From Pioneers to Target Group: Social Change, Ethnicity and Memory in a Lithuanian Nuclear Power Plant Community

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis (monograph)


This thesis focused on an examination of human agency and strategies for responding to rapid social and economic change. Fieldwork was carried out in the community of Visaginas town that was built during the Soviet period in Lithuania. The town is situated next to the Ignalina nuclear power plant. The majority of the town's inhabitants are Russians who immigrated to Lithuania from other areas of the Soviet Union in the 1970s-1980s to work on the construction of the nuclear power plant and the settlement, and, later at the plant.

A condition for Lithuanias membership into the EU was to halt the production of nuclear power from this plant which is considered a "Chernobyl" type plant. Thus, in accordance with international agreements, the plant, which is the major employer of local population, must be stopped by 2010. The people in Visaginas are profoundly affected by the structural changes related with the break up of the Soviet Union and the decommissioning of the Ignalina nuclear power plant: the country they came from and worked for no longer exists; and the nuclear power plant, the institution which provides many of Visaginas inhabitants with employment is to be decommissioned.

The main research questions examined in this thesis are the following: What happens to a community, which was considered to be the very embodiment of the achievements of a social, economic, political system, when this system collapses; and, how do members of a formerly elite community experience and adjust to the demise of the structures that were of key importance in their lives?

The thesis has nine chapters. In the first chapter the theoretical background of the study, as well as site under study are introduced. The theoretical background of the thesis includes the anthropological theories and studies of socialism and post-socialism or East Central Europe, anthropological studies of decline, studies of deindustrialization and unemployment, studies of Russians and Russian speaking population in the post-Soviet space.

The second chapter discusses methodological aspects of the fieldwork, the organization of the fieldwork and presents an overview of main data obtained while conducting anthropological fieldwork in Visaginas between 2000-2004.

The third chapter aims at an analysis of Visaginas community as a social unit. My analysis focuses on the different social groupings in the community as perceived by different actors. The contestation and maintenance of the boundaries between different social groups in Visaginas points to certain criteria of stratification of the community, and provides an understanding of the ways the social world is constructed by different actors.

The fourth chapter analyses how informants construct their past and the present, how social memory is articulated by different informants. Memory is important in understanding the ways informants interpret and experience the post-Soviet transformations.

The fifth chapter focuses on subjective interpretations of the Ignalina nuclear power plant decommissioning by inhabitants of Visaginas. The chapter takes into consideration the broader public discussions on Ignalina nuclear power plant closure. The issues of "risk" construction were examined since formally the plant is being closed due to its "Chernobyl" type construction which is considered unsafe.

The sixth chapter focuses on ethnic processes in Visaginas in the post-Soviet period. This is another important social dimension in understanding peoples experiences and responses to the demise of the key structures.

The seventh chapter examines civic identities and the linkages kept by members of different generations with their (historic/ethnic) homelands. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, people in Visaginas found themselves separated by new borders from their countries of origin and relatives. An examination of the ways the informants in Visaginas conceptualize their sense of belonging to some political community(ies) is important to understanding their strategies for resisting possible unemployment after the Ignalina nuclear power plant closure.

The eighth chapter focuses on the ways different social actors interpret and adapt to socio-economic transformations. This focus of my research reveals the variety of strategies employed by individuals, as well as leading to a discussion of certain aspects of how the self is conceptualized and located in the broader power structure and how this influences the strategies individuals employ.

Finally, chapter nine summarizes the findings and suggests possible directions for future research. It is argued that the case study of Visaginas makes some contribution to the anthropology of socialism and post-socialism, the anthropology of de-industrialization and decline, to our understanding of impact of such grand projects and ideologies as modernization, "building of communism" on humans lives, and lastly, contributes to studies of the Russian-speaking population in post-Soviet space.


  • Kristina Sliavaite
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Social Anthropology


  • Sociala problem, Ignalina nuclear power plant, Deindustrialization, post-socialism, East Central Europe, ethnicity, collective memory, social change, Russian speaking population, decline, modernization, migration, enclave, risk, social insecurity, uncertainty, national insurance, Social problems and welfare, social välfärd, socialförsäkring, Cultural anthropology, ethnology, Kulturantropologi, etnologi
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Supervisors/Assistant supervisor
Award date2005 Nov 25
  • Department of Sociology, Lund University
Print ISBNs91-7267-202-1
Publication statusPublished - 2005
Publication categoryResearch

Bibliographic note

Defence details Date: 2005-11-25 Time: 10:15 Place: Palaestra, Lund University External reviewer(s) Name: Hann, Chris Title: Prof. Dr., Director Affiliation: Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle ---