What does life in Soviet-era housing look like today?

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

Interviews and photographs of David Navarro, Martynna Sobecka, Mikhail Kalarashan, Alexander Veryovkin & Giorgi Zatiashvili

Across the former Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, huge concrete complexes bear witness to Europe’s post-war housing campaign. Built en masse in the second half of the 20th century, their utilitarian designs generally aimed to provide homes as quickly and cheaply as possible.

But while some of these developments have since been razed or fallen into disrepair, many have survived the communist governments that built them.

In 2012, David Navarro and Martyna Sobecka, founders of publishing house and design studio Zupagrafika, began documenting the aging concrete blocks of Eastern Europe – and meeting the people who still inhabit them. Initially, the couple intended to photograph paper architectural models against the buildings they depicted, although they instead asked residents to pose for portraits containing the illustrations.

A decade later, and with the help of photographers from across the region, they have released images and stories from 40 housing projects in 37 different cities.

From what was once East Berlin to the remote Russian city of Norilsk, Navarro and Sobecka found that occupants of these oft-vilified buildings complain of problems including poor insulation and lack of maintenance. But they also discovered many residents who were appreciative and nostalgic for their Cold War-era homes.

As the couple write in the introduction to their new book, “The Tenants: Concrete Portraits of the Former Eastern Bloc,” their subjects have memories of both the buildings’ “golden years and earlier times.” dark”.

Barbara, Plac Grunwaldzki housing estate in Wrocław, Poland (top photo)

“I was one of the first tenants here. I love my apartment on the fourth floor. I have three spacious bedrooms with a small kitchen.

“The only downside is the pigeons, oh dear, that’s really terrible! The renovation looks nice and clean from the outside but they didn’t put any ceramic tiles on the balcony floors, as they promised. Moreover, the tenants are still paying about 200 zlotys ($43) per month each for this renovation.”

Josef, Jižní Město housing estate in Prague, Czech Republic

David Navarro/Martyna Sobecka/Zupagrafika

“These panelák (precast concrete) houses were built very quickly so that people had places to live. Everyone liked it here. Then the Velvet Revolution came and they wanted to demolish them; if they had demolished, we wouldn’t have houses today.

“When we used to buy an apartment here it was very affordable, now they are available for 4 million crowns ($166,000), quite expensive for people who don’t have a lot of money.”

Zinaida, Novosmolenskaya housing complex in Saint Petersburg, Russia

Alexander Veryovkin/Zupagrafika

“There are hardly any young people here, but the house has a lot of advantages: it is relatively quiet, close to the metro and there is a lot of greenery around. The main disadvantage is that the walls, floors and ceilings are uneven. Something probably went wrong during construction.”

Givi, Sky-Bridge housing estate in Tbilisi, Georgia

Giorgi Zatiashvili/Zupagrafika

“I lived on the floor of the bridge for 40 years. Before the bridges were built, the whole floor was closed and I was the only one left there.

“These rounded windows used to be balconies that couldn’t be transformed back then. Now some tenants have covered them to have more heated space inside, only their exhaust fumes go up to my balcony .”

Divna, East Gate of Belgrade City in Belgrade, Serbia

Milos Stankovic/Zupagrafika

“The buildings are old and well constructed. They are the statues of Belgrade. Their foundations are deeply rooted, thus protecting the upper floors from earthquakes.”

Christin, Berliner Querplatte in Berlin, Germany

David Navarro/Martyna Sobecka/Zupagrafika

“I was born in (the eastern district of) Prenzlauer Berg and moved here in the 1970s. I live on the ninth floor and have a two-bedroom apartment, more than enough room for me and my dog.

“The rent is 500 euros ($511) a month and for my modest pension that’s a lot, but that’s not a lot for this great place, is it? I can see the TV tower from my window !”


The Tenants: Concrete Portraits of the Former Eastern Bloc,” published by Zupagrafika, is available now.


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