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Learning the Nuclear: Educational Tourism in (Post)Industrial Sites


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Place and Language Transformations in a Post-Soviet Landscape: A Case Study of the Atomic City Visaginas (Ineta Dabašinskienė)

Ineta Dabašinskienė

Place and Language Transformations in a Post-Soviet Landscape: A Case Study of the Atomic City Visaginas

Abstract: The chapter analyzes the case of a post-Soviet city Visaginas (Lithuania) due to its socialist and mono-industrial heritage at present experiencing an extremely complicated transition period. Today Visaginas provides a very special example of Lithuanian ethnic landscape and represents a geographically, culturally and ideologically isolated place. Its ethnic composition is very diverse, but mainly consists of Soviet-period immigrants with a strong pro-Soviet identity who arrived in the 1970s. The collapse of the regime and the local economy have brought anxiety, uncertainty and fear not only to the inhabitants, but also to the city itself, to its identity and its future. This study focuses on the multiple issues, relying on the concepts of place identity, language ideologies, policies and practices in the framework of the global new economy and commodification. The linguistic landscape and soundscape of Visaginas demonstrated varied linguistic resources of the city: from the dominance of Russian, efforts to use Lithuanian, and English in written signs. The attempts to manifest linguistic diversity as a social capital of the city are obvious and have good potential. Whatever changes in individual repertoires and group preferences will take place in the future, bilingualism at the level of society seems to be the most desirable outcome.

Keywords: linguistic landscape multilingualism Russian-speakers language commodification language attitudes atomic city Visaginas


Mobility is a reality of human life. People have always moved around and changed places for different reasons – political, economic, social and cultural. Wars, changes of regimes, conflicts, lack of resources, climate disasters or just a desire for adventures have forced humans to dislocate. In the age of globalization and high technologies, mobility has become a typical feature of modern societies. Diverse forms of mobility bring about changes in neighborhoods and communities, making them more hybrid as different languages and cultures blend. This is a fact. However, the imminent question is always the same: do we consider this diversity as a strength of social and economic well-being of the society in question? Or do we fear that multiculturalism and multilingualism ←112 | 113→will bring instability to the homogeneity of the society and weaken its traditional values? It is obvious that multilingual and multicultural groups are more complex than “pure” and homogeneous societies. The complex issues of diversity and integration are closely tied with the manifestation of power – social, political, economic, and linguistic, which fosters opposition and possible conflicts between the groups of “we, ours” and “they, theirs” (Schieffelin, Woolard, and Kroskrity, 1998 ). Tensions between the majority of population and minorities, mostly immigrants, have become evident in many European countries where cultural and linguistic diversity has been promoted and served to advocate tolerance and openness. However, other cultures and ethnicities are greatly welcomed mainly in “authentic” domains, such as folklore, crafts, music and, especially, cuisine and are tolerated under one condition – they have to be well “integrated”, which most often means “assimilated” (Bloomaert and Verschueren, 1998). Moreover, linguistic integration is considered a must to become a true member of the society.

Thirty years ago, linguistic integration of Russian speakers was (and still is) at the center of the integration policy in the Baltic States because of the Soviet regime, which was marked by the supremacy of the Russian language and asymmetrical bilingualism, with Russian dominating in high-level spheres and Russian-speaking minority groups (Marten, Lazdiņa, Pošeiko and Murinska, 2012, p. 290). The Baltic States had to take necessary steps to re-introduce all functions of national languages after many years of Russification policy, therefore they had implemented “thick”, “control-oriented” policies (Spolsky, 2004 ; Siiner, 2006). All three countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) have introduced national language laws, supplemented by a number of amendments and normative acts that define the status, teaching and use of languages in the state. Language policies guarantee that the state language is used and promoted, and that the relevant institutions work properly to maintain and develop the standard language. On this view, bilingual practices, code switching and borrowing become a problem (Vihalemm and Siiner, 2011).

The Russian-speaking population in the Baltic countries has lost its “guaranteed” position; as a result, the three states have been faced with the challenges of adopting new language planning and integration policies regarding Russian nationals (Vihalemm, Siiner and Masso, 2011, p. 116). Today, national languages are dominant, but Russian keeps a strong position in many domains despite the fact that language acquisition policies for the Russian-speaking population ←113 | 114→have aimed at developing their competence in the state languages1. Lithuania due to certain historical and political circumstances had a “better” situation than other Baltic States regarding its ethnic composition, as ethnic minorities, including Russian speakers, compose less than 20 per cent of the population. In Lithuanian cities the monolingualism of the dominant language (an official state language) is a result of the national language law requirement. However, local practices show the use of minority languages as well as an increasing visibility and use of global English. The English language is now the first foreign language taught at schools and is used as the main lingua franca in international communication. Moreover, not only does it appear in public signage for symbolic effects, but is also used in many activities (professional, leisure), especially by young people.

As is known, the build-up of specific contexts and unique arrangements of demographic, social, political and attitudinal factors in different localities may play an important role. The aim of this study2 is to analyze the case of a post-Soviet city with special focus on its community, to reflect on the socialist past, to discuss the complicated present, and to envisage perspectives for the future. The town of Visaginas, a “migrant island” (Baločkaitė, 2010) in Lithuania, due to its socialist and mono-industrial heritage at present experiences an extremely complicated transition period. In what follows, the multiple issues of Visaginas will be disputed relying on the concepts of place identity, language ideologies, policies and practices.←114 | 115→

Visaginas: From the Planned Soviet Past to the No-Where Future?

