arrow-downarrow-leftarrow-rightarrow-upchevron-upchevron-leftchevron-rightchevron-upclosecomment-newemail-newfullscreen-closefullscreen-opengallerygridheadphones-newheart-filledheart-openmap-geolocatormap-pushpinArtboard 1Artboard 1Artboard 1minusng-borderpauseplayplusreplayscreensharefacebookgithubArtboard 1Artboard 1linkedinlinkedin_inpinterestpinterest_psnapchatsnapchat_2tumblrtwittervimeovinewhatsappspeakerstar-filledstar-openzoom-in-newzoom-out-new

The Country That Doesn't Exist

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

View Images

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.


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 spelled Transnistria—is not recognized by the United Nations. In other words, it’s not considered a country.

A LAND IN LIMBO

View Images

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.


Transdniestria

Since 1990, this breakaway region in

Moldova’s predominantly Russian-speaking area east of the Dniester River has remained unrecognized by any UN member state.

ASIA

AREA

ENLARGED

AFRICA

Soroca

UKRAINE

Rîbniţa

Bălţi

Moldova

Chişinău

Tiraspol

Bender

Romania

Cioburciu

Comrat

50 mi

50 km

BLACK

SEA

MATTHEW W. CHWASTYK, NG STAFF

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, calling themselves “Transdniestrians,” many pledge allegiance to Russia rather than Moldova.

View Images

Zinaida Borets, 37, is a Transdniestrian actress who has belonged to a Tiraspol theater 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.


View Images

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


View Images

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


This national identity crisis was what compelled Belgian photographer Thomas Vanden Driessche to travel to Transdniestria and document life there.

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.”

You can see more of Vanden Driessche's work on his website. Or on Instagram.

View Images

In a Tiraspol theater, actors perform in a patriotic play that pays tribute to the Soviet soldiers who died during World War II.



Follow Nat Geo Photography

Community

Join Your Shot, our photography community. Submit to assignments and get feedback from our photo editors.

Join

From the Archives

Look through a curated collection of historical photos from our archives on National Geographic's Found Tumblr.

Explore

Picture Stories

Check out the latest work from National Geographic photographers and visual storytellers around the world.

See More