ALF 06

Felix Ackermann - Analyzing Post-nuclear Urban Space



In this essay about Visaginas, I wish to give an insight into interdisciplinary urban studies as Applied Humanities. This specific understanding of cultural analysis has a double didactic core: on the one hand, the production of knowledge is seen not as the final outcome of urban studies, but as a process in which both academics and students participate. As I will show, this has consequences both for research design and reflections upon our own position in the empirical field. Through the description of the several steps of a prototypical project in the Applied Humanities, I will reflect on the empirical foundations and methodological challenges that we faced during several academic workshops and an international summer school on Sources of Urbanity, organized in Summer 2015.[1]

The city of Visaginas was founded as Sniečkus in 1975. Soviet planners designed it to serve as the satellite town to the nuclear power plant of Ignalina. Together with Siarhei Liubimau, Benjamin Cope and Miodrag Kuč, I carried out research in Visaginas on Sources of Urbanity. Together, my colleagues and me run the Laboratory of Critical Urbanism in Vilnius, a collaborative research unit based at the European Humanities University, a Belarusian university in Lithuanian exile.[2] We decided to move our research activities from Vilnius to Visaginas with because of its location at the border between Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus and the linguistic dimension of a mainly Russian everyday life corresponded well with our Russophone university.[3]

1. The City and Us: the political dimension of urban studies

It is possible to start reading the city just by confronting one’s own questions with the empirical surface of the urban space itself. Or to do it the other way around: To start by exploring an urban space and to formulate questions during a first phase of reflection. While different theoretical positions are taken about what should come first, in our practice it is usually a mix of both. Thus, most important for this initial phase seems to be the ability of a group to formulate questions as open as possible and to reflect upon the political context in which they arose.

In the case of the Laboratory of Critical Urbanism, there has been a longstanding interest in the discussion of statehood and changing modes to enact power in cities. We started looking into the case of Visaginas as a public infrastructure relevant not only directly for the running of an industrial power plant, but also as a means to ensure security and public goods provided by the Soviet center to the periphery. By asking how this relationship changes in the post 1990 period, I have learned much about the transformation of various forms of governance in Visaginas. It did transform from a former Empire towards a nation state and the creation of a municipality, which is supposed to take decisions on behalf of the citizens of Visaginas. To look beyond this transformation, we were interested in the perception of the future after the second nuclear plant block was switched off following the Lithuanian negotiations regarding the entrance into the European Union.[4]

2. Theoretical preparation: relating to academic discourses

In a preliminary phase we agreed that Lithuanian public spaces should at some point stop being referred to as post-socialist. While it is obvious that this cannot continue to be a convincing explanation ad infinitum, it is not clear when such a post-soviet space as Visaginas stops being perceived as such. In an Urban Studies Circle, we met in Vilnius in an academic environment in order to discuss the theoretical assumptions, which underlie this dilemma.[5]

A second issue relevant for our research is the understanding of Visaginas as a prototypical place is global modes of exclusion. Thus, we discussed in a Vilnius based Urban Studies Circle how, in post 2008 crisis Europe, various forms of civic, economic, political and social exclusions are interlinked. This is intriguing in regard to Visaginas, because most of the inhabitants, whose families often came to Lithuania from Soviet Russia or Ukraine, were granted citizenship. Being Lithuanian citizens they are formally included into the society. However, many of them feel excluded by socio-economic changes exacerbated by the closing of the Ignalina plant. Additionally in a first reserach we indicated a local sense of alienation from the Lithuanian municipality which is literally located outside of the circular center of Visaginas. Thus, the question how political participation is organized on the level of the municipality is highly relevant for our understanding of Visaginas.

A third theoretical issue stemmed from my earlier work on the relationship between the ethnicity expressed by certain social groups and the transformation of urban spaces in diverse societies. In a late modernist Soviet city there is no representation of a direct link between ethnicity and urban space beyond the symbolical usage of ethno-folklorist décor, but we can also observe attempts to publicly manage potential expressions of ethnicities, e.g. through the usage of different languages, alphabets and religions. [6] This is meaningful in an urban environment such as Visaginas, because of the tension between the town’s relevance as the russophone city in Lithuania and the various forms of expression of belonging employed by its inhabitants.

