The Last Republic: How the Soviet Union Lives on in Transnistria

By Matthew Beylinson
Photo: Flag of Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic

It’s a cold winter night in Moscow, 1991. Although it’s the day after Christmas, the mood in the Red Square and the rest of the country is far from cheerful. It’s now 7:32 p.m, and as a crowd looks on, the flag of the Soviet Union is lowered for the final time over the Kremlin. A few short moments later the flag of the Russian Federation is raised and begins to flutter in the night sky. The Soviet Union has collapsed, not with a bang but with a whimper. It is an accepted fact that the USSR is gone and that the state had ceased to exist in any form after December 26th, 1991. That is unless you were to travel to a small strip of Eastern Moldova that hugs the Ukrainian border. There lies a little country that seems to be frozen in time called Transnistria. In this strange place, it looks as though the USSR never fell.

If you have never heard of the nation of Transnistria, I can hardly blame you. Transnistria, or the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), is a tiny nation of about half a million people that sits between the Dniester River and the Moldavian-Ukrainian border. In addition to its small size, the reason why you may have never heard of this place is that it is not recognized as a nation by most of the world. The nation declared independence from Moldova in 1990 and fought a bloody war in 1992 to secure its independence. However, Transnistria is still not recognized in the United Nations (Reid 2020). 

Despite their lack of recognition, the PMR is very distinct from the rest of Moldova. It has its own currency, passports, national anthem, government, and flag (Encyclopedia Britannica). Mostly its uniqueness is expressed through the soviet aesthetic of the small nation. The streets retain the names of legendary communists, the flag of the country includes a hammer and a sickle (despite the country no longer being communist), portraits of Stalin line the walls of various government offices, officials still wear the same uniforms that they wore during the late Soviet period, and a massive statue of Lenin still stands outside the brutalist-style parliament building. Yet there is no soviet relic more fascinating in Transnistria than the KGB (yes, that KGB), which continues to keep a close watch on any foreigners who wish to meet government officials. If one were to be dropped on the streets of the capital city, Tiraspol, they would have a difficult time discerning whether the year was 1989 or 2022. One would eventually figure out that they were in the modern era from the smartphones and computers which juxtapose the country’s cold-war aesthetic.

The people and culture of the PMR are as unique as the outdated communist paraphernalia which decorates the nation. Unlike Moldova, which continues to claim control over Transnistria, the Transnistrian people are thoroughly Slavic. The nation is 29.1% Russian, 22.9% Ukrainian, 28.6% Moldovan, and the dominant language in both law and vernacular is Russian (PMR Population Census 2015). You might be wondering, ‘considering the significant Moldovan population, why would the PMR be considered thoroughly Slavic?’ First, the PMR is the only place on earth where the Moldovan language is written in the Cyrillic alphabet (Constitution of the Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublica 2016).  Second, Transnistrian identity, while being Russo-centric (as the USSR was), is mostly a multicultural soviet identity. This means that the Moldovans who live in the PMR connect with their Soviet identity more than their regional Maldovan identity (Wagemakers 2014).

In most Transnistrian cities and towns it is common to see the flag of the Russian federation waving alongside that of the PMR. Anatolii Dirun, Scientific Director of the Tiraspol School of Political Studies, told BBC in 2021 that “Transnistria has historically considered itself a part of the Russian cultural space” (Reid 2020). The Russia-centric culture of Transnistria further adds to the feeling that this slice of Moldova is still in the Soviet Union. While the rest of Moldova has embraced its Moldovan cultural heritage since the fall of the USSR, Transnistria continues to look east for its cultural identity. 

It is clear that the PMR is culturally, linguistically, and aesthetically unique, but how did this odd region of the Eastern European, Post-Communist world come into existence? Our story begins in 1989 as the Soviet Union was in its twilight years. The inhabitants of the region of Transnistria were closely tied to the Soviet Union both culturally and economically. Transnistria was a large steel producer for the Soviet world and the population, especially the elites, were largely Russophone (King 2001). As the USSR was loosening its grip on its republics, Moldova’s government used the opportunity to establish Maldovan and Romanian as the official languages. They also started to culturally and politically align themselves with Romania (Dembinska 2019). Transnistria and Moldova entered into an intense ideological disagreement in which Moldova strove to solidify its own cultural identity while Transnistria wanted to stick to its Russocentric, Soviet roots. 