The integration of the soviet republics, including the Baltic states, via industrial projects was very important for the Soviet Union to establish and maintain fixed economic structures: “(…) construction of large-scale industrial structures and special industrial towns served as an important tool for integrating the Baltic States into the united network of Soviet space” (Cinis, Drėmaitė and Kalm, 2008, p. 227).

Visaginas presents the case of “the planned socialist towns”. As argued by Baločkaitė, “the planned socialist towns emerged first as the workers’ settlements for socialist industrial enterprises. They, alongside their industrial enterprises, served not only economic aims, but also ideological ones” (2012, p. 45–46). These planned towns were mostly mono-industrial, with specific industries, such as nuclear energy in Visaginas, or uranium production activities at the plant in Sillamäe, Estonia and the hydroelectric power plant in Aizkraukle (former Stučka) in Latvia.

These towns were constructed as exclusive sites of socialism where city infrastructures were planned by leading architects, the living standards were above the average of the country (Cinis et al., 2008), and “the socialist culture and way of life were openly celebrated” (Baločkaitė, 2012, p. 46). These towns, according to Baločkaitė, “were projects of social engineering designed to develop a new type of community and personality. As model communities for socialism, they were meant to legitimize their socialist regimes, draw a line with the past, and signify the beginnings of a new socialist era” (2012, p. 46). A very specific feature of these towns was the absence of history, as they were built as a new enterprise in scantily populated regions. The first inhabitants usually were migrant workers without a common past, only sharing a socialist present.

Visaginas (former Sniečkus), as a planned soviet town, has become a symbol of economic and industrial progress of the USSR. It was built in 1973 as a satellite settlement to the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant (INPP), the most progressive nuclear power plant at that time. In 1975, the symbolic cornerstone of the town was laid (see Fig. 1), and workers from different areas of the Soviet Union came to build the atomic town. The town was named after the first secretary of the Central Committee of the Lithuanian communist party, Antanas Sniečkus (in 1992, Sniečkus was renamed Visaginas). In 1983, the nuclear power plant was launched. Visaginas was supposed to become “the town of nuclear energy”. The main employee was the Nuclear Power Plant, which played a vital role in ←115 | 116→establishing the town’s identity. In 1999, there were 5108 jobs at INPP, making up 38 per cent of the town’s employment (Kavaliauskas, 1999, p. 248).

Fig. 1:The bilingual sign (Lithuanian-Russian) on a stone marking the establishment of the town in 1975 (The town for people of a nuclear power plant will be built here, August, 1975).

However, in 1986 the tragic catastrophe in Chernobyl temporarily stopped construction works. After the re-establishment of Lithuanian independence, emergence of the Green movement and other protests, the construction of the third reactor was suspended and its demolition began in 1989 (Baločkaitė, 2010; Kavaliauskas, 1999). In negotiations with the EU, Lithuania had to fulfill the requirement to gradually close the atomic plant. Therefore, the first reactor was stopped in 2004, the second in 2009. The two reactors are currently undergoing a decommissioning process. By 2030, the site of the two reactors should be ready for reuse.

During the first two decades of a new city’s life, Visaginas was the most rapidly growing city in Soviet Lithuania due to immigration and a high birth rate; more than 25,000 immigrants arrived (Kavaliauskas, 1999, p. 30). However, the number of Lithuanians grew slowly from 5.8 per cent in 1979 to 14.96 per cent in 2001 (Kavaliauskas, 1999, p. 59). At the power plant, the percentage of Lithuanian workers was also quite low. After 1990, with uncertainties about the future of the nuclear power plant and employment looming, the number of inhabitants stabilized at around 30,000.←116 | 117→

Today Visaginas provides a very special case of Lithuanian ethnic landscape and represents a geographically, culturally and ideologically isolated place. Its ethnic composition is very diverse, but mainly consists of Soviet-period immigrants with a strong pro-Soviet identity who arrived in the 1970s. After the declaration of Lithuanian Independence, Visaginas went through different stages of difficult developments, tensions and uncertainties in a search of its new identity and forms of co-existence with the rest of Lithuania. Today, the ethnic composition of the town still reminds the former Soviet Union with 52 per cent of the population being ethnic Russians, Belarusians (9.89 per cent), Poles (9.32 per cent) and Ukrainians (5.16 per cent), the rest belong to almost 40 different nationalities that mainly speak Russian. Lithuanians are a minority group with only about 15 per cent. Due to emigration in 2001−2011, the number of inhabitants in Visaginas decreased by 25 per cent; today there are only 19,000 inhabitants, of which almost 80 per cent are Russian speakers.

The number of Russian-medium secondary schools and pupils attending them is decreasing, with some Russian-speaking families sending their children to Lithuanian primary schools and Lithuanian kindergartens. Therefore, the number of schoolchildren is also decreasing, and in general, quite a number of young people consider emigration as their future choice. Almost 60 per cent of school graduates choose to seek higher education; however, half of them study not in Lithuania, but in the UK, Finland, Latvia, Russia, Belarus or Ukraine. Research shows that mainly in mixed families, if one family member is Lithuanian, children continue their education in Lithuania (Šliavaitė, 2012).

