Not even the most closely guarded secrets of the Soviet Union can stay hidden in the Instagram age.
“There are beer cans in here!” shouts Tim as he picks through the detritus of a recent party inside a nuclear bunker, forgotten for nearly 30 years. “Unbelievable!”
When Tim, a Nebraska native now known as “Tim Tiraspol”, first started bringing tourists to this deserted corner of Moldova two years ago, they would be the only ones here. The bunker, one of three built during the final chapter of the Soviet era to house elite families for months in the event of a nuclear attack, was almost finished when the empire collapsed in 1991. The project was so well guarded that even locals in a village seven miles away didn’t know it was being built.
Its top has since been ripped off by scavengers hunting for high-grade iron, revealing the scale of the bunker: 13 floors sunk into the ground and surrounded by metre-thick concrete blast walls.
With the lid peeled back, you can peer down into the skeleton of a subterranean city that reaches the water table. But we were not alone in the hour we spent there: three other groups of sightseers, one in a camper van with French number plates, had also made the trip down the dilapidated path through the forest. Since a British blogger posted a video last month, this place has turned into yet another stop on the Soviet-nostalgia trail that hundreds of adventure tourists now follow through eastern Europe.
Tim has been operating for 13 years in Transnistria, the breakaway patch of eastern Moldova that is not recognised by anyone, even Russia, although Moscow props it up with subsidies and has run a peacekeeping force here since 1990.
The territory has kept its Lenin statues and Soviet street names, earning it a reputation as the last bastion of the USSR, even though today it boasts high-speed internet, sushi bars, and a 500,000 population who can choose to have a passport from Russia, Moldova, or Romania, an EU-member.
Summer visitor numbers used to be small: only the most dedicated travellers wanted to deal with a trip to the migration ministry for a 12-hour visit, or risk harassment from the KGB, still operational in Transnistria until 2017. These days, tourists can get a 90-day pass with a hotel booking and a two-minute procedure at its “border” with Moldova.
Local businesses have started catering to the nostalgia market. In the bus station of Bendery, a Soviet-style canteen is decorated with plaques of Lenin, old newspapers, and mementoes from the 1980 Moscow Olympics. In Tiraspol, the Transnistrian capital, the Lenin Street Hostel, listed on Trip Advisor and Booking.com, is a faithfully recreated two-bedroom Soviet-era flat.
The region’s tourism industry has been boosted by grants from the EU and US and while there are other attractions here, such as a booming wine and cognac industry, it is still Lenin and the hammer and sickle that feature on the magnets and mugs for sale in the new tourist information office.
“We started with rural and agricultural tourism, trying to encourage local people to start small businesses for tourists, but then after two or three years we saw how tourists are interested in the Soviet history,” said Tatiana Yaskova, chairwoman of Transnistria’s Agency for Regional Development.
“There is a small group in Transnistria who don’t want us to be seen as a Soviet territory, they want us to be modern. But the majority are fine with this. We don’t want to fight with our Soviet past. It is our history, the light, and the dark.”