3. Contextualization: taking history and other social contexts into account

As a historical anthropologist, my part in the course of preparations was to create links which would allow participants to learn that Visaginas should be seen as a point in a web of similar towns and an example of late modernist planning. In this perspective the place can be seen as part of network of political, economical and academic actors with centralized decision-making powers in the Ministry of Midsize Industrial Plants in Moscow.

Another historical context is the architectural school of Soviet modernism. While today many inhabitants of Visaginas perceive their own urban space as suffering from inadequacies, it has some features of a perfect late Soviet town from the perspective of urban planners and architects.[7]

4. Empirical exploration: the city as public space

Some of the ways to explore Visaginas seem rather obvious and simple, but it is crucial to combine them with the already mentioned and following steps of contextualization, conceptualizing and reflection. The actual exploration of the urban space, and the various ways in which it is produced in everyday communication by its inhabitants shall, at this stage, become the core of how we learn in the city.

In these times of mobile devices, cars and drones, at the laboratory we promote a rather old school version of this exploration: on foot. To walk around as a flaneur, as the 20th century thinker Walter Benjamin did in Paris and Moscow, is just one way to do it. In fact, it could also be based on a spontaneous shopping spree at the local market place. If you find out, as in Visaginas, that the market is rarely open, you may consider visiting the main shopping mall, because only there you will find a pizzeria called “III Block”. On the way you may notice a particular interrelation between late modernist architecture and the forest, still present as trees in the middle of pavements and public walkways. Thus, just by walking from the market at the northern periphery of Visaginas to the center, we learned that the Soviet pathway of Sedulino gatvė is still an artery of everyday communication – despite a growing number of cars in 21st century Visaginas. On the other hand, some of the functions of Sedulino gatvė seem also to have changed. So, one group started to work particularly on the pedestrian street as a specific public space.

Even with all the context, the questions and your attempt to reflect upon all you have seen, you better consider to ask inhabitants about their vision of the space you are interested in. What does it mean for them? How do they call it? Did it change strongly? And what may be the relevant problems from the perspective of the person you are talking to? This way of asking general, open questions may work with a pedestrian, a shop owner, bureaucrats or policemen – it will enhance your knowledge about the local configuration of urban space under one particular condition: you should not just be just asking questions, but also listen to what the person actually says and how it is said.

When we walked around in Visaginas, the question of languages seemed of particular relevance to our understanding of the town, because it turned out that almost everybody in town speaks Russian fluently and was willing to talk in Russian. But, after talking to the inhabitants of Visaginas, we found out that in local everyday life language is not a key issue. Thus, we followed other lines of investigation brought up by inhabitants. Among them were the future of the abandoned houses in Festivalio gatvė next to the market place and the historical heritage of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant.

In this empirical part, it is important to keep a good balance between preplanned walking and a rather uncontrolled search mode, when the inner intuition of the researcher is used to follow issues which seem intriguing at the spot.

5. Mapping: Analysis, conceptualizing, formulation of hypothesis

The members of the Laboratory of Critical Urbanism understand mapping as a process of gathering and organizing empirical information in a collective way. The map in this academic practice is seen less as a final result, than as a temporary tool, which allows one to share and communicate ideas during project work. The visualization of ideas is an important part of the translation of different understandings between specialists from various disciplines taking part in the endeavor.[8]

The groups created in Visaginas worked each in a rather different mode of mapping – depending on the configuration of participants, the academic interest of the tutor and the needs of the covered question.[9] We decided to give some direction in advance as we proposed in a Call for Participants, but also to leave space for maneuver on the spot. Thus, there were two groups dealing with Sedulino gatvė in different ways. One was collecting and further developing ideas of how to enhance this public zone, e.g. with a flee market or a Visaginas post-nuclear radio station called „Radio-Active”. The second interviewed shop owners and pedestrians about their vision of the functions of several sections of the pedestrian walkway. As a result they developed a large-scale table game which could be played with the inhabitants of Visaginas in public.

