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August 1991: as Moldova declared independence from the USSR, the Slavic-dominated Eastern bank of the Dniestr river declared sovereignty, splitting from the Romanian-dominated rest of the country.

1992: armed forces on each side of the river clash over the status of the Transdniestrian region. Transdniestria is created and Russian peace keeping troops are deployed along the river. The idea of a "common state" is accepted in principle. In reality, a militarized security zone separates Moldova from the breakaway republic.

Transdniestria still pays respect to the symbols and features of the Soviet credo. A parallel government exists in the republic, and three official languages are recognized: Russian, Ukrainian and Moldovan.

Transdniestria Map  

TRANSDNIESTRIA JOURNAL - updated from July 5th to July 17th 2000

Wednesday, July 5, 2000

We sit in the heat of the Hotel National. The Lady of the Floor says that the heat is not normal: "It will rain tonight, later." I buy three bottles of water from her, and a small bottle of cognac. Eric and I drink a toast on the balcony. I feel excited. I feel happy that Eric is here. The cognac sits nicely. Below, in the side streets of Chisnau, the street lights flicker orange-orange-orange; dogs pass silently through the darkness.

It is important to start right. All beginnings have a moment upon which they hinge. The end of one event and the beginning of another lies in that moment. It may be a rise of things; it may be something more distinct; a fall, a break.

Has that moment happened? Was it at the airport talking to the Customs Officer? Or in the lobby speaking with Yuri about his languages? I don't really know. But it has suddenly occurred to me that it is with me now.
posted by Dov Lynch at 9:03 PM

Twelve months of planning, one month of worrying, ten hours of traveling. That's it, we've arrived. I recognize the familiar emptiness in my stomach of the first night of a journey. A little self-doubt. Anticipation. Eagerness. A few fundamental questions reconsidered. Then some fiddling with my cameras. I feel a little rusty. It will all come back, I'm sure.

Today, when we crossed the Bosphorus in Istanbul on the little Moldovan Airlines Tupolev, the Eastern feeling kicked in. We waited a long time for a customs officer to sell us a visa. Then a long drive to the Hotel National - a monument to bad Soviet architecture. Six lane streets are devoid of cars, yet the billboards are full of ads for cell phones and Internet companies. It's amazing. It's hot and muggy. Dov and I talked a little about this digital diary as we settled down. It is important to find a rhythm. A way to make it work. Juggling different things - recording on the computer, on paper, on film.... Avoiding redundancy. Finding an Internet connection to publish will be difficult. We'll see.
posted by Eric Baudelaire at 4:48 PM

Thursday, July 6, 2000

A long day in Chisnau. The city is green, and the trees young. Walking down the street late in the afternoon has touches of the forest and glades, strangely. The effect is pleasant and reassuring. In the main park near the statue of Stefan Cel Mare, I keep catching glimpses of a large fountain. We seem to walk by the park and across a corner of it all day; all revolves around Stefan in Chisnau. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the water rising; in the heat, I am somehow eased.

An early start at the OSCE Mission with a briefing from the Military Observers; two officers, Dutch and a Slovak; professionals, friendly, engineers and technicians. When I told the Slovak what we are doing, he looked at me from the side and smiled: "You have a fun life". "I am sorry" I answered. "Oh yes, you are right." We met Yury at the Mission. He has been a god send all day. With him we went on to the University where we met with a member of the Presidential Expert Group on the conflict. At 2.30, we had a final meeting at the Presidential Building with a Co-Chair of the Joint Control Commission.

Tons of ideas. A million things to think about. We are on our way.
posted by Dov Lynch at 9:04 PM

Today's meetings were interesting if somewhat devoid of photographic opportunities. I listened to high level officials give their version of the conflict with Transdniestria. Moldova's perspective. "A temporary situation... like this hot weather." My sense so far is that this conflict will not be short lived. I am eager to get to Tiraspol to hear the other side of the story. People seem amazed that we will be going there for ten days. "Are you sure you want to go for that long?"

Maps will be an important part of this trip, I can tell. Every office we visit is full of them. They represent these conflicts in the most blatant way - land lost, land liberated, land patrolled. Little lines in different colors on big crumbling post-Soviet office walls.

