Back in the USSR, Heroic Adventures in Transnistria by Rory Maclean (with photographs by Nick Danziger)

Published by Unbound (2014)

“Friends! Comrades! Come and join us on a journey into the heart of the new age Russian Revolution.

I admit I had never heard of Transnistria until Russian troops annexed Crimea in 2014.  The region, also known as Transdniestra is an area on the east of the River Dniester between Moldova and Ukraine.  

After Moldova was annexed by the Soviets in 1940, Russsians and Ukrainians settled in the area.  Its population is split between ethnic Moldovans, Russians and Ukranians.    Following Moldova’s independenece in 1991, Transnistria seceded and fought against, and defeated, Moldovan forces with the assistance of Russian troops, who remain there as a ‘peace-keeping force’. 

Transnistria is then, in MacLean’s words, “a breakaway republic of a breakaway republic of the old Soviet Union”; unique in that it has not recognised (or at least does not appear to have accepted) the collapse of the Soviet Union and is itself unrecognised by any other country.

Rory Maclean is author of several travel books including Berlin, Stalin’s Nose, Under the Dragon: A Journey through Burma and Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India.  Nick Danziger is a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker who has also written two travel books (Danziger’s Travels and Danziger’s Adventures).

Continuing a search he began in Stalin’s Nose, MacLean was inspired to visit Transnistria partly to look for “for the real end of Europe”.  It was also inspired by a desire to find out what happened to the archetype Soviet man following the fall of the Soviet Union.

Transnistria maybe a ‘nowhereland’ but it lies on a geopolitical faultline between NATO and the EU and Russia of historical and current importance.   MacLean and Danziger’s account of Transnistria and its Russian links was timely.  Their visit to the country took place not long before the annexation of Crimea by Russia, an event reflected in the text (MacLean had an article on Transnistria published in The Times (£) in January 2014; the annexation took place the following month). 

Back in the USSR is self-consciously tongue in cheek which will not be for everyone.  Viv Groskop, reviewing the book for the Spectator, found it pushing the book into “awkward territory between reportage and mockumentary”.   Back in the USSR already contains sufficient satire and outlandish facts and anecdotes to make it humorous, so it isn’t really necessary, even if it does add to Transnistria’s slightly Alice in Wonderland feel.  

While the tongue in cheek style didn’t distract from the narrative (or Nick Danziger’s photographs), it did sit a bit uneasily with the dark side of Transnistria the book revealed.  

On the surface, are bright, sharply drawn and obviously comic portraits of Communist party officials who espouse the party line under the watchful gaze of busts and statues of Lenin while they the check time on Patek Philiipe watches and drive Mercedes and Lexus cars (or is that ‘Lexi’?).  Meanwhile, in the shadows, we learn that former KGB men control most of the country’s profitable business and, probably, the presidency, state funds disappear, that arms deals and smuggling are commonplace and that fear pervades Transnistria’s citizens.  Soviet-era aspirations of equality have, for many, given birth to uncertainty about the future:  “freedom for the pike means death for the minnows”

MacLean and Danziger’s month long tour of Transnistria takes them round a factory, winery, orphanage and sanatorium, and also to the fantastically wealthy and successful FC Sherrif Tiraspol football club which was founded by two former KGB men.  It also has them visiting the Che Guevara High School of Political Leadership whose head cum guru has been connected in the past to arms sales but admires Gandhi and meeting ‘Shev’s chicks’, President’s Shevchuk’s young, female and Facebook-friendly ministers.     

“Vodka is best drunk in threes”, MacLean and Danziger are told, “If you drink alone, you are an alcoholic.  If two people drink, a man and a woman, it’s romance. But with three drinkers, you have the perfect number of companions”.  It seems three is the magic number for producing a book as well; the three companions in this case being the writer, the photographer and ‘New Soviet Man’, their host who along the way reveals his taste for Pierre Marcolini chocolates, bespoke cologne, expensive watches  and Bentleys.  And, like New Soviet Man, alcohol is also always present (along with fear and Vladimir Putin). 

Back in the USSR is not a long book and Danziger’s atmospheric and stunning photographs make up a significant proportion of the content.  Nevertheless, the blend of visual and text feels right, leaving the reader curious and wanting more.  

Rather than straight reportage,  Back in the USSR is a journey in the company of two people revelling in the people and contradictions they encounter among the former Communist archetypes of Transnistria “who got real” following the fall of the Soviet Union.  At the same time, the text and photographs ensure that Back in the USSR does not overlook the human stories caught up amongst the slogans and posturing of the elite.  

Some of Nick Danziger’s photos of Transnistria can be seen on his website

See Rory MacLean and Nick Danziger introduce Back in the USSR here:

 

The book itself is as different as its subject matter.  Back in the USSR is crowd sourced by publisher Unbound which is a bit like Kickstarter but for books.  Authors pitch their book ideas directly to readers in the hope that prospective readers will pledge money, allowing titles to be published which mainstream publishers might overlook.  In return, would be readers receive different tiers of rewards depending on the amount they pledge and their name appears in the published book. Check out Unbound here

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