that questions be submitted in writing and notes that "the minister is currently traveling outside of the Pridnestrovian Republic." The back and forth seems endless: "Your application for accreditation has unfortunately been rejected ... please send your questions in writing again ... the minister is tired ... the deputy Pridnestrovian foreign minister could perhaps meet next week ... but do you even have an accreditation?"
It goes on like that for days. And one evening, a muscular young man drives up in his sedan to the Memorial of Fallen Soldiers -- which includes a Russian T-40 tank bedecked with flowers. He says his name is Alexander and he wants to talk. "No, not in a café," he says. "In the car would be better." He says he works in customs and knows a lot. "Ask away," he insists. "Some information is free, some is not. We can also drive out to the edge of the city."
For two hours, "Alexander" drives through the empty city center of Tiraspol -- back and forth between the national theater, the university and the Kvint factory -- and praises the achievements of the state of Transnistria. It never really becomes clear exactly what Alexander wants. But what was that on his lapel -- that almost invisible, button-shaped thing?