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Vanity Fair

Communist Gonzo

Hunting weapons, women, and Uncle Joe Stalin in Transdniester, the oh-so-Soviet tinderbox.

IT TOOK FOUR of them to haul us into the station. Through one set of bars we could see a couple dogs humping each other on a dirty snow bank. Out the other, we looked into the precinct command center, a cramped hole wrapped in the culture of bribes and the settled stink of old cutlets.

Everyone on Transdniester’s Interior Ministry cop squad looked like he could handle himself on the wrong side at Pelican Bay. There had been a war here not long ago, a real war with gang rape and punitive amputation, and these guys were of the age and inclination to know something about that. It was only a matter of time before they started asking us about the weapons.

“We have orders from our superiors to take you directly to Tiraspol.” This was coming from a cop with bad hamburger cheeks. He tugged a pistol off his hip and started shoving slugs into the clip.

We (myself and photographer Jonas Bendiksen) were quickly stuffed into a car, and were soon tailing a crash-derby-red Lada as it cleared the streets of Dubasari, which, not surprisingly, didn’t need much clearing. The cops flipped on the toy siren anyway, as they do it on the Mob shows out of Moscow, and the noise began moaning over all our doubts. They had grabbed us a half-mile from the border. This we knew for sure. That’s about all we knew for sure. Facts are slippery in the obscure Communist-Mafia outpost known as Transdniester, evasion being something of a native birthright.

Certainly, there were a few inescapable specifics. A gnawed toothpick of land—125 miles long by 20 miles across—located between the Dniester River and Ukraine on Moldova’s eastern edge, Transdniester had declared independence from Moldova in 1990, the year before the Soviet Union officially collapsed. Since then every right mind in the Western world has passed judgment on the place as Europe’s new capital of the international weapons market. One analyst described Transdniester to us as “the El Dorado, the Klondike for illegal arms trafficking,” where a clandestine system of manufacturing and transport fed conflicts in the Caucasus, Central Africa, and the Middle East. It was also known as a back-alley bazaar of prostitution, money-laundering, and Soviet-octane graft, a bastard son of Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, which last month reelected a Communist-dominated parliament.

“The Transdniester authorities use the situation to do a lot of economically profitable things they couldn’t do if they were a part of an accountable state,” said Rudolf Perina, a former U.S. ambassador to Moldova, who currently serves as the State Department’s special negotiator for Eurasian conflicts. “There is a lot of smuggling going on.”

Add in plenty of leftovers from the Soviet Army and a riddle takes shape for the anti-proliferation folks. One of the world’s largest stores of illicit munitions (more than 20,000 metric tons, according to figures provided by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe [O.S.C.E.]) sits within Transdniester’s borders—heavily militarized on the Moldovan side, and a lazy gate leading to Ukraine, which has been having trouble keeping track of its own Soviet hand-me-downs.

That’s about all anyone outside Langley and Lubyanka can pin down to shape the argument. Transdniester exists in a dark zone of suspicion and mistrust, where three symbols dictate the stripe of life: (1) The five-pointed tin star of the Sheriff corporation, Transdniester’s monopoly company, which runs the gas stations, the depots, the soccer team, and, enough people will tell you, a money-laundered shadow economy of smuggled and counterfeit goods. (2) The towering briquette eyebrows of Transdniester president Igor Smirnov, which bear down from the photo that hangs in every vestibule. (3) The centerpiece of the state seal—a certain hammer and sickle—which lets you know what Gorbachev can do with his Peace Prize. A visit to Transdniester—a rare thing, indeed—is a trip to some hopeless Soviet winter, circa 1965.

Transdniester has existed for 14 years. And yet no country in the world recognizes its claim to independence. Something will have to give, since the E.U. is scheduled to welcome neighboring Romania to the gathering of good manners in 2007. There have been several referendums over the years, but none has disrupted Transdniester’s five-finger regime. Which doesn’t delight anyone who’d like to make it difficult to buy rocket launchers off the back of a truck.