Many inhabitants of Visaginas were first-generation immigrants, with their relatives and professional ties in the Soviet Union; they still maintain strong diasporic connections with Russia and other former Soviet republics. However, thirty years of living in a new reality force Visaginas community to develop its relations with Lithuania and Lithuanians and call them to balance their loyalties between the two states (Baločkaitė, 2012). In order to understand this locality better, we must keep in mind that Visaginas has experienced a twofold “tragedy”: the collapse of the Soviet Union and declaration of Lithuanian independence along the decommissioning of the INPP. These realities have brought anxiety, uncertainty and fear not only to the inhabitants, but also to the city itself, to its identity and its future. As it looks now, the search of a new identity, including opportunities for the economic development, does not provide any sound solution for the city. It is important to note that the population of Visaginas was and still is (to a certain extent) highly educated and qualified, as the power plant needed experts for the complicated jobs. Therefore, small businesses or local industrial projects are not considered an attractive ←117 | 118→alternative for the city’s future. Today, due to a long stagnation period, emigration and slow infrastructural developments, the city lost its economic and social status, prestige and became “the dying city”, “the Soviet city”, and “the ghost town”.

Theoretical Approach and Methodological Remarks

Social scholarship features intensive debates on place and identity; sociolinguistics of place, belonging and mobility, on the other hand, are rather new concepts providing valuable knowledge on language and place relationship (Auer, 2013; Blommaert, 2010; Cornips and de Rooij, 2018; Pennycook, 2010). Usually these concepts include discussing actual resources of languages deployed in real sociocultural, historical and political contexts, which, according to Blommaert, focus “not on language-in-places but on language-in-motion, with various spatiotemporal frames interacting with one another” (2010, p. 5). We also see that “territorialized” patterns of language use are complemented by “translocal” or “deterritorialized” form of language use, and that the combination of both often accounts for unexpected sociolinguistic effects (2010, p. 4–5).

These approaches invite to rethink the locality from the perspective of authenticity and tradition co-existing with various forms of local and global realities: urbanization, the new economy, multilingualism, hybrid communications and new types of identities. This study intends to contribute to the scholarship of place identity related to the soviet and mono-industrial heritage as well as the Russian-speaking community and its future perspectives based on a qualitative form of analysis. The aim of this paper is multifold: to provide not only a sketch of historical development of the town, which is essential in order to understand the complexity of the place, but also to discuss and analyze the concepts of place, language and identity in the framework of the global new economy and commodification. The main approach of the study is a qualitative one. The Linguistic Landscape (LL) methodology was used for initial screening of Visaginas public and private written signage in order to recognize the patterns of language policies, status and use. The main task was to take photos of private and public signs where at least two languages were present. Up to forty photos were collected in different areas of Visaginas. The objects included private (companies, shops, services, hotels) and public (cultural center, municipality, school, etc.) institutions. However, it should be noted that in general not many signs were found compared to other Lithuanian cities (Muth, 2012; Ruzaitė, 2017). Our intention was not collecting as many pictures of a location as possible as usually is the case of the LL method, which often relies on a ←118 | 119→quantitative aspect. For this study, simple quantitative data are unlikely to help explain complex societal issues. We assume that the detailed explanation of facts by reflecting on the political, social or psychological context might provide a better understanding of the people, locality and its linguistic dynamics.

Additionally, interviews with local representatives of the most prevalent ethnic groups (Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Kazakhs and Uzbeks) were conducted to critically reflect on their linguistic practices and attitudes. In total, nine representatives were recorded: 2 Kazakhs, 2 Russians, 2 Ukrainians, 1 Lithuanian, 1 Belarusian and 1 Uzbek. There were seven females and two males participating in this study, all of them were of senior age (half of them retired). The duration of interviews varied greatly, from two hours to half an hour. The data were gathered during several sessions at different times (in 2018 and 2019) and amount to eleven hours of recordings. We suppose that both public arena (signs) and the informants’ personal reflections will provide a possibility to understand how the local community marks its identity and demonstrates linguistic practices.

Let us introduce the Linguistic Landscape approach as for the potential reader of this volume this sociolinguistic methodology might be unfamiliar. LL is a relatively new field of study that encompasses diverse approaches to sociolinguistics, language policy, semiotics, etc. (Backhaus, 2009; Cenoz and Gorter, 2006; Landry and Bourhis, 1997; R. Scollon and S. W. Scollon, 2003; Spolsky, 2004). LL usually performs two main functions: the first is to inform about the diversity of languages present on signs and to provide information about the sociolinguistic composition of an area; the second is a symbolic function, as the presence of one’s own language on signs can be interpreted as the fact that this language has a special value and status in a certain sociolinguistic context (Ruzaitė, 2017).

