In this photo series, Marlon Roseberry Buenck traces the region of Transnistria through the experiences of two women in the city of Bender, whose day-to-day lives have been heavily influenced by the tumultuous period of violence and conflict. The wounds of war, it seems, are yet to have healed, instead continuing to deepen the volatility and uncertainty surrounding the unrecognised state that is perched on the very edge of Europe. What does the future hold for such regions? Are they moving eastwards or westwards? The answers to these questions, although tentative and impossible to answer with certainty, are explored through these photographs by delving into the past and revisiting the old wounds that remain.
Transnistria does not, officially, exist. It is a self-declared state between Ukraine and the Dniester river, which borders Moldova. Its territorial independence is not recognized by any UN member. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s, the region separated from the the new Republic of Moldova. Since its foundation, Moldova has faced the same state-ethnic problem as other former Soviet republics, but nevertheless represents a special situation. Moldova has historically been subject to constant change around territory and identities, the region having been in continuous flux for loyalties for centuries, originating in the Soviet Union as part of a comprehensive ethno-national identity construct.
In the summer of 1992, a short war broke out between Moldovan forces and Transnistrian units – units that consisted of parts of the old soviet army, when Transnistria separated from the new Republic of Moldova. As a result of this war, the status of Transnistria became permanent, leading to the presence of Russian troops to secure it. 26 years later the wounds have not fully healed. Amidst the war in Ukraine, the frozen conflict in Transnistria has received a new focus and former residents have begun to draw lines of comparison to the events in the neighboring country.
Memories of the war are closely linked to the end of the Soviet Union and are often mixed with nostalgia. The national movement in Transnistria did not have a classical, ethno-national character but was originally mobilized on a regional and “civilian” identity. Transnistria is almost equally divided by Moldovans, Ukrainians and Russians: 31.9% Moldovans, 30.4% Russians and 28.8% Ukrainians. In Moldova, Moldavans make up 75.8% of the population, Russians 5.9%.
After the Second World War there was a major migration from Russia, especially to the heavy industry in the north. These new regional power elites were closely associated with the central power in Moscow, most notably because of the resident military factories. Although Transnistria did not have its own status within the Moldovan Soviet Republic, its economic and political elites were significantly interested in maintaining close contact with those in Moscow. In addition, the Moldovan discourse, with its legacy on Bessarabia and the pro-Romanian discourse, had an impact on the formation of a pro-Soviet and regionally based identity that rejected the Moldovan discourse, and still does today.
The need to establish one’s own identity serves to consolidate Transnistria and represents an important step towards de facto independence and insistence on the idea of secession. Due to the demographic composition, this identity construct had to significantly retain a multi-ethnic component. The establishment of state structures was the next step, along with a constitution, border security and symbols like the flag, which is reminiscent of the flag from the time of the Moldavian Soviet Republic, making the citizens feel part of an independent state that is visibly different from Moldova. These ideas are expressed through the creation of an identity that is also found in countless monuments, books and Soviet holidays. The Transnistrian identity is based primarily on an interpretation of the Soviet identity, which essentially includes the Russian language and values.
Train Station District
The main battles in Transnistria in 1992 were located between the cities of Bender and Tiraspol. Bender is the only major city in Transnistria, west of the river Dnestr, which is serving as an unofficial border. As I wandered through the district of Bender that surrounds the train station, it soon became clear that the memories of tanks, of gunfire, and of hiding in cellars, were still alive. The train station district is located close to the bridge where battles took place. Urban warfare was witnessed throughout the district, when the transnistrian forces crossed the bridge to push on moldovan forces, forcing them to leave the town.
At first sight the area around the small train station is cozy and quiet. No cars are driving, old people are carrying their supermarket bags and and cats lie in the shade, escaping the high temperatures. Between the many apartment blocks that form the district grows lush vegetation, that can be found all over the hot region in these summer months. For some, it would be difficult to believe that there has been a war in these streets. But 26 years later, traces of the war have not completely disappeared. Tombs line the roadsides, bullet holes remain in the facades, and memorial tablets act as constant reminders of the short but brutal times that followed the collapse of the former Soviet empire.
In front of her large apartment block sits the 77-year old Ljudmila. Unlike her neighbours, she stayed for the entire duration of the events that unfolded.
“I have lived in Bender for more than 50 years. I was born in Ukraine and came to Bender in 1959. Life here during that time in the USSR was very good. We had everything that we needed. In the 1990s life became rapidly worse. In the beginning of the 1990s I worked at the Odessa- Chisinau railway. On a day in 1992 I went home with my friends and colleagues. It was 4:45. I remember every second of that day. Suddenly, I heard the shooting begin; the next day it became much stronger. A lot of people from Russia, Tiraspol and Odessa came to help the units in our streets. They also positioned themselves on the first floor of my house. I can remember going out to the balcony and seeing a soldier. He saw me too and said that I should hide because they would start shooting. At that time my son was 9 years old. He also saw the fire, and when it was quiet he ran outside to collect the cartridges.”
