Along the echoing corridors of this long-deserted building once walked the troops of one of the mightiest armies the world has ever known. While men were stationed within these walls, the threat of global war loomed large, and the world, and the country in which the building stood, were divided in a way never seen before.
Contested by the Soviet Union and her allies on one side, and the Western powers on the other, The Cold War began at the end of World War II and continued until 1991. The Red Army barracks in Gotha, in former East Germany, were used during this period of barely contained conflict. Abandoned when the Soviet Union dissolved, there is now nothing left but gradually spreading ruin and decay.
Andre Joosse, the photographer who took these remarkable pictures, explained that “the ‘kaserne’ – barracks – lies at the border of the city [Gotha]. Some buildings were already demolished, some renovated to houses. But the other buildings were still there [when I explored the place] with trees growing out of the walls.”
It’s plain to see how the paint and linoleum inside the barracks has cracked and peeled as time has worn on. Once filled with men wearing gleaming boots and pressed uniforms, the room is now empty, with little left but the odd relic of the men who once controlled the city of Gotha.
An old Russian newspaper yellows on the wall. It’s easy to forget that the troops stationed here were men away from home, with personal interests beyond the monolith conjured up by the term ‘Red Army’.
The erupting floorboards in this image make it difficult to conceive of a room full of soldiers, but the atmosphere of a place can set the mind working. As Joosse says: “The most important thing I do while exploring, other than photography, is imagining how the place was when it was in use. Before 1990, during the Cold War, it was always a mystery what happened there.”
This snippet shows the agricultural machines that were so close to the heart of the communist ideology of the time. Perhaps it was an image used to express a sense of pride in the Soviet machine. As with other traces of the past found in the barracks, it’s left to the eyes of urban explorers to try to tease out the secrets of the once mighty army that made its home here.
After World War II, the Soviet Union chose to strengthen its power by occupying the Eastern European territories it had liberated from the Nazis, annexing some and turning others into satellite states. Countries like East Germany not only had their politics controlled; the Red Army was also stationed in barracks throughout the land in what became part of the Eastern Bloc.
Walls with chipped paint frame this aptly colored cupboard. The Red Army was named for the color of the traditional Soviet worker’s movement. Renamed the Soviet Army during World War II, the original moniker stuck again once the war was over.
Everywhere in the barracks are reminders ‒ like this letter still hanging on the wall ‒ that armies are made up of individual men. Joosse says: “I like the photo of the letter the most. I can’t read it but I imagine it to be a letter from the family of a Russian soldier.”
A shot of what looks like black mould creeping along the walls and slowly destroying the once proud building – token to the fact that the Soviet Union is now a distant memory.
Nature has begun to take over outside too. A forest seems to have grown on the grounds, and the buildings of the barracks may soon be engulfed!
What looks like a grate; or a red loudspeaker, silenced now. Lest we forget, the forces that followed orders in these barracks are credited with having defeated 80% of German forces on the Eastern Front during the Second World War. The Red Army was one of the biggest armies in history.
This toilet would once have been spick and span; now it is covered in graffiti and falling apart.
Were strategies once discussed around this map? Joosse says: “During the visit you search for stuff that proves it was not just a normal building. What looks like a decayed ruin starts to become alive when you see the Russian texts on the wall. A map of Europe with Russian writing on it. You can imagine the soldiers talking to their superiors.”
We leave the barracks with this snapshot of one of the building exteriors, with windows from which hundreds would have looked out over the land – now unkempt and uncared for.