Globalization and mobility have different impacts on cultural, social and political life of many places. The city of today reflects dynamic linguistic landscapes and mainly exhibits signs of multilingualism. Linguistic landscapes, according to Landry and Bourhis, usually refer to “the language of road signs, advertising billboards, street names, commercial shop signs, and public signs on government buildings that combines to form the linguistic landscape of a given territory, region, or urban agglomeration” (1997, p. 25). Moreover, linguistic landscape includes “any sign or announcement located outside or inside a public institution or a private business in a given geographical location” (Ben-Rafael, Shohamy, Hasan Amara and Trumper-Hecht, 2006, p. 14). Urban spaces with various written signs refer to different modes of linguistic diversity; help to discover attitudes and beliefs, ideologies and power relations; to understand ←119 | 120→private and public, global and local interactions; and to analyze the relationship between languages, people, communities and identities. Languages visible in a public space provide information about their use, status and spread; about possible differences between official language policies and real local practices. Official language policies and power relations between different groups can also be determined (Backhaus, 2007, p. 11). Linguistic signs could be helpful to understand the representations of minority languages as well as their co-existence with the state language. Thus, language use and visibility reflect the constant negotiation of various identities, ideologies, policies and practices.

In other words, linguistic landscape “refers to the visibility and salience of languages on public and commercial signs” (Landry and Bourhis, 1997, p. 23). LL is thus perceived as a public space that displays languages and consists of varied discourses and types of genre, which are typically characterized by multimodality and multilingualism. At the surface level, public space may seem to offer an open area for versatile language exposures, but in practice it often turns into an arena of ideological and political struggle for ownership of space, representation and control (Ruzaitė, 2017). Display of languages are often predetermined by a variety of linguistic, economic, political and other factors. It also has to be mentioned that linguistic landscaping is a dynamic process; therefore, it is interesting to observe linguistic landscapes of post-soviet places for identifying essential changes. As Du Plessis (2010, p. 74) states, “a change in regime can bring about a change in the linguistic landscape”. LL focuses on urban sites since modern cities are mostly multilingual and reflect the global trends of the new economy and commodification of social and cultural phenomena. Moreover, cities exhibit competing powers of local and global, including language policies and practices. From this viewpoint, Visaginas has its own justification. The language situation there indicates the changes in the city, shows the representatives of diverse population, and might serve as a laboratory to focus on the issue of how different forces conflict or coordinate their attitudes (Shibliyev, 2014). The function of English, as a global player, is interesting to observe as well because the power and prestige of Russian is still dominating the locality.

Language Policies, Attitudes and a Sense of Belonging

During the soviet times Russian was dominant as a language of soviet ideology and a promoter of “brotherhood”. Since the restoration of independence, the sociolinguistic situation has been gradually changing as a state language, Lithuanian, is compulsory in the public sector. However, despite serious ←120 | 121→attempts to rearrange the linguistic landscape of Visaginas, Russian is still actively used in a private sector as well as in everyday communication.

There are many reasons for slow changes in this city. Scholarship on Soviet period immigrants to the Baltic States stresses the challenges of integrating this population into the social and cultural life of local societies (Vihalemm and Siiner, 2011). Russia, as the “country of origin”, pronounces its concerns for its compatriots abroad and encourages “the maintenance of ties and Russian speaker identification with Russia as homeland” (Birka, 2016, p. 219). Recent events in Ukraine have demonstrated Russia’s plans to protect and support the Russian language and culture of its compatriots living abroad. The awareness of complex relationships between social integration and feelings of belonging could provide a better understanding of identity transformation in Visaginas (see Fig. 2).

Fig. 2:Graffiti in the residential area of Visaginas (Stop NATO. No war)

In this context of geopolitical events, Visaginas becomes a platform for negotiations of diverse ideologies and identities. The challenging feelings of belonging and attachment to the country of origin vs. country of residence are sensitive for the population and require a subtle approach. Therefore, it is quite clear that Lithuanian government is concerned about the loyalty of the Russian-speaking population and its attachment to Russia. The interview data show that Russian speakers in Visaginas favor integration over assimilation (for similar results in Latvia see Pisarenko, 2006); therefore, they uncompromisingly continue to cultivate their culture and use Russian extensively in all domains. They also explore different media platforms, predominantly in Russian. However, they admit the need to know Lithuanian, and research has shown that the competence of Lithuanian today is higher than ten or so years ago, especially among the young population (Lichačova, 2014).←121 | 122→

The sociolinguistic situation in this city is quite complex. Despite governmental attempts lasting for thirty years to financially support language teaching, organize Lithuanian classes for adults, and introduce more hours of Lithuanian at schools and kindergartens, residents of Visaginas, especially older ones, still show quite poor competence of Lithuanian and prefer to speak Russian privately and in public. The issue is not only of a linguistic nature – the overall societal disappointment and the feeling of helplessness is obvious:

“three times I was attending Lithuanian courses. But they teach us about grand dukes, what they dream, but not the language. People are tired, stumbled, do not see any sense to study it for the fourth or fifth time” (74, female).

if then someone has been told us that we need to study Lithuanian or even other languages, that languages are important for a person, for his or her development, we did not know that…” (72, male).

Even though elderly people claim that the age is an obstacle to learn Lithuanian, they also admit that the situation has changed now and the pressure is not so high as it was right after 1990, when “only in one night we had to start speaking Lithuanian” (70, female). Overall, the older Russian-speaking generation has developed more positive attitudes toward Lithuanian but have difficulties speaking or even understanding Lithuanian. They have mentioned bad memories of the attended language courses, poor quality of teaching materials and teachers’ competence as non-motivating factors for learning.

