TIRASPOL, Transnistria — Perched on snug cushions surrounding a makeshift table, a group of late teens sip at cups of piping hot tea and hunt a nighttime killer.
“I believe that you are the murderer,” says one young woman, pointing an accusing finger at another member of the group. “My intuition tells me so.”
A vote is held and the accused, hapless, is swiftly rounded on, deemed guilty and eliminated from the role-play game, known as “Mafia”, in which several mafia killers stalk a village in the dead of night and the villagers hunt for their tormentors during the day.
However, the accused was no murderer: the mob got it wrong. The players are put back to “sleep”.
And, as they dream their uneasy dreams, the killer strikes again.
In the subterranean venue – Club 19 – in downtown Tiraspol, clusters of youth from the isolated territory of Transnistria gather almost daily for a raft of events promoting democracy and free speech.
“We believe freedom of speech is important,” Alexandra Gribinenko, 22, the venue’s administrator and a foreign languages major, says.
The club represents a rare bubble of free thought in a territory where freedom of expression and association are tightly constrained – and where many look favorably on Moscow and back to Soviet times.
“This is not something that people in our region are so familiar with,” Gribinenko says. “We like to hold events that are fun, though.”
The youngsters gather for screenings of popular Hollywood films. Eyes skip across photographs of Apollo astronauts, displayed on the venue’s walls, as people are encouraged to debate well-known moon landing conspiracy theories.
At one recent guitar night, tentative fingers slipped across strings for a first time; someone strummed a riff by the alternative rock band, The Pixies.
It opened around six years ago, under the auspices of a non-governmental organization called “A Priori”, which is slowly bolstering assorted civil society groups in the territory – and notably encouraging citizen journalism in a depleted media environment.
Transnistria is not recognized as a state by any UN member country. Home to around 500,000 people, it has been in a “frozen” conflict with neighboring Moldova for 25 years, from which it separated as the Soviet Union crumbled – rendering the territory politically, economically and culturally stunted.
It has its own currency and flag, which feature the famed symbol of proletarian unity: the hammer and sickle. But it survives on Russian economic, military and diplomatic support.
For many, the club is an opportunity to break the monotony of life in this narrow slither of land, located on the eastern bank of the winding Dniester River, wedged between Ukraine and Moldova.
“I really like it [the club],” says bespectacled and wire-thin 18-year-old Vova Vanchin, who was quickly eliminated from the Mafia game, and is now watching the players continue their search for the murderers.
The remaining villagers are perilously close to being overwhelmed: the mafia just killed the village doctor.
A performance music student with his check shirt buttoned up and tucked into a pair of denim jeans, Vanchin says he visits the club mostly for the weekly language classes. He wants to improve his English enough to watch his favorite Hollywood films.
Hobbits racing across Middle Earth, pursued by goblin and wraith; Iron Man and other Marvel “Avengers” battling extraterrestrials bent on global dominance.
Yet, daily life in Transnistria remains.
“I am sad that neither the economy nor the politics are good in Transnistria,” says Vanchin. “But, we are not a particularly Soviet country, like people think. And it is calm here.”
Outside the venue, Soviet-era apartment blocks sprawl, fringing broad and immaculately maintained boulevards, Transnistrian and Russian flags flittering above.
People hasten to catch Marshrutka [shared taxis], whisking them past Tiraspol’s lush, overgrown parks and the few remaining symbols of Soviet rule: a towering statue of Lenin, the occasional T-34 tank or a warplane.
The authorities recently opened up the territory slightly – easing border restrictions and allowing foreigners to make extended visits – and there have been notable improvements in political competition.
With a young generation growing up on Instagram and Youtube, as the Soviet era grows ever more distant, the authorities perhaps have little choice.
However, numerous problems remain. Corruption is widespread, as is organized crime, according to monitors.
Elites from Sheriff Enterprises – which owns supermarkets, petrol stations, a phone network, a football club, alcohol factories and even a Mercedes-Benz dealership – have forged an economic monopoly and muscled their way visibly into politics.
The judiciary is reportedly subordinate to the executive and prisons have a reputation for using torture and extortion.
Most of the media are state-owned or subservient to private interests and loathe to criticize the authorities.
Some 2,000 Russian troops remain deployed here, maintaining the 1992 ceasefire with Moldova and guarding a massive stockpile of Soviet weaponry, some of which occasionally leaks onto the black market. The Russian presence makes a speedy resolution of the Moldova-Transnistria standoff unlikely.
All of which makes Club 19 more important. The volunteers here, however, report no official harassment.
Animal welfare and feminist thought are discussed during informal group conversations. Occasionally, a diplomat from foreign parts will swing by. Ambitious young rappers battle in Russian, their baseball caps tilted sideways.
“It is a good place to meet new people,” says Tanya Kucheriavtseva, a 21-year-old economics student, sat in the venue’s “Tea Corner”, as several boys lay down the teen angst, via a karaoke machine.
“Sometimes people are afraid of speaking in public,” says Kucheriavtseva, “but here we have an opportunity to express our thoughts.”
At a recent English language night, attendees sat in a semi-circle. One man who works for Transnistria’s revered soccer team, Sheriff Tiraspol, said he wanted to learn English so he could better get to know people when the team played away games.
A high school student said she wanted to learn English to improve her chances of attending an American university.
The conversations that evening varied.
Discussions about America’s role in the world – its military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – gave way to expressions of support for Catalonia’s independence movement, then moved on to anger about a hit-and-run a few days earlier, when a speeding car driven by one of the Transnistrian elite killed a child.
Back at the Mafia game, the bespectacled Vanchin looks on, somewhat forlorn, as another sleeping villager is slaughtered, ending the game.
“Oh no,” he says. “The mafia has won.”