Step inside the tiny Soviet country that doesn't technically exist

Anton PolyakovBodybuilding is a popular activity in the region.

We all take pride in our roots, but photographer Anton Polyakov has a unique love for his homeland.

Polyakov was born and raised in the breakaway province of Transnistria, an approximately 125-mile-long sliver of territory along the Dniester River running between Moldova and Ukraine.

In the aftermath of the USSR’s collapse in the early 90s, the Soviet Republic of Moldova declared independence, but the region along the Dniester sought freedom of its own. Transnistria may have fought a bloody war for self-rule from Moldova in 1992, but it’s still not recognised by the United Nations — or any UN member country — and essentially exists as an independent state.

Polyakov is a proud member of the first generation of the tiny republic. “Despite the fact that our republic is unrecognised, for people of my generation, it is … the homeland,” he says.

Many Transnistrians hold strong pro-Russian views, and the area is dotted with relics of the Soviet era. But to Polyakov, Transnistria has much more to offer than ] remnants of communism. He set out to document his home, hoping to capture elements that many don’t see.

“Transnistria is more than just Lenin standing near the house of government or some other symbol of the Soviet period,” he tells Business Insider. “It is important for me to show that there is another side of life where these characters do not hold such value, especially for my generation born after the collapse.”

Polyakov has shared his photos and experience in this unique land with us here.

Every February 23, Transnistria celebrates Soviet Army Day with celebrations and competitions taking place in Tiraspol, the republic's capital. The Russian Army has been present in Transnistria since the war for independence, which Ukraine has taken issue with recently.

Here's Tiraspol in the winter. With a population of about 135,000, it's the largest city in Transnistria. The nearby city of Bendery is 7 miles west across the Dniester River and is considered under the de facto control of Transnistria.

The Dniester River forms the border between Moldova and Transnistria. The river is very important to the tiny republic, both for agriculture and leisure.

In warmer months, many enjoy the sandy shores around the capital, or relax on the lakes in the surrounding countryside.

Transnistria has a surprisingly diverse population. Moldavians, Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, Armenians, and Romani all call this land home.

Many Transnistrians hold dual or even triple citizenship with neighbouring countries. 'Our republic is a good example of how people of different nationalities, faiths and cultures learn to live together,' Polyakov explains.

Transnistria has virtually all the trappings of a country: government ministries, law enforcement, border controls, and public transit authorities. This man is taking the Tiraspol Bus 19, named for June 19, in honour of the day the war for independence broke out in 1992.

Here, young children play under the statue of General Suvorov in downtown Tiraspol. Suvorov was a renowned Russian general who founded the city during a campaign against the Ottomans in 1792.

Outside of the city a quiet, somewhat isolated village life exists. Polyakov says the North has rocky cliffs and rolling hills covered in thick forest.

Polyakov lived in one of these village for a while, a town called Hrustovaya. Following local customs, locals often burn fires on the surrounding hills during religious holidays, bringing a mystical quality to this landscape. 'Many Christian traditions there have mixed with pagan,' he says.

Bodybuilding is a popular activity in Transnistria. Here, contestants prepare for the Open Bodybuilding Championship in Tiraspol.

It's held every year in the ornate Soviet House of Culture.

Yet, not all is well in Transnistria. A lack of opportunities and entertainment Polyakov says, is resulting in a large outflow of population. 'This forces young people out of school or university and into to neighbouring states,' he says.

'Those who remain are faced with unemployment, low wages, and a lack of cultural environment,' he says. Many health and social assistance systems, like this health clinic in Tiraspol, remain largely unchanged since the Soviet era.

A collective farm called Puti Lenina ('The Lenin Way'), is farmed by a community of workers. It is one of the many leftovers of Soviet rule.

Ever since Russia provided critical military support in the conflict against Moldova, Transnistrians have looked upon Russia favourably. Russia is still one of the breakaway republic's main supporters financially and militarily. Russia is supposedly even considering offering passports to some of the region.

Yet Polyakov dreams of a truly independent Transnistria. 'In a perfect world, Transnistria does not serve as a political interest and is not a lever of political pressure by Russia. In this ideal world, it is not perceived by Europe and the Western world as a kind of 'grey zone' or 'black hole', but is perceived as a full-fledged subject of the international community.'

Despite the conflict between Russia and Ukraine flaring up to the east, life goes on for Transnistrians. 'They work in the field and in the garden, they box and relax on the lake, they sit at the small bars in the evenings, they drive old Soviet cars to the neighbouring village to see friends,' he says.

'Transnistria on the whole is often presented as a closed, mothballed country where people still live like the Soviet Union,' he says. But Polyakov wishes to change that.

'I want to show that it's a state populated by ordinary people with their own interests and everyday concerns,' he explains, 'living in a territory with its own uniqueness and character.'

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