Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Back to the USSR (in Transnistria)

For a tiny state which is not recognised by any UN country, it is perhaps ironic that Transnistria’s book forms the biggest and most imposing book on my global travel bookcase to date!

This constitutes an impressive A4 book with a number of personal accounts translated into German, English and Russian; along with an absolutely beautiful range of photographs which perfectly capture Transnistrian life in terms of intimate family life in apartment blocks; work in the local radio station; and photos of high profile political candidates.

On a personal level; this was one of the stopovers I was most looking forward to. For many people in the West, Transnistria doesn’t even exist. Moldova and the Ukraine are vague entities in Western media, and so a country desperate to acknowledge its own existence between these two countries is going to struggle in terms of gaining any sort of profile.

The authors of this book; Kramar and Marcell Nimfuehr (both from Austria); explored this fascinating region on the left bank of the Dniestr for more than five years. They got to known the land and the people: they did reportage, interviews and made friends. One of these was a young college lecturer and translator, Andrey Smolensky. Together they explored places that no Western journalist had access to in producing this book.

This is a pictorial book, a political account, a travel account, a book on propaganda and counter-propaganda. With "This is Radio PMR", the Austrian authors – along with their native Transnistrian contacts - have created a visually stunning photographic portrait. As well as their impressive photographs a number of transcribed radio-shows and interviews help to depict a colourful image of "the little Soviet Union".

For me, there are two particularly enlightening sections.

The first deals with “The War of Transnistria” which followed armed clashes on a limited scale that broke out between Transnistrian separatists and Moldova as early as November 1990 at Dubăsari. Volunteers, including Cossacks, came from Russia and Ukraine to help the separatist side. Starting from March 2 1992, there was concerted military action between Moldova and Transnistria. Throughout early 1992 the fighting intensified. The former Soviet 14th Guards Army entered the conflict in its final stage, opening fire against Moldovan forces and since then, Moldova has exercised no effective control or influence on Transnistrian authorities. A ceasefire agreement was signed on July 21, 1992 and has held to the present day. This is seen as a significant date in Transnistrian history, along with other dates relevant to the establishment of the USSR, such as the October Revolution, which are still observed. The accounts by veterans and widows of this recent conflict are particularly affecting – especially as they are accompanied by images of the deceased, and the families left to mourn them.

The second section deals with the cultural side of Transnistria – and involves accounts by a younger, more questioning section of the populace. An interesting example is Artiom Nikolaevich Masur, a young actor and musician, whose views contrast sharply with many of the establishment voices heard in this work. His direct perspective cuts through much of the formulaic political commentary that we encounter elsewhere in the book. For instance, he states: “I Am Moldovan, but I don’t care. Nationalities are stupid…I also wouldn’t call myself Pridnestrovian. It’s all politics. I am not interested in politics…I am simply Artiom”. This individualist view shows that despite its strict pro-Soviet society, counter-culture - in limited form perhaps - does exists in Transnistria.

It is interesting that the Radio PMR of the title (depicted through snippets of broadcasts in the mid-2000s translated by Andrey Smolensky) is largely pro-PMR. The provocative title “This is Radio PMR” echoes the call signs of freedom radio of subjugated nations in the Second World War; however it quickly becomes apparent that many residents of Transnistria DO see themselves as a subjugated nation – seeking freedom from their perceived threat by Moldova, which of course still sees Transnistria as part of its territory. As Andrey states of his broadcasts: “The ultimate aim is to break Moldova’s information blockade against the PMR”.

As such Radio PMR is both an opposition station (against the de jure government of Moldova) and a pro-government station (for the de facto rule of the PMR).

This complex scenario demonstrates the complexity of this disputed nation which this book seeks to represent. It is notable that this book is also, primarily, a photobook (as they say in the cliché:- "a picture paints a thousand words") and the beautiful imagery certainly gives an insightful overview of this nation – from the cramped but homely apartments of its residents, to the grand Soviet-style parades of its government.

If I have one gripe about the production of this book it is this: all too-often, gorgeous two-page photo spreads are marred by the crease in the middle of the book - this volume would perhaps have worked better visually if it were hinged at the left hand edge rather than in the middle, to give the pictures their full impact.

I now take my leave of this strange and contentious - yet fascinating – region to continue my journey into the Ukraine. I considered taking the one daily bus to Kiev from Tiraspol, but - worried about the many online stories about harassment and bribery requests from border guides – I decide to play it safe and, through asking around with a few key contacts; I manage to secure the services of a Russian-speaking driver with a private car with Russian number plates, who will take me from Tiraspol to Kiev direct. Fortunately the border guards seemed disinterested in my transport (they had just pulled over a minibus and taken a couple of Western-looking travellers over for an ‘interview’ in a small hut with four looming guards) and so I was able to continue my journey unmolested into the Ukraine’s capital city Kiev, and the book “Death And The Penguin” by native author Andrey Kurkov.

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