ATOMIC CITIES AND ANALOGUE DREAMS
By Dr Leila Dawney
Senior Lecturer, School of Environment and Technology
University of Brighton
To walk inside the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant is to encounter the technological sublime: the life-giving and life-destroying power of the reactors permeates the dials of the control room; the honeycomb of the reactor chamber floor, the vastness of the turbine hall. These magisterial spaces are testimony to Soviet ambition: the Ignalina plant, had the ill-fated third reactor been built, would have been the largest in the Soviet Union.
Atomic cities, such as Visaginas, are the material manifestation of the planned economy: founded in 1975, Sniečkus, as Visaginas was then known, was a model socialist town designed in the “butterfly” model as a campus-style community radiating outward from the power plant. In the essay “Planning the City of Socialist Man”, J.C. Fisher discusses how such towns were designed to showcase the promise of the Soviet project: as new towns built on a tabula rasa, they acted as spatial strategies for the production of socialist subjectivities and forms of life, through the standardisation of housing, the production of common spaces and a central focus of industrial labour[i]. These cities, planned often at the far reaches of the Union, served an ideological function to integrate such spaces into the broader Soviet project, through providing proleletarianising urbanised, industrial, migrant labour and by offering models of ideal socialist communities. As Balockaite points out, these planned workers’ towns “created, both discursively and materially, the socialist working class in previously rural areas” [ii] and offered high living standards as a means of both producing and showcasing socialist values and ideals, producing “everyday moral communities of socialism”[iii]. Visaginas’ largely Russian speaking population, largely migrants from other areas of the Soviet Union at the time of the town’s genesis and to a certain extent the chosen beneficiaries of Soviet economic planning, certainly orientate historically towards the Soviet Union rather than Lithuania, and are highly suspicious of contemporary Russia.
In the West, of course, the values and forms of subjectivity embodied through these spatial strategies have been treated with suspicion and fear. In the new Europe, the nuclear promise of Visaginas and its Soviet past is more a problematic history to be dealt with than a source of hope. This has led to “dissonance heritage”: in Visaginas there is a space between official attempts to forget and revise its history (through a reclaiming of presocialist history and religion, emphasis on the natural environment and the promotion of Visaginas as a young and lively city) and the quotidian ways through which an affective and embodied investment in nuclear power and socialist modes of living and placemaking live on, and form the fabric of identity in the face of a now futureless existence[iv]. The lack of recognition of its Soviet past, or the centrality of the power plant to livelihood and community in official tourism accounts of Visaginas works in effect to deny the inhabitants of the town their own histories, and works to position such forms of attachment (to nuclear power and to socialism) as shameful, in much the same way as some practices of communist era “dark tourism”[v], effectively taints the life histories of those who devoted life and labour to the Soviet project, and who held onto its - albeit failed - promise.
This project tells a different story of Visaginas – it aims to do justice to lives lived; to a history and a present where nuclear power is enmeshed through the town. Refusing to erase those histories, or treat the town through a dark tourism gaze as communist spectacle, it makes visible and celebrates both the aesthetic lure of the plant and its imbrication in the bodies of those who live in Visaginas. Visaginas is an atomic city: its monoindustry weaves its way through playgrounds where children climb on sub-atomic particles; through the pipes that “used our bodies to cool the reactors”; through the coming together of bodies to remember colleagues lost in the Chernobyl disaster and to feel connected to the danger and the promise of their work. The story of Visaginas is a familiar tale of post-industrial loss, yet atomic cities are not haunted with the romanticism of other landscapes of post-industrial decline. The nuclear worker, unlike the coal miner, holds no value as figure of universal labour; no commonly held history of struggle and collective belonging that can be mobilised as a means of shoring up the past in the absence of a future. Nuclear workers carry with them the miasma of contamination; the spectre of Chernobyl. The Geiger counter is never far away.
In the context of regimes of abandonment and forgetting, there is a need to attend to experience and lived history, to the dreams and hopes that were worked for; and to the sense of loss that emerges when those dreams do not come to fruition. There is a need to listen to people and tell different stories from those official accounts that produce dissonance rather than resonation with lives lived. The story of the first nuclear age is told here in a way that recognises both its role in the making of livelihoods and domestic life and its awesome and sublime power. Yet these images are no more apologists than critics. They simply tell different stories.
