(De)Politicization of an era: Architectural heritage in Central and Eastern Europe21 min read
Modernism, constructivism, brutalism, functionalism — the trend of visiting, photographing, and posting about architecture and architectural heritage that falls into any or all of these categories is ubiquitous, and it is growing. But in Central and Eastern Europe, the interest in these styles is particularly high. Perhaps it is the ideology behind the ‘utopian city’ that draws people to design and architecture from the Soviet and Socialist era. Or perhaps it is the supercharged discourse that polarises those who see their Eastern European hometown as gloomy and rugged, and the outsiders trekking there to gaze in awe at the aesthetically unique architecture from that time.
One thing seems to be clear: architecture in Central and Eastern Europe is political. Or, is it? When expressing my own interest in the ideas around socialist planned cities or appreciating the aesthetic of art and design from the “Eastern Bloc,” I am told that these are relics of Soviet hegemony, this architecture is meant to dehumanise society, the art is only propaganda. Nordic modernism or Scandinavian functionalism never seem to be as controversial as socialist modernism or Soviet constructivism. To find out whether art and design in the “Eastern Bloc” have to be political or not, I spoke to different photographers who surely would not lump their work together, but who do have one shared motif: life and architecture in socialist Central and Eastern Europe.
As Socialist-era architecture is entering more and more spaces online and becoming trendy, what motivates these photographers?
According to Kyiv-based photographer Elmira Ettinger (@child_of_socialism), though mainstream architects may see monotony in Socialist-era architecture, this is just a stereotype. She informed me that while around 10-15% of structures from Ukraine’s Soviet era may be standardised, much of public space was made up of unique design projects with their own structural achievements and one-of-a-kind artwork adorning them.
How unique and diverse the structures are, is something that the Estonia-based artist Maria Kopytova (@boringnarva) found out through her own photography journey. After moving to the eastern Estonian city of Narva five years ago, she used photography as a way to get to know the town better and to find aspects of life that counter-balance the city’s negative image. She discovered architectural styles, shapes, and materials that differed greatly from her Russian hometown, despite it only being a few hours east of Narva.
Others have been influenced by the ideas and ideology behind the architecture: the Wrocław-based photographer Maciej Czarnecki (@maciejdusiciel) spoke very passionately about the historical meaning behind post-war architecture in Poland. He explained that modernism is a mindset, a way of life not just related to historic socialism. Its idea is to combat modern problems of modern times with modern engineering. The rise of modernist architecture in Poland went hand-in-hand with its industrialization, massive population growth, and urbanisation. People in the booming cities needed housing, they needed it fast, and this basic need was eventually met. The architectural style at the time was dependent on ideology, he continued, focused on creating mass housing, while bringing other socialist ideals close to people. Architecture, therefore, is not totally apolitical; from feng-shui design in Shanghai to fascist-era architecture in Italy, architecture can serve a purpose to ideology in real time.
Ideology is also what originally inspired Līga Ramata (@micromacrorayon). The Rīga-based architect sees parallels between Soviet microrayons and trending architectural ideals such as the 15-minute city; despite being so similar in thought, the former is perceived as outdated and the latter as very modern. With her photography, she aims to portray Latvian microrayons in a more natural light and highlight the positive aspects of living there. Her art became a sort of protest against locals who have long refused to see the beauty and convenience in their microrayons, as well as against some Westerners who typically portray the districts as gloomy and dystopian.
The German photographer Martin Maleschka (@martinmaleschka, @baubezogenekunstddr) has a very personal connection to East-German architecture. His hometown Eisenhüttenstadt [En.: “city of iron works”] is the last city newly established in Germany and the only truly ‘planned city’ in the former GDR. Different districts were added every time the city needed more housing, each with a unique architectural and artistic style popular in its respective decade. As a child, Maleschka lived in a few different buildings in Eisenhüttenstadt, all of which have since been demolished as a symptom of the region’s depopulation and peripheralization. Unlike others, he does not have a neighbourhood to walk around and reminisce about. His dad, who spent his whole career building panel houses, also finds it difficult to see so much of what he built being torn down. Maleschka photographs GDR architecture to document objects from that time and bring back some pride towards this artistic and technical work.
