Visit to Transnistria

My wife, Arlene, and I spent a few hours in a little-visited part of the world that is well worth seeing because of its complex history and location.

Transnistria (Trans-Dniestria or Transdniester) is a self-proclaimed autonomous republic that is part of the Republic of Moldova. This pseudocountry consists of a narrow strip of land bordered on the east by Ukraine and on the west by the Dniester River, which separates it from the rest of Moldova.

Moldova is historically part of a larger area called Moldavia. It is believed the original Moldovians were descended from the Dacians, who were conquered by the Romans. This area was repeatedly invaded, by Slavs, Bulgarians and Magyars, and became part of Romania at the beginning of the Middle Ages. It was then part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, was occupied by Russia in the 18th century and was split between Russia and Romania in 1812.

By 1878 Moldova was completely under Russian control and remained so until the Bolshevik Revolution when it was reunited with Romania. In 1924 Russia reoccupation occurred. During WWII, Nazi forces controlled the area and ceded it to their allies, the Romanians. Soviet forces retook it in 1944, with their control formally established in 1947.

The present-day Republic of Moldova (not to be confused with Moldavia, which is the name given to an area in the northeast part of Romania) became independent with the breakup of the USSR in 1991. At the same time, Transnistria broke away from Moldova as a self-proclaimed autonomous republic.

In 1992 Moldova and Transnistria had a short war in which Transnistria was supported by the Russian 14th Army, which has a large presence in the area. Moldova’s President Snegur and Russia’s Boris Yeltsin negotiated a ceasefire which provided for substantial autonomy to Transnistria, including the right to secede from Moldova if Moldova ever decides to reunite with Romania.

Today, Transnistria’s population is 800,000, with 200,000 living in the capital, Tiraspol. The people are predominantly Slav, with 41% Russian, 32% Ukrainian and 18% Moldavian. Sixty percent of the people are retired. Russian is the official language.

Transnistria has its own democratically elected president and parliament plus an army and police forces. It issues its own money, which is worthless outside its borders, and its own postage stamps, which are good for mail only within Moldova. Telephone and cellular calls between the two counties are frequently disrupted by government intervention, which makes any regular communication very difficult.

A similar situation exists with their passports, which are recognized only by the Republic of Moldova. No country in the world recognizes this self-declared republic, including Russia, and there are no U.S. consular services available. However, on March 1, 2004, Russia reinstated its intention of establishing a full-fledged consulate office in Tiraspol.

The main industry is probably smuggling and it is controlled by a small number of very rich families and the presence of the Soviet Mafia. Illicit drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, kidnapped women and arms (especially from former Soviet Union military hardware) are some of the smuggled items.

Our June ’04 visit to Transnistria was part of a package tour of Romania, Bulgaria and the Republic of Moldova arranged by Kutrubes Travel (328 Tremont St., Boston, MA 02116; phone 800/878-8566 or e-mail; we enjoyed a trip three-quarters of a day long from Chisinau, Moldova, to Transnistria and back.

If you are planning to visit Transnistria, there are a few very important things to remember. First, have a valid visa for Moldova. This can be readily obtained for a fee of $60 from the Embassy of the Republic of Moldova (2101 S. St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20008; phone 202/667-1130 [or 1131 or 1132]).

Second, have a Russian-speaking driver who has been there before and is familiar with the roads, etc. At the moment, foreigners and Moldovians are allowed to stay for only three hours. If you stay longer, you must report to a special police station, which is difficult to find, or you will be fined a princely sum in dollars at the border (or worse).

The drive from Chisinau to the border (70 kilometers) takes an hour, and there you will find three separate checkpoints with barriers: 1) a Moldovian checkpoint, 2) armed Russian soldiers and 3) Transnistrian Customs & Immigration. Your U.S. passport is not stamped, but you must pay an entry fee of six leu (40¢ U.S.). A small piece of paper is placed in your passport with the time of entry, and it is important not to lose this. We had no problem crossing the border.

We were first taken to visit Naul Neants Monastery, which was built in 1864 and has a resident population of 61 monks. It has extensive, well-laid-out grounds filled with roses, and they grow all their own vegetables.

We were taken on a tour of the grounds by a young resident monk. There is a comprehensive complex of buildings, including a summer and a winter church. Both have beautifully decorated interiors.

The odd thing about this monastery is it is situated in the Republic of Moldova but, by a freak of geography, is accessible only from Transnistria. There was an unmanned border post at its entry.

Later we visited Tiraspol. This is a surprisingly nice city with good roads, lots of trees, many rose and flower gardens and no trash anywhere. The buildings are of typical Soviet construction and appeared to be well kept. The House of the Soviets still had a large statue of Lenin in front.

The people were well dressed and there was an appearance of prosperity. We were told that the average wage is $50-$60 a month, but the cost of living is low and apartments are subsidized by the state.

Soccer is the passion of the Transnistrians, and we passed the recently built Sheriff Company Sports complex which contains a large indoor soccer stadium in addition to regular outdoor stadiums. The guides stated that this had been rated the second-best soccer complex in Europe.

We made it across the Transnistrian and Russian Army border crossings uneventfully, the little pieces of paper being removed from our passports. We had been in Transnistria for two hours and 51 minutes. At the Moldovian border, however, we were asked a lot of inane questions like “Do you have any money?” The trunk of the car was examined, but our guides were very good and we returned to Chisinau safely.

Transnistria is an esoteric part of the world. Its people have largely been forgotten and their country is one of the most isolated in the world.

If we visited Moldova and Transnistria again, we would make our own arrangements. We were charged $645 a day by Kutrubes Travel and this is much too expensive. Moldova is a very cheap place to visit; a good meal with wine for two is less than $10, and a 4-star hotel is less than $100 per night.

Moldova Air has flights to Chisinau from Moscow, Rome, Vienna, Amsterdam, Paris, Lisbon, Athens, Istanbul, Prague, Bucharest and Larnaca. Lufthansa and Turkish Airways also fly into Chisinau.

A local travel agency, Moldova Tur (4 Tefan cel Marc Blvd., Chisinau, Republic of Moldova, MD 2001; tel [373-22] 54 04 61 or visit, can arrange any tour you desire, including a trip to Transnistria, at very reasonable prices. It is just necessary to arrange things in advance.

La Jolla, CA