Post-nuclear identity: how did one person tell a story of a town?

Probably everyone now knows where is Pripyat – thanks to the fantastic HBO produced television miniseries Chernobyl, the interest into this city has reached the zenith. But what did you hear about Visaginas?

Photos in the text are made by photographer Neringa Rekašiūtė from the exhibition Post-Nuclear Identity and from the art residence.

The town in the east of Lithuania has started to rise in 1975, situated 7 kilometres from the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant (INPP). People from other Lithuanian cities as well as from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus have come to live and work there. Most of them worked in the construction of the INPP or once it started to operate. Some of them are now dismantling this INPP until, as they say, only the green lawn remains.
I wrote only the A and Z of the town, but there were more events that inspired this post. After Lithuania had restored its independence, Visaginas became sort of an awkward town. “There are so many Russians here, a real Soviet land”, and I even heard jokes five years ago, when I came to study to Vilnius, about the people in Visaginas that glow from radiation.
In the end, this narrative has formed the image of a decoupled, alien, cold town that is stuck in time. Don’t be surprised that the local self-government did not organise mega-image campaigns that would radically change the representation of this town. The budgets are not the same as in the battles of the big players.
It is likely that I would still be explaining to those around me that no, the national language of Visaginas is not Russian; no, there is no radioactive dust floating in the air and so on if not for the true face of Visaginas and its post-nuclear identity, revealed by the photographer Neringa Rekašiūtė. To me, the forever in the heart citizen of Visaginas and a young communication specialist, the photo stories of Neringa became the best example of how one person, a hyped city ambassador, can create the best (and the sincerest!) advertisement for a town. More on this in the interview with Neringa below, which you reached already knowing a little bit about Visaginas.

What image of Visaginas did you have before you first got off at its train station? What has shaped it the most?
Visaginas on my mental map was a gloomy, apocalyptic, empty town, alien and unknown concept. The image of the town was mostly shaped by the silence that has surrounded it – I did not know anyone from Visaginas and I was familiar with the folklore jokes about the people glowing in the dark. I also heard about the drug addiction problem, pro Russianism and unfriendliness to Lithuania – these stereotypes came from the media and the surroundings, so the picture of the town was really not so good. However, after I got off the train in Visaginas for the first time, I saw a completely different view. It was a town of intelligent people, quite exotic with its architecture (no private houses; surrounded with forest and lakes), very comfortable for staying and incredibly inspiring – both anthropologically and sociologically! And very photogenic.
So you found the town to be completely different from what you have expected. What thoughts did this mismatch bring?
The mismatch of that image in my mind and the reality of Visaginas has forced me to ask very basic questions – why did I have those images, where did these stereotypes come from? This has really helped me to start telling about Visaginas to others. I felt a great sense to share this because I personally experienced this transformation. Preconceptions are very dangerous as well as very restrictive for our experiences and the vision of the world. I wish to live in a society that is open and curious.

After the restoration of independence, Visaginas has become like decoupled from Lithuania – sort of an undesirable Soviet legacy. What mistakes from this period should the state prevent from making again, for example, when it comes to the situation in the Vilnius district?
I keep repeating this example and recently wrote about it in an article in The Guardian: last September I presented my exhibition “Post-Nuclear Identity” to Estonian President in Narva, Estonia. Narva is very similar to Visaginas, only bigger and indeed bordering with Russia. The city has similar problems, but the solutions to them vary greatly from state to state. The President of Estonia and her cabinet moved their residence to Narva for a month. During that month, the Head of State had meetings with many local organisations and people, attended events and thus, sent a message: you are our citizens and you are important to us. It is needed to join the more marginalized groups and not to turn away from them or pretend they do not exist. Humanitarian leadership and strategic long-term vision are needed.
Nevertheless, it is important to mention that the image of Visaginas has improved in the last three years. Therefore, it is important to not forget this and exploit it.
When living in Visaginas, you have started to show and at the same time form on your social networks a very different view of this town: not an alien and detached but more as a multicultural, open and inviting to learn. What inspired you to do this?
As I have mentioned before, it was to my own surprise after I discovered Visaginas to be completely different than I have imagined. Also, the desire to tell about the charming and peaceful rhythm of life not in Vilnius, but in a province, which people from the Old Town of the capital still see negatively. More and more young professionals I know move from cities to smaller towns. We talk about how wonderful it is for the soul. However, the people around are very sceptical about this kind of moving, asking is there anything to do down there. Well, I was told the same thing, the people around me saw it as a crazy decision – for many it is equivalent to social suicide. And the truth is that when living in a smaller town you have more qualitative rather than quantitative relationships and experiences.

Post-Nuclear Identity – your unique photo story of Visaginas. What do you think this project firstly gave the citizens?
It is probably not for me to decide; you should ask the residents of Visaginas. However, as far as I know from talking to especially the local youth – everyone said that this project gave faith that even in Visaginas incredible things can be created and inspired the feeling of being proud of your city. The citizens have also mentioned that I inspired them with this project. This is the biggest victory I could have imagined.
You can be boldly called the ambassador of Visaginas! What advice would you give to those cities which identity in the public space is still hazy? How to tell the story of a town when you do not have the budget with five zeroes for an advertising campaign?
You have to tell your own story because the town body consists of such individual stories. And overall, it is much more interesting, fluent and more convincing to talk about what you know best – yourself. Act local, think global – this is my credo and advice to others.

And how, in your opinion, should the residents who left it, especially the young generation, be involved in shaping the future of the town?
When organising the Post-Nuclear Identity, I involved the local youth – both Russians and Lithuanians. Everyone had a common goal – to welcome the guests of the town and exhibition and to show them this unique world. We can involve others by being open, brave, showing how to be responsible and not shunning leadership. This does not happen overnight – it is a long-lasting job that takes many years. When educating brave young people, we will create the continuum of change. It would be great to have more young creators and entrepreneurs in small towns. Nothing is so inspiring as personal stories!
What kind of Visaginas would you like to discover after getting off at its train station five years later? Who should take the responsibility to prevent the sparks of the city fading off: local self-government, existing or former citizens of Visaginas, government, that finally remembered the regional policy?
I would love to discover a town with the residence of the artists in tree houses; where well-rounded nuclear tours are happening, as well as active leisure activities; where nuclear SPA centres are built. I really believe in Visaginas and for it to come true, the help of all listed players is needed!

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