‘Stable changes’: A portrait of life in Transnistria
Fortress opens with a shot of snow-covered farmland running past the plexiglass window of a rickety train. A man in a bomber jacket pulls out a thick wad of documents and starts counting passports: “Here’s a Moldovan one, a Ukrainian one, a Russian one, and a Pridnestrovian one. I never know what I’ll need when I’m crossing the border.” Suddenly, the camera pans to the floor and then goes dark. “You can’t film on this train!” we hear a Russian voice bark.
The initial imagery almost seems heavy-handed — if we overlook the country names, these are Soviet tropes the Western viewer is familiar with from countless action films about the Cold War. There’s one key difference, however. Fortress isn’t an action movie. It’s a documentary.
Its subject is Pridnestrovie (known as Transnistria or Transdniester in the West), a region that lies along the River Dniester between the countries of Moldova and Ukraine. Caught in a bizarre political stalemate, Pridnestrovie at once is and is not country. It has and uses its own passports and currency, for example, but neither are recognized anywhere else. It also has a flag and a crest, both rather jarringly featuring a hammer and sickle. In 1990, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the region declared autonomy from Moldova. Moldova has not recognized this, officially, nor have any of the member states of the United Nations. Therefore, the state exists in a sort of limbo. Like the man on the train, the majority of its 500,000 citizens hold passports from Moldova in addition to their Pridnestrovian ones in order to cross boundaries. The local money, the Pridnestrovian ruble, is exchangeable for foreign currency, though only on Priednestrovian ground.
Fortress comes from the remarkable camera of Czech filmmakers Lukáš Kokeš and his partner Klára Tasovská. For many people (I must admit that when I was lucky enough to see the film, I was among them), its presence on the Czech documentary film circuit may serve first and foremost to inform that a place such as Priednestrovie exists. Then again, it’s no wonder this pseudostate is largely forgotten — in the past two years, for example, no BBC headline has mentioned the region. (VICE recently featured a photo piece called “The Lost Babes of Transnistria,” which by their standards is practically investigative journalism, so there’s that.) Here in this forgotten corner of the world, statues of Lenin still dominate city squares, and it’s best not to get on the wrong side of the secret police.
Getting on the wrong side of the secret police is something the filmmakers have experience with, it turns out. Kokeš says he and his partner aimed to look as much as possible like innocuous tourists when they visited the region in late December, often using pocket cameras and tape recorders — sometimes simply laying them on the curb clandestinely and looking elsewhere. Even then, they ran into issues — when pulling out a tripod during a military demonstration in the main square, they aroused suspicion and were detained by the secret police (at the time abbreviated MGB; now, familiarly enough, it’s abbreviated KGB). Tasovská comments: “It was as though falling down a rabbit hole into a spy movie from the eighties.” Adds Kokeš, “In the words of the police, they said they wanted to ‘get to know us better and to explain how things work around here.’ They also said that we didn’t have a choice.”
In light of these difficulties, the portrait of Pridnestrovie that Kokeš and Tasovská have been able to assemble is remarkably multidimensional. Through short video vignettes and conversations, the film starts to sketch a rough portrait of place.
Over tea and biscuits, a married Russian-speaking couple discuss the candidates in the upcoming presidential election.
“No matter what we do, it’ll be Smirnov again, I know it will.” (Igor Smirnov has been Pridnestrovie’s president for over 20 years, or the majority of the pseudostate’s existence. His opponents accuse him of censorship and voter fraud, but his ecstatic television spots portray him as the benevolent and caring godfather of a spunky young nation. His campaign motto is “For Stable Change!”)
“Well, I’ll vote for the other guy. He seems more grounded.”
“It makes no difference. Everything anyway happens according to the script they set up in Moscow.”
Elsewhere, a young woman seems quite content with the way things are going.
“I’ll vote for Smirnov again. We’ve gotten used to him. If there was someone else, who knows what he’d be like?”
Her friend adds: “I think it’s a little piece of utopia here. Pridnestrovians are more interesting people than Moldovans — they’re interested in all sorts of things, like art and sport. People are all different nationalities — Russian, Moldovan, Jewish — and we all get along. And life is easy here — there are lots of state subsidies coming in from Moscow, for young mothers, for the elderly.”
In an interview, a local politician paints an even rosier picture:
I think God sent a little piece of heaven to earth and named it Pridnestrovie. We are so safe here. You know why? Our police academies graduate more policemen than there are citizens. We sleep soundly at night because we have one police officer per civilian. They keep us safe at night.
The inspiration for the title of the film becomes apparent through one of these conversations. As a mother dresses her son for New Year’s festivities, she expounds:
Russia sends so much money here, financially supports many projects here, and meets regularly with all the government agencies. Under the pretext of humanitarian aid, they’ve secured a huge influence here. They have no economic interest in this part of the world, but they have a strategic one — from Pridnestrovie they can threaten Moldova, Ukraine, Romania, the EU… They’ve set us up as a fortress.
To the viewer familiar with aspects of modern Slavic communism of the Eastern Bloc, certain aspects of the Pridnestrovian political process seem unsettlingly familiar.
In his poorly lit apartment, a young man gives his view of Priednestrovie’s political system: “It’s controlled democracy, I would say. We have parties and elections, but they’re tightly controlled by the government. There’s this sense of blind submission to whoever is in power.”
Working in her garden, an older woman tells of how she led a petition to suggest a non-approved candidate for village mayor. Shortly after, she was anonymously reported as a Moldovan spy and fired from work.
In another scene, on a large-scale video screen outside a gas station, we see a man polishing his samopal [machine gun]. “Why are you doing that, father?” his son asks. “Son, a gun is like a woman. You have to give them both attention and care.” The father checks the barrel and continues, “No matter the political situation, while I have this gun, our republic is not for sale.” The video clip ends with the word “Nation” splayed across the screen.
These episodes of what, to the Western observer, appears as political surrealism are interlaid with everyday scenes that have a universal commonality. An impassive teenager plays a first-person shooter video game. A man haggles about the price of a Christmas tree (200 rubles. 100. 180. Deal?) and later laboriously cuts it down to fit in the Christmas tree stand. A young man sits down in his kitchen with his dinner of bread and sausage. Teenage girls practice a cheerleading routine that could be happening on any sports field in the world. A kid pouts when his New Year’s firecracker goes out. A family sits down to New Year’s supper and watches the new president (who has just defeated the perennial Smirnov in a startling upset) begin to give an address on television.
- “Mommy, who is that?”
“Our new president.”
“Why is he so bald?”
“He is how he is.”
The film closes with the New Year’s sunrise over the capital’s cityscape, accompanied by a radio broadcast: “Russia congratulates Yevgeny Shevchuk on his election and is pleased to announce its intention to continue to support humanitarian and civic initiatives in Pridnestrovie in the future.” As the credits roll, a Russian-language pop song starts playing: “On the chess game of life/ are we pawns/ or are we players?”
The 70-minute Fortress has already won Best Czech Documentary Film at the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival and aims to compete for other awards. However, Lukáš and Klára are quick to point out that they did not set out to create a work of political journalism, but rather a commentary about how easy it is to give up one’s freedom and the almost comic absurdity of politics when twisted through the brutal surrealism of a communist sideshow.
Lukáš adds, “Existential loneliness and sadness from personal isolation, whether mental or physical, are I think universal feelings that can resonate with [any audience].”
* Feature photo: eugene-r