TIRASPOL, Transnistria — Perched on snug cushions surrounding a makeshift table, a group of late teens sipped cups of piping hot tea and hunted a night-time killer. “I believe you’re the murderer,” said one young woman, pointing an accusing finger at another member of the group. “My intuition tells me so.” There was a vote, and the accused was rounded on, judged guilty and eliminated from the role-play game — “Mafia” — in which several mafia killers stalk a village in the dead of night and the villagers seek their tormentors during the day. However, the accused was not the murderer: the mob had got it wrong. The players were put back to sleep and the killer struck again.
In a subterranean venue — Club 19 — in downtown Tiraspol, youth from the isolated territory of Transnistria gather almost daily to take part in events promoting democracy and free speech. “We believe freedom of speech is important,” said Alexandra Gribinenko, 22, the venue’s administrator and a foreign-language major.
The club represents a bubble of free thought in a territory where freedom of expression and association are tightly constrained — and where many look favourably towards Moscow, and fondly upon Soviet times. “It’s not something that people in our region are so familiar with,” said Gribinenko. “We like to hold events that are fun though.”
Youth gather for screenings of popular Hollywood films, biopics like Frida and Ray. There are photographs of Apollo astronauts, displayed on the venue’s walls (people are encouraged to debate moon landing conspiracy theories). At a guitar night, tentative fingers slipped across strings for a first time as someone strummed a riff by the alternative rock band The Pixies.
Club 19 opened six years ago, under the auspices of a non-governmental organisation called A Priori, which is slowly bolstering assorted civil society groups in the territory — encouraging citizen journalism in a depleted media environment.
Transnistria is not officially recognised as a country. With a population of half a million, for 25 years it has been in state of frozen conflict with neighbouring Moldova — from which it separated as the Soviet Union crumbled — stunting the territory politically, economically and culturally. It has its own currency and flag, which features that symbol of proletarian unity, the hammer and sickle. It has survived largely due to Russian economic, military and diplomatic support.
For the young, the club is an opportunity to break the monotony of life in this tiny slither of land, located on the eastern bank of the winding Dniester river and wedged between Ukraine and Moldova.
“I really like [the club],” said bespectacled, wire-thin Vova Vanchin, 18, who was quickly eliminated from the mafia game, and was now watching the players continue their search for the murderers. (The remaining villagers were close to being overwhelmed; the mafia had just killed the village doctor.
Vanchin, a music student with check shirt tucked into jeans, says he visits the club mostly for the weekly language classes. He wants to improve his English enough to watch his favourite Hollywood films. “I’m sad that neither the economy nor the politics are good in Transnistria. But we’re 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 with Transnistrian and Russian flags. People hurry to catch marshrutka (shared taxis), whisking them past Tiraspol’s lush, overgrown parks and a few remaining symbols of Soviet rule: towering statues of Lenin, the occasional T-34 tank or warplane.
The authorities have recently opened up the territory slightly — easing border restrictions and allowing extended visits to foreigners — and there have been improvements in competition between political parties, in part driven by feuding elites. With a young generation growing up with Instagram and Youtube, and as the Soviet era recedes, the authorities have little choice.
But Transnistria has problems. Corruption is widespread. So is organised crime.
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 visibly into politics; the current president, Vadim Krasnoselsky, is supported by the company. Freedom of assembly is constrained, and the judiciary is (reportedly) subordinate to the executive. Most media are state-owned or subservient to private interests, and unwilling to criticise the authorities. Prisons have a reputation for extortion and even torture.
Some 2,000 Russian troops are deployed here, maintaining the 1992 ceasefire with Moldova and guarding a massive stockpile of Soviet weaponry, some of which occasionally leaks out onto the black market. This Russian presence makes resolution of the Moldova-Transnistria conflict unlikely, while complicating any efforts to draw Moldova into the EU and NATO fold.
All that makes Club 19 more important. The volunteers here report no official harassment. A variety of topics — animal welfare, feminist thought etc — are discussed in informal group conversations. Occasionally a foreign diplomat will swing by. Young rappers perform in Russian, baseball caps tilted sideways.
“It’s a good place to meet new people,” said Tanya Kucheriavtseva, a 21-year-old economics student, sat in the venue’s Tea Corner near a karaoke machine. “Sometimes people are afraid of speaking publicly; here we have an opportunity to express our thoughts.”
At a recent English-language night, people sat in a semi-circle. A man who works for Transnistria’s revered soccer team, Sheriff Tiraspol, said he wanted to learn English so he could get to know people during the team’s away games better.
A high-school student said she wanted to learn English to improve her chances of one day attending a US university.
That evening they discussed America’s role in the world — interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya — then there were expressions of support for Catalonia’s independence movement. Then they moved on to talking about their anger at a local hit-and-run, in which a child had been killed by a speeding car driven by one of the Transnistrian elite. Back at the mafia game, Vanchin looked on as another sleeping villager was slaughtered, ending the game. “Oh no,” he said. “The mafia has won.”