We will be updating this journal in spurts, with weeks in between when we can't get near a connection. Today's attempts took many hours, and involved tearing up a hotel room and fiddling with wires, bluffing our way into a strange office, going to our new friend Yuri's home, and eventually working it out at an amazing cyber-café where everybody seems very familiar with ICQ. And things will only get worse when we venture into de facto state no-man's land. But it will all work out, Inch'Allah. Hopefully.
posted by Eric Baudelaire at 9:24 PM

Friday, July 7, 2000

A second intense day of briefings. Dov's contacts are really quite impressive. We were greeted today in the government building by Vasile Sturza, the head negotiator for Moldova in its talks with the breakaway region of Transdniestria. Each one of these officials has a different way of describing the conflict. But also a different style - from the old-school Soviet style lecture (not really an interview when the answer to your first question takes 40 minutes) to a somewhat more jovial and interactive process. The situation is tense but Moldovans seem to keep their sense of humor about things. Every interview ends with a portrait session. I struggle to find an innovative way to relax our host. Inevitably the office is completely bare, and the pose very formal.

I have been given cause to worry about the possibility of taking photographs freely once we cross to the other side. The Moldovans have painted a completely Stalinist portrait of things there. A rogue state of bandits using Russian nationalism, communist nostalgia and repression to keep things the way they want them - closed and somewhat anarchic. All things military cannot be photographed. But of course, this long and thin slip of a "country" is completely militarized. Hopefully something will be left to photograph! We'll see. In the meantime I am worried.

Here in Chisnau, we are completely free to walk around. We visited a large park where two contradictory monuments share the same space - a massive Soviet tribute to those fallen during the 'liberation' of Moldova during World War II (full-on Soviet-realist art), and one to those fallen during the 1992 war in Transdniestria. A large cross in stark contrast with the red stars on the tombstones of the WW II red army graves. I spoke with an old man who was letting his two goats pasture in the park. When he found out I was French his face lit up and he spoke to me about Zinedine Zidane and the French prowess on the soccer field. After Coca-Cola, Zidane is probably the single most understood foreign symbol in this country.

Tomorrow we drive to Tiraspol. I expect this diary to be interrupted for a week or so. I also expect to discover one of the most bizarre, remote, and paranoid states in the world. I can't wait.
posted by Eric Baudelaire at 9:00 PM

It is clear to me from these few days of interviews that the experts and officials that we have met are well rehearsed in the art of the interview, and know what they want to say before I ask the question! No, there is more than that. Several lines are being drawn more clearly than others.

First, that the conflict has an economic dimension which has been largely ignored. The exact nature of ties between Transdniestria and Moldova needs to be brought to light; this may explain much of the inertia behind the status quo. It will certainly reveal the means by which a de facto state exists and is sustained.

Second, time and time again, the notion of a "political" conflict is stressed. This concept is used to mean several ideas; both of which are revealing for our study. The first idea is that the conflict is political - in the sense of being NOT ethnic or religious. This means that conflict resolution might be possible, because the main arena of struggle stands between elites. The second idea is that of corruption. On several occasions now, past agreements and accords between the two parties have waved aside for us as being "political." In this sense, past agreements are useless, temporary; they are markers not milestones on a long and convoluted route; essentially unimportant and even potentially problematic.

Chisnau has a definite charm; the center has a quietness to it. Houses are low, and streets are tree-filled. I walked back to the center from the Memorial Park, through a city coming home from work. The smaller streets coming down the hill towards the main artery of Stefan Cel Mare seemed like so many tributaries to the main river, bordered with green trees. Stefan Cel Mare is this city's river.

Tomorrow, we leave for Tiraspol. Does Tiraspol beckon? Yes, it does, strangely.
posted by Dov Lynch at 9:23 PM

Sunday, July 9, 2000

Tiraspol - feels like a provincial Soviet town circa 1985. The streets are wide, clean and empty. The signs and symbols of the Soviet days are still in place - statues of Vladimir Illych Lenin, streets named after revolutionary dates, hammers, sickles - the works.

We crossed the border yesterday after an hour's drive from Chisnau on a beautiful country road lined by walnut trees. We passed a checkpoint manned by a Moldovan, a Transdniestrian and a Russian peacekeeper, then went on to the PMR border post. The border post itself was the first artifact of 'statehood' that we observed. No pictures allowed. Too bad - the Security Ministry guards twirling their batons were quite a site. We were given three hours to register with the authorities once in Tiraspol.

The currency here is the Transdniestrian Ruble. A dollar buys about 4.5 million of them. We changed $40, and have been walking around with a wad of bills 4 inches tall. 50,000-ruble bills are worth 50,000 rubles when they are blue. When they are red, they are worth half a million. The printing presses can't keep up with the galloping inflation. And Dov can't keep up with the math. Paying for a 45 million ruble dinner means counting out ninety odd bills, a challenging task after a few Kvint cognacs.

Today we will drive up north with our interpreter, Sergei. He is our man in Tiraspol. We will start our hunt for the artifacts of statehood: territory, language, currency, government institutions, police, symbols (a flag, etc...), and foreign economic exchanges.

