“Everyone knows the Soviet Union didn’t occupy Eastern Europe. We liberated it. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying”. It crossed my mind that millions of people in the countries which had the misfortune to be on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain might take a different view, but it didn’t seem sensible to argue. Our elderly taxi driver had taken his hands off the steering wheel and turned around to emphasise his point. We had already started to drift onto the wrong side of the road. It was only our impact with a large pothole that brought his attention back to the oncoming traffic.
We were on the road from Transnistria, one of several breakaway states that form the legacy of the Soviet Union’s disintegration. Although formally part of the Republic of Moldova, this sliver of territory, which straddles the Dniester River on the border with Ukraine, has its own president and parliament, national anthem, flag, currency, army and police force, but its independence is not recognised by any other country. Its population of half a million is divided roughly equally between Russians, Ukrainians and Moldovans.
As the Soviet Union collapsed and Moldova became independent, the people of Transnistria feared their culture and language rights would be diluted in a state where they were a minority. When it was announced that Romanian would be Moldova’s sole language, and radical elements in the ruling Popular Front started to call for the deportation of Russian and Ukrainian speakers, a separate Transnistria republic was proclaimed.