But the neighborhood is changing. This winter, a grand philosophical shift took place in Ukraine, which sits on Transdniester’s eastern flank and is bigger than any country in Western Europe. Georgia also went the way of the West a year before that. And the foul regime of Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko hangs on by a couple of dirty fingernails. Russia’s sphere of influence is diminishing with such speed that the Kremlin has come to value as sacrosanct every inch of former Soviet soil. Following last September’s terrorist massacre at the schoolhouse in Beslan, Russian president Vladimir Putin delivered a televised address in which he held up Transdniester as a symbol of continued resistance to the new order, to a way of life being imposed on Russian people by foreign powers, by foreign values, and by the destabilizing force of terrorism. As the largest portions of the Soviet Union’s old western borders splinter with such apparent finality, little Transdniester becomes the kind of thing that might get the big guns out. Especially in Moldova, where the rogue state is on the mind from waking till sleeping. Communist president Vladimir Voronin, who despises Transdniester and its backers in Moscow, recently accused Russia of plotting to assassinate him before the parliamentary election in March.

It’ll all have to end somewhere. And while the power in Transdniester may be mean, it isn’t completely obtuse. The rulers in this land of the lost are slowly getting the sense they’ll have to concede what everyone else already knows: Uncle Joe doesn’t live around here anymore.

“WRITE THIS DOWN in capital letters: We have never sold any weapons.” It’s better to tell a little truth than no truth at all. So it was difficult to take President Igor Smirnov seriously, as much for this line as for the cottontail eyebrows that always undercut any point he tried to make.

“You said that you visited factories,” Smirnov said. “Did you see a lot of weapons there?” We had heard plenty of talk about grenade launchers coming out of the steelworks in Rybnitsa and machine guns rolling off the line at the Elektromash motor factory in Tiraspol. (“It’s not a question for us whether they do produce weapons and sell weapons,” said William Hill, head of the Moldova mission of the O.S.C.E. “They do.”) But we were on the official tour. At Rybnitsa, we watched as electrodes dipped into the carrot-colored furnace of bubbling steel, the crash and shock like the sound of great Soviet power, great Soviet terror. At Elektromash, $100-a-month laborers sweated it out beneath scarlet banners such as the one that shouted, INSTRUMENT WORKER! BE PROUD OF YOUR PROFESSION!

“So this is only a political argument … in order to subdue this territory by force,” Smirnov continued. “I don’t think this is going to work.” There was a World Trade Center statuette, five inches tall, sitting on the corner of his desk. He pointed at it and mouthed the code words of the only political argument that really mattered anymore. “I think that New Yorkers will understand me. When all people have gone through a fratricidal war because of nationalists, such people understand best the price of a peaceful life.” There was silence as Smirnov played out the Transdniester shell game: You say weapons; I say liberty and the pursuit of seeing eye to eye.

History is never so simple. In the late 80s, the Moldovans courted a union with Romania. But they were conning themselves if they thought they could exit the world’s greatest land empire on their own terms. With a green light from the Kremlin, Transdniester seceded from Moldova. Moldova then left the U.S.S.R., and all the shouting turned into fighting. The Russian Army carried the day for Transdniester in the 1992 war, allowing Moscow to extend a middle finger at Moldova, which has been bled white through the loss of its industry, about half of which is located on the other side of the Dniester River.

BUT LET’S TALK about girls. Although Transdniester shares Moldova’s reputation as a top European supplier-state of sex slaves, there are still women left behind in Tiraspol, Transdniester’s capital. You’ll quickly discover, however, that many of them live with their “grandmothers,” who are “really strict” about their appointments. You’ll meet one of these girls at a dive called Sherry, a tinseled room with sweet champagne and banditti in bad haircuts. She says she’s a cosmetologist, and she’s looking for lip gloss in her handbag, digging past the eyeliner and the German-made pistol.

She claims she used it once, the gun, shooting three guys in the face outside Sherry when they tried to stuff her in a car. It’s a small town, but she can’t remember hearing about them after that.

The end is never far away. In fact, the cosmetologist’s cat just died. Fake pet food, so they say, is killing the house cats inside a couple days. Transdniester isn’t authorized to use Moldova’s customs stamps, which creates a universe of counterfeit goods both coming and going, the trash that finds its way into the territory palmed off on the patsies who live here. Everything’s phony: Coke, Snickers, shampoo, perfume. The beer smells like soap, and the cigarettes taste like gravel from the road. People don’t get too attached, and trust is something they don’t expect or extend.

A blizzard has kicked up beyond the windows at Sherry. Visibility is at 50 yards, and the streets exist in the pale yellow of the remaining streetlamps, which shoot light through the snowflakes that twist above the parked cars. The statue of Lenin downtown looks like he’s squinting into another difficult winter.

