Transnistria is a thin strip of land wedged between Moldova and Ukraine. It is home to more than 500,000 people and has a parliamentary government, a standing army, and its own currency. It has all the trappings of an independent nation—but isn’t.
Oh sure, it declared independence from Moldova in 1990 and fought a war two years later. And it’s got a constitution and a flag and even a coat of arms. But you won’t find it on many maps, and not a single member of the United Nations recognizes its existence.
But the people of Transnistria do not care. They cling tenaciously to aclaim of statehood and theirlove for all things Russian.
Its quite tragic, really, says Justin Barton, a British photographer who visited the countr…. er, autonomous territorial unit last year for his series TheTransnistrian Patriot. There are a lot of people who are very patriotic, but there are also a lot of other people just caught in the situation. And theyre amazingly isolated,” he says.
It all started in 1990, when Moldova broke away from the Soviet Union. Transnistria was home to many Russians and Russian speakers who felt political and cultural isolation in the new republic. They declared independence, hoping to establish a socialist republic and remain part of the Soviet Union. A war ensued, which ended in a ceasefire nearly two years later. The Soviet Union had crumbled by then, and the conflict never fully resolved even though Moldova granted Transnistria a measure of autonomy.
To all outward appearances, Transnistria is a sovereign state, albeit one that skews Soviet. Its flag includes the hammer and sickle and often flies alongside Russian flags. The Transnistrian ruble bears the images of Russian figures like the Gen. Alexander Suvorov and Catherine the Great. An enormous statue of Lenin guards the entrance to the Supreme Soviet, its parliament building. Pictures of Stalin and Putin are almost as ubiquitous as those of Transnistrian president Yevgeny Shevchuk.
In return, Russia provides free gas and supplements residents’ pensions. It also provides more than 1,000 troops, to the consternationof those in Ukraine. Still, Russia has not formally recognized the breakaway state, and does not appear inclined to. Nor does Moldova. This does not bode well.Despite Transnistria declaring its own independence, it will not achieve it, unless Moldova decides to recognize itan unlikely scenario, saysThomas de Waal, a British journalist and an expert on Eastern Europe. “The most likely future is either more of the samean unrecognized status and shadowy semi-statehood, or a confederation agreement with Moldova.
Barton became interested in Transnistria in 2014 while working in Ukraine. He heard thatTransnistria was producing new plastic currency with colorful coins in different shapes. His interest piqued, Barton read all he could about the topic and decided to visit Transnistria and photograph its residents. It required a month of pleading with the Transnistrian KGB, which runs security, before Barton was cleared to photograph top officials. It helped that his wife is Russian and he had an especially well-connected fixer.
He spent a little more than two weeks there over the course of two trips.Many of the people Barton photographed were intensely patriotic, though he couldn’t always parse their political views. In Tiraspol, he found Natalia Yefremova and her small trinket shop. It sells busts of Stalin and busts of Putin, and it wasn’t clear whether she favored communist or capitalist Russia. Barton also photographed Igor Nebeygolova, a colonel in the KGB and commander of the Cossack regiment in Tiraspol. A huge flag from Russia’s imperial era adorned the wall of his office, along with Soviet and Transnistrian flags. “His loyalties seemed deeply split,” Barton says. “Everything he had was a symbol of one thing or another.”
Barton photographed some20 people in all. He used a Nikon D810 and favored wider shots that emphasize the environment as much as the person. “You can find out a great deal about a place and, in particular, a mental space [that way],” he says.
It’s impossible to escape the sense of melancholy that pervades the series. It isn’t easy being stateless, and not everyone is optimistic about Transnistria’s future. Anastasia Spatar, who is 23 and has never traveled beyond Transnistria, showed great sadness when Barton asked her to think about her homeland. “[She said] she might burst into tears,” he says.
Barton found the experience as surreal as the country that isn’t. He recalls a conversation he had with a local of Transnistria he met while exploring Tiraspol. “Welcome to nowhere,” he told Barton.