During the collapse of the Soviet Union, the narrow strip of land which forms the northeastern border with Ukraine declared independence from Moldova. Transnistria has its own currency, border controls, a parliament, a national anthem and citizenship. Yet, officially, the country of Transnistria doesn’t actually exist. The self-proclaimed state is not recognised by the rest of the world — not even Russia. In 2014, the German photographer Julia Autz travelled to Transnistria to capture how it feels to grow up in a country without a certain future or even a place on the map.
Autz stayed in the country for two months, mainly living in the capital, Tiraspol. She also visited Bender, another big city, as well as a few small villages trying to capture the county’s atmosphere both in the politically charged public spaces during parades and holidays, and in people’s everyday lives. “There is a huge Russian influence on political, economic and public life. Without aid from Russia the country wouldn’t be able to survive,” Autz says. “In March 2014, during the Ukraine crisis and the annexation of Crimea, the Transnistrian government asked to become a part of Russia. In contrast to this, Moldova has put in efforts to join the European Union. The parallels with Ukraine are obvious. While staying there I got to know a lot of people who introduced me to their everyday lives — in a state without a nation, without history or a foreseeable future.”
At first, the photographer found it hard to penetrate the surface of the closed community. “In the beginning I thought the atmosphere in Transnistria to be cold and that people were very reserved. But I think the reason for that lies in the language barrier. They can become kind of paranoid when they see a foreigner from the western world with a camera. Many people don’t relate with western values. Instead, they admire Putin and hope that Transnistria will become a part of Russia,” she says.
Teenagers and young people, however, were very keen to make friends with Autz, curious of the different world she’s come from. “The young generation was very interested in me and they were curious about what I was doing in the country,” she recalls. “There are not many foreigners in Transnistria and most people have never been to western Europe, so they were really excited and wanted to spend time with me. Although it was very hard to communicate, people tried to speak with the help of Google Translate or their English-speaking friends. A lot of the time, I was just lucky to meet anybody.”
Autz photographed young Transistrians at the beaches and parks where they spend long summer days; documented their flats, streets, schools that provide the setting for their coming of age. “The young generation spends a lot of their free time outdoors”, she says. “Going for walks or hanging out at the courtyards and rooftops. They also have the city beach in Tiraspol, where they go swimming when it’s hot. Some people told me they really like the Transnistrian summer because you can spend the whole day outside with friends. But in the winter, there is nothing to do in Tiraspol. It is very cold and it can be very depressing.”
Many young Transnistrians also revealed their concerns for the future: the tough economic situation, the lack of jobs and the fact that a local university degree is not recognised internationally. This uncertainty, an integral part of a young person’s life, shines through in the photographs, along with the country’s endless nostalgia for the Soviet past. This dichotomy was very apparent to the photographer: “On the one hand, my pictures show places and people that don’t seem to have changed, such as the elderly who reminisce wistfullly about Soviet times, when they were part of a world power.[...] But on the other hand, you also see melancholy and sadness in people’s faces. Especially the younger generation who dream of a more colourful and more hopeful world — of a life which allows the freedoms of youth: rebellion, possibility, and finding yourself.”