In these conditions, Transdniester becomes even more isolated, landlocked and off the radar. Moods grow foul and bad ideas germinate. The train to Odessa has been canceled. All roads to Moldova are blocked. Everyone is cold and gray and suspicious. They weren’t friendly in the Old West either.

A woozy figure walks into the line of a car, which swerves wildly to avoid contact. Suicide may seem like a good idea, until you get a look at the cemetery full of bent-nail headstones. Then even cashing out looks depressing.

So go on living and, for music loud enough to shut it all up, stop by the Red Heat bar, a room of cafeteria charm with portraits of Lenin and Marx peering over the bottles. It’s an over-40 crowd, and all the elbow jerking and head snapping calls to mind the days when Soviets went to “dancing parties,” but had trouble keeping with the theme.

Yes, this is still the Soviet Union: The food is terrible and nobody knows how to dance. But Newark isn’t the only place that smells like Newark. And this particular Mud City looks like a hundred others all across the dried-fish expanse of the former empire. Daily discussions involve pensions and who has hot water this week. Answer: nobody.

What makes this place different from the tough scrape-by of cities like Omsk or Tomsk is the sad grasp at a time that’s too obviously gone and not coming back. Rollerblading-lovers will tell you that sometimes it’s better to give in and start running. But driving through this particular landscape—long stretches of Kansas apron interrupted by the canyon trashlands of the border towns—you get the feeling that anything can still happen, and when it does, no one will hear about it. All this under the conspicuous flapping of the old Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic banner: green and red, with a hammer and sickle tucked in the top left corner.

Sure, symbols are just symbols. Except that people sign up to die carrying flags. So they go on playing country, and more from ancient history remains to show them how. Such as the portrait of Felix Dzerzhinsky, a founder of the K.G.B., in the office of the deputy minister of state security. “I have a good opinion of him,” said Major General Oleg Gudimo. “As a person.”

Things get confused in the culture of the proud loser, where it’s easy to forget what you’re fighting for, or if you’re simply swinging away. The words “For the motherland” are painted on a tank that stands across from the state-government building as a monument to both the Great Patriotic War and the 1992 conflict. It begs the question: Which motherland are we talking about—Transdniester, Russia, the U.S.S.R.? Or does it even matter? “We are not nostalgic for the Soviet Union,” said Vladimir Bodnar, chairman of Transdniester’s Supreme Soviet committee on security and defense. “We simply don’t know anything else.”

Death may still be dead, but amusement can’t be held completely at bay. We did win, after all. Witness that in every Transdniester government office the TV is tuned to the same channel: MTV. Sobering discussions regarding the stability of the Transdniester ruble take place over loops and fat beats, as though Beria were guesting on Jay-Z.

THE HEAT WAS getting to Yevgeny Shevchuk. He was starting to quote Charles Bukowski. “There are bad governments and there are worse governments—there are no other governments.” The banya had kicked up past 240 degrees Fahrenheit, and the man who worked the place had just poured water onto the hot rocks, instigating humid terror. Felt hats were required to keep the hair from burning.

Shevchuk was giving us the party line, though not in the way we expected. Most Transdniester apparatchiks—apparatchiks, yes: their parliament is called the Supreme Soviet—had a real case of the twitches. Mention Moldova: twitch. Mention weapons: double twitch. Mention America: super double twitch. But Shevchuk, vice chairman of the Supreme Soviet, was the kid of the group, 36, and he was immune to the dusty stiffness and dread suspicion of the incubated Soviet system.

“My grandfather was a religious man,” Shevchuk said. “And he told me once, ‘Jenya, believe me, the border with Romania will be on the Dniester River again.’”

Romania has little interest in absorbing an economy that one day may be as vigorous as Albania’s. But this statement meant that Shevchuk’s senses were returning to him, that he had mastered taking the heat. This is the official mythology—the concept of constant threat—that perpetuates the conflict. “What is keeping the secession going,” Perina said, “is that it’s primarily economically profitable.” Government reps in Tiraspol wave it all aside, content with scowls and conspiracy theories.

Certain policies do supply the Transdniester conjurers with ammunition, so to speak, such as a recent U.S./E.U. visa ban applied to the top 17 government officials. Travel is a big deal in this part of the world, since the only trips the state would grant for a long time involved very little food and a hardened-wire whip known as the knout. Now it’s the outside world that’s shutting out the Transdniestrians, which tells them that they’re still the bad guys.

