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back in the USSR

“Why on Earth would you want to go there?” For much the same reasons that our guest was excited about the possibility of visiting Transnistria, our Moldovan friends greeted the news of our proposed Tiraspol trip with genuine bafflement.

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Variously called a land forgotten by time and a living museum of Soviet kitsch, Transnistria is a thin strip of Moldova sandwiched between the Nistru River and the Ukranian border that has been under de facto control of a separatist regime since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Clashes between the separatists and the Chisinau-based authorities took place as early as late 1990, and they intensified when Moldova declared its independence in August 1991. The two sides finally agreed to a ceasefire in 1992, and since then the conflict has been frozen in time, with the so-called authorities in Tiraspol unsuccessfully clamoring for independence while Moldova attempts to bring its wayward territory back under central control.

Even Russia, the international actor most responsible for bolstering the region’s autonomy has stopped short of granting Transnistria diplomatic recognition. Of course, sometimes realities on the ground do not mirror diplomatic conventions. There may be no legal border, but the checkpoints along the administrative boundary are very real indeed, and sometimes the amount of red tape one must navigate to gain access to Transnistria can be substantial.

For Cam, who grew up on Cold War-era Hollywood films and is old enough to remember the threat of the Red Menace, seeing Soviet-era symbols proudly displayed along Tiraspol’s streets felt both surreal and disturbing. For D, who spent his childhood behind the Iron Curtain, the continued veneration of long-ago discredited Bolshevik ideals mostly filled him with profound sadness.

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Take away the extant Soviet symbols, the Lenin statue and the armored vehicles, and Tiraspol is not too different from the rest of Moldova. Second in size only to Chisinau, the city bustles with life. There are the usual relics of Soviet-era construction, but there are new buildings also, and the cars plying Tiraspol’s streets are no older than the ones in Moldova’s capital. Cam had been expecting to see more obvious signs of abject, post-Soviet poverty, and on this score he was pleasantly disappointed.

Of course, appearances can be deceiving. One of our Moldovan friends referred to Tiraspol as a ghost city, and in many respects he is right. There are very few economic opportunities. No one knows for sure how many of Transnistria’s approximately half-million residents actually live there, but it’s fair to say that many, if not most, of the region’s young people have left to earn a living elsewhere.

We had just one destination on our itinerary: KVINT, whose quality cognacs had earned Tiraspol considerable renown dating back to Soviet times. We were greeted by Oleg, KVINT’s enthusiastic sports director, whom D had met several times through work. While we waited for our English-speaking tour guide, Oleg led us to a small side room that housed a sports museum filled with trophies and medals. Improbably, KVINT sponsors a youth baseball team, and our exuberant host regaled us with stories of Tiraspol’s baseball triumphs and tribulations. He was so excited to showcase the team’s accomplishments that D had a hard time interrupting his rapid-fire Russian, and his narrative would have been entirely lost on Cam had our guide not arrived to translate.

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The development of baseball in the Soviet Union is a curious chapter in international sports history. The game did not arrive in the USSR until the early 1980’s when a group of Cuban students studying in the Ukranian port town of Odessa brought their bats and gloves halfway across the world with them. Oleg showed us a well-worn mitt, which he claimed was the first one to be brought to the USSR. The claim is impossible to verify, of course, but is at least plausible — Tiraspol is a stone’s throw away from Odessa, and the game caught on more successfully there than in most parts of the USSR.

Even as the Soviet Union teetered on the brink of collapse, the USSR’s ministry of sport sought to develop a Soviet super team, which they hoped would defeat the Americans at their own game on the Olympic stage at the 1992 summer games in Barcelona. Despite a lack of equipment and training, several dozen baseball teams sprang up throughout the USSR in the late 1980’s. The Tiraspol team was one of the most successful, winning the USSR baseball championship in 1990 — the first and only year the tournament was held. The trophy seems destined to reside forever in the KVINT trophy room, as the USSR dissolved the following summer. Tiraspol’s adult team folded shortly thereafter, but a youth team remains.

After Oleg exhausted his stories, our tour guide — an implausibly pleasant young lady named Anna — led us on an English-language tour of the KVINT facility. We started in a little museum that showcased KVINT’s history and featured the several hundred medals, trophies, grand prix cups, and other awards garnered by its cognacs. The room also had several displays of old Soviet-era bottles, including one that had been sent aboard a Soviet space ship and — improbably — returned still corked, untouched by the astronauts.

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We stopped by the labeling line, and visited the collections room, which in addition to old, moldy cognac bottles holds glass casks of spirits dating all the way back to the 1950’s. They are used, sparingly, to produce KVINT’s limited-edition 50-year-old cognacs. Nothing older than 1951 survives, as the facilities were razed twice — first during the 1917 October Revolution and again during World War II — and had to be rebuilt from scratch.

There are 11 million liters of cognac stored in cooling tanks, casks, and barrels on KVINT’s premises. Apparently the barrels “sweat,” losing approximately 2 percent of their contents to evaporation. One room in particular was filled with the cloying aroma of vaporized cognac. Anna told us that the factory workers who were assigned to work in this room could spend no more than 50 minutes at a time inside. At the conclusion of each shift they would have to leave and clear their heads so as not to become intoxicated by breathing in the sweet cognac vapors.

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Our tour ended in a long drawing room with an equally long table that had been set with hors d’oeuvres to accompany our cognac tasting. We sampled 7 different blends, including the 10-year “surprise,” which had been specially designed for the 1962 Politburo summit in Moscow; the 15-year Tiraspol; and the 40-year Suvorov, which is named after the greatest general in Russian history, and the man who is credited with establishing the town of Tiraspol in 1792.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’d never be one to question why you’d visit this place. To see what’s there, of course! It sounds like an interesting place even if only because it’s so inaccessible. But I guess there’s enough to see if you actually had a tour guide, and the cognac looked like a good destination point to me.

    February 18, 2015
    • It’s often the case that people living in a given place do not see the appeal for foreigners of visiting the local “attractions”. When I was in the Peace Corps, we had tons of backpackers come to my village to go hiking in the nearby canyons. They were gorgeous – some of the most beautiful hiking I’ve ever done. The locals couldn’t understand why so many people flocked to their village. They would say, “It’s just a ravine and all these visitors do is walk for hours. Walking for the sake of walking – that doesn’t sound enjoyable.”

      D

      February 18, 2015
  2. It’s always interesting to read about foreigners visiting Transnistria. I’m from Chisinau, originally, never been to Tiraspol, save for the only time we were driving through from Odessa… The most “back-to-USSR” moment of my life in Moldova :). What I did like in Transnistria is the Sheriff stadium, which is, interestingly, a sports stadium of international class. Oh, and btw, interesting point about baseball… I’ve never even heard a word about it from any of the sports journalists or officials I’ve met.

    February 20, 2015
    • Yes, the Sheriff stadium is very nice. We’ve been to a handful of games, including when Tottenham played Sheriff in the UEFA knockout stage last year. Alas, Sheriff did not qualify for European competition this year.

      February 20, 2015

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