Back in the USSR
By Ed Staskus
Lithuania has got loads of historical show-and-tell. There is the Ninth Fort, Trakai Island Castle, and the Hill of Crosses. The capital city Vilnius has the Gates of Dawn, the Palace of the Grand Duke of Lithuania, and the Bernardine Cemetery. The cemetery can be heavy going, though, since after heavy rain bones from older graves tend to float to the top and stick out of the ground tripping up passers-by.
Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque buildings are extant all around the city. There are 16th and 17th century churches. Winding narrow streets characterize the oldest stretches of Vilnius. The historic center was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the early 1990s, soon after the country lost its Commie overlords.
There are dozens of tour groups, from Baltic Holidays to Discover Lithuania to Vilnius with Locals. There are hundreds of tour guides who will guide you to places in plain sight and off the beaten path, brimming with anecdotes and history and the know-how of when and where to stop for a cup of coffee and lunch.
Pavelas Puzyna, a native of the city, got his start while studying archaeology at Vilnius University. He dug up something new. It was a small rusty metal box. “I was at the market and saw a box with the Sigma logo on it. Inside the box was the flash for a camera. They made cameras and the first Lithuanian computers. Finding the box was like a drug to me. I immediately started to research Soviet-era factories and got interested in the history of industrial Vilnius. I’m a big fan of the city. I thought it would be a good idea to make a tour.”
He had already been having second thoughts about archaeology. “There are some job problems with it,” he said. Never underestimate the cold feet of an empty piggybank or the pedal to the metal of cold cash.
The Age of Discovery led to the Age of Colonialism, when European countries went far and wide to Asia Africa and the Americas, trading conquering controlling the natural resources, benefitting themselves strategically and economically. They created sugar plantations in the West Indies and rubber plantations in the East Indies. They commanded herds of elephants to explore and exploit India.
The world was their oyster. It was tasty, but it was risky hard work, no matter that they were playing the natives for suckers. Caravan routes thousands of miles long were an uphill struggle and boats routinely sank in storms, their treasures gone for good.
That wasn’t for the Russians. “Why bother?” the tsars said, downing strong coffee and chain-smoking. “We’ll just go next door.” They sent their conscripts, whose military service was for life, or the end of the soldier’s life, to the Ukraine, the Khanates, and the kingdom of Poland Lithuania. The faceless minions of the Empire followed, sucking the life out of whatever the Imperial Army had won.
The Iron Curtain got drawn in Eastern Europe in 1945. After the clampdown in Lithuania was history, when the Russians were pushed out once and for all in 1990, they left much of their reign behind. Some of the things they left behind, besides a bad taste, were zavody, Eastern Bloc factories.
Even though Pavelas went looking for zavody, the first thing he found was a 1975-built civil defense bunker beneath a socialist sweat shop in Naujamiestis, a former industrial district next to Naujaninkai, the district where he lives.
“The bunker was underneath a factory that used to make sliding electric garage doors,” he said. “It was all trashed out. I thought maybe I could talk to the person in charge and offer to look after it. Small enterprises were renting space in the former factory and one of them, a car repair shop, gave me the phone number of the owner of the whole place.”
He called and was able to get through. “He’s a real millionaire, a Lithuanian guy, and I was able to talk to him. I told him your bunker is a mess, can I maybe look after it, clean it up, be like the overseer?” Although he didn’t expect an answer that very minute, the big man on the other end of the line said yes.
“It was bizarre but after that I was like a little kid on Christmas.”
The Russians started building A-bomb storm cellars in the early 1950s, especially beneath schools, apartment complexes, government buildings, railway stations, and smokestack enterprises. “There was an all-important rule then, that big factories had to have a bunker,” Pavelas said. They were equipped with steel doors, filtered ventilation, food water and medical supplies. Participation in civil defense training was compulsory for all able-bodied men and women.
“If World War Three had started, like the Russians were afraid of, people would have had to live there.” Nobody said anything about what they were going to do in their shelters after a rocket from the tombs had wiped Lithuania off the map.
Nuclear weapons in the mid-1980s blasted holes in the ground 200 feet deep and 1,000 feet in diameter, blowing everything within a half mile to smithereens. Only skeletal remains would have remained within three miles of impact. After a month-or-two of radiation decay it would be safe enough to go outside, except it wouldn’t be safe.
There wouldn’t be any power for light heat refrigeration, no running water, no sanitary systems, millions of unburied dead, and an ecological balance gone out of its mind. Stress, malnutrition, and damaged immune systems would be fecund ground for the contraction and transmission of disease among survivors.
Pavelas took rags brooms and candles to the bunker. “The place didn’t have electricity. It was dark, but I cleaned it” He came back with wiring and light bulbs. He came back with curtains for the no-windows. A year later he was conducting his first tours of the air raid shelter.
Tour guides escort people on sightseeing excursions, cruises, or through public buildings, art galleries, and native places of significance. They describe points of interest and respond to questions. Many of them research topics related to their site, such as history and culture.