It’s a different setup locally, where Shevchuk can travel with at least a little style. Since he is seventh in the line of power, the license plate on his government car reads 007. And while Smirnov and his associates could model for James Bond’s nemesis, SPECTRE, Shevchuk’s vehicle manages to receive high praise and special treatment. His sedan slides through the girl curves of the countryside, eliciting salutes from the troops in the last corner of the world where a Volga commands free passes through red lights. Welcome to the world of international sanctions: the higher you are, the more critical it is to solidify local avenues to significance. “The system is one person in charge,” said Alexander Semyenuk, a deputy in the Supreme Soviet. “Igor Smirnov.”

Think of Smirnov as the C.F.O. of Transdniester, and the relationship among him, the Sheriff corporation, and his son, Vladimir, director of the Customs Service, makes for an easy game of connect the dots and cash the checks. Sheriff “is very closely tied to Smirnov and his family,” said ex-ambassador Perina. “It’s a little economic fiefdom.”

Beyond Transdniester’s borders, there aren’t many backslaps to go around. So the local ruling class turns inward, kicking back with Cubans and old cognac, shunning outsiders who would play wrecker. “The current administration is completely corrupt,” Semyenuk said. “It’s not only about Smirnov. There are a bunch of other people who have nowhere to go.” Most notable among those with limited options is Major General Vladimir Antyufeyev, Transdniester’s state security minister, who has been on Interpol’s wanted list for his alleged role in a deadly 1991 Soviet attack on Latvia’s Interior Ministry.

“I always say that there are two parties in Transdniester,” said Vasilii Shova, Moldova’s minister of re-integration. “One party wants to see a resolution to this situation; another one wants to keep the conflict.”

As long as the current situation holds, so does a closed world of questionable logic. Which helps explain why Sheriff built a towering, modern stadium for its soccer team on Tiraspol’s city limits. It also explains the existence of the Spirit Museum Hotel, which includes a five-story structure shaped like a giant bottle. The building houses owner Grigory Korzun’s vast collection of liquor.

“The Guinness World Record people have been out to see me,” Korzun claimed. “I have the record.”

The record for the most bottles of booze?

“No, no. The record for the biggest building in the shape of a bottle.”

THEY CALLED IT the wolf strangler. A Caucasian shepherd, waist-high and 150 pounds, it was leaping at its leash and blocking the road. “Why are you here?” asked a guy in a Sheriff-security jacket. He had a shotgun, and he was missing just about every other tooth.

We had stopped by an unmarked Sheriff depot not far from Ukraine. From there, we had driven the road to the border. Our intention, though we kept it to ourselves, was to observe Transdniester’s infamous smuggling operation, if we were fortunate to find any evidence of it. After a mile, the ice-covered road fed into a border post of one candy-striped gate and two frostbitten guards. It couldn’t be hard to hand out a space heater and watch a convoy duck under the candy striping.

The second flathead had a face full of scratches and pits, and he ordered us into the depot. “We don’t want our clients identified,” he said. A guard in fatigues was having trouble keeping the wolf strangler at his side, and the dog started biting at the wind. None of this put us at ease. There was the additional knowledge of a local interrogation technique called the Coliseum, which involved 20 soldiers and 20 rifle butts.

It was too perfect—a company called Sheriff—considering what a tin-star sheriff did in the days of buck knives: run the law, the girls, the roulette table, and whatever else made him feel like he was in charge. “We associate the name Sheriff with order and security,” said Nikolay Lizunov, the director of Sheriff’s TV network, TCB. “And movies when Bruce Willis saves the world.”

This particular world could use a lot of saving. But it was noticeably short on vegan movie stars and Jesuit missions. In the Soviet Union, any saving that went on was strictly up to you. Either you were smart or you didn’t eat. There were no other choices.

Viktor Gushan ate. He was a policeman in the early 90s, and he didn’t want to be a policeman anymore. “The country we served no longer existed,” said Gushan, who now serves as president of Sheriff. This was several days earlier, in his office, located a comfortable distance from the depot. There was a different class of thug at Sheriff headquarters—better clothes, more in the Dapper Don mold. Gushan looked part sheriff, part high roller, dressed like Johnny Cash with a cigar barrel in his mouth. His office was Rio Bravo going on Taxidermy Today, with bordello curtains and the walls draped in dead birds.

