In a softly lit room, giggly teenagers rise from their desks and sing a hymn. Then the leader of the youth group starts a detailed reading of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s state of the nation address.
But this is not Russia. It’s Transdniester, a tiny, poor separatist province in Moldova where the dream of joining Mother Russia is now stronger than ever.
After the Russian army went into Georgia in August and the Kremlin recognized two Georgian rebel regions, many in Transdniester are hoping they’ll be next in line. Of course, there’s still the problem that Russia’s nearest border is 700km away.
“If only we had one centimeter!” of border, exclaims Alyona Arshinova, 23, an activist with the Kremlin-funded youth group Proryv, or Breakthrough, who has a small Russian flag hanging off her key chain. “For me Russia is everything, for me Russia is knowing who I am. Who am I? I am Russia.”
Group leader Dmitry Soin is no less fervent, praising Russia’s commitment to democracy at a time when the West is criticizing it for rolling back democratic reforms.
“The winds that are blowing in Russia must start blowing in Transdniester,” Soin tells the group meeting.
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 principally Russian-speaking region 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, Transdniester broke away in 1992 in a war that killed some 1,500 people.
As with the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Kremlin supports Transdniester with cheap gas, monthly 85 ruble (US$10) stipends to pensioners, a contingent of 400 peacekeepers and perhaps the most prized gift of all — its maroon passports. Every fifth resident holds a Russian passport.
Moldovan President Igor Smirnov controls the region in the style of his Soviet predecessors. A trip to Transdniester’s capital of Tiraspol is a step back in time to the Soviet era, an era Russia itself has in many ways left behind.
Rusty trolley buses carrying tired passengers break the quiet of an otherwise silent central square. Elderly women in head scarves line up to fill plastic bottles with milk on a street corner. Giant black-and-white portraits of the region’s most industrious workers — as well as the regional president and the mayor of Moscow — adorn the streets. Foreign journalists are shadowed by security services.
The old Soviet ways exist side by side with the Orthodox religion. Black-robed Orthodox priests bless a Soviet-style red-bannered military parade marking the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, even though it launched 70 years of vicious state-sponsored atheism.
There is also more than a streak of capitalism, which took hold here after the Soviet collapse. A short walk from a grim statue of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin that looms over a main square, poor pensioners sell threadbare coats and potted plants, while better-off families treat themselves to hamburgers and French fries at Andy’s Pizza.
Western agencies say Transdniester is a haven for weapons and drugs smuggling. Local residents say anything is on sale in this bleak region, from women trafficked abroad and forced into prostitution to gasoline and cars exported from Romania and sold at a profit in Ukraine.