After the success of their book Missing Lives, which tells the tragic and heartbreaking stories of 15 missing people in the former Yugoslavia, award-winning photojournalist Nick Danziger and best-selling author Rory MacLean return with a new book: Back in the USSR – Heroic Adventures in Transnistria. With the idea that the book will be published via public subscription (through pledging support) by the innovative London-based publisher Unbound (read about Unbound's publishing model) in autumn 2013, Back in the USSR is boldly “attempts to lift the veil on Europe's most secret state”.
In part aimed at creating a broader awareness of the tiny breakaway region of Transnistria, MacLean and Danziger invite you to travel with them to the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic to discover what happened to the socialist dream; and as the authors' humorous pitch on the Unbound website continues:
“Transnistria is a nowhere land hugging a narrow valley near the Black Sea. No bigger than Cornwall or Rhode Island, this unrecognised country is a Soviet museum occupied by Russian 'peace-keepers'. Its oligarchs in Adidas track suits hunt wild boar with AK-47s. Its young people train for revolution at the Che Guevara High School of Political Leadership. Its secret factories have supplied arms to Chechnya and electrical cable for Iran’s nuclear power programme. Yet its supporters champion it as a peace-loving exemplar of cyber-age democracy. […] Venture to this terra incognita […] gaze in awe at the audacity of its creation, the slickness of its business elite. Visit a Red Army retirement home. Learn how to sustain the half lotus yoga position with a KGB colonel. Stand together with heroic citizens on the factory floors and knee-deep in the fallow fields of collective farms and celebrate Transnistria’s uniqueness as the only country in the world not to have recognised the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
HAYDEN BERRY: How and why did you come up with the idea of writing a book about Transnistria?
RORY MACLEAN: Nick and I first worked together in 2010 on Missing Lives, a book about the civilians who disappeared during the Yugoslav wars. We were commissioned by the International Committee of the Red Cross’s regional director in the Balkans, Paul-Henri Arni, who had just come back from visiting the last political prisoner in Europe – in a place called Transnistria.
NICK DANZIGER: Paul-Henri told us it was the only country in the world not to recognise the collapse of the Soviet Union. He’d met a government minister (and former Red Army colonel) who kept a private zoo with a free-roaming anaconda in the Ministry of Justice. Above the man's desk hung a portrait of Felix Dzerzhinsky (best known for establishing Cheka, a forerunner to the KGB – editor's note).
RM: Right away Nick and I were hooked. We knew we had to see, and tell the story of, this upstart mini-state. We also wanted to meet Nina Shtanski, the remarkable young woman who had been Paul-Henri’s interpreter, who now serves as Transnistria'a foreign minister.
Are you worried that your audience won't have heard of Transnistria?
RM: During the Cold War, Western propaganda had us believe that Europe ended at the Berlin Wall. In 1989 in my first book Stalin's Nose, I travelled across the “forgotten” half of Europe, going further and further East in search of the real end of the continent. In a way, the trip to Transnistria was part of the same search, more than 20 years on.
ND: For me, as a life-long fan of Tintin, I believed readers would recognise the place as something like King Ottaker’s Sceptre where Tintin uncovers a plot at dethroning King Muskar XII, the crowned monarch of Syldavia.
Could you give us a brief synopsis of the book?
RM: I've long been fascinated by the idea of the New Soviet man, that archetype of an ideal dedicated to spreading the socialist revolution. Since 1989 I'd wondered what happened to that “selfless higher social biological being”. As far as I can tell, he – along with a great many former KGB officers – is alive and well in Transnistria…
ND: Back in the USSR is a journey into the heart of Transnistria, as well as its numbered Swiss bank accounts, narrated by a truly remarkable reborn Soviet man, Rory Maclean, and illustrated by my photographs.
Why have you chosen to publish the book with Unbound, rather than a more traditional publisher?
RM: The book, which Nick and I have just finished, will be published by public subscription. Readers who like the idea, pledge for an ebook version, or a signed copy, or a limited-edition original print, or even to join us in London for a Transnistrian barbecue, with pickled watermelon and marinated slabs of pork…
ND: … and plenty of vodka. We think it's an exciting way of putting the power of publishing in the hands of authors and readers. We may have missed the Russian Revolution, but today we all can be part of a revolution in publishing.
Do jokes about “drinking vodka” create a negative stereotype of people in Transnistria and post-Soviet countries in general?
RM: Everywhere we went in Transnistria, from schools to orphanages, factories to monasteries, we were welcomed with boundless hospitality – and vodka. The generosity of spirit made me reflect deeply on the influence and damage of alcohol in society. It is one of the areas I explore in depth in the book. Back in 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev instituted a large-scale anti-drinking campaign: closing factory bars, banning alcohol at official functions.
