The Country That Doesn't Exist

In little-known Transdniestria, life is a constant search for identity. One photographer recently took a closer look.

Snaking down the border between Moldova and Ukraine is a landlocked sliver of terrain called Transdniestria. It’s home to more than half a million people and run by an independent government. It has its own form of currency, a constitution, and a standing army. The national anthem is, “We Sing the Praises of Transdniestria.”

But Transdniestria—sometimes spelt Transnistria—is not recognised by the United Nations. In other words, it’s not considered a country.

A LAND IN LIMBO

The “culture house” is a relic of the Soviet era that lives on in the villages of Transdniestria. This one, in Cionurciu, has been cleaned in preparation for a dancing event to celebrate the end of World War II.
PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS VANDEN DRIESSCHE, INSTITUTE

Nadesha Bondarenco—editor in chief of Bravo, the newspaper of the Transdniestrian Communist Party—stands amid flags and a bust of Lenin. The CP has just one seat in the parliament. Bondarenco says that although Transdniestria is a capitalist society, symbols of communism still abound.  
PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS VANDEN DRIESSCHE, INSTITUTE

 In Tiraspol, Transdniestria, a statue of Vladimir Lenin stands in front of the parliament building, also known as the "Supreme Soviet."
PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS VANDEN DRIESSCHE, INSTITUTE

Officially known as the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic (PMR), Transdniestria is technically part of Moldova. But, says Eastern Europe scholar Dennis Deletant, “the separatist statelet has had de facto independence since the Moldovan civil war in 1992,” which pitted Moldovans against Transdniestrians.

Transdniestria is sometimes referred to as a “frozen conflict” because, while fighting ceased in the area 25 years ago, no formal peace treaty has ever been drawn. Today the perimeter of Transdniestria is patrolled by “about 1,200 Russian peacekeepers,” says Deletant, “who enforce an uneasy cease-fire.”

And though its residents are patriotic, proudly calling themselves “Transdniestrians,” many ultimately pledge their allegiance to Russia rather than Moldova.

Zinaida Borets, 37, is a Transdniestrian actress who has belonged to a Tiraspol theatre troupe for more than a decade. Every year, near the anniversary of the end of World War II, the troupe performs a play dedicated to the glory of Soviet soldiers.
PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS VANDEN DRIESSCHE, INSTITUTE

As Transdniestrians celebrate Victory Day with a military parade—complete with Soviet-era tank—Russian flags line the streets of Tiraspol.
PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS VANDEN DRIESSCHE, INSTITUTE

Men fish on the Dniester River, just a few hundred meters from a power station in Dubassari.
PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS VANDEN DRIESSCHE, INSTITUTE

Andrey Smolenskiy, 30, works out every day at this Soviet-era gym in Cionurciu. When he’s not exercising, he runs a travel agency.
PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS VANDEN DRIESSCHE, INSTITUTE

Transdniestria is not recognised by any country in the world, so a Transdniestrian passport is not valid. But since dual nationality is permitted, most people are entitled to either a Moldovan, Russian, or Ukrainian passport. Some keep additional papers, waiting to see if "the wind will blow West or East," says Vanden Driessche.
PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS VANDEN DRIESSCHE, INSTITUTE

At an equestrian centre on the outskirts of Tiraspol, the son of the owner prepares for a jumping competition.
PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS VANDEN DRIESSCHE, INSTITUTE

In Tiraspol, military guards of the president (Vadim Krasnoselsky, elected last year) take a break at the end of the Victory Day celebration.
PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS VANDEN DRIESSCHE, INSTITUTE

The Bender Independence War Museum commemorates the war with Moldova. The most violent clashes took place in Bender, west of the Dniester River.
PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS VANDEN DRIESSCHE, INSTITUTE

Along the highway that links Tiraspol to the industrial city of Ribnita, a monument commemorates the Second World War.
PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS VANDEN DRIESSCHE, INSTITUTE

Starting in the capital of Tiraspol, Vanden Driessche spent two weeks driving around the region with a fixer who spoke Russian, one of the territory's main languages (along with Romanian and Ukrainian).

For the most part, says Vanden Driessche, people were comfortable with him taking their portraits. But when he was out on the street with his camera, something struck him about the way people reacted. Instead of being either overly friendly or confrontational—the two extremes he typically encounters—Vanden Driessche was met with an unfamiliar indifference.

“It was strange,” he says. “Nobody was happy. But nobody was pissed off.”

In a Tiraspol theatre, actors perform in a patriotic play that pays tribute to the Soviet soldiers who died during World War II.
PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS VANDEN DRIESSCHE, INSTITUTE

Header Image: In 2015, Transdniestrians celebrated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II—also known as the “great patriotic war”—and 25 years of independence from Moldova. PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS VANDEN DRIESSCHE, INSTITUTE

Discuss this article

Newsletter

Never miss a Nat Geo moment

Your email address
Submit