Tiraspol sits 70km east of Chisinau and is the second-largest city in Moldova or the largest city and capital of Transdniestr, depending on your point of view. This peculiar place is more Soviet-licious than Moscow these days, making it a genuine open-air museum for those interested in taking a truly bizarre trip back in time, via a 90 minute, nerve-wreaking maxitaxi ride from Chisinau, which in itself will probably be as memorable at the city itself.
That said, just like every other place in the region, things here are changing rapidly. MTV materialistic influences are simmering, despite the fantastic poverty of the majority of the people here. Furthermore, there’s a tiny, shady elite here that live like semi-captive kings in this minuscule kingdom, making the have/have-not divide all the more distinct.
Entering Tiraspol, coming from Bendery, you’re confronted by the decidedly out-of-place, behemoth state-of-the-art football sports stadiums and neighboring never completed a five-star hotel, built at a cost of untold hundreds of millions of dollars by Viktor Gushan, owner of the Tiraspol Sheriff football team.
It gets even more strange as you enter the city, founded in 1792 following Russian domination of the region, favoring a strong Soviet identity, including the tendency for patent displays of military importance. At the western end of ulitsa 25 Oktober stands a Soviet tank, adorned with the Transdniestran flag. The so called “Heroes’ Cemetery” is just beyond, with its Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and an eternal flame in memory of those who died during the first outbreak of fighting with Moldovan forces on 3 March 1992. There’s also a Russian-sympathetic Afghan war memorial.
The Tiraspol National United Museum (ulitsa 25 Oktober 42) is the closest thing the city has to a local history museum, which skips many of the more interesting aspects of TransD’s past, and features exhibits like retrospectives on poet Nikolai Dimitriovich Zelinskogo, who founded the first Soviet school of chemistry. Across the street is the Presidential Palace that Igor Smirnov built for himself while his people could barely buy staple goods. The enormous ploshchad Konstitutii (plaza) is adjacent to a park-lined concrete promenade along the Dniestr River.
Ulitsa 25 Oktober, Tiraspol’s main drag, is lined with the city’s paltry collection of prominent shops and restaurants. There are new stores, selling trendy merchandise along with striking throw-backs displaying stuff you might have seen in your parent’s (or grandparent’s) photo album. The street is tree-lined, wide, impeccably clean and filled with busy people by day and virtually deserted by night, even on weekends.
So why come here? As mentioned, every-day sights and Soviet-style buildings and monuments will stun most Western foreigners and compel them to shoot dozens of pictures as proof of what they saw. But use caution. People wielding cameras are no longer persecuted as they were just a few years ago, but start taking pictures of anything deemed sensitive to Transnistrian security and you’ll be promptly yelled at by a nearby official. Employing all due inconspicuousness, you should seek out and get pictures of the Dvorets Respubliki (Palace of the Republic), slightly recessed south of the main street between ulitsa Kotovskogo and ulitsa Kommunisticheskaya, which features a mural that defies interpretation. Also, check out the neoclassical House of Soviets (Dom Sovetov), standing tall on the eastern end of ulitsa 25 Oktober, featuring a bust of Lenin out front. Inside is a memorial to those who died in the 1992 conflict. The military-themed Museum of Headquarters (ulitsa Kommunisticheskaya 34) may not allow photos inside, but you should pay a visit anyway.
You can’t enter, but the Kvint brandy factory, in business since 1897, is one of Transdniestr’s pride and joys and it should be seen, if only to have the excuse to go into the little shop and buy several shocking cheap bottles of brandy, which are arguably the best souvenirs that Tiraspol has to offer. There also an outlet store at ulitsa 25 Oktober 84 (and another in Chisinau, but there’s no novelty in shopping at that one!).