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?
A Visit to the Front Lines
The KGB is considered to be one of the best-functioning institutions in Transnistria. Indeed, that is one reason that nobody has found it necessary to change its name. All of the country's newspapers are closely monitored while spying, eavesdropping, intimidation and threats are common. The popular Internet forum PMR has been blocked and the only independent correspondent bureau closed.
The second, extremely successful institution is called Sheriff, a varied conglomerate that was founded by two former policemen. Sheriff's vast holdings include a chain of gas stations, a caviar factory, an industrial bakery, a supermarket chain, the Rossiya Hotel, the Kvint distillery, the local Mercedes dealership, the radio station Inter FM, the country's only Internet provider and the football club Sheriff Tiraspol, which won the CIS Cup in 2009.
Nobody seems particularly concerned about the fact that the majority of state-owned assets is now in the hands of oligarchs. And that's not all. The political party Renewal is the company's political arm; the country's president until 2011, Igor Smirnov, is from the party.
Across from Tiraspol's registry office, a heavily chromed Mercedes S-500 is parked, blocking the sidewalk along Sverdlov Street. It belongs to Oleg Pankov, a former army officer who fought for the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Following the collapse of communism, he made his money selling sex toys. His store, called Intim, smells of smoke and is reminiscent of a small grocery, except that instead of carrots on display, Pankov has carefully laid out corn-shaped vibrators, artificial vaginas and phalluses the size of medium-range missiles -- most of it imported from Germany.
"Transnistria is not a rich country," Pankov says, "but people are always going to have sex." He asks what people in the West think of the fascist hordes on the Maidan in Kiev and offers a pill called "Seks President" as a gesture of goodwill. The cardboard packaging bears the image of Bill Clinton. Pankov then opens a low door behind the counter: "Come in, I want to show you something."
The shop's backroom is plastered right up to the ceiling with Soviet banners, red-satin party flags bearing Lenin's likeness and heroic embroideries with the slogan: "Working Men of All Countries, Unite!" Several busts of Lenin are prominently displayed. It is a devotional shrine to the Soviet empire, a chamber of Bolshevik relics -- and only separated from the "Hot Lady" drops by a thin wall. "My business is out there," Pankov says as he slumps into a well-used office chair. "But my soul is in here" he adds, pounding his breast.
"I was a communist until the very end," he says. "Now it is good to be able to do business, I like this reality. But I love the Soviet Union at the same time. You can't betray your own history. Transnistria is not Romania, it is Russia, the Crimea is Russia. What would you do if suddenly you were only allowed to speak Belgian in Germany? Exactly."
Rusting Border Shacks
In his own way, Oleg Pankov is symbolic of his country. Even if all of the national heroes, the repainted tanks and wreaths of honor have degenerated into empty souvenirs, they hint at a profound truth: Transnistrians are a displaced people who want to stay where they are.
Heading north from Tiraspol, the road passes through apple orchards and well-maintained vineyards, and past billboards advertising rain gutters. The border to Moldova is invisible. There is no fence and no wall. There is just the Dniester River and the occasional rusting border control shack.
In this region of Transnistria, people speak Moldovan, which is essentially Romanian. Just that in Transnistria, it is written using the Cyrillic alphabet.
The Dniester winds tightly through the landscape and there are Moldovan exclaves on the Transnistrian side -- villages that can only be reached by ferry. At the jetty serving the settlement of Molovata Noua, two Russian soldiers are standing beneath a black birch; a bit further on, a dug-in infantry fighting vehicle can be seen. Soon, local children will once again begin swimming in the river. The border crossing is known as "Post Nr. 6," and is certainly among the more absurd such crossings on the European continent.
Two Moldovans, two Transnistrians and three Russians live here in a single barrack -- soldiers from three different armies. One of the Russians is in charge; the Transnistrians are responsible for provisions. The facility is a part of the mission for Moldova run by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), itself something of a product of the Cold War.
Despite the difficult balancing act Moldova and Transnistria have been performing since 1992, conflict has been surprisingly rare. To be sure, the two sides quarrel regularly about customs formalities and the exclaves, but they generally find a way to resolve their disputes. One example is the Moldovan prison located on the Transnistrian side of the river: Every morning, the guards must don overcoats to hide their uniforms. That is part of the status quo.
Still, there was one deadly incident on the border. On New Year's Eve 2012, a young Moldovan broke through a barricade on a mission to get more schnapps and was shot by a guard. The result was months of tensions and bickering in the Joint Control Commission, which includes representatives from the OSCE, Russia, Ukraine, the EU and the US.
More than anything else, the border is an annoyance for the villagers here. They are tired of having to apply for a travel permit every time they want to go shopping across the frontier, though some have made the best of it and registered in Transnistria in order to benefit from the pension supplement paid by Moscow. Passports are hardly a hurdle; almost everyone in the region has several.
It is sometimes difficult to avoid the feeling that Transnistria, that small worm squashed between two larger creatures, is nothing but a collective hallucination. But the country is more than just a harmless operetta created by people who have decided to live in a bygone era. Because of its location between Ukraine and Moldova, Transnistria is of not-insignificant geo-strategic importance.
In June, the EU is set to sign an association agreement with Moldova, comparable to the one that helped push Ukraine into unrest. Officially, the agreement would also extend to Transnistria, as long as the government conforms to the deal's provisions. That might be in opposition to Transnistria's declared foreign policy, but it would be good for business: Roughly half of its exports go to the EU.
Still, a senior Russian official has threatened "serious consequences" should the treaty be signed and at the beginning of April, the president of Moldova called for "increased vigilance" from his army due to the possibility of "provocations."
Moscow has developed detailed plans for the takeover of Transnistria, much like those for Crimea and South Ossetia. That, at least, is the assumption of Western embassies in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. The Russian military regularly holds joint maneuvers with the Transnistrian army on the outskirts of Tiraspol, with the most recent one having taken place on March 25. And in Cobasna, near the Ukrainian border, there is still an arms depot containing 20,000 tons of Soviet munitions. It is one of the biggest of its kind in Europe -- and it is far from the best guarded.
The EU Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine (EUBAM) noted recently that its experts "have not witnessed any relevant disruption of movement of people and cargo across the Transnistrian segment." Nevertheless, Putin brought up Transnistria in telephone conversations with both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Barack Obama, complaining that the region was being blockaded by Ukraine.
Hard as Concrete
It is, perhaps, a small detail. But it could be enough to transform Transnistria into a lever of the kind conservative think tanks have begun warning about. Think tanks like the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, which has cautioned that Tiraspol could call for Moscow's help to break the alleged blockade and Russian troops could then march in via Odessa. It is, perhaps, a rather far-fetched scenario, but it is isn't completely unrealistic. What is certain, however, is that were the Russians to arrive, Transnistrians would be standing on the roadsides waving flags to welcome them.
On the border to Moldova, at the "Bender" crossing, several men stand waiting, all of them wearing Russian military caps of the kind still sold in Berlin flea markets along where the Wall once ran. "Please come with me. The people are inviting you for a formality." The name of the man speaking is Anatoly, a truck driver who has been commandeered to help the border guards because of his German ability. Formality?
An icon is hanging in the interrogation room, and Anatoly does his best: "People ask. Why here? Without Akkreditasye? The people say you have done against Pridnestrovian law…" He says the guards find it awkward, but that either I have to remain there, or my laptop, iPhone, hard drives and cameras do. It is like a scene from an old film, just in color and 3-D -- a scene in which the setting suddenly becomes extremely realistic, and as hard as concrete.