Additionally, the most important factor for learning the language – the environment – was mentioned by the majority of respondents as well: “no one to talk to in Lithuanian” that is the expression often mentioned during the interviews. Most of the informants mentioned poor motivation to study Lithuanian, as Lithuanian linguistic environment for them is very limited:

“Visaginas is a very closed town. It is closed because of the inability to communicate in Lithuanian. It is like a cage” (55, female)

“Motivation to study Lithuanian should come from the pressure of the environment; however, that pressure is experienced when people from Visaginas go to other places in Lithuania, but not here” (46, female).

It is clear that social networks among people in Visaginas are mainly with Russians; therefore, communication takes place only in Russian. Those who cross the border of Visaginas have both the advantage and pressure to learn Lithuanian:

“I like Visaginas very much. I go to Vilnius very often and I come back here.. …. I go to Vilnius every week as I have to arrange many things related to the performances and other business. And I have very good friends there…” (46, female). ←122 | 123→

The social networks approach (see Milroy, 1987) indicates that population groups having relatively many contacts with neighbors and only few contacts with outsiders use primarily the language their neighbors are using because they are less exposed to other languages. Clearly, the Visaginas case confirms this. Unfortunately, the town is still a very closed place and its residents rarely go to other places in Lithuania; therefore, they are not encouraged and motivated to advance their Lithuanian.

Despite the many issues, including linguistic, the positive attitudes toward Lithuania were observed in the data of older respondents as they seem to be reconciled with the present situation:

my children and grandchildren do not live here. One daughter is in London now. They are speaking English very well (…) and Russian. My grandchildren know Russian and we speak in Russian with them (…). But we don’t want to go anywhere. We like Visaginas” (76, male).

Younger people’s attitudes toward Lithuania and the EU are even more positive, mainly due to pragmatic reasons, such as favorable social welfare and political security. A Lithuanian passport is important for young people as it allows them to travel and work in many European countries (Labanauskas, 2014). This possibility enables young people to leave Visaginas and choose other places as their homes.

The respondents for the most part regard Russia or other countries of origin (the post-Soviet space) positively as well. Moreover, all survey participants are willing to rediscover, maintain and transmit their ethnic cultures, languages, histories and traditions to their children and grandchildren. The participants of diverse ethnicities have expressed their high motivation to discover their own roots. They engage in various cultural activities organized by their ethnic communities and organize Saturday schools for children to teach the heritage language. The motivation to re-separate from the Russian cultural space and re-discover their own ethnicity, culture and language was mainly expressed by the Kazakh, Uzbek and Ukrainian representatives; likewise, other ethnic minority groups are very active as well (see Visaginas cultural center/minorities). Their enthusiasm to discover and promote their own ethnicities, however, are limited to folklore, authentic cuisine, crafts and some language classes; but this is only a symbolic action because they all navigate in the Russian informational space, and the Russian language still remains the only language of communication:

“We all came here with the same aim, to build an atomic plant, to live and work here. We came from different parts of the Soviet Union and nobody cared what your ←123 | 124→nationality is or if you speak another language. We all spoke Russian, and we speak Russian now….[..]. Everyone was in good relations with the others, we lived in peace…[…].” (79, female).

The concept of “ethnicity” was not important in the Soviet period, and the leitmotif of “druzhba narodov” (“friendship of nations”, “brotherhood”) and unity still dominated the interview data:

“We live here, we spent here all our life, we raised our children here. We like Visaginas, its nature, people. …. It’s our home” (60, female).

Despite mainly positive attitudes toward Lithuania and Visaginas as their home, the respondents indicated disappointment regarding many aspects of social, economic and political life in the country. It is important to note that most of the residents follow political processes in Russia and consider the Russian language as a global language worth knowing and learning.

The long-term, strictly state-promoted, mono-ethnolinguistic (Lithuanian) approach, where “integration” means “assimilation”, seems to be hardly applicable in Visaginas. The language situation adds even more complexity to the place. Although Russian is dominating, the reality of the place is a linguistic triangle: Russian – as a language of the dominant Russian-speaking community, Lithuanian – as an official language (but rarely used), and English, both a symbolic sign and a possibility to be part of global exchanges. The linguistic landscape demonstrates that official written signs are mainly in Lithuanian, private signs are bilingual (Russian – Lithuanian or Russian – English), but the spoken language is predominantly Russian (see Fig. 3). The level of formality of social space defines the use of the Russian language: if the social environment is less formal, then Russian is used; formal environments require Russian speakers to use Lithuanian (Labanauskas, 2014). However, this does not happen often as Lithuanians change to Russian when communication in Lithuanian is impossible.

The urgent question today is how to deal with the Soviet legacy: should the teaching of Lithuanian as the main language of all domains be promoted and strengthened? Or should bilingual or just Russian dominating linguistic practices be maintained? There is no one clear-cut answer to this complex issue. However, offering a different perspective toward Russian and the soviet heritage of the place might be useful if we view language and culture in the time of late capitalism as commodity.

