The last tattered remnants of the Cuban nuclear program.
30 November 2020
One gets the feeling that people don’t usually go to Elektrėnai on purpose. Traditionally, energy flowed out of – not into – this city. It sits alongside the main road between Lithuania’s two largest settlements: Kaunas, and the capital, Vilnius. However, unlike those older cities (founded in the 10th and 14th centuries respectively), Elektrėnai, a city of just 14,000 people, has no history before the 1960s. Ask online travel guides for the “Top 10 Things to do in Elektrėnai,” and few of them manage more than two suggestions. What they don’t tend to mention is the city’s funfair: built in Soviet times and since abandoned, its Ferris wheel, bumper cars and rollercoaster left gathering rust.
Like many Soviet workers’ cities, Elektrėnai was designed to offer a good life for employees at the local power plant. But of its twin symbols, the plant and the amusement park – work and play – these days the post-Soviet city is left with only its place of work.
Elektrėnai Power Plant
We turned off the highway into the city, the modern slip road flanked in walls of Baltic birch until directly ahead, to the south, rose the city’s symbol, its heart: the three towering chimneys of the power plant, striped red-and-white like 250-metre barber poles. The trees fell back as we entered Elektrėnai proper, hitting the roundabout that marked the beginning of its central thoroughfare, Elektrinės gatvę, or ‘Power Street.’ The chimneys dominated the horizon, beyond the rows of panel-block apartment buildings, their shapes echoed in a stainless steel monument that rose in the middle of the roundabout. Three spikes decorated with wave-like bursts of power – the monument was erected in 1975, and titled Anthem for Work.
The history of Elektrėnai began on 16 February 1959, when the Council of Ministers of the Lithuanian SSR created a state commission with the purpose of choosing the location for a new 1800 MW thermal power plant. The most economic solution they could find was placing the plant halfway between Kaunas and Vilnius.
Construction began in 1961, near the village of Lekaviciai. The River Streva was dammed, to form a cooling reservoir alongside the building site. Across the fields from Lekaviciai, the twelve homesteads of the neighbouring village of Perkūnkiemis were flooded. Several more villages, 140 homes in total, were similarly drowned beneath the water as the reservoir took shape, while connected to the power plant they built a new, modern city for its workers. On 19 April 1962, this new settlement was given a name: ‘Elektrėnai,’ derived from the Lithuanian word for ‘Electricity.’
Decades later, on 10 November 1999, Elektrėnai would be granted its own symbolic coat of arms. It chose a blue crest, featuring sparks and bolts of electricity in yellow. But the symbol had another meaning – the jagged lightning that divides the crest stood for the waters of the reservoir. The eight-pointed star beneath represented the region’s drowned villages, and the star above, the lights of the new city.
The Lithuanian Power Town
Elektrėnai was a city made to plan. Like other new Soviet cities – such as Pripyat, home for workers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant – it was designed to grow outwards in tessellating urban districts called microrayons. Each microrayon was a self-contained unit, typically featuring residential blocks arranged around a core of shops, parks and other public facilities.
The Elektrėnai city project was led by the architects B.Kasparavičienė and K.Bučas, and they opted for a style that was modern, but functional and subdued. Many of the residential blocks were built from panels, that could easily have been delivered to the site en masse. Only the subtlest stylistic touches were added to the otherwise spartan designs: electric bolt motifs decorating balconies, or etched into the walls of underpasses around the city. Whatever political symbols might once have accompanied these, would have since been removed in line with Lithuania’s law on decommunisation.
Amidst the mostly standard-issue architecture of central Elektrėnai, there are just a few eye-catching buildings that stand out – most notably, the white dome of the ice rink. Elektrėnai Ice Palace was designed by the architects A. Juseviciene and A. Domarackas, and opened in 1977. It was Lithuania’s first indoor winter sports arena, seated 2,000 spectators, and became the home arena of Elektrėnai’s own ice hockey team: SC Energija.
Sat beside the water on the edge of the city centre, the unique design of the Ice Palace’s domed roof – stylised and well-maintained – looks almost decadent here, against a backdrop of grey-brown panel blocks.
The other main architectural landmark of Elektrėnai, today, was never part of the original city plan. The Church of the Blessed Mary Queen of Martyrs was designed by architect Henrikas Šilgalis, and constructed from 1990-96. Like many places in the post-Soviet world, the newly independent Lithuania began reclaiming its identity with the creation of new churches – sometimes, as in this case, in new cities that had never seen one before. This Catholic church in Elektrėnai was a striking design, a towering presence in pure white – the only burst of colour coming from the Lithuanian flag hanging down its face. The six pillars and arch that form the facade are together said to represent Lithuania’s seven centuries of Christianity.
