University in the breakaway region of Transnistria

Originally published in Varsity, Friday 23rd October 2015-

In late September I took advantage of Cambridge’s leisurely term dates and gate-crashed another university’s Freshers week. Alcohol, music and the usual shenanigans – this was a chance to catch up with friends and celebrate the end of summer. The only complication was that they study in the breakaway region of Transnistria’s State University.

Transnistria broke away from Moldova, a grindingly poor former-Soviet Republic, more than 20 years ago. The ‘republic’ isn’t internationally recognised, but it’s bankrolled by Russia whose peace-keeping soldiers are visible in the ‘capital’ Tiraspol.

It’s also known as the last remnant of the Soviet Union, complete with hammers and sickles adorning the streets and buildings, and jolly statue of Lenin outside the government building.

The breakaway region rarely makes the headlines, except for when its stockpile of Soviet-era nuclear resources catch the attention of organised criminals, Middle Eastern extremists and the United States.

I’d previously heard horror stories of Tiraspol’s hotels, with armed-thugs ransacking hotel rooms during the night. Eager to avoid that debacle, and to get the true Soviet experience, I opted to stay in dorms with my hosts in the centre of the city.

The guest policy of Transnistria State University is relatively strict, and thus I was given the option of pretending to pass off as a local or climb through the window after curfew.

Despite the once-stellar reputation of Soviet Union’s gymnastics team, I was reluctant to be hurled through the second storey window at midnight and so took my chances with the front door.

The University’s infrastructure was completed at least 40 years ago during the Soviet times, and there have been few upgrades since the war. Tap water in Tiraspol is safe to drink, but the pipes have corroded to the point where students filter the water through cotton makeup pads before drinking it.

The State University also offers a buttery, with disgruntled serving staff plating unrecognisable mush in a darkened cafeteria. Fortunately for the students of Tiraspol, the price is only a tenth of what Churchill College charges for the same experience.

Unsurprising, EDUROAM was nowhere to be found, but loitering around the library to connect to its free wifi is an international pastime also common in the breakaway republic.

The hospitality of my guests and new acquaintances was unrivalled. Like any good Freshers week, there were drinking games and music blaring until the early hours of the morning.

Instead of VKs or whatever vino Sainsbury’s has on special, the drink of choice was home-produced wine or the village’s finest home-distilled spirit. In place of the cheesy tunes in Life or Cindies, Moscow’s Russian pop was the go.

And just like after a few drinks in any given college bar, the topic of politics bubbled. In a region that is so reliant on Russia’s support, I was undoubtedly curious to ask about the perception of Putin.

“What do you mean you don’t like Putin?” they chorused.

The music stopped, the lights turned on and even the crickets stopped chirping in disgust of my disloyalty. Amongst the dozens of students I met at Transnistria State University, Putin was seen as a defender against the corrupt and aggressive Western powers.

“If the EU is so good, why is Romania still poor?”

“Everybody knows the US started the war in Ukraine”

“America controls the media”

Much like the rusty taps and crumbling roads, the media culture in the breakaway republic also bears the hallmarks of its Soviet past. Russian channels dominate Transnistrian television and Soviet textbooks still line the reading lists.

Far away is the world of ‘microagressions’ and ‘safe spaces’. From the Sheriff Company’s near-universal monopoly to the diplomatic Siberia where the region is stranded, the situation in Transnistria is bleak.

Although the guns have long fallen silent, many of my comrades described living in an unrecognised region as a battle. For a generation born after the war, the sense of injustice and the arbitrary nature of the conflict are clear.

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