True Lithuania

Visaginas Town

Visaginas (population 20 000) has been built in the 1970s and 1980s for workers of a new nuclear power plant built nearby. Once a secret settlement, this is a good example of a Soviet city. All its buildings are multi-storey apartment blocks built according to common layouts. They are separated by pedestrian alleys and wide four-lane streets, all of which still bear names like Tarybų (Soviet), Kosmonautų (Cosmonaut), Taikos (Peace) or Draugystės (Friendship). In the Soviet Union, every city had streets named this way.

Gate to the yard behind apartment blocks now overfilled with cars. Such architectural designs had to be eye-candy in an otherwise monotonous red-and-grey city but even they were not unique with every yard of the same street having a same-looking gate. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Only the name of the city itself was changed from Sniečkus (surname of a Lithuanian communist leader) to Visaginas after independence. The new name comes from a phrase „Everybody defends themselves“ and while it reminds of poisonous snakes that used to live around the local lake, it is also surprisingly appropriate for a cold war nuclear town.

The ethnic make-up of the city strikingly reminds the former Soviet Union as well with 52% of the population being ethnic Russians. Other ethnicities that once lived in the Soviet Union, such as Ukrainians or Belarusians, are also well represented. Russian is still the lingua franca in Visaginas. The population density is highest among Lithuania’s cities, but you are never far from nature as Visaginas is surrounded by forests and several lakes are nearby. In fact, fragments of pine forests are left even between apartment blocks making Visaginas a unique forest city.

Pine forest in the middle of the city. The tower block nearby has never been completed. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Although it may seem so when you are in Visaginas time does not stand still here. The Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant which once employed half of the population was closed down as requested by the European Union. The gigantic industrial building east of the city that once housed the most powerful nuclear reactors in the world now stands empty. It never reached its full potential as 2 of the 4 planned reactors have not been built. Should they have been built Visaginas would have been doubled in size to house around 50 000 inhabitants. Right now the town's population already went down by a third from its peak. Visaginas ages as a whole: it was known as the "youngest town" in 1999 with an average age of 30,6 years but in 2012 the number went all the way to 39,3, showing little generational change.

The enormous power plant is a must-see. The massive pipes leading to Visaginas from the power plant once provided cheap heating. This was once the heart of the city that is now empty. In order to expedite the plans of a new power plant people of Visaginas are staging protests in favor of nuclear power. A NIMBY object anywhere else an NPP is more than welcome in what is the Nuclear Town.

Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant near Visaginas. Plant-to-city heating pipe is visible in the foreground. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Other than that, a simple stroll around the town is rewarding. The nuclear workers used to live well by Soviet standards, therefore Visaginas was built for upper middle class. With the exception of few additions, the city is still as it was in the 1980s (even the atom-shaped streetlights remain).

The post-independence additions are a modern shopping mall and several churches. The Orthodox Church of the Birth of John the Baptist (1992) constructed in a converted shop between two apartment blocks in Sedulinos Avenue is probably the most interesting. The Catholic St. Paul's (1998) and Russian Orthodox St. Pantaleimon's (2000) are more typical religious buildings. Atheism was the first Soviet-introduced cultural practice to wither: in 2001 the city still had the highest share of irreligious in Lithuania (25%), down to 9% in 2011.

A shop that was hastily transformed into Visaginas's first church after the atheist Soviet Union collapsed. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Visaginas is now also famous for the largest Country music festival in the Baltics, taking place in summer.

English tourist map of Visaginas, Lithuania.

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