The old Soviet saying seemed to apply: It costs one ruble to join the Mafia; it costs two rubles to leave. From Gushan’s chair, there was no point getting out. The side door to Smirnov and the back road to Ukraine were the only routes to survival in a state that officially didn’t exist. “Bring any businessman from France or the United States here and he’ll hang himself in six months,” Gushan said. “The Transdniester stamp is not recognized internationally. Nothing is allowed. We have had to operate”—he paused to get the right wording—”between things.”

But between things you can find some amount of room. And when the president’s son runs the customs office, it is easy to suppose that you can find a little more room.

“Sheriff is a criminal structure under the umbrella of a state,” said Oazu Nantoi, the director of the Institute for Public Policy, a Moldovan think tank. “I know how Igor Smirnov talks about how Transdniester is a real state. That’s blah, blah, blah for stupid people.”

Gushan affected a grin, while the soft clicking of a grandfather clock sifted through the room. “I’m just a man like anyone else,” he said. “But if a businessman tells you he’s not interested in politics, he’s not being honest. It’s like a fish living in water saying, ‘I don’t care whether I have water or not.’”

IT WAS FIRST light when we approached Kolbasna. A soldier in bed head and camouflage emerged from a barracks shack and raised the gate. No questions, and we continued up the road.

For decades, Kolbasna, in northern Transdniester, served as a supply depot for Soviet forces in the Black Sea region. When those brigades withdrew, in the early 90s, they deposited weapons and munitions at Kolbasna and the stockpile swelled. These munitions, says a highly placed expert, are now rather useless to the Russian military, which largely retooled its weapons line in the 80s. But to armies firing with old Soviet equipment, most notably in Africa and the Middle East, access to these depots would be worth paying for.

A few warehouses hunched on the left side of the road. On the right, a rail line ran over a hill in the direction of Ukraine. The Kolbasna depots stretch across several square miles underground. If the whole lot were to blow, according to O.S.C.E. estimates, it would discharge rockets and shrapnel in a 10-mile radius.

Like a lot of what you’ll find in Transdniester, the depots aren’t even supposed to be here. The Russians were supposed to have removed these munitions years ago, according to the terms of several agreements. But there have been all kinds of foot-dragging, most notably by the Transdniester regime. “These munitions are our leverage, which we can use against Russia and Moldova and the E.U.—anyone who threatens our statehood,” said the Supreme Soviet’s Bodnar. “We have no other leverage.”

Two kids stumbled out of the second guardhouse. One of them, a cop no more than 18, took our documents and ducked back inside. The other guard was dressed in the uniform of the Transdniester Army: an olive-colored greatcoat, with a leather strap cinched around the waist. He looked like he was waiting around for something to do. The cop returned our papers and told us to turn around, which we did, back in the direction of Moldova proper.

When Igor Smirnov handed us his business card, he said, “This is in case you have any trouble at the border.” We didn’t get that far. The goons grabbed us, and we started out on the drive to Tiraspol, trailing the red Lada. On our cell phone, as we drove on, we called Oleg Gudimo, the security man with the thing for Dzerzhinsky, and he told us it was all a mistake. “There will be an order for your release in five minutes,” he said. Half an hour later, we could see the rusted hilltop of the Elektromash factory rising from Tiraspol’s pile of ashes.

They were waiting for us at Interior Ministry headquarters—a small man with perpetual doubt affixed to his face, an officious woman who intoned penal code, and a powerfully built officer who liked shouting and standing too close.

They caught us on nothing: “If you are registered to leave tomorrow, then why are you leaving today?” They subdued us with ancient wisdom: “We have a saying in Russian: Trust, but check.” They scrutinized our motives like a kid sister: “If you did not want to write something negative about Kolbasna, then why did you go there?”

In this place, a road to nowhere is still a road you have to take, and so time mounted. But when they drew up the confessions, it was time to end it: “We are not going to sign any of your papers. We called the U.S. Embassy in Moldova on the way here. And right now the wheels of diplomacy are turning against you.”

They were scandalized. In Soviet times, when you refused to cooperate, all they could do was shoot you.

“We are standing up and walking out the door. Will you stop us?”

They looked at one another and then back at us, until the big guy let his mouth fall open: “Nyet.” We grabbed our papers and stepped out into the street, where it was gray like the day before.