When I was in Transnistria, I had to go to the immigration office to obtain a tourism permit that would allow me to stay in the country beyond the 48-hour visa that I had picked up at the train station. The father of the hostel owner offered to accompany me to translate, should it become necessary.
He was very kind and interesting, and while we were waiting for my application to be processed, he was talking about his life as a radio technician in the USSR.
He told me that he used to travel a lot when he was young.
I asked him, very naively, if he had been traveling more since the fall of the Iron Curtain.
“But that’s not possible anymore,” he sighed. “Back in Soviet times, oh yes, I was traveling to Lithuania, to Estonia, to Armenia, to the Caspian Sea, to Georgia, to the Baltic Sea, to Kyrgyzstan, to Samarkand. But now, I need a visa for each of these countries, there are new borders everywhere.”
I was humbled. For me, the geo-politcal changes of 1989-1991 had opened up another world. But for many others, it had made their world smaller. With a Transnistrian passport, he can’t venture very far.
It had also made their world more brutal, in many places. And the war in Transnistria was not even a very bad one, as wars go.
Yugoslavia is another example, where people could not only travel freely in what are now seven different countries, but because of the non-aligned status, it was easy to travel almost anywhere in the world with the Yugoslav passport. There, the wars were very bad, though.
That day in Tiraspol, I began to understand people’s nostalgia for a country that in the West was only associated with oppression. Ever since, I have been more open to listen to people’s stories who are so different from mine. There are many reasons beyond the ones mentioned here why people long back to Soviet or Yugoslav times. Yes, these were dictatorships, but it seems that many people remember the time as cozier, more cultured, more egalitarian, safer. If you are interested in understanding this sentiment, there is a wonderful book by Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, Second-Hand Time, a book which certainly does not shy away from portraying the horrors of the Soviet system. But nothing is just black or white, as these heart-wrenching stories reveal.
By the way, I got the Transnistrian permit for staying in the country after waiting a mere 10 minutes. And it came free of charge.