This disagreement intensified when Moldova formally left the Soviet Union in 1991. After Moldova left, Transnistrian separatist movements began to be violently suppressed. By this point, the USSR had fallen, but Transnistria hoped to remain a part of the greater Russian world and retain its Soviet identity, even if the state behind the identity had ceased to exist (King 2001). Eventually, Transnistria formally declared independence and revolution broke out. The armed forces of the newly minted Russian Federation came to the assistance of the PMR and in July of 1992, a ceasefire was declared until a decision regarding Transnistrian independence could be reached (Miarka 2020). Even to this day, a decision has yet to be reached, and Russia continues to station soldiers in the PMR in support of their independence. The PMR continues to remain in a state of ‘frozen conflict’—analogous to that of the Korean War.

The ethnography of the Transnistrian people and their fairly recent history means that the nation still has close ties to Russia. These ties extend far beyond just the garrison of Russian soldiers and their shared language. Russia is incredibly important to Transnistria economically, with 29% of all trade in Transnistria being done with Russia (Pridnestrovian Republican Bank 2019). There is also a significant amount of Transnistrian workers in Russia who are there for higher wages and send money back home. In fact, almost 63% of all electronic money transfers made by the Transnistrian Republic Bank have been sent from Russia (Pridnestrovian Republican Bank 2019). Russia has also been providing gas subsidies, paying pensions, and supporting both healthcare and education in this small parastate (Miarka 2020).

This has made Transnistria almost completely dependent on Russia, and as a result, Transnistrian political elites are strongly aligned with Moscow. This is concerning news considering the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. While no military actions have been staged from Transnistria; because it borders Ukraine and its ties to Russia (along with the sizable detachment of Russian soldiers stationed in the PMR), future Transnistrian involvement in the invasion cannot be discounted. Already there has been some fighting near the Transnistrian border between Russian and Ukrainian forces, and there are fears that conflict will spill over (Kingsley 2022). For now, despite Russia’s inflammatory and imperialistic actions, Transnistria remains peaceful. But considering the fighting that has been going on near what is considered a frozen conflict zone, war may once again break out in this part of Eastern Moldova. While it is still relatively unheard of, and widely unrecognized, this little slice of the Soviet Union will be an important actor in Eastern European politics.

Matthew Beylinson is a political science and classical civilizations double major from Staten Island, NY. He is in his sophomore year and hopes to attend law school and eventually work in international law or government. Outside of Happy Medium, Matthew is a member of the History Club, Rowing Club, and works as a bus driver for OCCT. He is fluent in Russian and specializes in Post-Soviet politics and the analysis of autocratic and totalitarian regimes.

References

Reid, Sarah. 2020. “Celebrating a Nation That Doesn’t Exist.” BBC Travel, February 6. https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20200205-celebrating-a-nation-that-doesnt-exist (March 7, 2022).

“Constitution of the Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublica.” 2016. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of PMR, August 20. http://mfa-pmr.org/en/constitution.

Dembińska, Magdalena. 2018. “Carving out the Nation with the Enemy’s Kin: Double Strategy of Boundary‐Making in Transnistria and Abkhazia.” Nations and Nationalism 25(1): 298–317. doi: 10.1111/nana.12386.

“Dinamika denezhnykh perevodov v/iz PMR v marte 2019 goda [Dynamics of Money Transfers to/from PMR in March 2019],” Pridnestrovian Republican Bank, http://www.cbpmr.net/data/ddp_28_04_2019.pdf.

King, C. 2001. ‘The benefits of ethnic war’, World Politics 53, 4: 524–552. (March 10, 2022)

Kingsley, Patrick. 2022. “On Ukraine’s Border, Moldovans Wonder: Where Will Putin Stop?” The New York Times, March 6. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/06/world/europe/ukraine-russia-moldova-transnistria.html (March 7, 2022).

Miarka, Agnieszka Aleksandra. 2020. “Para-States as an Instrument for Strengthening Russia’s Position – the Case of Transnistria.” Journal of Strategic Security 13(2): 1–18. doi: 10.5038/1944-0472.13.2.1750.

Tynyaev, Ivan. 2015. “Population census of the PMR.” NewsPMR.com, March 9. http://newspmr.com/novosti-pmr/obshhestvo/15927 (March 9, 2022).

Wagemaker, Joris. 2014. “National Identity in Transnistria: A Global Historical Perspective on the Formation and Evolution of a Resistance Identity.” Journal of Eurasian Affairs 2(1).