The group working on abandoned buildings created a different public game. Pedestrians were asked to mark their way through the city center by answering several questions. Both games functioned as situational sociological research tool weaving together different opinions in a symbolic community. And in a similar token a fourth group created a set of historical brands referring to layers of remembrance in Sniečkus, alias Visaginas, and Ignalina. Instead of confronting the pedestrians in Sedulino gatvė with ready mades, they were asked to participate in the creation of new signs relating to the past of nuclear power.

The way in which each group developed in Visaginas its own interpretation of what mapping might look like was documented on the spot in a small brochure put out in Russian and English. It was conceived of as a medium to communicate some assumptions of our research, to formulate working hypothesizes and to communicate some ideas back to the inhabitants of Visaginas. The production was organized on the spot by Steffen Schuhmann, a professor for visual design at Kunsthochschule Berlin Weißensee. It was not thought of as a highly polished printing product, but rather as short term documentation for local use. The need to print it before the final public intervention put all participants in the situation to quickly sharpen their ideas and to state them very briefly in two languages – one rather as the lingua franca of Visaginas and the other as the academic tool of communication among the participants.

6. Intervention in public

As we planned from the very beginning to interact with our interview and project partners in the urban space of Visaginas in order to communicate some of our observations, conclusions and ideas, a simple question arose: What is public in a city which has lost many of its prior functions and which is perceived as a hot spot of problems in urban Lithuania? The search for a good option and a fitting place for the participatory phase of our mapping Visaginas project was part of a larger learning process.

The participants learned during the two weeks in Visaginas how the central Hotel Aukštaitija was, on the one hand, fully privatized by an investor who tries to survive economically and also how it continues to provide a broad range of public functions on the ground floor – including shops, a tourist agency, a hairdresser and a public gallery specializing in Armenian contemporary art. We had lunches in the House of Creation, a former school building which has changed its function and is now responsible for the organization of activities for children and young people Visaginas. It is still a publicly funded spot for all inhabitants of Visaginas and was identified by us among other institutions as one of the places, where the sources of urbanity are located.

Legally there is a very strict definition of what is public. And the regulations in Visaginas are taken care of by the municipality according to Lithuanian laws. As we planned to interact with inhabitants during a final presentation in the pedestrian zone of Sedulino gatvė, we made sure to register the event. This procedure itself became part of the research process, through which we learned how complicated it is to officially register a mapping activity legally. The responsible person in the municipality, Mrs. Zajankovskaja, was very helpful in overcoming a broad range of official requirements. Before we received a written permission, we had to meet several officials, collect stamps and fill in forms. Finally, we received the paper and in the process had learned that what looks slightly in decay to a newcomer, actually is a highly regulated and even contested urban space.                   

At the core of all four groups’ interaction in public was the ability of the participants to speak to the inhabitants of Visaginas, to explain their ideas and to listen to what their counterpart wanted to say. We were surprised how many people use the Sedulino pedestrian street and how open most of them were to our invitations to participate in a small game, to interact over a particular question or to design their own nuclear sign. The group working on nuclear heritage within a very short period became a popular design studio for the scooters of Visaginas kids. And the simulation of small-scale businesses on Sedulino gatvė was a hot spot for local discussion about the future, as was the case for the group asking about abandoned buildings. The radio-active group succeeded in initiating a flying flea-market and many inhabitants were rather surprised that this could work even in front of one of the central abandoned buildings.

During our final street intervention a member of the city council contacted us and asked for an official representative of the European Humanities University. He in fact planned to invite the Belarusian university in Lithuanian exile to move from Vilnius to Visaginas. We understood this proposal as a kind of recognition, that our research question about sources of urbanity was firstly well put and that secondly it had been understood by the inhabitants of Visaginas, who now explained to us that academia itself would be an option for the future of the town. We also liked the idea that a Russophone university would be located in the very east of Lithuania, not far from the border with the Republic of Belarus and asked the entrepreneur to draft an official letter to the university council. This was done by the vice mayor of Visaginas, who sent an official letter of gratitude for our work and once again invited EHU to consider moving to Visaginas. Although the university council officially decided not to accept the invitation, we saw this as an empirical outcome of our research in Visaginas. As a lesson for future research, I would propose to include small anecdotes like this one into the range of empirical findings, because they tell us something about the meaning of academic research to those to whom we direct our research interests.