Jusqu'ici tout va bien.
posted by Eric Baudelaire at 12:41 PM

Monday, July 10, 2000

The official PMR television channel is broadcasting an American movie. The bottom of the screen reads:


A pirated promotional copy of an American video tape has somehow made its way to primetime PMR TV. Rules that govern the rest of the world simply don't apply here. And conversely the rules that govern the PMR - tight security, a state-run economy, a five-year plan - no longer apply anywhere else. I am struck by the contradictions of this place. People go to great lengths to explain that their conflict with Moldova is political, not ethnic. Transdniestria is an internationalist, multi-linguist state. Yet the Russians we speak to have no sympathy for other separatist causes in Kosovo or Chechnya, and instead display a form of knee-jerk pan-Slavism. They concede no parallels between their plight for sovereignty and recognition and that of Albanians in Yugoslavia or Chechens in Russia.

These are proud people who simply wish to keep the best of the old Soviet-world - stability, predictability, security, a greater good to believe in - and somehow make it work in the inevitable reality of a new world order. Private companies exist and seem to be flourishing. New churches are built and people flock to the Russian orthodox faith. The dollar is the only stable form of currency, and the cell phone is a prized symbol of social status. Internet access is growing, unrestricted (except for cost). The old Kolkhoz system still dominates but Kolkhozniks haven't been paid in 6 years. They are paid in kind and barely survive by selling vegetables on the city streets in a parallel market economy that is entirely open and tolerated.

Tomorrow we will try to visit a steel plant in Ribnitza. The factory provides for 50% of the state budget. The United States is it's first customer. Yet all Western nations have so far declined to recognize Transdniestrian independence.

I continue to be puzzled by how to represent statehood in a photograph.
posted by Eric Baudelaire at 9:06 PM

The act of creating a state is a very conscious one. It takes time, effort, and patience. But there is also something that is not self-aware about it; events, symbols that link people together towards some common direction. Memory is key. Memories are submerged mostly, but this does not take away from their strength, even their cruelty.

The Bendery Memorial Museum of the Tragedy stands in a little street off the main square. Bendery saw all of the fighting in 1992; most combat occurred in the second half of the month of June, starting on the evening of the 19th. The museum comprises one small room, crammed full with artifacts, bullet-holed uniforms, flags. One corner is a reconstruction of the way the "Romanians" left the apartments they had sacked after being forced back by Cossack and Russian forces. The Museum is a conscious act of collective memory. This cannot be forgotten, it says; the result is naïve and perhaps even at first pitiful in its so-apparent limitations. But how could things be so simple?

An old woman, Keeper of the Museum, took me around slowly, pointing out objects, explaining this photograph and that, filling the details around the 19th. "In the afternoon, the students had their graduation. In the night, look at what was done to them...."As we walked around the room, she kept readjusting her cardigan around her shoulders, pulling it tight around her neck, even up to her chin. An old woman, with beautiful blue eyes.

A younger woman, with her son, then joined in the explanation of the Tragedy. She was tall, dark, and quite strong, with a little knobbly-kneed boy of six or seven by her side. Her memories were different, more horrible, and brutal. Three times, she started to cry. "Soft, now, soft" the old woman whispered to her.
posted by Dov Lynch at 9:26 PM

Wednesday, July 12, 2000

Each connection is a stolen moment. Somebody's office... Some shady connection. This one will be brief.

Two intense days... Yesterday we were received by the Joint Control Commission and our request to visit and photograph checkpoints in the Security Zone was accepted, against all odds. So began a crazy ride with a Russian Major to small roadblocks manned by conscripts who look half our age, swim in their flack jackets and sweat profusely under the sun for hours, lugging oversized rifles and helmets. Portraits of boredom, bombed bridges and toasted sunflower seeds.

Today we spent the morning with a Moldovan de-mining unit, stepping carefully in somebody else's footsteps as we observed their work. Four mines were found and exploded. The unit's cocker spaniel responded to each count ("5-4-3-2-1-BOOM") by sticking close to the colonel's leg.

I need to spend the next few days in town. Less frantic. Less running around. Il faut flanner, aussi.
posted by Eric Baudelaire at 10:10 PM

In the last lines of "The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man," Joyce calls upon Stephen to forge his new life. The idea of forgery keeps coming back to me these days.

Yesterday, we visited one of the largest steel plants in Europe; hours of driving up this thin country. The plant is a tribute to the industrial age - a large cathedral of fire, noise, steel dust, and intense heat. One could not imagine hell to be much different. The pride of the Directors of the plant was palpable: "We forge steel." We left, dirty and somewhat shocked by these images. At one point, it struck me that this fiery cavern was the definition of drama itself.

