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It's always a good day to bury bad news, so switch off your tv and go start some trouble.

Pierre Marshall

Chinese minitel

2 min read

Yesterday evening I got a mobile SIM card, which means I now have mobile internet access. My WiFi account at the university will be connected today, maybe, hopefully.

As expected, I'm up against the great firewall. When I tried yesterday both tor and my vpn wouldn't connect. It felt so strange to have nominal internet access, but without the default rostrum of gmail, twitter, facebook, or youtube.

My phone, despite running an open source ROM, has Google apps flashed onto it, and Google play services are crashing repeatedly. Sorry Google.

It just compounds how much we rely on a handful of large services for communication with the rest of the world. Imagine trying to contact your family and friends, without the help of any major silicon valley company. Nor can you ask a neighbour for help as the firewall extends nationwide. Not easy is it?

What is the internet when you're not clicking through the same handful of websites over and over again? It's only really noticeable when they become inaccessible.

And yet, all the little services are untouched. I can still connect to my preferred irc chatroom without a problem. I can still post to the small forums I visit from time to time. Telegram messenger, p2p Bleep messenger, withknown, indymedia, gnu social; all work fine.

So I'm ok with this for the moment, if only that it puts me in a different bubble of dissenters who shy away from mainstream social media.

Pierre Marshall

Leaving Brighton

2 min read

Today's my last proper day in Brighton, leaving tomorrow.

Yesterday I went to Lewes and Eastbourne. I'm going to miss exploring East Sussex. Between the coastal path and the rolling hills of the South Downs there are so many different landscapes in a relatively small area. Each town and village has its own distinctive character. I'll also miss the university campus, sunken into a leafy valley, it's a special area. Even the faded council estates of Moulsecoomb, Bevendean and Whitehawk, I've grown attached to these places and suddenly struck with loss at the thought of not coming back.

South Downs

When you're a teenager your social life has a rhythm of meeting people in the sixth-form common room, or going round to a friend's house to play video games. Now I'm going to be 23 soon and life is marching steadily in the opposite direction. I still read comics, but I don't get to talk with anyone about them; I barely play games any more. The university doesn't have a common room, and while I do have friends there, we're all adults now, it's more formal.

Recently I met someone who's my age, and she likes video games and 80s pop music, and hanging around in town, she gets it. It's just been so long since I got to do that I almost forgot what it was like. And now I'm leaving.

Pierre Marshall

final word on the Iraqi Red Army

2 min read

Around this time last year a rumour emerged that the Iraqi Communist Party was forming armed brigades to fight ISIS. There were accompanying pictures, which originated from a Chinese social media site. I looked into it, got someone to translate the user's posts, they couldn't find the original photos. A YouTube commenter (not a fantastically accurate source of information) mentioned that the photos were of Iraqi security forces attending a May Day rally. That was plausible, but the story kept cropping up, even in mainstream publications.

After about a week of scanning through the Iraqi Party's newspaper online I found a party member and asked him about it. He said he'd not heard of any 'Red Army', so I called fake and moved on.

That's the background. Now to present day, I saw a proper official representative of the Iraqi Communist Party in London who casually slipped into his presentation that the Iraqi Communist Party was conducting armed operations in the country and 'several comrades had been martyred'. I'm paraphrasing from memory here because my phone only recorded two seconds of the speech (must check equipment better in future).

He said that communist units didn't operate independently, and this was a political position to support the national Iraqi army. The communists are not very strong compared with some militias, they number 'hundreds, not thousands'. He added that some groups are under Peshmerga command, and some arose somewhat spontaneously during the Yazidi crisis on mount Sinjar. Although the party 'doesn't like to talk about them very much'. That's quite reasonable, they want to emphasise their role as a popular democratic force; they have better experience fighting corruption and economic exploitation than Islamic holy warriors.

The subtext is also that the story keeps reappearing because it fits neatly into a narrative of teenage keyboard maoists who get off on the idea of revolutionary armed struggle. I admit it does have some appeal, and it's a nice story, but that's probably all it is.

So there you have it: are there communists fighting ISIS in Iraq? Yes. Does the Iraqi Red Army exist? No.

Pierre Marshall


5 min read

I got the bus in yesterday and saw most of the centre when walking to the hotel. There are no museums or galleries, a few churches, that's it.

I walked round lake orasenesc yesterday. It's near to an army base and some soldiers were jogging round it for exercise, two large groups followed by one poor straggler who was struggling to catch up. This afternoon I also walked along the side of the canoe/kayak lake. There is actually a club, made up of some shacks and reclaimed train carriages. Why go to the effort of building a first-rate channel for watersports, only to have it served by a scrappy old boathouse? They could probably have the world championships here if they cleared out the weeds, put up a few stands.

