Visaginas: Post-Soviet Scenes from a Lithuanian Planned Utopia

In October 2015, I spent a few weeks exploring the Baltic States. On one particular afternoon, while staying in Daugavpils, Latvia, I decided to make a day trip over the border to Visaginas.

Visaginas is a curious place. It sits in the northeast corner of Lithuania, squashed up against the borders of Belarus and Latvia in a patchwork landscape of lakes and marshes. It is a predominantly Russian-speaking city, an unusual phenomenon in the proudly independent Lithuania – but what makes it really interesting, is what Visaginas can tell us about Chernobyl.

Visaginas was established in 1975, to house the workers from the nearby Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant; just as Pripyat had been established in 1970 for the workers of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Both Visaginas and Pripyat followed the same model of the socialist planned town, the Soviet urban utopia. The population was divided between different micro-districts, each one with access to its own schools, shops, hospital and parks. Tellingly, many of the apartment blocks were built with no allowance for private parking – residents wouldn’t need their own cars, with important public facilities all within walking distance, and a regular shuttle bus running between the micro-districts and the nearby nuclear power plant.

In 1986, however, the two cities would embark on very different paths. The Chernobyl accident caused the city of Pripyat to be evacuated in haste, leaving an empty, radiation-soaked ghost town in its wake. Visaginas, on the other hand, was allowed to evolve. Roads were widened, car parks were added to residential complexes, and political monuments were systematically torn down to be replaced with the posters, flyers and billboards of a capitalist republic.

I decided to share these following photographs in black and white – an unusual move for me – but I felt that these stark grayscale images would serve to better disguise the passing of time, and thus invite a reading of Visaginas as per its original design.

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