Today, we are sitting in an office - the computer business of two guys who are the future Bill Gates of Transdniestria. The room is surrounded with equipment; hundreds of pirated CD ROMs, games flashing on screens; a guy in the back is putting computers together, the mobile phones ring continually, cakes arrive and are eaten, and we sit around and laugh.

Both of these are acts of forgery - both willful acts of creation, artificial and natural; intensely human and dramatic.
posted by Dov Lynch at 10:25 PM

Friday, July 14, 2000

Just found this in Arnaud Claass's "Journal de Travail":

"The 'mise en tableau' of reality, the art of converting it into multiple spectacles, seems in contradiction with the constant temptation to be in the midst of things rather than in front of them."

Except that I tend to feel less like a straightforward spectator than somebody sneaking backstage in an unfamiliar theater, trying to point a camera between two curtains... The writer can get caught in the midst of things, partake, even steer situations he encounters through language. Later on, back at the hotel, he will chronicle each event with the distance of memory and reflection. The photographer steels a moment in real time, on the spot, and that removes him somewhat from what is actually happening.

There is a barge in Tiraspol that crosses the Dniestr - a crossing point between the two banks of this river that has somehow become a border. Cables, pulleys and current propel the platform across the water, and on a sunny afternoon kids dive off the railings and swim back to the beach. Life has resumed its normal course, and the land-mine filled banks we saw yesterday, just a few miles upstream, seem a world away.
posted by Eric Baudelaire at 8:16 PM

Sunday, July 16, 2000

Return to Chisnau. Two days of rest. Yesterday our interpreter Sergei, and Victor, his father-in-law, took us to their spot on the river for shashlik (barbeque PMR style). We talked, swam, ate and drank. Our blood is slowly being replaced by cognac. It is impossible to make it through the day without going through a bottle of Kvint. Drinking may be the single most important ritual in this land. Each glass is preceded by a new justification ("It is a tradition to have a drink to open the appetite..." at 11 am. "We must fill our glasses before we put the meat on the fire" ten minutes later. "The Russian Orthodox faith believes in the Trinity, so we must have a third." "We must finish the bottle.") And with each drink, a toast. The toast is an art. It is the vehicle for grown men to express their emotions and feelings to each other. A good toast is moving, thoughtful and sincere. For me the result is a warm and sweet feeling in the throat for most of the day. The edge has been shaved off things; I become contemplative. After only ten days I feel that I have forged real friendships, and goodbyes today were meaningful.

We spend most of today in the hotel, getting organized. The TV stays on as background music - Moldovan folkloric music all day on TVM, an elaborate hour-long lottery number drawing on the Romanian channel, a historical documentary on Russian TV. The politics of this land permeate every media: television, newspapers, advertising.

Our pace has slowed down as we are getting tired. I do not know what to expect from the next leg of this journey - Abkhazia. I feel the need to clear my head before getting there. I want to see things differently, photograph differently.
posted by Eric Baudelaire at 6:30 PM

Monday, July 17, 2000

We finish this leg of the journey as we started, sitting in a room on the tenth floor of the Hotel National towards the lower end of Stefan Cel Mare. We had sturgeon at a small basement restaurant off Pushkin Street. We ambled back through the young evening. It rained hard this afternoon; the air felt damp and still, and the trees were blurred against the street lights. Chisnau seems somehow diminished after our return from the left bank of the Dnestr.

Our meeting with the Chairman of the PMR parliament on Friday was televised. At the start of my interview, the Chairman stopped me and asked me to answer a question of his before we continued: "What do you think about the future of the PMR?" He is a large man, with a friendly face, and two fingers missing on his right hand. I liked him for his desire to hide this from me. I sat back for a minute and thought quickly. Had I thought about this? Not quite on those terms. Well. I answered that the status quo can have great permanence despite discomfort. He nodded and we continued. The TV journalist asked me the same question when she interviewed me after the meeting. This time I felt embarrassed. Later in the day, we caught the interview on the television. The answer to the last question had been cut to my relief.

On Saturday we went swimming in the Dnestr, and Sergei asked me the same question again. This time, I thought, I will try to answer. The PMR is built on contradictions. It pretends to internationalism, and denigrates the 'national principle' of territory associated with ethnicity; at the same time, it is Russian land, and draws from Russia's history and culture. It says that it is a democracy and is inspired by the great individualism of the Cossack Circles, yet its elite is distant from the hardships of the ordinary day. Many of these same contradictions were the downfall of the Soviet Union because they could be sustained only in a climate of extreme closure to the outside world. The future of the PMR will rise or fall depending on whether it chooses openness or closeness, in its society and politics and in relation to Moldova and the outside world. For now, the PMR lives in a fragile state of balance. These people love contradictions; dialectics are built into them. Perhaps they will see that openness also holds its attractions.
posted by Dov Lynch at 1:06 AM