Transnistria: (not) back to the USSR
is Transnistria actually a time machine?
It is a cloudy day when I am in my winter coat next to a theatre in the city center of Tiraspol. I hear the music that I listened to as a kid: my mom would play Soviet songs for me and show me her favourite movies. Now, when I am standing next to the renovated center and hear those songs playing on the street, I am all of a sudden brought back to my childhood. I am sure that my dad, who travelled to Transnistria with me this time, shared the feeling in more depth: the USSR was his life. I cannot do anything about the fact that Soviet culture makes me feel comfortable and at home, nor would I like to change it. There is something about its music and movies, about those remaining Lenin statues in the streets of Transnistria, or the one I got at the flea market in Tbilisi to bring it back to Eindhoven.

Transnistria is a special bit of Europe. It is a tiny, elongated part along the Dniester River of still quite a small Eastern European country – Moldova. Despite being officially included within the borders of Moldova, the people of Transnistria do not possess Moldovan passports. It considers itself an autonomous republic, therefore there is a one-sided border between the two, and passport control to enter the area. What used to be one country, split into parts in the civil war of 1992.

To me, Transnistria is a special place to be. It is where my mom grew up and where I spent time at my grandparents' place as a kid. It is where I learned how to ride a bicycle (at times unsuccessfully, screaming to my granddad 'Hey come here I am all broken don't you see'), or read my first book of fairy tales. My grandparents' moving to Chisinau changed my connection with Bendery, allowing me to see it now through a more objective lens, with a bit of detachment. Nevertheless, it still means that I can walk around the town and remember that it was once a place where my grandma would get me my favourite milkshake.

In general, Transnistria is often referred to as the time machine back to the USSR due to its Soviet architecture, names of the streets, culture, Russian as the main language, and Lenin statues in various places. This 1-hour drive from the Moldovan capital is often associated with travelling several decades back in time, ending up in the eighties.

It is a place with rich history, with traces that lead to Medieval times, such as the Bendery castle of the 16th century or other medieval examples. The history of Transnistria (or as we call it in Russian – Pridnestrovie) is not linear. It started from being a part of the Russian Empire in the 19th century to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924-1940 as the Moldavian Autonomous SSR. In 1940 the Transnistrian land was combined with Bessarabia (another part of current Moldova that at the time belonged to Romania) to create Moldavian SSR. Moldavian SSR – abbreviated MSSR – played a big role within the Soviet Union, particularly in the field of agriculture, being a major source of fruit (especially grapes), vegetables, some grains (for instance, corn), and sunflowers, with Transnistria being the center of MSSR heavy industry and producing 90% of its electricity. With pro-Romanian nationalism gaining popularity in MSSR, Transnistria decided to leave in June 1990 and become independent, forming the Transnistrian Moldovan SSR, which officially had no legal authority.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Transnistria proclaimed its independence, which remains unrecognized. Based on the results of a referendum (the validity of which is still doubtful), Transnistrian citizens voted for its independence with 98% of supporters. This led to the rise of conflict between Transnistrian and Moldovan political forces. Moldova, however, saw this as the intervention of Moscow. In 1992, Moldovan President Snegur authorized military action against Transnistria, which led to the escalation and civil war, mainly happening in the city of Bendery. The conflict was stopped by the intervention of the Russian 14th Guard Army supporting Transnistria; its role became crucial in preventing further violence and led to the Republic of Moldova and the Russian Federation signing the agreement of immediate ceasefire. Since then, Transnistria, despite being an unrecognized state, has full control over its territories. The situation, however, remains a 'frozen conflict' with unresolved issues. It means that at any point it might unravel again, with Russia having a strong influence on Transnistria. This is the reason why Transnistria is separated from the rest of Moldova, has its own borders and a different atmosphere, thus forming a special part of it, that, by visiting it, is perceived by many as a journey back to USSR.

