Lithuania’s Chernobyl, zombie-town, and other derogatory terms are often used to describe the town of Didžiasalis near the Belarusian border in Lithuania’s northeast. In a town where you can buy an apartment for a few thousand euros, or even get one for free, residents are keen to see the image improve.
Didžiasalis has already lived through its golden age. A Soviet-era brick factory with a workforce of over a thousand used to draw labourers from across the country and even from Belarus.
“Everything revolved around the factory,” said Didžiasalis chief councillor, Antanas Pauliukėnas. Back then, to be allocated a flat in the town was a much sought-after luxury.
Everything changed after Lithuania’s independence. The factory soon went bankrupt and the railway connecting Didžiasalis to the capital Vilnius had to be taken apart, because it crossed the post-Soviet border with Belarus.
As more and more people were leaving, apartments remained empty.
“The city started to shrink naturally, there were no more jobs,” Pauliukėnas says.
As one passes through Ignalina, with its own Chernobyl-like decommissioned nuclear power plant nearby, the stream of cars thins down. Before reaching Didžiasalis, a sign informs you’re entering the border area and carrying an ID is a must.
Soon there appear clustered summer homes. Some of them are abandoned, with tree branches weighed down by unpicked apples. The view changes as one approaches the central square – a renovated sports ground and surrounding pathways contrast with empty apartment blocs standing nearby and dark windows of abandoned homes criss-crossed with tape.
“Many legends are told about us. I’ve heard that we’re even called Chernobyl. It really hurts when people say it’s a zomby town,” says Oksana, a resident on the way home with her son.
She moved to Didžiasalis 10 years ago after her husband lost his job in Vilnius. With four children, receiving an apartment was easy – she got one for free from her friend who moved closer to the capital.
“Apartments that come with [utility] debts are cheap,” she says. “But there are also instances when apartments are handed over for free, because the owners go live somewhere abroad.”
Now, she’s happy about the lush greenery surrounding the city, and the school has also been renovated. “A few years ago, they renovated everything,” she says, “we’re good here.”
Chief councillor Pauliukėnas says most apartment blocks, now with glaring black crevices where windows once stood, were once inhabited. To save on administration and upkeep costs, he says, the council “took the decision to move people [from the half empty] apartments blocks”.
After consentrating residents in fewer buildings, Didžiasalis became infamous for its stock of abandoned houses.
However, Pauliukėnas blames the media for the poor image that the town has.
“This image was created by the media, although there was definitely one point when asocial people were being brought here from larger cities,” he says.
With this wave of people who came for cheap apartments, “the media attention increased and the label stuck,” he says.
According to the chief councillor, Didžiasalis received over 800,000 euros from EU funds several years ago for renovations, which improved the town’s appearance.
The town’s gymnasium, a top-tier high school in Lithuania's education system, is the biggest pride of the town, according to Pauliukėnas. “Our children take part in sports, win national prizes, and there are things to do.”
However, a lack of jobs, but also a lack of labour, plagues the town. “We will never reach a big-city level, high tiers in business, simply because we have no potential workers left,” he says. “I think [Didžiasalis] will become a peacefull, semi-resort town.”