The following is the fourth installment of a new series of editorials which will communicate portions of my recent trip to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (Read the first installment here, the second installment here, the third installment here, and a bonus installment about the animals at Fukushima Daiichi and Chernobyl here.).
After we visited the Unit 4 control room and observed the construction site from the roof of the Sanitorium, we ate lunch before piling in a van and heading to Pripyat.
I flicked on my survey meter and held my sodium iodide scintillation probe up to the window as we travelled down an old road southwest of Unit 4. As we passed the southern side of Sarcophagus, the radiation levels rose and crested.
The road curved to the right as we passed the Red Forest and approached the sign for the City of Pripyat, where newlyweds once stood and posed for pictures in their wedding attire.
The road connecting the Chernobyl nuclear power plant to Pripyat is quiet now, the trees and brush continue to work their way up to the very edge of the road.
We stopped at a security checkpoint before entering the city. Yellow stakes with small triangular signs constantly reminded us of the contamination in the area.
Our driver was from nearby Chernobyl City and remembered Pripyat before the disaster. He had grown up in this area and could never find it in him to leave it. He works for the nuclear power plant now, which helps him to stay close to the places he has known for almost 70 years, by the way he describes the area I got the feeling that he will always remember how it was before the accident – like no matter how old a person may get, they will still be their mother’s child.
A uniformed officer stepped out of a guards building, walked around and inspected the vehicle, opened the doors and eyed the passengers and their bags, turned to the driver and began asking him questions in Ukrainian. Once he reviewed our documentation and was satisfied that we were authorized to enter the city, the guard walked over and lifted the gate as we passed through. As we passed through the gate we passed by a figure of the crucifix, surrounded by little yellow signs.
The administration at the nuclear power plant is not associated with the City of Pripyat, or the management of the exclusion zone, but we were able to arrange for our liaisons from the nuclear power plant, Anton and Stanislav, to accompany us instead of hiring a private service. This was a great benefit to us because of their personal familiarity with the area and buildings.
Anton’s mother had lived in Pripyat at the time of the accident and was in a leadership position for the Communist Youth League. After the accident she was in charge of evacuating certain blocks of the city and stayed at the Hotel assisting the high-ranking officials who were responding to the disaster. Anton told me how he had gone back once to find the apartment that his mother lived in before the accident. I asked him if that had been a powerful experience for him, but he said that it was hard to associate that empty apartment, holding only a few pieces of furniture, with any real emotion.
The city of Pripyat is located in Northern Ukraine near Belarus on the banks of the Pripyat River it was named for. It was created to support operations at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which before the disaster was actually named after Lenin.
(Interesting note: It was actually the western media that mislabeled the nuclear power plant. The nuclear power plant near Chernobyl City was soon dubbed the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Above: “Article that ran in The Times newspaper on April 29th, 1986, describing the accident at the “Chernobyl nuclear power plant”.)
Pripyat and the nuclear power plant sprang up together, Pripyat was founded in 1970, while construction at the nuclear power plant began in 1972. The future for the city seemed to be brighter than other Soviet nuclear cities because it had a port on the Pripyat River, was close to the railways, and also benefited from an efficient local highway system. However by 1986, workers would be constructing a new city, Slavutich, in order to replace Pripyat after it was heavily contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Although it was relatively young, Pripyat was once a model city for the Soviet Union – a vision of the future, it was not uncommon for specific requests be made to settle there. The average age of the population was 26 years old. Residents thought of the city as a type of paradise, it was clean, beautifully landscaped, and some of the lowest crime rates in the country.
In the summer the river provided great fishing, boating, and yachting for locals. Young teens would race small sailboats back and forth past the city.
In the winter for the holiday of walruses some of the braver residents would run out to the Pripyat River for a polar swim.
Pripyat also had its own rock band, named PULSAR. The band would play live shows on holidays like this one on Neptune Day.
During the 1970s and 1980s personal fitness and working out at gyms became much more popular around the globe. In the United States we saw the formation of companies like World’s Gym and Bally’s Fitness, and television shows like American Gladiator. This was also happening in the Soviet Union, and because of the youthful median age of the population, great care was taken to provide ample athletic facilities, gymnasiums, pools, and tracks for athletes of all sports.
Residents enjoyed every amenity and attraction the Soviet government could provide including a hospital, the best department stores, hotels, restaurants, ten daycares, five schools, four libraries, two stadiums, the Prometheus statue and movie cinema, a concert hall, athletic fields, cafeterias, sports complexes, an art school, hobby clubs, book stores, a palace of culture, even a technical college.
Buildings were adorned with and proudly displayed ornate badges, beautiful signage, colorful frescos, and modern art.
