The Frozen Republic: Transdniestria

by Christopher Springer

Seventy years after succumbing to a stroke, Vladimir Lenin continues to receive the best available medical attention. The painstaking preservation of his body has been so impeccable that to bring up the fact of his death seems almost ill-mannered.
Seven years ago, Lenin's brainchild ? the Soviet state ? also expired, after losing its battle with terminal capitalism. But some parts of the organism have been slower to decay than others. And a select few have been placed in a kind of suspended animation. Such is the fate of one sliver of the old Soviet Empire: Transdniestria.
Transdniestria, once part of Moldova, took on a life of its own in 1990, as Moldova gravitated away from the ailing Soviet Union. The Transdniestrian population then proclaimed its own breakaway republic ? the PMR ? and declared their allegiance to the Soviet ideal. Since then, some unreconstructed Bolsheviks have expressed the ambition to reassemble the severed body of the old Soviet Union, with the PMR as its heart. Frankensteinian though it sounds, the idea is consistent with Transdniestrian history. Before World War II, Moscow used Transdniestria as a base from which to claim, and eventually annex, all of present-day Moldova.

In the PMR capital, Tiraspol, communism's star still burns brightly. The main street is named "October 25 Street" for the anniversary of the 1917 revolution. Other street names pay homage to the titans of communism: Marx, Lenin, Liebknecht. (Ask for directions to the gas station and you get a thumbnail history of the working-class movement.) And in a roundabout on the approach to the city, a Soviet-era agitprop tower confronts the visitor with three slogans, by turns hard-line authoritarian and bleeding- heart-liberal. One sign bellows: "Our Strength Is in Unity." Another coos: "Peace, Progress and Human Rights." (The third slogan, which I couldn't translate, could have been "Freedom Is Slavery" or, just as easily, "Save the Whales.") There are, of course, other parts of the former Soviet Union where the physical legacy of communism is still visible. The Baltic States may have cast aside their red stars and Lenin statues with a shudder, but in Russia and Ukraine, many of these symbols have been accepted as, for better or worse, a legitimate part of the past. Still, there's a difference between the widow who keeps her wedding ring on and the one who keeps her husband's body propped up at the dinner table. In the PMR the moribund symbols of the workers' state are still invested with a living meaning. There's a certain poignancy, then, in a marble plaque seen on Tiraspol's main street. Unveiled in 1967 for the 50th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, it announces the celebrations for the 100th anniversary, scheduled to be held at the same spot in the year 2017. There is every reason to believe that the invitation is still open.
At the same time, this plaque may be the only part of Tiraspol that looks to the future. The ideological content of Transdniestrian symbolism, once faux-progressive, is now explicitly reactionary. The reason is rooted in Transdnies- tria's strange kind of secession: as Moldova leapt forward, its "breakaway region" stood defiantly still. The "Transdniestrian flag" ? a horizontal green stripe on a red field ? is actually the flag of now-defunct Soviet Moldavia. The hammer-and-sickle seal on government buildings and police cars is also that of Soviet Moldavia. The PMR's sovereignty is posited not on territory but on time: it has seceded from the present and lain claim to the past.

But this strange preoccupation with the past can be understood as more than a sort of necrophilia. Consider the two monuments that flank the approach to Tiraspol. To the left, Alexandr Suvorov, who founded Tiraspol and fought the Ottomans for it, is immortalized in bronze, leading his troops into battle atop a rearing steed. To the right, a Soviet tank on a pedestal, beside the graves of fallen soldiers, bears witness to the sacrifices of Tiraspol in World War II. Russian nationalism faces Soviet "internationalism" ? but this head-to-head confrontation comes off more like a meeting of minds. And here lies the essential reason for Transdniestria's secession: the national question. The PMR is the product of a Slavic population's fears of assimilation into a Romanian/Moldovan polity. Cut off geographically (although not militarily!) from its traditional protectors in Moscow, Transdniestria looks back longingly at the empires, Russian and Soviet, that once anchored it in place. No wonder, then, that the World War II memorial has since been expanded to include the graves of those who died fighting for the PMR during the 1992 civil war. Can that quick-and-dirty military incursion ride the coattails of the "Great Patriotic War"? The question is not just a historical one. The shakiness of the PMR's viability makes the construction of a glorious history all the more important. Most every state builds its own myths. But few today depend on them the way Transdniestria does.


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