Travel has a capacity to bring the worst out in people. Whether it is crowds overwhelming Barcelona or the global sex tourist industry, the belief of the mindfulness of travel appears to be a naive perspective. An ever increasingly popular trend is to visit locations that are de facto independent but not recognized, which are most numerously found in the former USSR, e.g. Abkhazia, Nagorno Karabakh, and South Ossetia. Many of these travelers come to this region just looking to confirm the stereotypes of the regions. Stories of gopniks, corruption and endless photos of architectural decay and Soviet symbols. The lack of recognition from the international community appears to give credence to these travelers’ beliefs that both these countries and their populations are worthy of such dehumanizing depictions.
The work of Anton Polyakov represents a breath of fresh air when it comes to this conversation. In contrast to the overwhelming majority of works on these territories, he is actually from one. He was raised and continues to live in Tirsapol, the capital of Transnistria, and his work showcases a nuance and sophistication that can only come from a deep knowledge of the area. His book “Transnistria Conglomerate” looks to oxygenate the conversation regarding Transnistria in terms of the territory’s heterogeneity and showcasing its distinct local culture. Likewise, he places a particular emphasis upon the youth culture of the region. It offers a rare opportunity for Transnistrian society to speak for itself, beyond the geo-political jockeying and ‘ruin porn’ set that it is regularly portrayed as being.
Recently, he was awarded the first ever Bob Books Photobook award for his work. Luckily, we were able to catch up with him for a conversation.
Simply doing a quick observation of articles about you or generally about Transnistria, there is the constant referral to the territory’s unclear status, with headlines about how it is “unrecognized,” “does not exist,” or is a “breakaway state.” Your work seems to break from the mystification of the area to showcase the richly human qualities of Transnistria. Do you want your work to be a break from this mystification?
I think that we are all hostages of some stereotypes and clichés, and that it is impossible to make an absolutely objective story about any place on earth. I am sure that my story for someone can be filled with these stereotypes, but during my work on it I noticed that almost every mention of Transnistria by European media is often accompanied with phrases like “black hole” or “a country that does not exist”. This also applies to the headings for materials about my project “Transnistrian Conglomerate”. I don’t like this simulated aggravation in order to draw attention to my work.
Yes, Transnistria remains an unrecognized state with a frozen military conflict, but people continue to live here, and for them this state really exists, and for me too. In my story I do not try to focus on this, but rather I want to show Transnistria as the place where I grew up and live now, and what it associates with for me, as well as the daily life of people living in this territory. Working on a project is, to some extent, finding myself in this place.
The title of your project “Transnistria Conglomerate” speaks to the diverse influences that converge to help shape Transnistria: Moldovan, Ukrainian, and Russian culture. Yet, many continue to dismiss the area as merely a Russian outpost. What is it that you want people to understand about Transnistria in your work?
Both Russia and Moldova had a great influence on the development and formation of Transnistria in different historical periods. Among the population, Moldovans, Russians and Ukrainians are predominant here. Now each of these countries pursues its own interests with regard to Transnistria.
There are many villages where people mostly communicate among themselves in these three languages. But the language of interethnic communication is Russian. Looking at the results of the referendum on independence in 2006, more than 90 percent of the population voted for independence and subsequent accession to Russia. I think that the situation has changed little since then, and most of the pro-Russian citizens still remain here.
Russia plays a big role in maintaining life in the region. Since the introduction of peacekeepers to resolve the conflict with Moldova in 1992, and to this day Russia has been providing constant financial support to the state. Russian television is broadcast here, children in schools are learning Russian program and use Russian schoolbooks. Many pensioners receive a Russian pension, etc.
During the Soviet Union, this territory was included in the MSSR (Moldavian Socialist Republic) and was under its jurisdiction. Moldova still considers this territory its own.
So, the cultures of these two countries played a big role at different stages of the history of this land and are still reflected in the daily life of people.
But the uniqueness of Transnistria is that many other nationalities live here. This land was inhabited by various peoples (Germans, Armenians, Poles, Bulgarians, etc.). Now this territory is a mix of different cultures and traditions. It is very important for me to reflect this feature in my project. For example, I shot a traditional Moldovan fight, called Trinta, in a German village Kolosovo (Bergdorf) or a Catholic Christmas in one of the Polish villages in the north of the republic. People celebrate their traditional holidays, which are usually celebrated in other countries. Together with my friends last year we made a story about the Bessarabian Germans living in the territory of Transnistria and now we are planning to make a second chapter about the Polish ethnos.
We must congratulate you on your recent Bob Books Photobook award. What upcoming projects do you have?
Thank you for your congratulations. Now most of my time is spent on the creation of this book. I also hope that soon we will publish a story that I shot this year with my colleague Anya Galatonova in another unrecognized republic – Abkhazia.