This Easter I'm going to Transnistria

Updated: 01 September, 2020 07:56 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

What if you thought you were an independent nation but no one else agreed? Turns out there are 89 of them, including Transnistria.

The city hall of city administration building in Tiraspol, Transnistria decorated with state flags and banners. Pic/Getty Images
The city hall of city administration building in Tiraspol, Transnistria decorated with state flags and banners. Pic/Getty Images

C Y Gopinath

It was a foggy, cold winter morning in Jitwarpur, a village in northern Bihar, 1975. My assignment was to write about the beautiful and talented Madhubani painters of that village. I was a guest in the hut of Sita Devi, who had been awarded the National Craftsman award for her work.

It was 5 am. Heavily swaddled villagers were huddled at the only shop open in the village, drinking piping hot, over-sweet tea, exhaling steam. I was the odd one out, with long hair, jeans and a sweater rather than a woollen blanket. Not a local, for sure.

"Which is your country?" a villager asked.

I replied, perhaps a little indignantly, "Same as yours! India!"

"Oh, that country!" he nodded, having confirmed that I was a foreigner.

"Which country are you from?" I asked.

After a dense reflection, his hand emerged from the warmth of his blanket to wave around. "This country," he said. "Mithila."

Mithila is a kingdom that doesn't exist any more. The ancient region corresponding to it falls mostly in Bihar's Madhubani district, though a northern strip is across the border in the Nepalese tarai. People speak a sweet dialect of Hindi called Maithili and believe that their lovely women are descendants of Ram's wife Sita, whose father King Janak ruled Mithila.

I was talking to a Maithili, a denizen of Mithila, a kingdom which even the British didn't recognise. For a while after independence, there was a clamour for an independent Mithila state which came to nothing. A major protest by the Akhil Bharatiya Mithila Rajya Sangharsh Samiti in Delhi in 2009 also went nowhere.

At a dinner party yesterday, when I introduced myself as a Tamilian born in Kerala, several heads nodded knowingly and said, "A Palakkad Iyer." To them, I was a citizen of Palakkad passing myself off as Indian, just as the Udipis were somehow different from Kannadigas and the Khandeshis felt distinct from Maharashtrians.


This got me thinking: What if you thought you were a country but no one else in the world agreed?

Let me introduce Exhibit A, the little non-country called Transnistria, which the world dismisses as a fidgety part of Moldavia, a country formed when the Soviet Union broke up. Moldavia with good humour calls it the Transnistria Autonomous Territorial Unit with Special Legal Status, but Transnistrians aren't fooled by such wordplay. Theirs is an independent semi-presidential republic with its own president (Vadim Krasnoselsky), government, military, police, postal system, currency, constitution, flag and national anthem.

They definitely recognise themselves even if no one else does. In 2015, they held their own census and counted 475,665 proud Transnistrians.

They even have their own passport though it is, alas, recognised mainly by Abkhazia, South Ossetia and the Republic of Astrakhan, three other countries no one recognises.

You can have a nice holiday in Transnistria. Young Pioneer Tours, a tourism agency that saw opportunity in package tours to unrecognised countries, have a number of attractive, if disquieting, packages. For instance, the Chernobyl and Transnistria Easter Tour, the Transnistria Chernobyl Nuclear Winter Tour, and the Magadan Soviet Gulag Tour.

The most famous Transnistrian is arguably Valeria Lukyanova, also known as the Human Barbie Doll because of a striking resemblance. She gained a global following for her "almost inhuman beauty" after winning the Miss Diamond Crown of the World contest. She herself claims that she has not augmented any part of her body except her breasts, just a little. She is currently an instructor at the Transnistrian School of Out of Body Travel, where she teaches people how to leave their (unaugmented) bodies and briefly become ghosts.

It's difficult not to be in awe of a country that dares to be itself, spitting in the face of the world community. In international law, claiming statehood requires having a defined territory, a permanent population, a government and the capacity to enter into international relations. Recognition by other countries is not required.

It turns out there are 89 other 'countries' that have gone ahead and declared their independence, United Nations be damned. The smallest is definitely Talossa, a micronation declared by 14-year-old Robert Ben Madison and limited to his bedroom in Milwaukee.

Then there is Snake Hill, a bunch of residents who declared themselves a separate country after finding themselves unable to pay their Australian taxes; Nutopia, a conceptual state with no land, borders, visas or passports, created by John Lennon; and the self-explanatory Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands.

Meanwhile, Maithili-speaking Nepalis, inspired by the Indian protests for Mithila's statehood, started demanding nation status too. They were gently squashed in 2015, when Nepal adopted its first constitution and offered to call the region Province Two.

The time may be just right for declaring independence for Palakkadia.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com

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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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First Published: 01 September, 2020 06:12 IST

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