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.