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Transdniester: More Than Just Lenin Statues

"Dear comrades! Soviet tour is an exciting journey in the Socialistic past of Transnistria! You will have a dip in the world of monuments of Lenin, Gagarin, and Kotovsky."

That's the inspiring intro to a specialized "Soviet" tour of breakaway Transdniester's capital city, Tiraspol. The pitch, from Transnistria Tour, focuses on one of the city's main attractions: its many statues of Lenin and other Soviet-era heroes that in much of the rest of the former Soviet world have been consigned to the dustbins (and not just historical ones).

The description goes on to say: "You will see the broad streets, optimistic architectural mood, luxurious finish materials of culture houses...a predominance of red, [and] national motives. You will be witness [to] 70 years old Soviet history of Transnistrian region!"

Transnistria Tours is one of a growing number of travel agencies in Moldova and Transdniester to offer guided tours of the region, a tiny sliver of land along the Dniester River that broke away from Moldova in 1990 and maintains its nominal independence.

The two sides fought a war in 1992 that cost some 700 lives, but relations, while still strained, have improved in recent years. Earlier in October, Ambassador Andrei Deshchytsia, an OSCE representative overseeing negotiations between Moldova, Transdniester, and other interested parties, said he was "more and more optimistic" that some kind of settlement could be reached between the two.
A throwback monument of Lenin graces the front of the parliament building in Tiraspol.
A throwback monument of Lenin graces the front of the parliament building in Tiraspol.

It's hard to know whom these specialized Transdniester tours are aimed at. After all, Moldova itself attracted just 8,000 international visitors in 2010 (the last year for which statistics are available), and Transdniester receives just a small fraction of that. In addition, Moldova has a thriving wine industry and a budding tourist trade in rural homestays and eco-tourism.

It wasn't that long ago that Transdniester was known best -- if it was known at all -- as a center for trafficking in arms, drugs, and women. This article that appeared in the U.K.'s "Vice" pretty much sums up what most of the world thinks Transdniester is up to.

Transdniester still has some work to do to clean up its act, and earlier this year a UN report urged authorities to give higher priority to measures against human trafficking. But truth be told, Tiraspol and the rest of the region are looking pretty good these days. On a trip to Tiraspol in May, I was impressed by the city's clean, wide streets, impressive buildings, graceful parks, and, of course, those stirring statues of Lenin. Maybe it's not such a stretch to think people might want to visit here.

Kvint, a Soviet-era brandy that still hits the spot.
Kvint, a Soviet-era brandy that still hits the spot.
So what else is there to do in Transdniester on holiday? Well, there's always the impressive 16th-century Ottoman fortress in Bender or the Noul Neamt Monastery, not far from Tiraspol, which just happens to boast the tallest bell tower (at 70 meters) in either Moldova or Transdniester.

Or then again, there's our favorite way to spend the day: a tour of the fabled Kvint distillery in Tiraspol, the maker of apparently Yury Gagarin's favorite brandy. Transnistria Tour's top-end "Brandy" tour offers tastings of up to 10 shots at a sitting. That's a piece of Soviet-era nostalgia worth hanging on to.

-- Mark Baker

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