Transnistria: The Country That Doesn't Exist
The mini-bus, packed with passengers, slowed and then stopped. Ahead, barely visible through the dirty windshield and the February mist, was something that shouldn't have been there: a border crossing.
There shouldn’t have been a border crossing because there shouldn’t have been a border.
As far as mapmakers and world governments were concerned, we were still in Moldova, an Eastern European country wedged between Romania and Ukraine.
The guys up there, though, the guys with the guns, they didn't agree.
Back in America, when I let people know I was going to Transnistria, the collective response was: “where?”
And the reason they had never heard of it was because Transnistria, despite having its own constitution, army and currency, isn’t recognized by any other sovereign nation and technically doesn’t exist.
Non-Existent or Not, They Make Great Cognac
The factory was built in 1897,” said Natalya. “It originally produced vodka. It burned to the ground in a fire in 1918, was rebuilt in 1925 and started producing brandy in 1938.”
Natalya Lvovna is the senior master brewer at Kvint, a brandy factory in Transnistria’s tiny capital of Tiraspol. The citizens of Transnistria are very proud of their brandy. So proud, in fact, that a picture of the factory is on the back of their five-ruble bill.
It's been said that Transnistria is lacking in things to be proud of, but it's still young, only a teenager, and doesn't have much of a history to draw upon.
It declared its independence from Moldova in 1990, when the Soviet Union was in the process of collapsing, and the Transnistrians worried that Moldova would leave the USSR to rejoin Romania.
The citizens of Moldova shared a language, history and culture with Romania (the two were the same until Hitler and Stalin hacked them apart), but the future citizens of Transnistria did not.
Soviet-Era Three-Card Monte
Most had been transplanted there from Russia during the many times the USSR had played Three-Card Monte with its populace, hoping — among other things — that all the relocating would result in a more homogenized empire.
Stuck on the outskirts and far from their homeland, the last thing they wanted to be was Romanian.
Natalya’s parents were some of those transplants, Russian natives whose daughter grew up with Moldovan dreams. Moldova was famed for its wines, and its children wanted to be wine makers the way other children might want to be doctors or lawyers.
Natalya studied chemistry in college in hopes of entering the alcohol business and ended up designing brandies for Kvint. Since then, Kvint’s products have won two Super Grand Prix Cups, 12 Grand Prix Cups, one Gold Diploma, 84 gold medals, 28 silver medals and four bronze medals at international competitions, most of them in Eastern Europe.
A Brief But Bloody Civil War
Natalya lived through the civil war that led to Transnistria’s creation, but she changes the subject when it's brought up. As wars go, it was bloody but brief. The Transnistrians — supported by USSR’s 14th Guards Army — clashed off and on with Moldova until 1992, after which a cease-fire was called.
Transnistria always hoped to be annexed by Russia, a hope that hasn't faded with time. In 2006, 97 percent of the Transnistria's half million citizens voted for reunification with Russia.
Again, Russia declined.
On their own, the transplanted Slavs cast about for their own identity and, with little more than a sliver of land to call their own, they ended up putting a brandy factory on their money.
The buildings where Kvint turns grapes into alcohol are angular and built of white concrete.
Flattened under Nazi shelling during World War II and rebuilt in 1948, they are the same lifeless concrete hulks seen in every other Soviet city for ten time zones.
Ten Million Liters of Alcohol
Inside the main building, long conveyor belts and stainless steel machines fill, seal and label 7,000 bottles an hour.
Humans have little to do with the process until the end of the line, where a group of women with dour expressions silently check bottles and place them into boxes. Little by little, those boxes add up to the ten million liters of alcoholic beverages that Kvint produces each year.
Kvint might be doing well financially, but the rest of Transnistria is not. It is the poorest country in Europe and a haven for smuggling and gun running.
Frozen in Time
Even poor countries usually boast fine capitals, but in Tiraspol everything is faded, crumbling, rusted. An almost complete lack of new construction has left it frozen in a time warp.
A statue of Lenin still stands in front of the president’s administrative offices, a Soviet Star is atop the parliament building and a hammer and sickle sit outside the train station.
Diana, my traveling companion from Ukraine, was in a delirium of nostalgia, pointing excitedly to things not seen since her Soviet childhood: fonts from the 80s, Soviet water dispensing machines, Soviet beer kiosks, 20-year-old buses, and stores that are named by their one state-mandated function.
We stopped in at a “Pelmenaya,” which has been dutifully selling only dumplings since before perestroika.
Noticing her accent, the middle-aged woman at the counter struck up a conversation with Diana, leading Diana to explain how much Ukraine had changed since it shared a political unity with this region, how much of the past had been wiped clean in a tsunami of new clothes and foods and freedoms.
"Change is Dangerous"
As we ate, the counter lady told her (assumed) husband what Diana had said.
“Things are safe, peaceful, here,” he said to her with an edge in his voice.
“Change is needed,” she shot back, the anger seeming to re-arise from a previous argument.
“Change is dangerous,” he grumbled.
We tuned out what they said for our own conversation, until one final retort caught our attention.
“We can’t even buy dollars!” she said. “They’ve closed the banks!”
Despite Transnistria's slow progress, money and modernity do show up in the strangest places, including in a $200 million soccer stadium that was recently built on the outer edge of Tiraspol.
It was funded by Sheriff, a corporation founded by former soldiers shortly after the war. In a country still so gripped by the communist ideal that stores have to advertise themselves as “privately owned,” Sheriff has embraced capitalism wholeheartedly, acquiring supermarkets, gas stations, a cell phone operator, a television station, a publishing house, two bread factories, a car dealership, a construction company and a soccer team.
And it also owns Kvint.
The USSR's First Named Brandy
Natalya took us past a massive metal tank, twelve feet tall and thirty feet long, which contained a brandy made in 1948.
It's their oldest brandy, made shortly after WWII. Their youngest is only three years-old, defined by the moment the brandy was put into the oak barrel.
Thousands and thousands of those barrels lay stacked in the next room she took us to, each with a metal tap for the portable siphoning machine that plugged into the pipe system over our heads.
That system took the brandy to the girls in the front building, who watched it roll past, hour after hour.
“We made the first named brandy in the USSR,” said Natalya, proudly. “Before that it was just labeled ‘three star’ or ‘five star’ or it was nameless, with just ‘brandy’ written on it. But in 1957, we started producing Brandy Doina.”
More varieties came out soon after, and the factory produces more than 40 today, including one that Natalya personally developed: Chernitski.
Natalya says that the secret to their brandy is quality control, something she fears may soon end.
“When we were run by the government, we were able to preserve how the brandy was made, year after year. Now that we are privately owned...”
She trailed off and continued walking through the alleys of alcohol.
As we parted back at the front door, I asked Natalya about her favorite Kvint brandy. Without hesitation, she said it was Victoria, a brandy that they age for 25 years.
One would think a master brewer would go on and on about the intricacies of a brandy’s color, smell and flavor, but when pressed as to why it's her favorite, her vision drifted, and she allowed a small smile.
“It’s light,” she said. “Nice.”
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