Dmytro Soloviov (@ukrainianmodernism), a Kyiv-based photographer and activist, is just as inspired by modernist philosophy as Czarnecki, and considers this the key to his work. Having grown up with Soviet-era architecture, he wants to document this important piece of his heritage. He particularly appreciates the mosaics from that time, and is saddened that so many of them are decaying. He furthermore highlights how the sleek designs create a unique atmosphere and portray different emotions depending on light and time of year — something all of the photographers I spoke to agree with.
Politicisation of Architecture?
On the one hand, their active Instagram presence has allowed most of these photographers to find a community which is also interested in looking at, studying, and documenting Socialist-era architecture. On the other hand, critics sometimes attempt to put the art and the artists into political or ideological boxes they do not identify with.
Ramata, from Rīga, said that Instagram has helped her find a community of architecture buffs and people interested in Soviet-era architecture. In addition to positive feedback, the community has also inspired her as an architect by becoming a forum to share and learn from each other. Online criticism is something she only gets if a post goes viral and reaches a crowd that lacks appreciation for her artistic work. Some comments have a political twist, accusing her of glorifying the Soviet Union, or of being a ‘communist’, something which has a negative connotation in Latvia. Despite the fact that most online feedback is positive, she prefers not to travel to and photograph Rīga’s microrayons alone following experiences with irritated locals who have made rude remarks about her presence with a camera in their neighbourhoods.
This is something Maleschka knows all too well. He has encountered many sceptical locals in GDR-era districts who are not used to the cameras. He simply explains that he sees beauty in these buildings and wants to document them in a positive light. Otherwise, Maleschka says conversations about his work are overwhelmingly positive. There is artistic and historical appreciation for his work, and once residents know he is “one of them,” they are no longer worried. He is a fun and hip guy who spends a large chunk of his time meticulously documenting art and architecture in a region that is otherwise often overlooked in German politics – this makes him quite popular.
Kopytova is quite active in the artistic community in Narva and receives a lot of appreciation for her work there. Her muse is the city, not necessarily Soviet-era architecture; it just so happens that almost every building in the city was built during the Soviet occupation because Narva was almost entirely destroyed during the Second World War. Some locals do not like her angle on the city, they prefer to show outsiders Hermann’s Castle from the 13th century. But life in Narva takes place inside of, next to, and in between panel buildings, and it is exactly this daily life she is interested in. For others, her work has been a breakthrough, encouraging locals to gain a new perspective and appreciate other areas of the city. Kopytova’s account has reached others in Estonia too, proving that the city is, despite its reputation and her ironic Instagram name “Boring Narva,” not ugly or boring at all.
Criticism of the architecture itself is something that all photographers have experienced. In Czarnecki’s encounters, people dislike the architecture, but not him as the photographer. This criticism does not bother him, and the fact that especially the older generation in Poland negatively associates this style of architecture with bad times does not bother him much either. Either way, the benefits of sharing his content online far outweigh any negativity. He has been able to find a bubble that has inspired him to travel more, photograph more, and do more research. His echo chamber has fed his obsession, and he is quite happy about that.
The resistance faced by the two Ukraine-based photographers I spoke to is of a different calibre. The policies of decommunization in Ukraine have often boiled down to removing Soviet symbols from the public sphere: specific monuments, statues of Lenin, and Soviet emblems. The range of objects affected by decommunization policies is wide, and the public seemingly accepts the demolition of Soviet-era relics. Renaming a street or removing a controversial statue is one thing, but why can the previous design of public spaces not be respected, and why is it acceptable to cover up artwork just because of the year it was created in?
Ettinger said she has a lot of local critics. For them, everything from the Soviet period is automatically bad. Her differing opinion on the matter is just as irrefutable as theirs; it is a difficult basis for discussion. Nevertheless, her work increases awareness and recognition, so she will not stop. The more visibility she creates, the more difficult it is to just destroy or cover up the artwork or buildings.
