TIRASPOL, Moldova — Soaring statues of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, portraits of the city's most productive workers adorning a square, red flags fluttering in the wind during a Communist demonstration.
Nowhere is Soviet-style Communism as alive as in Trans-Dniester, Moldova's tiny breakaway republic, which dreams of joining Russia but is recognized by no one.
Come to this impoverished, bleak region and take a voyage to the past complete with hammer-and-sickle emblems, aging Soviet tanks and gloomy security officials who are likely to “accompany” foreigners wherever they go.
But don't be fooled: the hamburgers, fashion boutiques, and exotic travel agencies that you will also discover here could not be found in the Soviet times. Today, Trans-Dniester is a surreal mix of the Communist regime and its mortal enemies: wild capitalism and Orthodox Christianity.
This sliver of land twice the size of Luxembourg is home to some 550,000 people — Russians, Ukrainians and Moldovans. It has proclaimed itself an independent republic, but is not recognized as such by anyone else, including Russia. The region dreams of being absorbed by Russia, even it shares no border with it.
The mainly Russian-speaking province used to be part of Soviet Ukraine, but became part of Moldova, a region that was annexed from Romania shortly before World War II. Fearful that Moldova would reunite with Romania after the Soviet collapse and clamp down on the use of the Russian language, Trans-Dniester broke away in 1992 in a war that killed some 1,500 people.
Trans-Dniester is a haven for weapons and drugs smuggling, according to Western agencies. Local residents say anything is on sale here: from women trafficked abroad and forced into prostitution to gasoline and cars exported from Romania and sold at a profit in Ukraine.
Some images here are straight from a Communist theme park.
In a bow to a Soviet tradition, brides in heavy makeup and dazzling white gowns climb on top of a lonely green World War II Soviet tank on the city's main square to pose for photos, paying tribute to their grandfathers' victory in the war.
Tired women in head scarves clutching empty plastic bottles line up to buy farm milk on a street corner, while commuters return home from work on rusty trolley-buses.
Giant black-and-white portraits of the region's best-performing workers, including the regional president and the mayor of Moscow, are hung on a main square to stimulate others for fruitful work. Portraits of president Igor Smirnov decorate the rooms of government officials and even private hotel receptions.
But some things are clearly surreal.
You can observe black-robed Orthodox priests bless a Soviet-style red-bannered military parade marking the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that launched an era of vicious state-sponsored aetheism.
Window-shops are filled with brand-name jeans, computers and state-of-the-art cell phones. Travel agencies offer tours to anywhere from Thailand to Egypt, while barely dressed models advertise mattresses and luxury cars from billboards.
A short walk from a huge statue of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin overlooking a main square in the capital Tiraspol, impoverished pensioners sell old coats and potted plants to supplement their meager monthly pensions of about $70.
And if you miss Western-style fast food while you're here, don't worry. Right across the street from the pensioners, you can join better-off residents treating themselves to hamburgers and french fries at Andy's Pizza.
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