Society

Transnistria: Bringing change, one hostel at a time

Article published on May 16, 2018
Article published on May 16, 2018

Dmitri used to be an activist. For 10 years now, he has committed himself to peace-building and reconciliation work between Moldova and Transnistria – an unrecognised state between Ukraine and river Dniester – where he lives. Over time, Dmitri and his colleagues started questioning the meaning of their actions. That’s when they decided to open two hostels in Tiraspol. 

Turns out Lenin Street Hostel is literally the only hostel you can find when searching for a room in Tiraspol, Transnistria, on Booking.com. Even then, after entering this unrecognised republic, it wasn’t easy to find the place. But we managed, visas in our pockets and patrolled borders behind us.

The hostel is located on one of Tiraspol’s main streets, Lenin Street, right on the back of a traditional 1950s housing block. The entrance is a common condo staircase. Dmitri, a young man in his thirties who runs the place, welcomes visitors by standing at the door on the first floor. The place could pass as a usual hostel in any European city if it weren’t for the abundance of Soviet memorabilia. Portraits of Vladimir Lenin, Soviet flags and old-fashioned maps hang in every room. If nostalgia had a smell, this would be it. As welcoming as Dmitri is upon our arrival, we’re still exhausted from the tiring journey from Chișinău, which we spent under harsh sunlight.

Goodbye, activism?

A friend of ours from Moldova suggested that we stay at Dmitri’s place and take the opportunity to have a chat with him while there. They met each other thanks to activism. In the past, our host was among the most committed and respected activists working in Transnistria. Then one day, he chose to quit: “I gradually understood there was a complete unwillingness from the state to participate in civil and peace-building activities. Besides, I started criticising the NGO’s dependency on external financing. I do not think that internal problems should be resolved with the financial help from the outside.”

At first, Dmitri’s activism was driven simply by his idealistic desire to improve the social conditions of people. But concrete experience led him to more practical considerations: “If the state does not help you, if you are not heard by society, probably there’s no problem, or people do not want to solve the problem. So, after 10 years, we asked ourselves: ‘Are we really going to solve the problems this way?’” The answer was “no”, so Dmitri abandoned the world of institutional activism.

But that doesn’t mean that he lost his yearn for social change; him and his friends started looking for other ways of staying socially engaged. “We realised that problems could be solved only with the involvement of the state and, especially, of business actors. And I am proud to say that I was not wrong. Economics is the playground in which a solution could be eventually found.” Dmitri and some of his colleagues ventured into a brand new territory, without giving up their long-standing values. They opened two hostels in Transnistria’s capital, Tiraspol. What they now earn is re-invested in social activities.

Once we check into our room at the Lenin Street Hostel, Dmitri proudly invites us to have a look at their second place. The next day, we meet up at the Red Star Hostel, where Dmitri welcomes us with some refreshing drinks. Despite its name, this brand new facility – which opened in summer 2017 – looks less nostalgic than the Lenin Street Hostel. The space is modern, offers just one big room and a wide camping garden in front of the building. There is a large red star attached to the white entrance wall.

When asked about his current activities, Dmitri smiles and explains that: “Within our hostel projects, we still have room for volunteering. We help the homeless people. We allocate at least 25% of our profits to helping them. Basically, it’s food and support in obtaining the right papers.” Such grassroots activities are more than fundamental in a state that cannot provide those in need with any social assistance. Transnistria today is financially supported by Russia for at least 95% of its GDP. Not much can be allocated to the state welfare.

No way out

As Dmitri points out, “Of course, it is important to have civil activism in any society, but in Transnistria, given its status, it is even more relevant, however controversial.”  Since the independence war in 1992, Transnistria has been a de facto state, unrecognised on an international level. De jure, this tiny territory, located in between the Dniester River and Ukraine, is part of Moldova. Dmitri regards Moldova and Transnistria as two separate states; the Dniester River seems to keep them far away from each other, both politically and socially. “Youngsters have more opportunities on the [other] side. Since in Moldova foreign investments are larger, more possibilities are created in terms of job, education, and leisure time. Here it is simply less, unfortunately.”

Still, Dmitri claims that international recognition of Transnistria is not really wanted at the moment: “It would kill Transnistria today, unless the state finds anything capable of boosting the economy to the level where it will be self-sustainable.” A solution could even be, he thinks, “making Transnistria an offshore zone.” Besides the economic factor, a real country should also “have a set of bright minds outside Transnistria to promote, to defend, and to make the country visible and successful.” Dmitri continues: “What if North Korea starts a war against Transnistria? The present unrecognised status is not the best scenario, but at the moment it’s the only one possible, the one that is functioning,” he concludes.

Clichés, communism, change

Many western media outlets tend to depict Transnistria as an unwelcoming place, where criminal and illegal activities have been going on since the war. Dmitri is aware of these mainstream narratives, but never loses face: “Lots of bad things written about Transnistria are written by people who have never been here.”

He has hosted a number of journalists in his hostels, and realised that: “Many of them come having already written their article; they just want to fill in the gaps with names, places, and take some fresh photos.” It seems easier to sell an article where Transnistria is narrated as a bad place, still Soviet in its essence. “‘Do not visit it,’ they keep saying, and ‘if you visit it, you are the hero, you survived’.”

Instead, the impressions of those who actually visit the state usually challenge this narrative. “Of course, they all notice that there are more economic activities flourishing in Chisinau, but they say that we in Transnistria are friendlier, streets are more organised and cleaner. Less people on the streets, that is true, but friendlier,” Dmitri explains.

Der Spiegel recently called Transnistria “the last remaining piece of the Soviet Union.” But what do locals think about the Soviet Union and communism?

“In our minds, we still value the communist principles. People still believe in free medicine and social protection, for example. The elderly in particular believe that, at some point, society will reach the level where we will all be equal and comfortable. To some people communist symbols do still carry important meaning. I personally value them, they were related to the bad and good times; those symbols for me are reminiscent of the era that changed the world in a certain way, never to repeat again of course, but I value the time when those symbols were relevant and understood by everyone, inside and outside the USSR,” Dmitri explains.  

After the collapse of the USSR, however, came Russia. For many here, Moscow represents a sort of second capital city. “People always need to believe in something big. It is easier to live this way. In this sense, yes, some people feel nostalgic of the USSR.” Still, Dmitri tells us that nobody refuses to accept that times have change, and it’s time to open Transnistria to the world outside in order to boost the country’s weak economy.

Despite the abundance of communist symbols all over the place – the flag here still displays hammer and sickle – Transnistria today looks like any other modern country, where citizens like Dmitri struggle to create a developed and inclusive society.

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This article was written by Marco CarloneMartina Napolitano and Simone Benazzo, and was originally published on February 26th, 2018 on Voices Of Change, a storytelling project about politically and socially active young people in countries struggling with democracy.