Soloviov compared his situation to Sisyphus, endlessly pushing a boulder up a hill. He has had countless discussions with his compatriots, fighting for more appreciation of their architectural heritage. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, black-and-white thinking and the spirit of decommunization in Ukraine have become stronger. Some of his Ukrainian followers have become more critical of him and his work, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to argue with the people around him. As he put it, “I feel caught between hammer and anvil, with Russia firing rockets on my land, while decommunizers destroy [the] Ukrainian heritage I dedicated my life to.” He now tries to explain to locals that they have a common enemy, and it is not Soviet-era architecture. He gives tours around Kyiv and other cities, and enjoys being with people who just get it. The biggest force of positivity, though, comes from abroad. Not only is the international community more appreciative of the style of his photography, followers from abroad like to take part in his virtual tours and have supported his work on Patreon, making it possible for him to continue doing what he loves.
Struggling for visibility against all odds
While not all photographers have to face the same levels of negativity or criticism around their art and interests, they all are seeking to achieve more visibility, respect, and preservation of Socialist-era architecture. Considering how polarising discussions about Socialist-era architecture can be, it is not a surprise that Russia’s war against Ukraine has created new difficulties for them.
In Ukraine, Ettinger addresses building owners directly to plead for period-appropriate modernization or for the restoration of façades and mosaics. Along with other like-minded preservationists, Soloviov has occupied certain buildings that were meant to be demolished. He has also advocated for people to contact elected officials in certain cases of scheduled demolitions and has himself restored Soviet-era mosaics.
It is not only the aesthetic they are interested in protecting, but also the heritage, and a reclamation of their own history. Ettinger said that her love for Ukraine’s Soviet-era architectural heritage has not lessened just because Russian elites attempt to skew history to fit their own interests or because of the war. Soloviov makes an effort to use his platform informatively, to explain in long posts not only what is at risk of being destroyed, but what the significance of it is and why it is important to do something. This way, he hopes to save more artistic objects, even though war regulations essentially make it impossible to protest or occupy buildings. The war has complicated his work in other ways, too. He can no longer use drones for aerial footage, there are fewer tourists coming to Ukraine and taking part in his tours, he has been accused of spying and had the police called on him while doing photoshoots, and he has had to obtain a press pass in order to be able to continue photographing.
Education is also an important tool for Maleschka. He knows that if people learn about the details and ideas behind Socialist-era architecture and art, they will understand the aesthetic, history, and reasons why it is worth protecting. In 2023, he organised a community clean-up of the local “Youth Square,” and was involved in getting it recognized as architectural heritage, meaning that the State of Brandenburg is now legally required to protect and maintain it. His educational projects focused on the construction-related art of the GDR have not been impacted by Russia. He considers it important to keep art and architecture separate from the current circumstances and is inspired by how Soloviov and Ettinger continue their work in such difficult circumstances.
Kopytova’s situation is a bit different. As someone who is not originally from Narva or Estonia, she doesn’t always feel comfortable with the idea of protesting or making a scene to protect an object of artistic or architectural heritage. After the full-scale invasion began, the situation in Estonia was tense, and the government started to remove more Soviet-era monuments. She distinguishes between monuments and seemingly apolitical things, taking a stance against the removal of the latter. Some Estonians explained why removing Soviet things is important, and told her that “everything Soviet is bad, you have to accept that in Estonia.” Without wanting to be apologetic for the occupation, she genuinely wonders where this idea ends — where can Narvites live if all Soviet-era buildings are to be destroyed?
