Transnistria is not an area well-served by travel literature or, really, literature of any kind. The insubstantial-seeming post-Soviet sandwich-filling between Moldova and Ukraine, it doesn’t have a bad reputation. It has no reputation. As Rory MacLean, the author of the ‘across-the-old-Iron-Curtain-in-a-Trabant’ bestseller Stalin’s Nose, explains: ‘Transnistria is a breakaway republic of a ba lot smaller than Devon. And it is recognised by no country in the world except itself.
You could indeed be forgiven for thinking that Transnistria is a made-up place (and at times the author of this book almost treats it as if it is). In the wake of the dissolution of the USSR, Transnistria declared independence in 1990 but now finds itself described as a post-Soviet ‘frozen conflict’ zone. Officially Transnistria is part of Moldova, under the influence of Moscow and clinging to its Soviet roots. But it is also attempting to forge an identity as an independent country complete with bling-bling KGB-founded football club and oligarch-fuelled aspirations to join the EU.
This is an uncomfortable situation. So perhaps the text of Back in the USSR can’t help but occupy an awkward territory between reportage and mockumentary. MacLean claims that on his quest for ‘New Soviet Man’ (as he would have it, Transnistria’s archetype-brought-to-life-wearing-a-Cartier-watch) he is up for dispelling some myths. But in the next breath he calls everyone ‘comrade’ (more often than the Transnistrians do) and writes of ‘a land open for business, where balalaikas ring out as the Great Game plays on’. From the outset it veers close to a post-communist book version of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, where the ‘characters’ portrayed are treated as exactly that — characters:
‘Urrah’ cheered New Soviet Man with feeling, because he’d noted that the watch was a Patek Philippe.
Nick Danziger’s photography, however, transforms this into a beautiful and moving book. His portraits are vivid and disturbing: a Party secretary who resembles Katy Perry but with heavier false eyelashes poses mournfully next to a copy of Pravda; translator/fixer Marina appears in a huge fur-trimmed coat and with a dreamy expression punctuated by regulation frosted pink lips; an ancient grubby babushka (probably actually only in her early sixties) pushes a battered baby’s pram across a deserted street (see above).
But the words seek to treat the subjects of the photographs as real-life Borat figures. Even the foreign minister Nina Shtanski is ridiculed, just for ‘liking’ Joe Cocker, Santana and Portishead on her Facebook page. How is this different — or more ridiculous — than Barack and Michelle Obama calling in box sets of Downton Abbey?
The attempts to treat this poor little wannabe country as a fictional entity extend to the ‘Transnistrian timeline’ on the book’s last page:
2020: Moldov-Dnestria wins the Eurovision Song Contest. 2022: Vladimir Putin retires to Kamenka and takes up gardening. 2023: [Sanatorium manager] Tatiana Kushmir’s shoe tree sprouts Prada sandals.
(Her name is spelled ‘Kushnir’ elsewhere).
Sometimes there is a glimpse of real human life behind the Spinal Tap facade. ‘According to some foreign NGOs, as many as 60 per cent of orphaned Transnistrian girls will be approached to become sex workers in later life.’ What does this mean — and how does it compare to neighbouring Moldova and Ukraine? Why aren’t Transnistrians annoyed that Moscow does so little to help them? There’s a certain skirting around these questions but no real attempt to understand. Perhaps that’s the whole point, and this whole project is some kind of communist meta-commentary.
To be fair, MacLean can hardly be blamed for straying into disbelieving parody, surrounded as he is by intact statues of Lenin and ‘communist paradise’ technicolour street signs. It is a portrait of post-Soviet delusion and rampant, pointless aspiration. No one can adequately explain to him why — unless out of utter desperation — Transnistria clings on to a fragmented and ill-defined national identity, caught between nostalgic respect for Moscow and misplaced hope for the EU.
The reporting reveals an interesting problem and explains why photography coming out of the post-Soviet era is often more powerful than journalism. Anyone born in the Soviet Union (and even during the Putin era) has an inbuilt distrust of media and journalists. If someone agrees to talk to you, they will say a lot of stuff off the record and when they’re talking on the record, they will showboat and often say things worthy of the Dalai Lama. (‘Light is my religion,’ says Sergey Panov, president of the union of Transnistrian painters.)
This is a challenge for writers and one this book doesn’t quite meet. It’s like Alice in Wonderland with the story told by the Mad Hatter rather than by an empathetic outsider. As leader of the Communist Party of Transnistria, Oleg Khorzhan puts it: ‘We modern communists have left behind the old sterotypes.’ It’s a shame we in the West can’t do the same. These supposedly laughable post-Soviet republics have had to put up with a lot. Enough, comrades. It’s time to give Transnistria a break.