Playing in Putin’s Backyard

Ukraine, Transnistria and Moldova

Bike in a JCB scoop, Odessa docks, Ukraine
How my bike got to passport control, Odessa

Odessa is the Ukraine’s gateway to the Black Sea.  A more northerly Istanbul or a southerly Moscow, it was the outer extremity of Europe-proper. It had quality goods in the shops, where I was at last able to replace my fraying bike gear. It had a baroque opera house, the first I’d seen since oooh, maybe California? Stravinsky would have seen his works performed here, and Prokofiev; names I’d learned in school, part of the Western musical tradition. This was the start of my culture, my heritage. This was the final landfall before I sailed for Britain itself, and the start of the last two thousand miles home.

I could happily have stayed in Odessa, or even lived there. Amid the traits of familiarity though, were reminders of something much further from home. Russia, that great nation that I’d first glimpsed all the way back in Japan, had made its presence felt here too. Sevastopol, the next city around the Black Sea shore, had nestled gleaming against the mountains as the ferry had passed the day before. On the maps it was Ukrainian, in the UN it was Ukrainian but it was now governed by Russia, for the first time since the days of Florence Nightingale.

Odessa lesbian street art
Odessa street art

Fifteen modern republics make up the former USSR; this trip took me through seven of them. Russia is but one, the largest, but for each part of that former empire that got away from Moscow in 1991, the plan has followed a pattern. Find a Russian minority, stir up discontent, possibly send them guns, then encourage them to start a fight. Wait for the authorities to crack down then weigh in on the side of your countrymen abroad. Send troops. Stop the fighting you manufactured, and take over the land while you’re at it. The result: a reduced original state and an ‘autonomous’ Russian client state. Even if it doesn’t go this far, the country is weakened by the internal rifts and is forever fighting against itself. Either way, Russia wins.

A History of Tractors in Ukrainian
A History of Tractors in Ukrainian

Ukraine had (or rather didn’t have) the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Georgia had two Russian breakaway regions: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Montenegro – never even a part of the USSR but of Tito’s Yugoslavia – escaped a takeover plot as recently as 2016, and has a parliament and a chamber of commerce that are both stacked with Russian influence. Now I was going to my last Soviet republic, Moldova, and to get there I’d have to pass through Transnistria.

Pulled one way by Romania and the other way by Russia, Moldova had been locked in a tug of war for thirty years, and Transnistria is the result: a Russophile zone with its own passports, money and borders, speaking Russian rather than the Romanian-influenced Moldovan tongue, on the narrow strip of land between the river Dniester and the Ukraine.

Evening was closing in as I reached the Transnistrian frontier. I’d been led to expect bribes but never got asked for any – the bike clearly doing its job of casting me as an impoverished lunatic. It was just a normal border checkpoint, like any other:

“Where you go?”
“Errr, Moldova”
“Aah, transit.”

The guard filled my entry slip for one of Europe’s most questionable regions. There was no stamp in my passport so I’d have some explaining to do at the opposite frontier, but that was a problem for later – or so I thought …

Tiraspol, Transnistria
Tiraspol, Transnistria

“Your visa, it finishes at midnight” pointed out the innkeeper in Transnistria’s capital Tiraspol. I’d expected a two day visa but the guard’s ‘transit’ clearly had other implications. The night was cold, not a place I wanted to go for an emergency border run, and not somewhere I wanted to camp while still in Vladimir Putin’s militarized backyard … “It’s okay I get it renewed”. She disappeared off into the darkness as I settled into my room, relieved but not quite at ease. For all I knew she might return with an AK-toting state security official – but no, my passport was there in the morning, complete with renewed entry slip and good for another day to get to Moldovan Moldova.

Orthodox Christianity: Chisinau Easter Day Parade
Chisinau Easter Day parade
Rollerblading in Chisinau Moldova
How other Moldovans choose to spend Easter

It was Easter day when I reached the capital Chisinau, a week after I’d celebrated Easter in Georgia. A parade of mostly old people marched down the street, carrying banners of Jesus got up in Eastern style, while the younger half of the population watched from their coffee shops or skated to the local roller park. Rollerblading was replacing religion here, like a Father Ted episode gone wrong.

Rusty steelworks passed me by as I rolled over the western fringes of the country, leaving the last of my seven Soviet states since Tajikistan, entering the EU. The creaking girders could have been from a Bond film, except that now the border was open and the men leaning chatting against the railings were talking about how to get tradesman jobs in Britain. Where did I live, I was asked, and could I take his friend’s number to get my plumbing done? Well, I didn’t really live anywhere now. True enough but soon I would: one more country and I’d be in Central Europe, two more and I’d be across the old Iron Curtain. Everything was becoming more familiar. I was entering the home straight.

Rusting factories in Moldova

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