“What’s special about our shelter is it’s almost all authentic, just like from the Soviet times,” he said. Some bunkers have been transformed into Cold War and KGB museums, but Pavelas played it close to the vest. “Ours is original, what you would have seen in those days. It’s the only one in Vilnius like it.”
A year after his first tour Pavelas cooperated with Albertas Kazlauskas to form Gatves Gyvos, which means Streets Alive, and Albertas bought the bunker. “He was working for a bank and when the Litas was being converted to the Euro, he thought it would be an opportunity to make a tour company. He’s the owner, a great guy and a great friend. I’m the main tour guide and main handyman.” They upgraded the bunker tour and made it a success, at least until the Covid-19 pandemic brought it to a standstill in 2020.
“We did non-stop tours,” said Pavelas. “I was working nine in the morning until ten at night. The bunker was a money maker although it also eats money.”
Despite his success, or perhaps because of it, Pavelas expanded his tours to include Soviet-era factories located in the Naujamiestu and Zirmunu districts. “They used to make everything, from vodka to electronics. After learning a lot about Soviet Lithuanian factories, I thought people would be interested in them, too.” His favorite is the former ELFA factory.
When the Russians occupied Lithuania during World War Two, the country was largely agricultural. To communize it, they industrialized it. From 1940 to 1959 industrial production in Lithuania increased 9.1 times, while in Russia itself it increased only half as much. Much of the work was in automobiles, tools, and metal processing, and most of it was exported to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
It was full speed ahead in 1963, with plans on the books to build more than 700 new factories, including a synthetic materials factory in Kaunas, a refrigerator plant in Ukmergė, and a glass factory in Panevėžys. A furniture factory in Vilnius was going to be one of the largest in the USSR.
“When the Soviet Union collapsed all the factories were owned by the government, by Moscow,” Pavelas said. “It became like a race after independence, about who could take over the factories first. ELFA was bought and sold and bought until the last CEO standing, who wasn’t that great of a person, shut it down. There’s still a small office on the fifth floor, but it doesn’t exist anymore.”
After the Soviets went belly up Lithuania suffered a significant recession as well as a corrective inflation. It was a mess. There were major trade disruptions because the Russians had been the country’s main trade partner. Radical privatization didn’t help, since much of it was out and out piracy, resulting in a 40% drop in GDP in the first half of the 1990s.
“The ELFA factory produced electric motors for fridges, washing machines, and drills. They made reel to reel tape recorders and record players, by the millions a year. They were shitty compared to Japanese and American production but in Soviet terms the quality was as good as it got.”
The Lithuanians who worked there worked at what was in effect a company town. Entire families were employed in the factories, fathers and mothers and their progeny. “It was child, son, and grandpa and great grandpa,” Pavelas recounted. Some of the factories had their own campgrounds, on their own lakes, and sponsored soccer teams and singing chorales. Instead of a baton the Muscovites led sing-a-longs with a truncheon. Chin music was the consequence of being out of tune.
“The complex takes up about 5 hectares of space and had more than five thousand workers, many of them women. The most memorable item they made is the ELFA-001 reel to reel machine. It cost thousands and only 50 of them were ever made. Another is a small and very powerful motor made for Soviet submarines. Subs have a tower and towers have windows. The windows needed windshield wipers like in a car.”
Another of his favorites is the Sparta plant. “It means speed and fast work,” he said. “Their main product was socks, which they made millions of them year after year. Now the factory is being demolished. I’m glad I had the opportunity to save some items, like stained glasses from the canteen.”
Albertas makes traditional tours of the Old Town, his wife Victoria leads tours for children, mixing entertainment with snippets of history, and Pavelas makes what he calls non-traditional tours, both on the job and privately.
“My main goal is to research industry in Vilnius, its economics mostly during the Soviet times, why and what it was doing here,” he said. “I’m also interested in the industrial history of Lithuania, from the end of the Industrial Revolution, through the inter-war years, and into today.”
The Covid-19 pandemic threw businesses of every kind everywhere for a loop, although if anyone needed to isolate, an underground bunker built with two-foot-thick reinforced concrete walls just might be the ideal place. In the meantime, waiting for vaccination efforts to ramp up and results to happen, they sat it out.
“My guess is that if not for the pandemic our bunker would be one of the famous places in Lithuania,” Pavelas said. “What we opened is the only one in Vilnius and the very first. We had different people come and see it, from deaf people to many foreigners. The bad days came when the lockdown started.” It was all hanging by a thread.
During the second lockdown in Lithuania the sightseeing business was declared out of bounds. “We don’t get any money right now, and we are just trying to survive, but when it is over, people are going to be pouring back in. Our site is unique, in a class by itself.” He felt they were on the edge of something.
It doesn’t always pay to call it a day. The smart money is usually on history repeating itself, which it usually does. The sticks and stones thread is a long unbroken line to a bunker somewhere.