Fig. 3:Bilingual signs of Russian-Lithuanian or Russian-English in Visaginas in private domains

←124 | 125→

Language, Authenticity and Commodification

Today Visaginas is in the active process of developing its new identity. Different ideas and approaches are put forward by diverse stakeholders, from the de-ideologized scenario of the “city of happiness, youth” or “green city” to a very clearly articulated project as the city of “socialist atomic past”. The idea “to sell” the soviet past is actively discussed and promoted not only by the residents of the city, but especially by outsiders. The concept of “heritage tourism” mainly refers to the consumption of historical and cultural heritage testimoning the past (Poria, Butler and Airey, 2003); it is also linked to the places, artefacts and activities represented by the narratives of locals and include cultural, historical and natural resources (Yale, 1997). Therefore, tourism in sociolinguistic peripheries urge local communities to rethink their cultural, political and economic conditions, and this involves the reconstruction of linguistic capital for the new and potential economic capital (Heller, Pujolar and Duchêne, 2014). The theme of identity is closely linked to the issues of heritage. In the context of global economy and tourism industry, Russian, as an identity marker for Visaginas, could be reexamined. Through museums and other heritage sites, tourists can be told the local story presented in such a way as to affirm and reinforce the place identity and self-image. The construction of identity is integrally bound to tourism discourses that seem to claim what we are (or were) (Baločkaitė, 2012, p. 41). However, the interviews have revealed that it is difficult to deal with the unwanted socialist past. Moreover, in the city there are only very few symbols idolizing socialism, while the official sites do not provide much information about them. Nevertheless, the past is hidden in social activities of everyday life that are hardly noticed by the outsider. The most ←125 | 126→visible sign is the language. Therefore, as claimed by Heller (2010), multicultural and multilingual places are a great locality for heritage tourism to explore shifts in the role of language bound to changes in local industries and effects of the commodification of authenticity. Monika Heller and her colleagues define these changes as follows:

“Within a conventional neoliberal frame, peripheral language groups must learn to market themselves, identify the resources that can be commodified, and turn their rhetoric of political mobilization to one of marketable entertainment in complex and ambivalent ways. Thus, the sociolinguistics of tourism provides a window into understanding the emergence of new linguistically-invested forms of power which follow a logic of circulations and mobilities, and are in stark contrast with the cultural expressions of industrial capitalism, with its emphasis on territoriality and ethnonational belonging. The commodification of language and identity is then something fully consistent with the economic and cultural processes triggered by the globalized new economy”. (Heller et al., 2014, p. 561–562).

In this new social reality, the city is in transformation and search of its new identity. There are many examples globally when mono-industrial places go through dramatic changes of social transformation caused by the effect of the new economy. The global new economy is usually linked to changes in language and identities (Bauman, 1997; Castells, 2000) as well as tensions between local, national, supra‐national identities and language practices, and between hybridity and uniformity (Heller, 2003). The sector of tourism could become a major industry for Visaginas generating economic value as economic development is a major driving force for the community and its wellbeing. In fact, language, culture and identity as authentic phenomena may play a significant role in this new transformation. The main characteristic of the globalized new economy is the commodified value of any kind of authenticity and exoticism.

Languages are very important for services, especially in the tourism industry. The increasing numbers of foreign and local tourists in Lithuania require multilingual competences. After the Baltic States declared their independence almost thirty years ago, the status of the Russian language significantly changed. For ideological reasons, the interest in studying Russian dropped and everyone started to learn English. This situation lasted approximately from 1990 to 2000. When Lithuania joined the EU, the walls opened boosting different kinds of mobility. The job market today often looks for employees who, in addition to English, know Russian (Dabašinskienė, 2011). The education sector sees the demand for the Russian language as well. We have been watching the dynamics of the choice of foreign languages in secondary schools for several years in a ←126 | 127→row. Over 95 per cent of pupils choose English as their first foreign language, and the vast majority of schoolchildren choose Russian as their second foreign language. This motive is of economic character.

A number of different political and economic realities in the last decades have brought the Russian language on the world stage again. It became popular in the international service, especially tourism. Additionally, Russian today provides a valuable economic resource from the perspective of teaching and learning, as part of language commodification, revealing how promotion policies of learning the language can help individuals to advance language knowledge in order to meet demands of Russian-speaking tourists (Muth, 2017). Thus, we see that political discourses on national ideologies in the era of globalization, economic and demographic turbulences have changed the attitudes toward Russian-speaking tourists. Moreover, tourists from Russian-speaking countries (Russia, Belarus and Ukraine) are dominating Lithuanian incoming tourism. In this respect, we observe many strategies of commodification of the Russian language, which serves to attract and satisfy Russian tourists both locally (in Lithuania and the Baltics) and globally. Anette Pavlenko uses a special term “preferential accommodation” to explain situations where special arrangements are made for Russians, including simplification of visa regimes, acceptance of rubles, addressing in Russian and providing various media information services in Russian (Pavlenko, 2015). As business reacts fast, it ensures linguistic accommodation of Russian in the areas preferred by Russian tourists. Since Russian speakers can rarely communicate in other languages, services need to employ Russian in order to attract customers. The tourism industry reports the economic potential of Russian customers: in 2004, Russians were among the world’s top ten biggest spenders, while in 2013, $53.5 billion spent abroad placed them fourth after tourists from China, the USA, and Germany (UNWTO, 2014). Tourism agencies and other tourism-oriented businesses (hotels, spa, restaurants, museums, opera houses, etc.) in countries popular with Russian tourists invest in Russian language resources and websites (e.g., They also hire a Russian-speaking staff; broadcast Russian TV channels; provide menus, newspapers, magazines, maps, travel guides and information about hotels in Russian; and in general demonstrate Russian-friendly attitudes. The developing tourism industry demonstrates that English does not always serve global needs. The arguments provided above suggest that for tourists who are ready to spend generously, local businesses have to invest into language learning (Pavlenko, 2015)←127 | 128→