I wanted to walk further, to the randunica forest, but I got tired so I turned back at victory park. My hotel is expensive, twice the cost of the one in Chisinau. It's got everything I need and more: big bed, shelves, air conditioner, TV, en-suite bathroom with hot water, wifi, it's clean... But the decor seems to be inspired from a haunted mansion: lots of mirrors everywhere, lots of wood, and not much light. It's also super-quiet to the point where I suspect I'm the only guest in the whole building. The guy at the desk admitted that there's not much to do in the city.

The main cinema is only screening one film, with one showing today. Look here, it's the second largest city in Moldova proper, it's got several universities, it's the weekend, and yet there are tiny villages in England with a more diverse cultural programme.

Trying to make the best of it I went to see a play at the theatre. Gogoasa by P. Lucasescu. I've not heard of him or his script but it's probably alright, maybe I'll learn something new. So I buy the ticket, loiter in the square until opening time, then when I go in the person checking the tickets gives me a funny look. The lobby slowly starts filling up with young mothers and their children. Uh oh, turns out it's a Saturday pantomime.

The plot wasn't sophisticated, at least it was easy enough for me to understand. A magic fairy created a plant which got picked by a farmer and turned into a living carrot-woman. The carrot-woman then danced with a bunny rabbit who was crying and a bear who was angry, and she made them happy. Another rabbit tried to eat the carrot but she captured him in a net. And there was a fox who tried to trick the carrot into giving her a basket, but the fairy intervened. The moral of the story is: don't do drugs.

The children loved it though, clapping and singing all the way. They appreciated it, which means on some level it must have been good. And I got to write on my blog about how I went to a weird pantomime in northern Moldova.

For Balti itself there's the important political question of the Russian population and its representation by a pro-Russian party in the local elections. I'm not sure how to approach the subject of 'problem populations' in Moldova. It's not a place known for ethnic strife, and there's nothing intrinsically wrong with democratic representatives being ethnically representative of the people they represent. Eg. Russian deputies elected from a majority Russian area. Or in London, Luftur Rahman elected as representative of Tower Hamlets' majority non-white population.

The problem is that democratic elections are a contest between different parties for control of the state. It's a competition, and that gets complicated when parties become blurred with sectional interest groups. When a party claims to represent a specific ethnic group, that group votes in line with their identity, which means that the dominant ethnicity rules the municipality and that leads to the creation of strongholds (or ghettos) in which identities become reinforced. Elections become a flashpoint at which ethnic tension is brought to a climax. It's a cycle, two communities living on either side of a river, and it ends in war. There's got to be a way of resolving it before it comes to that.

So why did the landslide happen now? Here are my guesses.

  • The conflict in Donbass puts the loyalty of Russian populations into question. Whether rightly or wrongly some groups see them as a fifth column.
  • The Eurozone crisis and the corruption scandal of liberal pro-EU parties has brought European integration into question. Previously, minority ethnic communities might have made a strategic decision to vote in line with European integration because this brought with it a perceived better standard of living.
  • Leadiing on from that, the Eurasian union is a real thing now, it's an alternative to the EU and just having the choice there makes a big difference.
  • It was a long time coming and nobody noticed because Moldova is a small country which receives little attention.

I might have made this holiday too long, I'm sort of killing time at this point, that's why these entries are so long and rambling. Tomorrow I go back to Chisinau, it's the first step of the long chain back to Oxford. Hopefully I'll manage without spending much more money, I've got 700+ Lei, of which I know I need at least 450 to pay for the hostel tomorrow night, the bus back to Chisinau and the bus to the airport. Even if I need to get more cash I should come in well under budget.

Pierre Marshall


3 min read

The plan for today was to get out of Chisinau, go to a town about 30-40 minutes away. I've seen everything in the city centre so this is my way to carry on exploring.

At the central bus station none of the place names look familiar, save for one bus which stops at Straseni, but I'm reluctant to get on because I don't recognise the final destination. I ask at the ticket desk for Hinchesti. The attendant directs me to the South Bus Station, located all the way on the other side of the city. After a futile search for the bus that goes to the South Bus Station I give up and decide to walk to the central train station. I can see on the map that there's a line to Straseni, that should be easy.

At the train station the departures board lists Moscow and Bucharest and Odessa, all far away cities, but no Straseni. I realise I've gotten the wrong station, the little local service probably leaves from Visterniceni. I've run out of options and it's almost 11, but then on the way back by chance I see number 192, the bus going to the South Bus Station. Delighted, I flag it down and climb onboard, I'm on my way to Hinchesti.

