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.”

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.
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

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

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.

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.

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