“Did you leave the house?”
“We didn’t go further than the porch. Every evening at 6 o’clock the shooting started. Then we ran into our apartments and hid in the toilet, under the table or the bed. At that time we couldn’t sleep. Once we were told that the air force would fly above our house. That’s why we should stay inside and make our way through the apartments and go to the bomb shelter near the train station. But thanks to God, there was no airplane.”
“How did you supply yourself with food?”
“The food was prepared here in the courtyard because there was no gas. A lot of people left the city in 1992 including my neighbors. I didn’t leave because I was afraid that my flat would be robbed. Looters marched through the streets. In my flat the balcony and the mirror near my bed were shot all the way through. My son and I were lucky to not be home at that moment. I still have a newspaper from 1992 that I keep very safe. Why do they want to kill us? Can neighbors even kill each other? They say that Transnistria and Moldova are a united country. I disagree. We have lived separately for 26 years. They are trying to reunite our states, but they will not succeed.”
Further along the road, Svetlana sits in her little garden – her grandson has just visited her as he lives nearby. He runs down the small road leading to her house, shouting her name until the big gate opens and the dog stops barking. Svetlana has an open character, and after hearing about my search for individuals who lived through the war, she invites me into her home. She likes to talk, unlike a lot of her traumatized neighbors, she said. Svetlana leads me to an even smaller house next to her garden, with nice carpets on the wall and some places to sit down.
“I would consider my life much better in the past,” she starts, when asked about the life in soviet Moldova. This nostalgic attitude is common amongst regions that were industrially strong as part of the former Soviet Union.
“I was working at a print shop for 35 years. We had a good salary and access to high quality products. All we needed for our daily life was available. When the USSR disintegrated, life began to get so much worse. We had to get used to the fact that not everything was in abundance, as it once was in the Soviet Union. It was difficult after the Bender events. Until 1992, I went on strike to avoid the changes that were about the happen, but everyone saw that the Soviet Union was over – we could not change the events that were happening. When there were tanks in Moscow in 1991 everybody realised that it was fully over. And then suddenly this war started soon after. A lot of people died, especially young men. Wives were left without husbands, children were left without fathers, mothers were left without sons. It was horrible.
When demonstrations before the war began, I supported Transnistria because it is the place I lived, the place where I grew up. All my friends and relatives also supported Transnistria because nobody wanted a war. Nobody separated people under their nationality. We also did not fully understand what it was that the new people in Moldova wanted to do with Romania.
This war was very sudden for everyone. Nobody expected it. At the very beginning of the war, I had just finished my shift at the print shop and returned home with my colleagues. Within 15 minutes it all started. I wondered: why did the war start? But at that moment I couldn’t think about it. I had to decide where to take food for my children. Later, we were sitting right there in the courtyard. It seemed like hell. We didn’t understand who was shooting, who these people were. Every evening there was more confusion. Thanks to God we stayed safe during this terrible time.”
“I heard that a lot of people left. Why didn’t you?”
“I didn’t leave my native city because I didn’t have any place to go. My children, relatives, and parents were here. My niece’s husband Kostya even died in the war and my sister’s husband became a soldier.”
“Did you follow what happened in eastern Ukraine? Occupied territory, unrecognised states- did it remind you of your own story?”
“Yes, those events that are now taking place in Ukraine, in Donetsk, remind me of our tragedy. But the war in Transnistria finished quickly when Russia intervened. Suddenly we Transnistrians were on our own and we knew it would remain so. Many nations don’t recognise us as separate from Moldova, but we are an autonomous region. In my opinion life is much better in Transnistria than it is in Ukraine and Moldova, despite all our problems. To me, Transnistria is part of Russia; I get a Russian pension; I have Russian citizenship; Russia helps us a lot financially. Thanks to Russia we are able to live.”
“Where do you see your future at the edge of Europe?”
“I want Transnistria to join with Russia, not Moldova, in the future. I hope Russia won’t leave us. But it will be a very long time before everything will be fine again. Because there is no work now, especially for young people, and salaries are low. If there are jobs here, maybe people will stay in Transnistria. But I am also aware that Transnistria isn’t similar to the Soviet Union. Everything has changed since that time. Lenin was a very important person to everyone back then, but now my 11-year old grandson doesn’t even know who he is. Now we no longer celebrate holidays that we once celebrated, except for Victory Day, New Years, February 23rd and March 8th. And now it is not so easy to live on our pension, but we all just want to live in peace. I want our children to grow up peacefully without having to experience war.”
Photos and text by Marlon Roseberry Bünck, with special thanks to Rita Kolomoychenko.