I accidentally get off at the station before the South Bus Station. Apparently what I was actually looking for was the South-West Bus Station. No problem, it's only another bus ride away. I can travel like this, but I don't like it because it creates a chain with too many points of failure, and it takes ages.

Eventually I get to the right station, the right bus, I'm on my way to Hinchesti. Incidentally I'm the only person onboard who bought a ticket at the desk in the station, everyone else just pays the driver. The driver doesn't even check my ticket, but on the way back it's the same guy and he insists I pay him the return fare directly. Fine, it makes no difference to me if I pay it at the desk or on the bus, but they should at least be consistent. There was a poster at one of the last stops which promised a vote for Chircota was a vote for a 'less chaotic transport system'. That sounds pretty good to me, especially since the stop it was on wasn't even an official stop at all, more of an extended lay-by with benches.

Basically, it took a long time getting to Hinchesti. And was it worth the journey? What marvels are there in this town? Well, there's a steep hill, and a big lake. So I walked up the hill and round the lake, and then back to the station to repeat the whole tortuous bus process in reverse.

On the whole the town was more developed than I'd expected. Usually you come out of the capital and you're greeted by dirt roads and horse-driven carts. There was some of that for sure, but there was also a guitar shop and some nice well-kept suburban houses. I also realise now that I missed the central square, probably should have gone to see that.

I've not really learned much from today, other than when I go to Balti tomorrow I'll need to use the North Bus Station. Not looking forward to that.

Pierre Marshall

Chisinau - day five

3 min read

Yesterday I went to visit the Archeology museum, it was closed and looks like it's been closed for quite a while. So I went to Valea Morilor and walked in the wooded area surrounding it. It's too hot, and with less things to see I'm starting to alter my behaviour. Rather than going out and visiting as much stuff as I can, learning as much as possible, now I just go on long walks with nothing at the end of them. It's easy to relax here, flitting between cafés, ice cream in the park, dinner at a restaurant, unfortunately you can only do it for so long before it gets boring. Tomorrow I'm going to the bus station to catch a bus to one of the villages or settlements on the outskirts of the capital. Maybe Straseni, or Cricova.

The hotel won't wash my clothes, and the launderette nearby is more an operation for dry-cleaning suits than my stinky socks. I'm on my last t-shirt so in the absence of anything better I'll have to wash everything in the sink and leave it to dry in the room.

I got some shampoo/shower gel to replace the bottle I left behind in Tiraspol. Most shops don't sell extra cosmetic things like shampoo, you need to get them in pharmacies, and the pharmacies here are proper medical facilities. No aisles of perfume, just little counters staffed by ladies in clean white jackets. One of them asked which shampoo I wanted (there are lots), after I said I didn't mind she eyed me up before reaching right to the back of the cupboard, handing me a bottle for 'very damaged and lifeless hair'. Well, I see the sun hasn't helped my style. That aside it was one of the cheaper shampoos they have, I get the feeling that the price is subsidised, but I've got no way of checking.

I've finished reading Marx's critique of the Gotha programme. It was a solid holiday book. I wasn't paying attention to all the explanatory notes and annotations so it may need re-reading for full comprehension.

For today, I went to the Pushkin museum in the morning. There were some of his original manuscripts and drawings, I'll admit I don't know his work so most of it just passed me by. I was surprised to learn he was a supporter of the Decembrist revolt, and his romance with the gipsy woman sounds tragic. The museum is small, tucked away, and I was the only visitor at the time.

I then went to see the RTEC transport museum, which was closed. The Bucuria sweet factory also could not be visited, and the back of it was extremely well guarded with barbed wire and a watchtower. I don't see why the precaution because the factory itself looks like a wreck. I didn't buy anything in the factory shop, unless anyone at home wants some Moldovan confectionery?

I tried to pick up on the Party of Communists, but it's short notice and my contact with them hasn't responded to my requests for another interview. That's understandable, they're busy with the second round of elections. I've been keeping an eye on Usatii Renato, again I won't have time in Balti to set up an official interview any members of his party, but it'll be worthwhile to see the context of his victory. Nobody wins a 72% landslide without some serious political will.

Pierre Marshall

Dubasarry and the great escape from the PMR

3 min read

I had to leave Transnistria yesterday, because the authorities (ministry of immigration?) found out I was a journalist. People went to my registered address (not the same one I was staying at, for precisely situations like this), asked lots of questions about me and fined the housekeeper 300 rubles. They were looking for me, and would have stopped me at any of the border checkpoints if I'd tried to leave. Thankfully yesterday morning I took a bus to Dubasarry and only found out about the whole thing by text while I was walking back to the bus stop.

