"Panic is the sudden realization that everything around you is alive."
William S. Burroughs

Look, if every holiday you took was to a war cemetery, battleground or former KGB prison, then there might be something to get twitchy about. But so called Dark Tourism needn't be morbid or macabre, even though it does mean visiting places associated with suffering.

I've often found that visiting sites where profoundly bad things have happened can be inspiring. For anyone interested in history, visiting scenes of human catastrophe - on a major or minor scale - can uncover emotions and insights that aren't possible to gain from a book or film.

A better term would perhaps be 'Raw Tourism', which could span everything from battlesights like Rourke's Drift and Gallipoli, through to seeking to learn from the less attractive parts of a city, or indeed places that have become for whatever reason notorious.


A brush with life on a Soviet era housing district in Kaunas, Lithuania...
posted by Richard Green on 05/03/2017

The centre of Kaunas, Lithuania's second city, is pleasant enough, with a handsome main street and a smattering of historic buildings. Yet drive past the marching seemingly identikit towers of Šilainiai (pronounced Shalaney as in Dalaney) - a Soviet era planned suburb plonked onto the western outskirts of Kaunas - and you may feel an urge to put your foot down and look the other way.

But some 50,000 of the city's 300,000 inhabitants live here, and I was curious to see what a huge Soviet planned housing district looks and feels like from the inside, and so I went to have a look.

But inside the at first drab-appearing and greyed-out estates real people are living their lives, and after you have gorged on the pastel colours and cobbles of the old town, a wander around Šilainiai can make for a fascinating insight into the Soviet mindset and the spirit of the Lithuanians to make do, and more. 

In the company of local artist and activist Evelina Simkute, I took an informal tour of the estate and block where she grew up, and after 12 years in London working as an artist on projects involving some of London's more challenging estates, she has chosen to return and take creative inspiration from where she grew up.

As the rain streams down the windscreen Evelina explains that the suburb was built in 1985 in seven sections, and although there were plans to build four swimming pools, and many other places for people to meet and socialise, in fact only one pool ever opened. This is why the giant Soviet era estates are called 'sleeping districts' in these parts, owing to the fact that they contain so little in the way of community centres or diversions for people in the way of stadia, sport complexes or libraries.

This may be why the local architect Saulius Lukošius is so reluctant to return. He won the prize from Moscow to carry out his design, yet fears - according to Evelina - that the locals who actually have to live in his incomplete project wouldn't take kindly to him.

Turning left into the small car park of a cute little building painted bright yellow, we pass a hollowed out complex of mustard coloured brick that looks like it's fallen into disrepair. In fact though, it was another of the unfinished centres - probably for shops and restaurants.

But the Ukrainian restaurant is strewn with handicrafts and serves a mean borsch for €2.90. Over lunch Evelina tells me of her return to the estate and of her art projects and photo walks. She wants the estate and its people to be celebrated, rather than awkwardly ignored, as is so often the case with once 'Brave New World' developments that are now unfashionable and unfathomable. 

After eating we brave the chill and wet to walk to the centre of one of its sections. Here there is a statue referred to by the locals as 'The Elephant', where kids meet to play. It's a rather brutish piece of art, long since covered in graffiti. The swimming pool is nearby, as is the school that Evelina went to. And on a wall adjacent is graffiti art of a small boy done by a local who also went to the school and who is now famous in Lithuania for his art. Alas his poignant lonely looking figure is rather crowded out by ugly tag signatures.

It feels nicer to be out of the car for sure, from which any clump of tower blocks always ten to look worse than they are. And standing in the middle of it does challenge your perceptions somewhat - helped by Evelina enthusiastically telling of her childhood spent playing in the wide open spaces in between the tower block clusters. She says it was safe because there were no cars in the park areas, there were basketball hoops and children's swings and slides - known as 'wellness objects' to the Soviet planners apparently. Plus Evelina adds, that with all the rows and columns of windows facing the central park areas, it was a very safe place to play too.

We moved on to the block where Evelina grew up in and lives now. Outside is a wellness object in the form of a small yellow slide emptying into a square block sand pit. The block numbers jut out in what once would have felt like a futuristic sign telling which number flats were inside which block. The blocks themselves are numbered too, using large lettering as though an LED display from an early digital watch.

See Evelina's Website at Šilainiai Photo. And although you won't find information on Šilainiai there, see Visit Kaunas for more general information on the city.


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