Anton Polyakov has long reckoned with political and economic isolation. The art and documentary photographer is based in Transnistria, a largely unrecognised breakaway state that declared independence from Moldova in 2003. His award-winning work has shown what is most human about life in the marginalized ex-Soviet enclave. Now, it is focusing on Covid-19, which has created a kind of compound separation in Transnistria — a double quarantine.
For Polyakov and everyone else in Transnistria, controls and regulations have grown even tighter under the global pandemic. Movement to and from region’s surrounding countries, Moldova and Ukraine, is all but entirely suspended. Beginning in March, the Transnistrian government issued a flurry of containment measures, including a travel ban for Moldovan citizens. The territory lies along a crisis belt spanning much of southeastern Europe, where high infection rates and overwhelmed clinics and hospitals have sustained an ongoing emergency.
“[Transnistria’s] healthcare system is weak, with a limited number of qualified staff as well as outdated, typically Soviet-era infrastructure and equipment,” said the International Crisis Group, in a May report on pandemic responses in breakaway republics. Transnistria’s infection numbers, counted alongside those in Moldova by many global health groups, only begun to decline in October.
Polyakov’s experience of Covid-19 is not just through the lens of his camera. His girlfriend, a Moldovan, lives in Chișinău. It is from her that he learned the word dor — a Romanian word that signifies longing, to miss someone or something, with an implicit sense of being apart. Due to the region’s high Covid-19 infection rates and mutually exclusive restrictions, the couple have not been able to physically meet.
“We’re only 80 kilometres apart, but now this short distance cannot be overcome,” Polyakov says. He cites their separation as the main catalyst behind wanting to photograph young couples in lockdown in Tiraspol, the Transnistrian capital. Polyakov has previously documented fellow young people, especially young couples, in his hometown. This pursuit has taken on new meaning in the series Alone and Together, produced whilst the planet grapples with the pandemic and its effects on human movement, relationships, and everyday routines.
Otherwise, Polyakov insists that much of his photography practice has stayed the same. “Almost nothing [besides the couples’ project] has changed in terms of my work,” he says. “Isolation is a part of my daily life. I’m used to it. Photography is a tool that helps me cope.”
Polyakov goes further, arguing that his status as a born-and-raised Transnistrian has in fact galvanised his creative product. His base in Tiraspol “gives me motivation and strength to continue working here. It sounds trite, but difficult conditions can be a very good basis for your [artistic] activities.”
Yet even if Polyakov finds fuel for his creative fire in shooting the lives of young Transnistrians, he concedes that the region poses challenges for those who long for opportunities beyond its narrow borders. Transnistrians with a mind to leave often do, emigrating to Russia, the European Union, or elsewhere.
“For the young people who live here, this age is in many ways a transitional one,” Polyakov says. “You have to decide what to do next, to leave or to stay, what to do with your future.”
Among these obstacles, the photographer finds a certain optimism towards Covid-19. In his work on couples, he “was looking for young people who can be together at this moment in their lives. Maybe they’ll remember this as a wonderful time, when they chose to devote themselves to each other.”
Polyakov’s images touch, inevitably, on the political side of life in a breakaway republic. His own politics move past a long-felt sense of confusion and towards the universal, and the good both in the people within and outside his own perimeters.
“There are political restrictions that affect your life. Transnistria is a very small territory. We are hostages to the fact that many people who are dear to us live in neighbouring regions.” Polyakov offers the example of his grandfather, who resides in a village in Ukraine, as another loved one from whom Covid-19 has demanded an enforced separation.
Polyakov’s sense of Transnistrian belonging is mostly personal — an emotion, more than a nationalistic feeling. “The place where I live is very dear to me,” he says. It seems to matter less to Polyakov that many of his friends and family live beyond Transnistria’s limits. He describes Transnistria as a “phenomenon” — an effect, something not quite real. At home as abroad, “at the level of human relationships, you cannot divide people into nationalities,” he says.
So where do these layers of isolation — political and physical — leave young Transnistrians like Polyakov? His sentiments return to the broader feeling of dor: the longing to come back to people, and to simple freedoms, which we never knew we held so dear.
Evgeny: I live in an isolated microdistrict called “Severny”, which belongs to the city of Bender, but is not directly connected with it. This meant that I stayed home from February through till May. Over lockdown I lost contact with a lot of my friends from Tiraspol. My best friend lives in Ukraine, and I have not been able to see her for almost a year. For me, the only positive thing to come from quarantine was spending time on self-development and studying topics that interest me.
Svetlana: It is difficult for me to single out something positive in this period. I was able work more time on my laptop, as there was no temptation to go for a walk.
Gleb: Quite a lot has changed in my life. I felt like I was alone with myself and with my thoughts, and there were a lot of existential questions that arose in my mind. I thought a lot about my future. I began to read books, which I never had the time for before. However, gradually, I became bored: neither games nor books can replace real live interactions with people you love, with whom I could not communicate during strict isolation. I began to appreciate the moments of connection with my environment, and even to understand myself better. I can say that it was a good time for me despite all the positive and negative experiences.
Ulyana: I wish I could say quarantine was a positive experience for me. I really missed communication. Social networks cannot replace live conversation. The days bled into one another, and now spring seems like one dreary mass. It was very difficult for me to get by without being active, and now I am very glad that I have returned to my usual rhythm.
David: Quarantine inspired me to take up sports. Now, I’m walking more. In the beginning, when restrictions were quite strict, I went on walks at night with my peers. I’m sad that I can’t see my grandmother in Moldova and a close friend, who has gone there to study.
Elya: I am glad for the extra time. I managed to sleep well during quarantine. I spent more time with close people and friends in the city. At the same time, I could not complete my beautician course in Chisinau, and this year we went without our annual vacation on the coast.
Nikolai: Quarantine had almost no effect on my everyday life, but I am sad that I cannot see the people closest to me, my mother and sister, who work and study in Russia and Moldova.
Alexandra: I am still trying to get to grips with online lessons. I think it drastically affects your understanding of the subjects you are taught. For me personally, it is very important to have direct contact with the teacher.