Having loved all my travels in Eastern Europe, I was excited to be going to Ukraine for the first time; and the self-declared Republic of Transnistria – a country that doesn’t officially exist – a second time.
Ukraine’s capital, dating back to the late 5th century, is a cool city with lots of street art, cafes and a club scene that’s been described as the ‘new Berlin.’ All the Soviet hammer and sickles on buildings have been replaced with Ukraine’s crest, and the huge Friendship of Nations Arch symbolizing the friendship between Ukraine and Russia waits to be demolished under Ukraine’s ‘decommunisation’ laws (in Khreshchatyk Park, at the end of Kyiv’s main street of the same name).
There’s actually no trace of the ongoing war with Russia and if it weren’t for the memorials and large mural saying ‘Freedom is our Religion,’ it would be hard to believe there were massive protests against the former Ukrainian government in Kyiv’s ‘Maidan (Independence) Square’ just a few years prior. Always full of people socializing, on this Sunday afternoon the Square is the venue for a ‘girl versus boy dance-off’ and a faith healing!
Signs positioned around the Square rightly attribute the protests to President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an agreement with the European Union (in favour of an agreement with Russia to whom it owed a lot of money and traded heavily with). His subsequent protest ban led to the killing of at least fifty protestors before, upon realising defeat, he fled to Russia.
Guess what happened then! Protestors took control of Yanukovych’s secret, illegally acquired estate and opened up its beautiful gardens, lake, private zoo, tennis courts and golf course to all Ukrainians. This was made official when government returned the property to State ownership, designated it a national park, and employed protestors and war veterans to maintain the grounds. Could it get any cooler?! It could! His exclusive wooden mansion (aka ‘The Museum of Corruption’!) can be toured! (includes transport from Kyiv and English translator). Alongside the usual extravagances, we’re shown a bowling alley, boxing ring, beauty salon, an ornate chapel, and a multitude of expensive curios. What better way to learn about Ukrainian history and politics?!
With this company I also do two free walking tours of Kyiv’s city centre, which acquaint me with Kyiv’s traditional and not so traditional sites. An especially unique building is the House of Chimeras. Currently the presidential residence for meeting world leaders, it’s adorned with mythical, sea, and African creatures. Legend has it that the architect’s daughter drowned at sea and this was his memorial to her.
Actually, all of Kyiv’s attractions can be reached on foot – except the National World War II Museum. Accessible by metro, it presents the perfect opportunity to check out the nearby, deepest station in the world, Arselnaya (It’s on the Red line). Furthermore, like the Soviet-built metros in Moscow, St Petersburg and Minsk, Kyiv’s stations are great works of art. On this Red line see: Universytet, Teatralna, and Khreshchatyk. On the Green Line: Zoloti Vorota, Slavutych and Holosiivska. And the Blue line: Olimpiiska, Palts Ukrayina, Lybidska, and Minska.
Speaking of world records, the ‘Motherland’ statue on top of the WWII museum is among the world’s tallest. She’s joined by giant friezes of soldiers and civilians whose finely detailed expressions truly capture the full horror of war.
The museum is quite old fashioned (a positive when it comes to its painted battle scene panoramas!) However, it does have a very thought-provoking exhibition on the current war with Russia that, most definitely, achieves its aim of reminding patrons that death and injury statistics are people.
Another museum worth visiting is the National Museum of the History of Ukraine. I see documents officiating Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union, photos relating to Ukraine’s revolutions and the current war, Ukrainian coins and, much to my excitement, Soviet propaganda porcelain and glassware.
My final recommendation is the Chernobyl Museum. Highlights include a light-up model replica, media from the time, and photos/footage of the affected township prior to the disaster.
Next destination – a 6 hour bus ride to the popular holiday spot of…
Its beach lined with Ibiza-style clubs and bars, Odessa has always been a place where anything goes, historically attracting artists, writers and musicians. The most celebrated of these, 19th century Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, is prominently immortalised as a statue on Prymorskyi Boulevard beside Odessa’s port, and a museum 6 minutes’ walk from there (Pushkins’ka St, 13).
The most famous of the port’s landmarks, however, is the Potemkin Stairs. Named after the movie they starred in, The Battleship Potemkin, the staircase was designed to be wider at the top than the bottom, creating the optical illusion of greater height: a person looking down the stairs sees only the landings and not the steps while a person looking up sees only the steps.
Other architectural masterpieces include the Odessa Passage (Deribasovskaya Street 33), the Opera and Ballet Theatre (1 Tchaikovsky Street), and the Odessa Railway Station which opened in 1880 but had to be rebuilt following WWII damage – this time adding statues of Soviet war heroes.
