Transnistria and Bendery

Transnistria is an unusual place on the border between Moldova and Ukraine, home to around half a million people. It is about as close as you get to being a country without being a recognised country. It has it’s own parliament, flag, finances, currency, army, border controls, and passport (not recognised by others) but is caught between the EU and Russia, and likely to remain in this limbo indefinitely. It is only recognised by the other breakaway states of the former Soviet Union – Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia.

Locals call it Pridnestrovie rather than the Romanian introduced name Transnistria. In Soviet times it was most densely populated part of the USSR, filled with industries supplying the union. With 14% of the population of Moldova it generated 40% of the GDP. The population is a roughly equal mix of Romanian, Ukrainian and Russian, with Russian being the main language, whereas Moldovans speak Romanian (though call it Moldovan).

It was part of Moldova as part of Soviet rule from 1940 to 1989, after which it fought for independence, with hundreds of people killed. Since 1992 the fighting has stopped but it has remained in limbo in terms of sovereignty. A peace keeping force of 1,500 soldiers remains, made up of equal thirds of Transnistrian, Moldovan, and Russian troops.

I spent a couple of days in Transnistria, starting in Bendery, before staying two nights in the main city of Tiraspol. Bendery is a pleasant low rise town, developed to service the Tighina Fortress. An extensive series of tunnels connect the two, which now make digging building foundations risky as many tunnels are unmapped. Once home to around 130,000 people, there are now around 70,000 people, reflecting a typical population decline in former parts of the USSR as people emigrate, to the EU or to Russia.

Around 80% of the town was destroyed during WW2, giving the Soviets the opportunity to rebuild, initially in the more ornate Stalinist style, then the plainer and more functional Khrushchev style.

A good example of the later is the Bendery Bus Station, plain from the outside but home to some attractive murals inside, as well as CCCP, a Soviet style canteen. This served authentic and surprisingly tasty typical food of the era and had a collection of Soviet memorabilia, including the first of four Lenin statues I saw in Transnistria.

Bendery was a major rail hub in Soviet time, with several stations serving different regions. This now closed ten track train station was on the main railway line for the Balkan’s, particularly Bulgaria. Outside is a museum housed in railway carriages, and several monuments to railway workers.

A typical Stalinist building was the elaborate Gorky’s Cinema, home to an impressive foyer.

Opposite surrounded by flowers was another statue of Lenin. During the Khrushchev era the statues of Stalin were removed.

Tighina Fortress (Bendery Fortress) was built in the 16th century by the Ottomans. Conquered by the Russians in the early 19th century it was used as a military training ground for many years. Recently it has been restored and opened to the public, though there is still a military base next door.

One room was dedicated to some of the quite horrific torture devices used in the past, not for the squeamish.

To finish with the much newer Alexander Nevsky Church outside the fortress, a good example of the Orthodox style.

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