There is a misconception that architecture and politics exist separately, but this is to a large extent not true: they go hand-in-hand, which is especially visible with the example of Transnistria. Its separation from Moldova and a different political vector it has taken create a distinct atmosphere in various senses: architecture-wise, monumentally, decoratively and, of course, culturally. You will not find any statues of Lenin around Chisinau – all of them have been demolished, even with some of the Soviet bas-reliefs taken away from the facades, seeing those as the remnants of the shameful time. Instead, Transnistria maintains the street names (the October Revolution of 1917th or all the Lenin Streets in many towns) and preserves the monuments: you encounter dedications to communism and Lenin in various shapes and places. The clues of the USSR are also supported by the beautiful mosaics found around Transnistria, the art that is a heart and, arguably, the most liberal of Soviet arts and crafts. They typically refer to the function of the building they were located at, hinting at its role. Since it is often a celebration of ideology, and at times pure propaganda, mosaics in the rest of Moldova are often – and sometimes unfairly – dismounted. Transnistria, again, keeps the appreciation towards this type of art and conserves the mosaics (as an example – Fat Frumos restaurant in Bendery), which definitely add to its atmosphere.

This way, Transnistria is a bubble and might seem like a time machine that can take you back to the Soviet Union. Surrounded not only by Soviet architecture, Lenin statues, and a huge portrait of Gagarin on the side of a residential building but also by the culture of Soviet songs and movies, it comes together in one associated with the USSR picture.
This atmosphere is cherished and taken as its specialty, which was vividly clear when we stumbled upon the canteen called...canteen, which recreated those existing in the past, during the flourishing times of the USSR.
The Soviet architecture was rich and fascinating: starting with avant-garde movements emerging from art with its rays touching on architecture, to the beautiful in its rationality modernist buildings (more on Soviet Architecture I wrote in this post earlier). What is further known as Stalinist architecture usually signifies the Soviet Monumental Neoclassicism. It is where we come to the buildings of Seven Sisters that emerge in our imagination as we think about Moscow (for example, Moscow State University), a symbol of Stalin's power; an architectural silhouette moulded by politics. Moreover, for one of the Seven Sisters, which initially had no spire, Stalin himself commented that 'it looked too American', and ordered to add one later. In Transnistria, Soviet Neoclassicism of the 1930s is represented by the theater of Aronetskaya (a project by Grigory Gotgelf), completed in 1936, where I hear Soviet music and start my Transnistrian journey.

After the death of Stalin, and Khrushchev attempting to distance himself from the previous leader, things took a different turn. From criticizing the cult of Stalin to completely changing the rules, the Khrushchev Thaw era left significant traces on the architectural image of the USSR, which stays an essential part of what we picture today in our minds for post-Soviet countries. At this, you can imagine the Plattenbau residential buildings and some of the finest examples of Soviet brutalism – linear and strict. It happened not purely by itself or by architecture gradually taking this direction: it was imposed by Khrushchev's decree of 'Of elimination of architectural excesses in architecture'. Politics, once again, does not subtly direct architectural tendencies but sets rules that are to be obeyed. Soviet modernism took over the USSR's architecture, becoming a dominant force of the time, pursuing the main goal of providing all required functions at those times (for instance, providing mass housing at a very high speed – one apartment block was sometimes built in two weeks).
You can therefore imagine the image of Transnistria – the place that remained frozen in the time of the 1970s, the place where, contrary to the whole of Moldova, the architecture of the USSR is rather cherished. The phase of post-war and socialist modernism is evident in its architecture, it keeps the traces of the times through the series of buildings with diverse typologies, that present uniqueness to its architectural cityscape. It developed due to a variety of factors. The emergence of electrical transport in Tiraspol (such as trolleybuses) led to the expansion of the prefabricated construction industry, which in its turn allowed a breakthrough in the architecture of the city. Other than multiple residential buildings and the new central square, it leads us to the charming Palace of Pioneers in 1980 by Sumishevskiy. Based on the repetition of the typological project (a project developed earlier that could be used in different places around the Soviet Union), it demonstrates the plasticity of the façade in its rhythmic divisions, habitual for USSR combinations of materials, strictness that offers a certain elegancy.
Other remarkable pieces of architecture include the House of the Soviets and the House of the Government. The first one, designed by Serghei Vasiliev and constructed in 1953, is grandiose and monumental and used to be the main symbol of the city in Soviet times. Next to it, you meet the statue of Lenin's head – where tourists usually stop to take a picture. In its composition, the House of the Soviets is half-open, symmetric, and massive columns take up the whole height of the building. It then becomes a statement of power, using the common techniques for administrative buildings of the USSR. The House of the Government (architects S.Homa, Dubrovski and Burnos) was built later, in 1987, a dominant building that currently hosts the Transnistrian government (with the huge Lenin statue next to it, of course).