That's the exciting bit of the story, my travel diary of wandering around Dubasarry is kind of dull in comparison. I walked down to the river, saw some more people in kayaks, went all the way up to the dam. Had to sneak past a bull to get back to town, saw the old music school, the modern administration building and the public square, and that's basically it.

When I got back into Tiraspol I carefully avoided anyone who could stop me. I'm fairly inconspicuous here and even walked past a militia station at one point without anyone noticing. I crossed town in a series of buses, kept off the street, waited in a café for a few hours... then I left. I've decided not to reveal the method for leaving the territory undetected. It was nerve-wracking but also kind of easy.

On arrival in Chisinau I exchanged my euros at a dodgy 24-hour kiosk and walked all the way to a hotel in the centre. This hotel, with my own large room, is actually cheaper than the pokey little hostel a few streets away.

At this point I've seen enough of the PMR to know what it's like. My losses are my last night at the apartment, 300 rubles for that person's fine, and the cancellation of my hotel booking in Ribnitia. There's still an open question of how I got outed as a 'journalist' despite not actually working on a story there. My best theory is someone did a search on me, found this blog, and deemed it good enough to be journalism. That's some sort of praise I guess, and it's one of the reasons I'm keeping quiet about how I got out. I don't want the route I used to be publicised and shut down.

For now, I'm going to get my clothes washed, get some food, and carry on exploring Chisinau where I left off before. And I'm still going to Balti at the end of the week.

Pierre Marshall


3 min read

I crossed the river this morning to visit Bender. The centre is small, a lot of activity is concentrated on Suvorov road. I walked round Lenin square, then to the pedestrian bit in front of the town hall. The west-facing side of the building is still pock-marked with bullet holes.

There's a little display in the street showing the movement for independence, then the history of the town during the Second World War. I'm struck by how much history inter-weaves here, it's as if each event sets up the next: the Russo-Turkish War, the October Revolution, the Second World War, the Transnistrian War of Independence, Yeltsin's coup in 1993, and now the war in Donbass. The use of symbolism in these conflicts, particularly the ribbon of St. George, echoes through time to create one long chain.

I feel like I don't know enough about the war. I'm aware that the initial clashes broke out at Dubasarry bridge, and here there are photos of women blockading the train line crossing the Dniester. There's a museum nearby which would have explained much more, but it's Sunday so it's closed.

Last thing to point out about the centre is the statues opposite Malanka square. There's a particularly grotesque depiction of the Ottoman Turks, verging on racist. The Russian generals meanwhile are portrayed like heroes. It's troubling.

Later on I walked down to the riverside. The boathouses are open and a few rowing crews are on the water. Some of them are quite fast, if you ignore the tank on the bridge this isn't so different from Oxford. It's... normal? It's not 'Europe's North Korea' or the 'last outpost of the Soviet Union', it's a complicated but ultimately functional society. It's not just a big nostalgia theme park, which I feel is particularly relevant because there aren't many other tourists about, I'm only one of a handful in the whole country. Sure there's a lot of soldiers walking around, but most of them don't carry guns, and there's no street police. How can you have a police state without police, or a proper state for that matter?

Something works here, I can't quite place my finger on what it is, but it works. Boys cycle to the river with fishing rods, women in flowery dresses stroll round the park. Maybe I was brainwashed by Enid Blyton as a child.

There's some innovations in Bender which I think are great and should be copied in other cities. Firstly the promenade by the riverbank has got markings on it for a running track. This means runners can pace their distance while also having nice scenery to look at. Second, some billboards in the town have been reclaimed to show big simplified street maps.

Passed by the Palace of Culture on the way back, it's advertising a concert this evening. I don't normally go to concerts, but since I'm here I may as well see what it's like.

So I went to the concert, which is why I didn't have time to go and post this. I'll do it tomorrow before going to Dubasarry. I was impressed by one guy in traditional dress who went on and played a very impressive flute solo. There were dancers too, and they were, uh, well synchronised. It looked like an amateur production, but at least it was free. We don't get many free concerts in Britain, probably why I don't go to many concerts.

Pierre Marshall


3 min read

I'm sitting by the beach, this is about as far south as I can go in Transnistria. Looking out across the lake I can see Ukraine, the town of Gradeny. It's a sunny day so the beach is full of people, playing with the slide, splashing about on pedalos, or just sunbathing on the sand.

