Lithuania has been free from the Soviet Union for more than 30 years. However, it’s inevitable that some evidence of its decades under the USSR remains. Furthermore, Lithuania doesn’t completely reject the relics of its Soviet past—though it does reject any notion that it belonged willingly or even legally to the Soviet Union. Many Soviet sites in Lithuania remind us of that.
Architectural and other elements of Soviet-era Lithuania serve as a reminder of a past under an occupying regime as well as acceptance of that past reality. To erase everything from the Soviet era would also be to erase, at times, the accomplishments or forms of expression of Lithuanians unfortunate enough to have to live under that regime.
It might also be to erase the reminder of the fight for Lithuanian independence and the coming together of people and even nations to break free from Soviet Russia.
Finally, many Soviet-era buildings continue to serve their original or an alternative purpose and add to the architectural landscape that Lithuanian cities have cultivated over the centuries!
Vilnius and Beyond
Our “tour” of Soviet sites in Lithuania starts in its capital city, Vilnius. Eventually, we’ll visit Soviet sites outside of Vilnius. However, if Vilnius is your first stop on your journey through Lithuania (or the only stop in the country that you make when you travel in the Baltic countries), Vilnius offers plenty of Lithuanian Soviet sites to give you an understanding of 20th-century history in this country.
Let’s learn a little more about how the USSR made an impact on Lithuania, what remnants of the Soviet era still remain, and what these Soviet sites in Lithuania can tell us about this time in history through the lens of the southernmost Baltic country. You may just want to put them on your list of things to do in Lithuania when you visit.
Lithuanian Soviet Sites in Vilnius
The KGB Museum
Likely the most important Soviet-era site in Vilnius is the KGB Museum. Not just a museum, the building was once the KGB headquarters. The grisly history of the building has been preserved, right down to interrogation chambers.
The history of this building’s use for torture, imprisonment, and a headquarters for people in power dates to before the Soviet regime. Located centrally on Gediminas Ave., Vilnius’ main drag, it’s a convenient locus for displays of power and authority. The building was used by Germans in WWI and later the Nazis during WWII. It was also used by Bolsheviks during the early 20th century and even by the tsarist governor when Lithuania was a part of the Russian Empire prior to 1918.
The building faces Lukiskis Square. This detail is important because Lukiskis Square used to be Vilnius’ Red Square, where the statue of Lenin stood for many years (this statue is now in Grutas Park, another Soviet site in Lithuania—details below). It was also where the bodies of partisans were put on display to warn the public against dissent. Those caught looking for loved ones or expressing emotion for executed partisans could be arrested. The site was one of fear and control.
Today, with the KGB Museum installed, the building is one of harsh memory—don’t forget to take a look at the names of partisans who died fighting the Soviets etched into the side of the building. The square has also been redesigned, and the Lithuanian state flag flies in the center today where Lenin’s statue stood.
It’s a powerful experience to visit the KGB Museum and then step out into the daylight having just been confronted with what took place here not so long ago. This is one of the many Soviet sites in Lithuania that will make a deep impression.
Other Lithuanian Soviet Sights in Vilnius
Vilnius is rich with other Lithuanian Soviet sites. Some of them are even monuments to hope and freedom. Others show the specific aesthetics of the time interpreted by Lithuanian architects. Still others are functional relics built according to Soviet-era aesthetics that have survived into the present.
The Parliament Building
The Lithuanian Parliament Building is an essential stop on any tour of Vilnius or of Soviet sites in Lithuania. This brutalist-style building was completed in 1980. It sits on one end of Gediminas Ave. as a stark contrast to the Russian Orthodox church seen just across the river.
The Parliament Building of Lithuania is special in part because that’s where Lithuania signed its declaration of independence from the USSR.
It’s also special because during the invasion of Russia in January of 1991 after Lithuania declared its independence, it was protected by members of the public who risked their lives to defend the freedom they had gained. The attack also affected the TV tower, and people lost their lives in fighting to maintain their newfound independence.
To this day, the Parliament maintains a memorial of that invasion, having encapsulated some of the barricades against Russian forces in plexiglass. The invasion was a pivotal moment in Lithuanian history that many Lithuanians remember vividly.
Other Soviet-era Buildings in Vilnius
When you take a tour of Lithuanian Soviet sights, the guide may show you various other buildings or take you to particular Vilnius neighborhoods.
For example, the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports is an indoor arena located across the river from the Vilnius castle and cathedral complex. Its eye-catching ski-slope roof is its most distinctive feature. The darker side of this now-abandoned arena is that it was built on the site of a centuries-old Jewish cemetery that was purposefully destroyed by the Soviets.