Thus, Visaginas could exploit the Russian language and soviet culture as a symbol of its authenticity. Tourist routes in Visaginas should focus not on such sites as museums, original architecture, symbolic objects, monuments, etc., but on the locality itself as an open-air museum displaying daily linguistic practices, routines, habits and attitudes, hidden and visible signs of the nostalgic soviet past, and atomic glory. Moreover, minority languages, cultures and identities could also be exploited, as they could become “means of production and [as] a product itself” (Heller, 2003). However, commodification of place, language and identity might be a challenge, as part of the community does not want their past to be “on sale”. The tensions among different stakeholders regarding their vision for the city’s future and its identity, from the “city of green nature, happiness, youth to atomic tourism”, are discussed in recent publications (Mažeikienė and Gerulaitienė, 2018). Nevertheless, the locality with its mono-industrial atomic post-soviet heritage narrative could become an object of authentic experience, especially for heritage tourism. Russian as a symbol of that time also represents the reality of today. Its authentic practice in a linguistically homogeneous country offers a valuable possibility for a unique experience attractive for tourists. In the heritage tourism market, symbolic elements marking the authenticity of the place, including the language, may contribute to the city’s higher potential. The elderly people of Visaginas envisage a great potential for their own memories, as they are “walking tourist guides”:

“It’s such a pity, I feel so sorry…There are so many interesting things here, and there still are people here who remember all the corners of this city. They know why this street is here, or where the first tomb is. There are so many places and stories to tell. About the first house, the first school. It would be so interesting” (75, female).

Visaginas is so rich, as there are so many diverse cultures, religions, folklore. People are so friendly. We celebrate great festivals that many people come to see (….). It is the best place to live, it is so tranquil, the nature is beautiful, there are many lakes where you can go swimming and enjoy boating…” (68, male).

It is obvious that in the globalized new economy of services language skills become a crucial factor for the development of tourist infrastructures. Thus, even though Russian might play a unique role of practice-in-place and be attractive to Russian-speakers (or older population of the region), it is not enough; languages of other ethnic minorities, including Lithuanian and global English, could offer broader linguistic resources for communication with clients (see Fig. 4). Since multilingualism is becoming an increasingly important skill in the tourism sector, the multilingual capital of the community could help construct local authenticity and manage relations with clients.←128 | 129→

On this view, the dominance of Russian might be conceived not as an obstacle but as an asset helping to boost the economic potential of the tourism sector and other services. Therefore, the saying “Russian is everywhere” might be interpreted differently and attract visitors to explore the new-old reality of the locality.

Fig. 4:The poster inside the Culture center. Most of the informants declared their positive feelings to Visaginas, their hometown.


How individuals and societies cope with language and place identity in the contemporary world is an important sociolinguistic question which requires a critical analysis of linguistic practices, attitudes and understanding of the uniqueness of the locality brought about by specific historical and social circumstances.

Visaginas represents a rather peculiar place of hybrid identities, attitudes, feelings of anxiety, disappointment and hope. This is a unique place in Lithuania where diverse ethnic communities are still united by the Russian language and the feeling of “brotherhood”. However, global tendencies and pragmatic attitudes toward one’s future start making a difference, especially for young people. Prevailing discourses of a mono-ethnic nation state with a dominant state language create obstacles in giving rise to authentic multi-ethnic local identities in Visaginas. Language ideologies from a top-down perspective conflict with bottom-up practices and therefore require a more coherent, “softer” approach to Visaginas population. Most of the informants emphasize the richness of the city’s culture, the people’s creative potential, especially that of the young generation, which produces interesting projects and shows impressive ←129 | 130→skills of entrepreneurship. The multicultural, multilingual and multiethnic profile of Visaginas is perceived by the informants as an important resource for representing the uniqueness of the town.

Due to its soviet past and a strong identification with the atomic power plant, Visaginas was unable to develop consistently after 1990. The strong pro-soviet attitudes and nostalgia for the heroic past (including the construction of the most progressive nuclear plant), the unchanged ethnic composition dominated by Russian speakers, and the intense use of Russian in everyday life make this site very remote both ideologically and geographically from the rest of Lithuania. For years, it was a success story and the place to celebrate socialism with a highly progressive mono-industry, desirable living standards and a notable quality of education. After the declaration of Lithuanian Independence in 1990, the town became the site of tensions and uncertainties. Visaginas did not become what it was supposed to become, i.e., a successful project of prosperity and flourishing. The feelings of nostalgia, emptiness, longing for intimate networks, lack of multilingual appreciation and a bitter failure to accomplish the soviet utopia were strongly reflected in the sincere stories of respondents.