Sadly, I also chance upon a building that I realize I recognise from the news. The Soviet-era ‘Trade Union House’ (Next to the railway station via an underpass) has flowers and one-page memorials outside it, remembering the forty-two people who lost their lives there when a fire broke out during a battle between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian activists.
This tension could have easily spilled over to Odessa’s neighbour one hour 45 minutes away by minibus. Its government requested Russia take over what remains the unrecognised republic of…
Located within the little-known country of Moldova, Transnistria’s significant ethnic Russian and Ukrainian population felt threatened when in 1989 Moldova made Romanian the country’s official language and replaced the Russian script it had been written in with Latin. War broke out in 1992 and ended a few months later when Russia intervened on the side of the separatists.
Since then, Transnistria has had its own government, currency that can’t be exchanged outside Transnistria, stamps that won’t get a parcel any further than Transnistria, and the only current flag and coat of arms in the world to feature the Communist hammer and sickle.
Exploring the main street (‘25 October’ Street) of Transnistria’s capital, Tiraspol, is a surrealist experience. Signs display the aforementioned coat of arms, while Lenin statues continue to front Parliament. School girls walk home in old-fashioned Russian uniforms: frilly, white pinafores. Their hair tied with huge, white pompoms. Soviet-era ‘Cafe-Bar Volna’ (Sverdlova St, 54A) serves up cheap, simple meals. World War II is commemorated via a centrally displayed army tank and ‘Victory Park’ complete with red star fountain. There’s also a huge memorial to the 1992 war against Moldova.
One logo appears everywhere. Established in 1993, the company ‘Sheriff’ operates the only supermarket chain, a petrol station chain, a mobile phone network, a Mercedes-Benz dealer, and a football club/academy with world-class football stadium. Sheriff’s monopoly only feeds the feeling that capitalist Transnistria is still Communist.
What’s almost as fascinating though is how much Transnistria unexpectedly reminds me of home. Walking around the residential areas, I’m shocked to see not just Communist flats but personalised houses with large gardens identical to where I grew up in Australia. Likewise, restaurants ‘7 Fridays’ and ‘Andy’s Pizza’ resemble those in the West, and young people enthusiastically say hello or even stop to talk when they spot my backpack.
Transnistria’s ‘Independence’ Day (2nd September) similarly surprises. Expecting a full-scale military parade down the Russian and Transnistrian flag-lined ‘25 October Street’, I’m shocked when soldiers repeatedly shouting the republic’s name turns into the most innocent display of dancers, gymnasts, basketballers dribbling balls in unison, and cyclists riding around with Transnistrian flags – all to the beat of Europop. It feels more like I’m at a 4th of July celebration in the U.S.!
Nearby, stalls sell BBQ lunches, decorated breads and cakes, discounted furniture (oddly!), and the usual tacky souvenirs – except that in Transnistria the magnets boast Lenin statues and a fashionably-dressed Putin holding the world globe in his hands! The day ends with a concert and fireworks.
Transnistria’s second biggest town is equally endowed with Soviet reminders. Also famous for its sixteenth century Ottoman fortress that saw fighting between Turks and Russians before the region fell to Russia in the early 19th century, it’s conveniently located at the entry/exit to Moldova. A tourist attraction in its own right, Bendery Bus Station has black and white chequered floors, pastel green walls, a 1967 mosaic of a model Soviet city, and the Soviet cafeteria ‘СТОЛВКА CCCP’. Next door, a park contains a holocaust memorial, a Soviet-style statue of a Communist activist, and another army tank.
My Transnistria Takeaways
Traveling Transnistria and Ukraine, you really come to appreciate Russia’s legacy and how this affects relations between people today – not that you feel any of the tension. All that awaits is a fascinatingly different adventure.
When you go:
Independence days of both countries conveniently coincide: Ukraine’s is 24th August and Transnistria’s is 2nd September (or if you’re coming from Moldova, Moldova’s Independence Day is 31st August and Language Day 27th August).
In Kyiv, book a $10 double room at Hostel Podolski: podolskihostel.com
Museum of Corruption tour: freetour.com/kiev/mezhyhirya-tour
At the Transnistria border:
No visa is required, but you must show the Transnistrian border guards evidence of a hotel booking. I recommend this hostel: www.moldovahostels.com . It’s run by cool people who also conduct Soviet-themed tours.
Ask the Moldovan border guards to stamp your passport. This will save you a visit to the immigration office in Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, for entering Moldova illegally.
Written by: Angela Lapham
Angela is a Melbourne-based librarian and history graduate fascinated with Eastern Europe and different cultures and histories in general. Every few years it’s time to take off to Europe for another lengthy adventure!
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