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Motherland: Heroic Adventures in Transnistria

The following is an excerpt from the upcoming book “Back in the USSR – Heroic Adventures in Transnistria” by Rory MacLean with photography by Nick Danziger. The book is being published by Unbound solely through reader subscription.

October 20, 2013 - Rory MacLean - Articles and Commentary

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Comrades! Have you ever wondered what became of the socialist dream? What happened to the society of equals? Where all those Red Army generals and KGB colonels went when they retired? It – and they – live on in Transnistria. Sort of.

Transnistria is a borderland at a crossroads, a sliver-thin republic with broad ideals: youthful yet venerable, ambitious but dreamy, no bigger than Cornwall or Rhode Island. Since time immemorial (that is, about 200 years) the land has been part of Greater Russia. It lies both on the eastern bank of the Nistru, one of the oldest geopolitical fault lines in Europe, and at the threshold of an heroic new age. In the perilous days of the Second World War, Hitler and Stalin battled for the continent. Our bold Soviet leader reached across the Nistru and seized Romanian Moldova. He attached it to Slav Transnistria, creating the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, a province of lush vineyards, sweet orchards and – depending on who was occupying it – either Nazi death camps or Communist gulags. After the defeat of Fascism, the territory remained part of the USSR and hundreds of victorious Red Army officers chose to build their dachas along the riverbank, savouring the balmy southern climate, dreaming of greater glories.

In 1989 their opportunity came with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The province’s traitorous western half turned its back on the Slavic world, making Romanian its official language, joining both NATO’s Partnership for Peace and the Council of Europe. In response an ambitious, Russian-born factory manager on the Nistru’s eastern bank galvanised the nostalgic soldiers and not-a-few opportunists to retain the link with Moscow. A thousand civilians were killed in the ensuing conflict. The Kremlin deployed its 14th Army to support the patriots and from that defining moment, Transnistria became a unique democratic society: proud, independent, profitable, and recognised by no other country in the world.


At the end of an alley behind Tiraspol No. 3 Compulsory School stood the headquarters of the Communist Party of Transnistria. A concrete Lenin surveyed the front hall of the two-up two-down conversion. “Iron Felix” Dzerzhinsky, first chairman of the Cheka and KGB, glowered in his portrait behind the Lavazza coffee machine.

“The Soviet Union is the place where I was born. It is my Motherland,” declared Oleg Khorzhan, striking his chest with his fist. “My job as Party leader is to preserve – and to carry forward – the positive attributes of the USSR: its power, its social guarantees, its absence of borders and, above all, its belief in tomorrow.”

His silver watch sparkled as he folded together his podgy fingers. I guessed it was a Patek Philippe.

“On November 2nd 1990 – in the upheaval following the fall of the Berlin Wall – I saw ordinary civilians shot on the Dubasari Bridge,” he told me with feeling, naming the Nistru river crossing where three locals were killed by capitalist Moldovan troops, thereby enflaming the ‘war of independence’ which led to the creation of Transnistria. “I was 14 years old at the time. I saw how nationalistic feeling was being cultivated in Moldova, and how Moldovans turned against their brothers, even shooting them in the back. I realised then that I could not live in such a place. As soon as I finished high school I moved to Transnistria and became a Communist.”

He signed up in Tiraspol, capital of the breakaway enclave.

“I believed – and still believe – that all the former Soviet republics will one day join together again, not as a single state but as an economic union. This is not a dream; it’s a reality for me.”

Behind him hung a wall map of the old USSR, its 15 republics united in fraternal brotherhood. With the Union’s dissolution, all the republics had become independent, some like Moldova fracturing into even smaller entities.

“People with such strong historical and economic connections are meant to live together for eternity,” he assured me.

Khorzhan rose from his melamine desk and opened a cupboard to show me a red Communist rain shell, thousands of which had been handed out to supporters, and friends of supporters, and friends of friends of supporters who couldn’t resist freebies. He presented me with a Party pen, noting with pride. “Around the world young people wear the hammer and sickle on their t-shirts. Communist symbols are graffitied on walls. This is not nostalgia. Youngsters realise what is good for the planet. They understand that selfishness guarantees them no future,” he told me, morphing Marxist-Leninism with Green anti-globalisation gobbledygook. He went on, “The Soviet leaders understood the importance of selflessness. Did Stalin lead an independent Georgia or the united Soviet Union? Was Nikita Khrushchev a Ukrainian politician or a great Soviet leader?”

As I wrestled with the subtleties of his argument, he puckered his lips, blinked away a nervous tick and explained how after Transnistria’s war of independence – which had claimed to be preserving Communism – the Communists were elbowed out of power.

“They stole our property,” he grumbled, a frown troubling his boyish looks. “My comrades and I were arrested for organising a meeting and sentenced to one-and-a-half years in prison. But Communist Parties from around the world – even from Great Britain – sent telegrams of support and the sentence was commuted.”

The Party’s office used to occupy the biggest single building in the country. Every state employee had been a member. Marxism–Leninism was the most powerful ideological weapon in the struggle against imperialism. But now his HQ had been relocated at the end of an alley.

“It wasn’t fair,” sighed Khorzhan who isn’t yet 40. His peevishness brought to mind the words of French Premier Georges Clemenceau who once wrote, “The man who is not a socialist at 20 has no heart, but if he is still a socialist at 40 he has no head.”

Yet since his release from prison (he was locked up for only 36 hours) Khorzhan and the authorities had found a way to work together, judging from his weight gain since his election to the Supreme Soviet.

“We modern Communists have left behind the old stereotypes,” he said in words which rang like music in my ears. “We have accepted the market economy, the ownership of private property. For me it’s no longer a question of everyone being equal but rather of fairness. I think that almost everyone on the planet recognise that there are only two possible courses: the dead end of selfishness or the road to fairness.”

I paused to savour his statement. In Transnistria Marx’s visionary manifesto has been adjusted for the modern, mercantile age, the central principle of equality replaced with this notion of ‘fairness’.

“Not everything that former president Igor Smirnov did was wise,” said Khorzhan, choosing his words with care, looking over his shoulder out of habit. Smirnov was the spunky factory manager who had led the 1990 insurgency, grabbed power and ordered Khorzhan’s arrest. “But at least he never turned against our monuments. He kept our historical symbols alive: Lenin still stands in most town squares, Tiraspol’s main street is named after the October Revolution. These symbols enable us to respect history, and to avoid repeating errors, and so will help our Motherland to find its way toward the future.”

With those stirring words the last Communist deputy in the last Supreme Soviet smiled sweetly, offered me his plump hand, then opened the door to usher me back into the real world.

Read an interview with Rory MacLean and Nick Danziger here.

Rory MacLean is a Canadian best-selling travel writer and author. His non-fiction books include Stalin’s Nose and Under the Dragon as well as Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India. His personal history of Berlin will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in January 2014. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Learn more about how you can support the publication of the book in its entirety at: http://unbound.co.uk/books/back-in-the-ussr. 

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