A tour of Soviet Vilnius may also take you past buildings in Old Town Vilnius that replaced prior structures and were built during Soviet times. For example, the Office Building of the Cooperative Union, with its undulating layers, and the National Opera and Ballet Theatre, with its unique chandeliers, are monuments to Soviet-era design.
Further afield, neighborhoods in Vilnius reveal typical Soviet-style planning. For example, the micro-district of Fabijoniskes was an apt setting for the Chernobyl miniseries due to its Soviet-style apartment blocks. Whole tours have been developed around the Soviet sites in Lithuania that were used for this television series!
Grutas Park and Druskininkai
Grutas Park may be one of the most popular Soviet sites in Lithuania. This park, located near Druskininkai in the country’s south, is the place of retirement for Lithuania’s Soviet-era statues. Preserved in a natural setting, their symbolic effect is neutralized, and yet they continue to remind us of this dark period of history.
At Grutas Park, you’ll be able to stroll underneath the leafy canopy of trees as you view statues of Lenin, Stalin, and local leadership of the Lithuanian SSR. Plaques by some of the statues indicate where they originally stood—often in city squares. You’ll also get to hear Soviet anthems blasted from a loudspeaker to understand the gist of the pervasiveness of the ideological messages that were typical of the time.
The irony of the peaceful natural setting with the statues on display won’t be lost on visitors. It’s an interesting way to remove from public eye a part of history while preserving it for educational purposes.
Druskininkai’s Soviet-era Architecture
Nearby Druskininkai also has some Lithuanian Soviet sites. This spa town—well-known in the region since the time of the tsars—is still where many people go to rest, relax, or have wellness and medical treatments.
Hotel Pusynas is one of these. The columnal structure with its pointing balconies and rounded extensions is reminiscent of a pine cone. Still a spa hotel—just like in Soviet times—it is one of Druskininkai’s most distinctive buildings.
Druskininkai Spa is another Soviet sight in Lithuania. The waterpark area, with its twisting tunnel-slides, has been reconstructed since Soviet times, but the original shape of the building’s structure remains preserved under a glass enclosure.
Nuclear Missile Shafts and the Cold War Museum
The Plokstine Missile Base and the Cold War Museum invites visitors to descend underground to learn about nuclear arms, the propaganda techniques of the Cold War, and the military base’s former functions. With a guide, visitors will understand the nuances of the Cold War and about the Soviet period of history in Lithuania.
View the command room and enter one of the missile shafts for the full experience. Knowledgeable guides are there to explain all of the exhibits and answer questions.
Note, however, that this Lithuanian Soviet site is not easily reachable by public transportation, being located in Zemaitija National Park. It’s also limiting in other ways—it may not be accessible for those with mobility issues and it has no onsite cafeteria.
Nevertheless, visitors say this Soviet site in Lithuania is a can’t-miss attraction.
Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant
If you’re visiting the Ignalina area, be sure to plan a trip to the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant. The Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, due its reactor’s similarities to the one in Chernobyl, Ukraine, was one of the filming sites for the Chernobyl miniseries.
The 1986 Chernobyl reactor disaster has served as a warning about nuclear power in the decades since—and inspired television dramas. If you’re a fan of the series or curious about nuclear power in general, the tour of the plant will be an experience.
The Ignalina Power Plant’s reactors have been decommissioned, again, due to their similarity with the Chernobyl plant’s reactors, a design prone to accident. However, visitors must still book well in advance of a visit to the plant, where they’ll see the control panel, reactor room, and turbine room and learn about the nuclear power generated at the plant when it was in operation, the working conditions there, and other relevant information about the plant.
The Ninth Fort Museum in Kaunas
The Ninth Fort in Kaunas is one of those Soviet sites in Lithuania with a grim past. It was once used as a place to collect prisoners before deportation to Siberia and other remote locations. It also served under the Nazis as a place for mass killings.
Among other information, visitors to the museum can learn about the Soviets deportations that have haunted Lithuania and the other Baltic countries since they began in the 1940s.They’ll also learn about the Soviet occupations, the people imprisoned in the fort, and about the partisan resistance that developed against the Soviets.
When you visit Lithuania, you’ll certainly encounter other Soviet-era sights. The Soviet Union ruled the country for 70 years, so its mark is deep on its recent history and cultural memory. Soviet sites in Lithuania are emblematic of this mark but also how Lithuania has overcome a past under an oppressive regime and moved into the future.