Still, Tiraspol, as the capital of the region, undoubtedly brings renovations to its finest places. It means that the House of the Soviets now possesses bright colours, the abovementioned theater with music – a layer of sandy plaster with a big, paved road in front of it. It also means that at times the residential Soviet towers are neighbored by vividly bright blue buildings or grandiose post-modern questionable developments.
It is here where the town of Bendery stands out. There is a certain charm in its abandonment, it is not merely frozen but stuck in the 70-s but now with the formerly unknown silence coming from all the people who left, in search of a better life. Lenin statues are smaller – but still a part of the street, sometimes discovered by accident and surrounded by sprawling plants. Its architecture is breathing out the times when it was inhabited and lived, it whispers the poems that celebrate its past modernity. It comes with the Gorky Cinema by Medneck, constructed in 1954 where the Pioneers were getting their title.
The central library of Bendery is bitter-sweet nostalgia of the 80s, an instance of common destiny to the buildings of the USSR. Built during the prosperity of the city, at the end of 1982, it became one of the main Soviet Modernist treasures with a centralized library in beautiful white limestone together with a concrete ornamental grid. Other than its aesthetic quality, the concrete lattice had a specific function other than mere decoration – sun shading for the library.

Today, when Bendery is a quieter and less vibrant place, architectural treasures are rarely renovated – only when in desperate conditions. The library is one of the examples, with the concrete grid having lost its quality. Its deterioration and the emergency condition forced the municipality to take parts of the lattice entirely, and its dismount is a dolorous event in the eyes of Transnistrians. The allocated budget would not be able to cover the whole restoration, so other – cheaper and, most likely, less sophisticated – alternatives are being considered. It is upsetting to see architectural gems decaying or becoming purely renovated, and it is the destiny that even Transnistria - despite its care and appreciation of Soviet architecture - takes, due to the low budget.
This, however, raises a question: if the budget was there, and higher quality restoration opportunities were used, would Bendery still possess its atmosphere? Or would it then become an alteration that loses the appeal unless kept at its essence? Or if people stayed there and the city remained at its 80s vibrancy, would it even be possible to maintain the 'stuckness' in the older times, or does it necessarily require desertion by people to allow us to travel in time when taking a bus to Transnistria?
Other walks around Bendery bring back to the question of atmospheres. It is the abandonment that builds the charm, and it is the very same abandonment that makes me sad to see the lost opportunities in developing the place that could, potentially, with its political alienation from the rest of Moldova, make the Soviet spirit its specialty. It is the rough Civil Registration office close to the river or the rusty amusement park where I enjoyed spending time as a kid. It feels as if life stopped there – all of a sudden – abruptly moved somewhere else so that it is so quiet that you are wondering – what was it like here before? The House of Culture can give a subtle clue, with a newly built square in front of it. It is lively but new, still referring to the Soviets, making it a pleasant place to stay. The overall silence, however, is everywhere else, consuming the thoughts and the feeling: would I actually be back in the USSR in this place?

(lovely photos below - pictures from a book about Bendery that my uncle won after writing a poem about it)
It is then bringing me to the point of thinking that the feeling is then not back to the USSR – and it would be unfair to give it this title because it would then become deceitful, since…back in USSR, in the seventies, it was flourishing and full of life, cheerful and cherished. This is why it is the independence and separation that are making it decay, it is a common fate of the countries that share the Soviet history, and it is an unfair treatment of that abovementioned past, which was – not always – but full of liveliness and prosperity in the 1970-80s, at least in the cities of current Transnistria.

The comparison of Transnistria with a USSR time machine occasionally comes from ignorance and the perception that life in the USSR was brutal, probably slightly depressing, with Lenin all over the place and the Soviet anthem all around. This might sound overly romanticized, but the times of the USSR were in fact saturated with enthusiasm and common ideals; that is why many people from two or more generations older, speak of it with nostalgia and love. It is why, as much as we would love to think of this abandonment as a part of the Soviet image, it is instead a result of the independence that was not used at its full opportunity, the momentum of freedom not taken at its force, and the separation from Moldova not justified enough, or I would even say, not lived up to.

It means that even though everything is seemingly supporting the atmosphere of the USSR and adding to this fame of Transnistria, it is a common misconception that could, however, turn into a wonderful opportunity for the region that was, once again, given to architecture and the urban scene only by the political intervention.

For some of the main inspirational sources for this article, I want to thank Sergiu Tronciy for sharing his PhD Research of - Constituirea Arhitecturii Orașului Fluvial Tiraspol.

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