New East Digital Archive

Ostalgie: a glimpse inside the places where East Germany survives

Berlin-based photographer Elena Khovanskaya goes looking for traces of GDR

9 November 2017

The Berlin Wall came down exactly 28 years today. Yet even now, it’s not unusual to hear the question: “Which part of Berlin are you from?” Originally from St Petersburg, documentary photographer Elena Khovanskaya has been living in eastern Berlin for the last 10 years, and has met many people who miss the quality of life in the GDR (in German, DDR, Deutsche Demokratische Republik), when there were job security, free kindergartens, free public services, high-quality goods and low-cost transport. “In their eyes, they not only lost their former country but their faith in the future,” says Khovanskaya, whose latest photo series explores the phenomena of “ostalgie” — nostalgia for old East (“ost”) Germany. The project has taken her beyond official places such as crossing points, prisons, factories and administrative buildings, and inside more intimate spaces like cafés, hotels and homes which remain unchanged by time. Moreover, she discovered there are more than 900 GDR brands still in existence today, and specialised shops even sell GDR produce like Spreewald pickles, Bautzner mustard and the cult GDR soft drink, Club Cola. Compared to her native country, there are a lot more museums in East Germany that deal directly with this recent history, the photographer says: “In eastern Germany, the history of the GDR is documented in plenty of public as well as private museums. There is also the so-called Stasi Record Agency that was founded in 1990 and working to this day. I have found only few, and mostly rather small, Russian museums dedicated to its communist past and life back then. Though of course there are still plenty of communist monuments and architecture in Russia, and you’re bound to meet people who tell you life was better in those days.”