As a local of Rīga and an architect, Ramata is ready to play an active role in preserving the city’s architectural diversity. Because she studied abroad, she wasn’t always well-informed about what was happening in Latvia. After the war started, the Latvian public discourse around anything deemed Soviet or Russian heated up again, similarly to in Estonia. But Ramata decided to maintain her stance: that this architecture she loves, photographs, and gets inspiration from is Latvian architecture. Photographing it doesn’t glorify the occupation or justify crimes committed against Latvians. These buildings were drawn up by Latvian architects, the technical design was planned by Latvian engineers, the artistic elements were brought on by Latvian artists. This is just as much a part of Latvia’s architectural and historical heritage as any other architecture.
In the end, all photographers except for Ettinger reconsidered their work and content after the war started. The discourse criticising and rethinking Russian imperialism and historic crimes increased significantly with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and Russian state propaganda justifying its actions with historical ties. The fear and the trauma felt across Central and Eastern Europe is understandable, but all of these photographers came to the same conclusions. The art and buildings they appreciate, photograph, document, protect, and share with the world are not Russian property. Socialist-era buildings are used to teach in, eat in, perform in, and live in. They’re a part of the local scenery, history, and life. They may remind one of a certain time period, but the art and architecture itself is not political, or it has at least lost its political power. It’s theirs, and just as others spend time and money protecting historical pieces of art and architecture from other eras, these photographers are doing the same from the socialist period.
The reason Ettinger is an exception and didn’t rethink her work after the war started was because the discussion around Soviet-era buildings and monuments had already been polarising Ukrainian public discourse for so long. She had already had to justify herself and her work on countless occasions and didn’t need to reconsider if maybe she was being apologetic for something she doesn’t support. She knows where she stands and hasn’t taken a break in making an effort to educate and protect the Ukrainian architecture she most appreciates.
Shifting lines between political and apolitical?
The politicisation of art is not unique to Socialist architecture; it happens often with music, film, and literature when artists have been involved in something particularly controversial. But in comparison to other forms, eras, regions, or styles of architecture, the political criticism of Socialist architecture is unique. In conversations with locals and other foreigners in the former “Eastern Bloc,” you get mixed opinions about the architecture. Some hate it because it reminds them of what they dislike about the Soviet Union. Others specifically love it because it was a reminder of the achievements of the Soviet Union or because they are politically inclined to like it.
Nevertheless, with the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, just like the photographers I spoke to, I had to rethink some of my positions and actions. Is it actually okay to hang Soviet propaganda posters, to buy hammer and sickle souvenirs, to appreciate Socialist-era architecture? Are these simply relics of a historical time period, or do they still carry political weight? Where do I and the people around me draw the line between political and apolitical? From speaking to Czarnecki, I learned that architectural design can be used to portray ideology, but this ideology no longer holds political power. The façades tell a historical tale with certain connotations or memories, but the light that hits a building, the paint that colours it, the art that adorns it, the people who built it, and the residents that live in it tell different stories: their own stories.
Many of the photographers I interviewed have the simple goal of documenting where they live. Daily life in Central and Eastern Europe is impossible to imagine without any Socialist-era architecture, and this daily life is not political. The lines, shadows, shapes, and aesthetics of these varying styles of art and architecture are etched into memory and make home feel like home. These artists’ homes are their muse, not how others portray it, but how they portray it. This is exactly how Kopytova and Ramata described it. What makes this art political is not the history or ideology behind the buildings, but rather the present circumstances. The lack of appreciation of these architectural and artistic styles — due to changing trends and especially to the politicisation of them — actively threatens an entire era of architectural heritage. This turns photographers and fans of a certain aesthetic into activists, historical documentarians, and preservationists of necessity.
It is the anti-Sovietness that leads to loss of heritage, as Soloviov explained. From my conversation with Maleschka, I discovered that the unnecessary politicisation of this architecture is one factor that has led to its neglect or destruction and exacerbates the polarisation between East and West Germany today. It is more than just the physical change of a cityscape, but also the social damage that the lack of protection comes with. To fight back, each has their own sword – for Maleschka, it is education, for Ettinger, visibility, for Czarnecki, his camera, and for Ramata, her work as an architect.
I would like to sincerely thank every photographer for their time, their inspiring work, and their photos displayed in this article.