7. Reflection

It is crucial to make a final round of reflections a regular final part of the research process. The easiest way to put the question is: what have we actually learned from the urban exploration for ourselves beyond the narrow aim of the project? What was the impact for our own imagination of how urban spaces function? Did our involvement change the terms in which these processes are described? How did our own relationship vis-à-vis the subject and political implications of our project change? What are open issues that we did not manage too fully address in the course of the project?[10]

I learned from Visaginas that there is a possibility to include Russian-speaking citizens symbolically into the European Union and go beyond a narrative of exclusion just based on the language spoken in everyday life. I was also surprised by the dual meaning of speaking Russian: in Visaginas it is not perceived to be a problematic practice by most actors, because almost all inhabitants have Lithuanian citizenship. At the same time, many subunits of the municipality are run by ethnic Lithuanians, who do not reside in the city, but rather in the larger surrounding region. This duality is also palpable in the fact that most institutions in Visaginas function in Russian, but formally they have to be documented in Lithuanian. During the period of our research, it was challenged by a local political force, which deliberately declared “Visaginas is ours” without referring to the issue of language, ethnicity and citizenship at all.


Felix Ackermann, Laboratory of Critical Urbanism, European Humanities University, Vilnius

Felix Ackermann is a historian and anthropologist trained in cultural and political studies at European University Viadrina and London School of Economics and Political Science. In Frankfurt (Oder) he defended in 2008 a PhD about ethnicity and urban space in the 20th century. An edited version was published as Palimpsest Grodno in 2010. From 2008–2011, he was head of the Geschichtswerkstatt Europa funding program at the Institute for Applied History in Frankfurt (Oder). From 2011–2016, he was DAAD associate professor for Applied Humanities at European Humanities University in Vilnius, where he also taught at Vilnius University’s History Department. In Lithuania, he focused on the spatial dimension of knowledge production in different academic disciplines dealing with urban spaces. Co-Editor of a Mapping Post-Socialist Urban Spaces book series published by the Laboratory of Critical Urbanism at Vilnius Art Academy. In 2016, he became research fellow at the German Historical Institute Warsaw, where he is currently writing a history of imprisonment in Lithuania and Poland during the period of the partitions.

[1] The results of the Summer school have been published as second volume of a Mapping Central- and Eastern European Urban Spaces series: Felix Ackermann, Benjamin Cope and Siarhei Liubimau (eds.): Mapping Visaginas: Sources of Urbanity in a former Monofunctional Town, VDA-Publishing house, Vilnius 2016.

[2] Find more information about European Humanities University:, 1.4.2017.

[3] The Laboratory of Critical Urbanism online:, 1.4.2017.

[4] Felix Ringel: Differences in Temporal Reasoning: Local Temporal Complexity and Generational Clashes in an East German Town, in: FOCAAL European Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology, (66) 2013, S. 25-35.

[5] Saskia Sassen: Expulsions Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy, Harvard 2014.

[6]  Felix Ackermann: Miestas kaip palimpsestas. Istorijos skaitymo ir rašymo vyksmas Gardine, in: Vasilijus Safronovas (ed.): Erdvių pasisavinimas Rytų Prūsijoje XX amžiuje. Acta Historica Universitatis Klaipedensis, vol XXIV, Klaipėda 2012, p. 272–286.

[7] Marija Dremaites: Baltic Modernism. Architecture and Housing in Soviet Lithuania. Berlin 2017.

[8] Felix Ackermann, Benjamin Cope, Miodrag Kuč: Five Dimensions of Mapping, in: Mapping Vilnius. Transitions of post-socialist urban spaces, Vilnius 2016, pp. 19–32.

[10] Felix Ackermann: Language, Discipline and Practice. The Chances and Limitations of Multidisciplinary Groupwork in a transnational setting, in: Mapping Vilnius. Transitions of post-socialist urban spaces, Vilnius 2016, pp. 275–292.