In refusing to conform to dominant modes of representations of communist architecture, this collection of photographs continually seduces then denies received spectatorial framings. While these images indeed offer a certain promise towards atompunk fantasies through the analogue switches of the power station, the telephones and dials of the control room, and the Brutalist concrete of the Ignalina’s welcome sign/monument , they never fail to remind us of the making of such spectacles. The landscapes of Visaginas are inhabited, cared for, always remaining. The viewer is drawn into voyeuristic fantasies that draw on the guilty pleasures of “decay porn”, so widely circulated in images of post-industrial Detroit, for example, or into delighting in the material remainders of the decline and fall of empires that accompanies a post-Soviet aesthetic nostalgia[vi] , then reminded once again that Visaginas is no ruin, but a lived space.
Highly visible conduits link the plant to the town – overground pipelines, power cables and roads make the indivisibility of people and plant apparent. These infrastructural routes follow lines of human and material activity as charged particles, hot water and fatigued bodies move between Ignalina and Visaginas. In moving between plant and town, between community spaces and the reactor chamber, these images both reveal theimbrication of human and technology in Visaginas, but also ensure that the spectatorial regimes that call on us to marvel at the technological sublime are interrupted through the humanity that enters the frame. The planned model town incorporates spaces for living as well as working, and we move between hotels, gymnastic centres, apartment blocks and the power plant. Human activity is everywhere - the control room chair has a coat thrown on it, and mothers push prams along the wooded paths of the campus-like residential areas. The inhabitants of this atomic town meet our gaze from behind their hotel desks, from turbine halls and boxing gyms, refusing to be incorporated into controlling fantasies of contamination, decay and decline.
Visaginas, then, is about a failure to fit into standard framings or representations of what the story should look like. And it is this failure, this gap between expectation and the world as lived through which we witness the relationship between the monumental and the everyday: we see it in the cheerful poses of decommissioning workers in the unspeakably vast turbine hall, in the overground pipelines that bridge the road. And it is these spaces between the monumental and the everyday that different, more compelling stories can be told. Tracing the human relations, affective energies, sensate worlds of hope, loss, love and endurance through these spaces call for new modes of engaging. Moving through public spaces, the photographs present us with the places where life is made liveable: the boxing gym, the gymnastics centre, the playground and the bottle-strewn forest. And in telling these different stories, different responses can be elicited too. If we are to respond to the stories of others with sustained engagement, rather than outrage, pity, resentment or sympathy – if we are to generate lines of connection rather than drawing lines of otherness, to draw in the spectator and ask her to stay awhile, if we wish the visual to be a space within which to reside, to be with, rather than a space to observe - we need this sort of storytelling. The monumental attracts us initially – but it is the everyday that makes us stay awhile.
[i] Jack C Fisher, 'Planning the City of Socialist Man', Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 28/4 (1962), 251-65.
[ii] Rasa Balockaite, 'Coping with the Unwanted Past in Planned Socialist Towns: Visaginas, Tychy, and Nowa Huta', Slovo, 24/1 (2012), 41-60. Pp45-6.
[iii] Hann C, Humphrey C, and Verdery K, 'Introduction: Post-Socialism as a Topic of Anthropological Investigation', in C Hann (ed.), Postsocialism (London: Routledge, 2002), 1-28. P10.
[iv] Balockaite, 'Coping with the Unwanted Past in Planned Socialist Towns: Visaginas, Tychy, and Nowa Huta'
[v] Alison Stenning, 'The Transformation of Life, Work and Community in Post-Socialist Europe: A Westerner Studies Nowa Huta', Geographica Polonica, 78/1 (2005), 9-22, Duncan Light, 'Gazing on Communism: Heritage Tourism and Post-Communist Identities in Germany, Hungary and Romania', Tourism Geographies, 2/2 (2000/01/01 2000), 157-76, Britta Timm Knudsen, 'The Past as Staged-Real Environment: Communism Revisited in the Crazy Guides Communism Tours, Krakow, Poland', Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change, 8/3 (2010/09/01 2010), 139-53.
[vi] Owen Hatherley, The Landscapes of Communism: A History through Buildings ([London]: Allen Lane, 2015) -.