I've noticed here that children actually use the playgrounds. That might sound odd but in my experience post-soviet settlements always have swing sets and roundabouts and stuff near housing blocks and until now I'd not really seen people using them.

Sitting here you can't see the power plant, it's quite well hidden on the path up here too. There is a very slight burnt smell in the town, but I can't tell if that's the plant or just an out of control barbeque. There's also an elaborate network of pipes running into town, they're so large that you need to cross them over little bridges. Gas pipes maybe, but where's the gas coming from or going to?

I tried to buy a postcard here, I figured this was most likely the place where I could get one. I asked in a stall and the shop lady walked me all the way to the post office, where they sold only postcards of Tiraspol and none of Dnestrovsk. So now I have a pack of Tiraspol postcards.

On my way out here I passed the '1st May' factory and took a photo of it. A soldier immediately appeared and shouted at me to delete it. I didn't think it was a military complex? The train tracks coming out of it lead straight into the Kvint factory across the road. Unless they're making weaponised kvint brandy...

I finished sewing up the hole in my trousers this morning, it seems to be holding firm. I'll be more careful when sliding down rough concrete slopes on my bum in future.

On the way back the bus driver smokes, he sees his mate cycling down the road and pulls over to chat with him. A few minutes later he puts on the radio and starts signing along. He probably thinks he's a really cool driver but none of the passengers are joining in. Still, at least he drives fast and he doesn't stop at every little village. I'm not clear on the ticketing policy here, I bought a ticket from the stop on the way in and on the way out, but the driver never asked for them. On another ride yesterday the driver didn't accept cash, only tickets. The rules seem to change with each journey, it doesn't bother me too much though because it's never expensive.

Pierre Marshall

Tiraspol - first impressions

4 min read

This area is what I'd describe as a self-governing city-state. It's got its own country calling code, its own currency, licence plates, school system, passports, army, football team.

In terms of infrastructure the territory has two power plants, both linked to the Dniester river. It's got an airport, used primarily for military resupply missions. Plus there are natural gas reserves in the north and the industrial complexes around Ribnita.

A brief survey of the supermarket near my apartment shows that a lot of food is produced locally. The raw essentials you'd expect: milk, vegetables, bread and so on, but they also go so far as to make their own fizzy drinks and sweets. Admittedly drinks are not that hard to produce, only here it's organised, it's import substitution.

Underlying all this is a lingering question: if the borders were closed tomorrow, how long would this place last? And behind that there's a deeper question: why are the borders still open?

I remember reading during my dissertation research that any modern conflict requires a degree of cooperation between opponents. For example: the Syrian government is currently at war with ISIS, and ISIS control strategic oil fields in Syria; the Syrian army cannot function without oil, and nobody will sell them oil due to sanctions, so they buy oil from ISIS. This is what it means to live in an interconnected, interdependent system.

Transnistria sits between Moldova and Ukraine, therefore a substantial portion of the trade between those two counties passes through it. It's in both of their best interests to keep goods flowing through the region. Similarly a small proportion of the peacekeepers in the territory are Moldovan and Ukrainian soldiers. Therefore both countries have an incentive not to attack, so as not to fire on their own soldiers. However, even if Moldova were to attack, I'm sure they would think twice before bombing the gas fields, so as not to damage their own supply.

Everything here seems to have aligned in such a way that nothing can be properly resolved. So this place exists, it exists even though it shouldn't. It could be seen as one big accident of history, a series of actions which over time caused huge irreconcilable differences between people either side of the river. Conflicts have a way of setting in over time, and this one was clearly brewing long before 1992. Actually it's too kind to call it an accident, because these areas were deliberately targeted by Catherine the Second to act as colonial enclaves of the Russian Empire. After almost two centuries of continued exposure to the Russian language and culture it's understandable that that they would be reluctant to let go of it. Culture can be dangerous sometimes, and that's just as true for the Moldovan side too.

For stuff I actually did today, I went to see the orthodox monastery in Kishkani. The priests and nuns were picking flowers out of the trees and tending to their crops; they brew their own coffee and their own kvass. I should have asked to try some. The churches were ornately decorated with gold and paintings, as orthodox churches always are. Besides the religious centre there's not much else in the village. It's got a definite rural character: old men riding dusty bicycles, a couple of people on horses. I don't often get to see people riding horses as an actual mode of transport.

I also went walking along the riverside to try and reach Ternovka. I turned off the path too soon, got stuck walking on a country lane. After a while I got too hot and tired to go further, so as soon as I rejoined the river I turned and went straight back. There's a rowing and canoe club on the river, they had their cars out with kayaks on top. Some of them looked fast, if a little old. Is kayaking popular in this country?