The future requires transformation, but the process of changes is full of ambivalent ideas for the city’s search of a new identity. Different stakeholders suggest different ideas for building the de-ideologized image of young, happy and green city with comfortable conditions to live and raise families. Additionally, the multicultural, multilingual and multiethnic profile of Visaginas is perceived as an important resource to represent the uniqueness of the town and deliver “commercialized hospitality” through cultural and recreational tourism. The opposite idea is to position the town as a socialist city within the framework of socialist heritage tourism with strong emphasis on nuclear identity. The latter idea looks quite promising for incoming tourism, especially from foreign countries, in the context of the rising movement of safe energy or desire for exotic experiences while visiting “dark” tourism sites, like Chernobyl. However, the official and institutional discourse of public authorities tries to minimize the socialist past in constructing the identity of the locality. How to proceed with the two ideas for commodification of the authenticity “soviet past, nuclear identity” vs. the de-ideologized identity of being “young/green” is a challenging question for the future of the city (Mažeikienė and Dabašinskienė, 2018).

This place is exceptional due to its ethnic composition represented by forty different ethnic groups. However, the situation does not indicate the diversity of languages. The opposite is true – the prevalence of Russian, as a soviet heritage, is dominating all the generations. The state has developed and offered many language programs in promoting and teaching Lithuanian; however, the ←130 | 131→population of Visaginas, especially the elder, have not learned the language. It is obvious that the language policy introduced here was not effective and therefore failed. Unfortunately, during the thirty years of independent Lithuania no greater revisions of social, economic and linguistic policies regarding the issue of Visaginas were performed. A great number of researchers have highlighted the negative impact of top-down narratives and discourses produced by the country’s politicians and journalists. These discourses, it is argued, hamper the integration process by creating incompatible identity positions between Russian-speakers and the majority (Cheskin, 2013). The attempt to remove the influence of Russian culture and various aspects of Russian identity will surely bring back discourses about marginalization and discrimination. Instead, policy makers should focus on making Lithuanian culture more accessible to Russian speakers. This research indicates that there is great potential for integrated, yet culturally distinct, Lithuanian-Russian or other hybrid identities. Indeed, a number of studies have shown that Russian speakers in the Baltic States consider themselves to be very different from Russians in Russia (Vihalemm and Masso, 2003; Zepa, 2006). Moreover, in the context of globalization and Europeanization the ethnic identity for Russian speakers does not seem to be a very valuable and important category, as young people mainly choose a pragmatic approach to their identification (Labanauskas, 2014). As pointed out by the informants, the most important factors for a successful life in Lithuania (if one considers this option instead of emigration), especially for youth and in the job market, were the knowledge of Lithuanian and social networks. The senior generation feels quite comfortable using only Russian, as there are no linguistic obstacles in communication due to the fact that “everyone here speaks Russian”. However, they expressed fear for the future of the city, social insecurity for themselves and their children because the future development of the city is unclear.

The linguistic landscape and soundscape of Visaginas demonstrate varied linguistic resources of the city: from the dominance of Russian, as post-Soviet heritage; efforts to use Lithuanian, especially in formal sphere; and English in written signs. The attempts to manifest linguistic diversity as a social capital of the city are obvious and have good potential. Whatever changes in individual repertoires and group preferences will take place in the future, bilingualism at the level of society seems to be the most desirable outcome. In terms of the city’s potential, it is obvious that the community possesses diverse linguistic and cultural resources to manifest multiculturalism. Any discussions related to language in place, according to Pennycook, reflect our understanding of ←131 | 132→language as action: “What we do with language in a particular place is a result of our interpretation of that place” (Pennycook, 2010, p. 2).

Thus, the current situation of Visaginas can be assessed as the process of searching for the new identity and simultaneously adhering to the established linguistic routines, local habits and attitudes. However, the unclear present obligates the community to act and cater not only for local cultural and linguistic needs but also, following Heller and Martin-Jones’s (2001) claim, to get ready to encounter the “new global forms of cultural, economic and social domination”. The possibilities to explore soviet nuclear heritage are attractive for the tourism industry, so taking this route might create an added economic value and enable opening a new page in the city’s life.


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1The linguistic policies of the Baltic countries and the integration issues of the Russian-speaking population have been reported and discussed in many publications (Hogan-Brun, Ozolins, Ramonienė and Rannut, 2009; Rannut, 2008; Hogan-Brun and Ramonienė, 2005; Muiznieks, 2010; Kasatkina, 2007; Potashenko, 2010, etc.). For the new directions and discussions on languages in the Baltic States see Lazdiņa and Martnen (2019).

2This study is a part of the EDUATOM (The Didactical Technology for the Development of Nuclear Educational Tourism in the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant (INPP) Region; No. 01.2.2-LMT-K-718-01-0084/232) project, which aims to develop an educational nuclear tourism route in the INPP region in Lithuania. It is funded by the European Regional Development Fund according to the supported activity “Research Projects Implemented by World-class Researcher Groups” under Measure No. 01.2.2-LMT-K-718.