True Lithuania

Top 10 Soviet occupation era sights

Lithuania's 5 decades-long Soviet occupation (1940-1990) has been a period of genocide, persecutions, and censorship. Unlike many other occupations, it was also long enough to influence culture and cityscapes. Lithuania is one of the few places where Soviet history could be explored with all the modern amenities and freedoms. A rich array of Soviet-related locations includes the ordinary and extraordinary: apartment blocks, nuclear launch site, propaganda art, locations of the freedom struggle and memorials for those who perished. Here is our Top 10:

1.Visit the Museum of Genocide victims in the former Vilnius KGB headquarters to learn about the Soviet genocide that destroyed hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians and shattered lives of millions of others. Vilnius New Town borough.

2.Get impressed at the Hill of Crosses where Lithuanians secretly erected tens of thousands crosses throughout the Soviet occupation. In the atheist-ruled Soviet Union, this was illegal and the crossbuilders faced persecutions. But nevertheless, every time the Soviet bulldozers had razed the crosses even more used to "appear" on that hill soon.

3.Enter the authentic nuclear missile shafts at a former Soviet secret military base at the Samogitian National Park. The missiles that waited here would have obliterated Great Britain; now the launch site has been transformed into the world's first Cold War Museum.

4.Take a walk at the controversial Grūtas park (near Druskininkai) where all the once-mandatory Soviet statues and monuments ended up after being removed from urban centers. This park in a pleasurable natural setting has earned its developer an Ig Nobel peace prize.

5.Spend several hours in one of many Soviet districts that surround all the cities (Vilnius, Kaunas, Klaipėda...) to understand how and where a common citizen of Soviet Lithuania lived. While the dull architecture mostly remains the same, you'll need to erase most businesses and cars in your imagination: back under the Soviet occupation car was a luxury few families would own and there were also few shops, services, and nearly no restaurants in such residential districts (entire Vilnius had ~10 places for eating out).

6.If a Soviet district is not enough you may visit a Soviet town. That's Visaginas, built in 1980s for workers of a nearby nuclear power plant. Nuclear workers were upper middle class back then, making the town a little more lavish and barring most ethnic Lithuanians from settling there. Therefore Visaginas still seems as transplanted from somewhere much further East with 55% of its population ethnic Russians (interestingly, the same percentage as in the 1980s Soviet Union) and Russian language a lingua franca.

7.Descend into the underground clandestine printing house "ab Spaustuvė" in northern Kaunas suburbs. Illegal historical, religious and other materials used to be printed here by local activists and then secretly distributed, circumventing the tight Soviet censorship laws.

8.See the preserved fraction of barricades near the Lithuanian Parliament building that were hastily built after the 1990 03 11 parliamentary independence declaration to protect the MPs from expected Russian invasion. Unbelievable unity of armless civilians indeed stopped the Russian tanks on January 13th, 1991, sealing the fate of the Soviet Union. The entire Soviet collapse started here, at the parliament in Vilnius, which was the first to declare independence (New Town borough).

9.Witness the evolution of prime-location Soviet architecture on the Neris river banks at Vilnius. Stalinist buildings (1940s-1950s) here adopted Imperial grandeur and Baroque forms, upscaling the building size and downscaling the number of decorations (House of Scientists, Žaliasis bridge). After Stalin, all these "unnecessary details" were forbidden but the city center buildings retained some "functionalist poshness" compared to residential districts (Hotel Lietuva, Opera/Ballet theater), some experimenting with modern styles such as brutalism (Palace of Sports).

10.Go to the 9th fort of the Kaunas fortress. Already outdated by the time World War 2 started it was used to imprison and exterminate regime's enemies by both Soviet Russian and Nazi German occupational powers. After World War 2 Soviets remained in power and thus used the fort for a museum of Nazi German brutality (forgetting their own); a gigantic nearby monument dates to the era. Today both occupations and genocides are covered in the 9th fort museum.

Map of the top 10 Soviet locations in Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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