Almost immediately the campaign – backed by the All-Union Voluntary Society for the Struggle for Sobriety – led to an increase in life expectancy as well as a bloom of pregnancies. But then illicit production in a million kitchens undermined the prohibition campaign, leading to a massive rise in consumption. Over the next few years both mortality and childbirth in the former Soviet Union dropped by a factor so dramatic as to be unprecedented anywhere in the world in peacetime.
I do not make light of this tragedy, or of other deeply-serious matters in Transnistria: decaying weapons stockpiles, corruption, alleged human trafficking. In my writing I tell true, individual stories with compassion and humour to evoke empathy and understanding in readers. I do not reinforce stereotypes – I tease them.
When will the book be published and how can the general public help?
ND: Back in the USSR will only be published if it's funded by readers. Only you can make that happen, so please don’t hesitate; pledge today at: http://unbound.co.uk/books/back-in-the-ussr
The following extract from Back in the USSR is re-published with kind permission of the authors and Unbound:
Nikoluk was born near the source of the Nistru in the western Ukraine. The region had been part of Poland before the Second World War and, even after Stalin absorbed it into the Soviet Union, its people had retained characteristic Polish ambition and industriousness. At the technical college in L’viv, Nikoluk and his classmates were taught that they would become the best engineers in the USSR.
On graduation Nikoluk was posted down river in Soviet Moldova. The young crane mechanic liked the republic with its southern women and heady local wine. At the first Builders’ Day festival he drank too much of it and told the factory boss that he’d take his job within two years. And he did.
‘Success was the religion of the L’viv Technical Institute,’ he said, lighting a Cuban cigar. As its smoke mingled with the aroma of scorched meat he added, ‘I buy them on the Uruguayan market. They are cheaper that way.’
In 1990 Nikoluk breathed similar hot ambition into the independence war, becoming vice-director of the ‘Strike Committee for an Independent Transnistria’.
‘In Moldova people chanted “Moldova for ethnic Moldovans” and called me an incomer,’ he recalled, refilling our glasses, lobbing the first empty bottle into the snow. ‘Where could I go? I joined the comrades who wanted to maintain links with Russia. I rang Gorbachev and met deputy premier Ryzhkov. I told them, “The Soviet Union is falling apart.” They assured me that it would never happen. But it did.’
He sucked on his cigar.
‘For the next half-a-year I wore a flak jacket. I carried a gun. I had my special “missions”. I fought to preserve our Motherland.’
We raised our glasses to Motherlands which brought tears to Nikoluk’s hooded blue eyes. His wife Alexandra emerged from their ground floor apartment, tottering on her heels between the snowdrifts, bearing plates of pickled watermelon and salo, salt-cured slabs of fatback pork, as well as a steaming jug of ukha fish broth – concocted from freshwater perch and vodka – and reputed to prevent hangovers. Behind her the patched, five-storey block was bisected by gas and drain pipes, its balconies boxed in and curtained against the cold.
‘Vodka is best drunk in threes,’ said Nikoluk, cracking open another bottle. ‘If you drink alone, you are an alcoholic. If two people drink, a man and a woman for example, they are interested in something else. But with three drinkers, you have the perfect number of companions.’ As he refilled the glasses he added, ‘Try the blood sausage.’
After the war Nikoluk – now a large fish in a very small pond – grasped the chance to rebuild damaged infrastructure, winning the contracts to repair the Nistru bridges. He went on to supply the steel for all of the republic’s petrol stations.
‘I benefited from the situation,’ he confessed, crunching the tension out of his neck. ‘Also Transnistria – lying between western Europe and the Ukraine – has 360 kilometres of open border. What else do I need to say?’
To read the full excerpt visit: http://unbound.co.uk/books/back-in-the-ussr/excerpt
To pledge money to help publish Back in the USSR visit: http://unbound.co.uk/books/back-in-the-ussr
Rory MacLean’s nine non-fiction books include the UK best-sellers Stalin’s Nose and Under the Dragon as well as Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India. His works – according to the late John Fowles – are among those that “marvellously explain why literature still lives”. During his research journeys, he walked through the newly-opened Berlin Wall and met Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon. His personal history of Berlin will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in January 2014. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Nick Danziger is one of Europe’s finest photojournalists having spent a life documenting what he sees in best-selling books, and in award-winning documentaries and photography. His most recent books have included: Mana, a unique behind-the-scenes look at New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team and Onze Femmes, tracing the lives of 11 women from countries in conflict over the last 10 years. His photographic work is held in museum collections worldwide. His “mirror” image of Tony Blair and George W. Bush shot during a 30-day, ground-breaking study of a prime minister at war won the World Press Photo Award.
Hayden Berry is an editor and the web manager for New Eastern Europe as well as a Krakow-based musician.