In her essay “1990–2000: The Architecture of Freedom,” Lithuanian architecture historian Marija Drėmaitė describes how the architects of post-Soviet Lithuania went through a decade of compensation, in which they attempted “to recover all they had been denied during the years of Soviet restrictions.” While many panel-block residential districts and former industrial cities saw the new addition of churches, those religious buildings were typically still modest in style, she says; “Given the overall economic situation and the rather conservative views of the principle client.” This made the extravagant new church in Elektrėnai something of an exception, and the city administration advertises it now as one of the must-see sights of Elektrėnai.
Even as new symbols are erected in the city, however, others are coming down… and soon the three chimneys that define Elektrėnai’s skyline will be gone.
The power plant itself is still alive and well: it’s busier than ever, in fact. When Lithuania joined the EU, one of the conditions was that they closed and decommissioned the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant – whose Soviet-built RBMK reactor was of the same type that had malfunctioned at the Chernobyl NPP. The Ignalina NPP had been the largest power plant in the Baltic States, and so when it closed in 2009, Lithuania went from exporting electricity to buying it in. As a result, Elektrėnai Power Plant became a crucial source for domestic electricity.
Out of eight power units in the plant (each of them operating a self-contained process, from boiler, to turbine, to generator, to transformer), the oil-fired Units 1-6 have already been decommissioned and dismantled, rendering their associated 250-metre chimneys redundant. Instead the plant has been transitioning to a more sustainable and efficient model, with the natural gas-burning Units 7 and 8 having been joined in 2012 by a new combined cycle unit with a 445 MW output.
The chimneys of Elektrėnai Power Plant are not the only defining Soviet-era structures that have failed to find a place in the city’s future. We were already driving away by the time we spotted it, but then we circled back for a closer look – where, not far from the Ice Palace, just poking above the tree-line, rose the tattered outline of an abandoned Ferris wheel.
Elektrėnai’s Abandoned Soviet Funfair
The entrance to the amusement park sat at the end of a wooded lane, just past some kind of police administrative building. The gate was locked, so that the only way in was to hop over the fence. I didn’t know Lithuania well enough to feel comfortable climbing over Keep Out signs within direct view of a police station… but when we saw a two-man television crew coming out, passing their camera and microphone one to the next as they climbed back over the fence, we decided this might be okay.
The park was named ‘Children’s World’ (‘Vaikų Pasaulis’), and it opened in 1986. Many of the rides were Soviet standards – the Ferris wheel, the carousel and spinning rocket ride were all models I was sure I’d seen before, here and there (though occasionally in a different colour scheme), in fairgrounds scattered across the former Soviet Union. The writing on many of the rides was in Cyrillic here; the ticket desk, for example, was labelled “КАСА.” However, in the back corner of the amusement park, perched above the twists and turns of a sprawling abandoned rollercoaster, was displayed a sign in English: “Jet Star 2.” According to local sources, the English sign was added post-independence: to reassure visitors that this was Western, not Soviet technology, to which they were trusting their lives. Strangely, hardly a word of Lithuanian appeared anywhere in the park, outside of more recent graffiti.
The Elektrėnai funfair ground to a halt in 2013, when it failed a safety inspection. Rather than pay for a full modernisation the city council opted to close it. Six years later (and just shortly after the photographs here were taken), the Ferris wheel was pulled down to be dismantled for scrap metal. The other rides will be next to go – with a plan, after that, to develop this space as a public park, with a café and amphitheatre.
Elektrėnai feels like a city caught on the cusp between two very different worlds. In its heyday it had a very clear identity: a model Soviet workers’ city, festooned with red flags and banners. Citizen-workers went to the Ice Palace, the reservoir beach, or later to the funfair, during their free time – but from almost every place in the city they could see the chimneys of their workplace. Those living in south-facing apartments would wake up to them.
These days Lithuania is independent, and Elektrėnai doesn’t have to be just a ‘power town’ any more; its citizens have more freedom than ever before. The chimneys are coming down, and the newest landmark on the horizon is dedicated not to Soviet engineering, but rather to Blessed Mary, Queen of Martyrs. The city’s Soviet-era funfair is being replaced by a new family park. However, whereas for older Lithuanian cities – Kaunas, Vilnius, and the rest – independence meant a chance to restore their former, pre-Soviet identities, Elektrėnai never had a “before.” It was designed as a Soviet city, its very DNA is Soviet… so once that Soviet identity is stripped away, it’s hard to tell what they’re left with here. The opportunity to build something new, perhaps; but until then this city feels pleasant enough, yet peculiarly adrift in time.
15 min – Elektrėnai Chimneys are a Symbol That Will Soon Become History
15 min – An Abandoned Amusement Park in Elektrėnai is a Place Where Time Has Stopped
15 min – The Ferris Wheel of the Abandoned Funfair in Elektrėnai Has Been Demolished
Arch Fondas – Lithuanian Modernism Lecture with Marija Drėmaitė and Vaidas Petrulis
Kathmandu & Beyond – Children’s World (Jet Star 2) Amusement Park in Elektrenai
MM Centras – 1990–2000: The Architecture of Freedom