Even apartment buildings were adorned, one bearing the coat of arms for the Soviet Union and a Ukrainian flag. Looking out the broken windows of one of the buildings across the central square, I wondered how beautiful the city would have been today, as it would’ve continued growing and maturing.
In fact many new architectural innovations were tested at Pripyat before being implemented as part of the Soviet standard. The city was designed in a way to maximize the comfort of living. Buildings were arranged in a way that maximized the use of space between structures for parks and gardens, instead of being packed tightly together. Even the roads in the city were designed to be “traffic jam safe”. Other towns like Volgodonsk and Togliatti are never jammed with rush hour traffic, even today – and Pripyat likely wouldn’t have been either.
The street names in Pripyat are indicative of the times the city was inhabited, Lenin Square, Heroes of Stalingrad Street, Friendship of the People Street and the Prospects of Builders and Enthusiasts Avenue.
We parked the vehicle near Kurchotova Street and Lenina Avenue, and as I exited I looked at the abandoned apartment buildings 10 stories tall that loomed over the trees. District 1 and District 2 are the two oldest districts of the city.
Kurchotova Street was named after Igor Vasilyevich Kurchatov, the Soviet nuclear physicist and father of the Soviet atomic weapons program and nuclear power program.
At the time of the accident, nearly 50,000 people lived in the city. Pripyat was known as the city of flowers. It was always well-landscaped, everything in its rightful place, and the city was especially proud of over 35,000 rosebushes that decorated it.
As we left the vehicle and made our way into the city we followed a sidewalk towards one of the schools.
Within a few hundred yards, the sidewalk was difficult to find and we were forced to rely more on our liaisons to guide us. We came into a small clearing just before the school building and found a spot of contamination in the middle of the asphalt.
Today the city is barely recognizable from the ground, the roads and sidewalks are being overtaken by trees and vegetation. In the summer it is very easy to walk between buildings without even knowing they are there. It is like someone has taken all of the people and replaced them with trees; little trees, big trees, tall trees, wide trees.
It is easy to disassociate in a way while you are walking through Pripyat, if you don’t pay particular attention – it could easily become less of a city and more of an endless series of empty abandoned buildings.
After thirty years of disrepair and overgrowth, many of the unique characteristics of buildings are lost or hidden, and the most easily perceivable differences are the ones that contain beds, school desks, art, or morgues in them. Still if you take the time to really appreciate the city as a place where people lived their lives; here was the store, this was the way the children would go to school, here is the balcony where young lovers would watch boats pass up and down the river, etc., I think you achieve – in some small way – a greater understanding of what was lost.
A bright yellow booth was at the corner of the old “rainbow” store – which used to be a popular spot for lunch, the glass windows now broken, with a little white stool and a small tree slowly growing inside.
Inside of Middle School Number 3, broken glass litters the floors, desks and books are scattered throughout the building, and the paint slowly peels off of the walls.
When walking through Pripyat, you have to really pay attention to identify what things have and haven’t been manipulated since the accident – you can’t just assume that this was how it was left by the evacuees.
For example, one of the most photographed collections of Cold-War era gas masks on the floor in the school are not from the evacuation, rather from looters who raided the supplies after the city was evacuated for the tiny amount of silver in the filters.
In other areas it is very clear where photographers have staged the scene to give the most dramatic effect. Still to me, some of the most powerful and moving images – the ones that I remember Pripyat by – came from the actual decay and sense of abandonment found in the city, not any of the staged photos – like those of dolls with gas masks strapped across their faces.
We visited the pool “Azure” where employees of the nuclear power plant and residents of the city would come to relax after a long day. Today all of the windows are broken and the trees are making their way inside of the facility. In the last few years some of the visitors have brought spray paint and “tagged” the pool with different symbols and signs. Even after thirty years of neglect, it is still easily apparent how beautiful of a pool this would have been before the accident.
In the main square the “Energetic” Palace of Culture (an elevated form of a community center) still stands in all its marbled glory. It once hosted parties, bands, ceremonies, lectures, concerts and other performances. There were recreational facilities inside including, a gymnasium with seating 15 feet above the floor, cinema, swimming pool brightly lit by windows, boxing ring, a dance hall, and a shooting range in the basement. The Energetic was also a place where artists could always go to find buyers for their works.
In front of the Energetic are the remains of two large square water fountains, recessed into the central square. Inside of these fountains I found the some of the highest count rates I saw in the city.
In the middle of the city used to stand small monuments that would have been meant to encourage the citizens of Pripyat and promote their national values. Today they are either obscured by the overgrowth or in disrepair.
We followed what sidewalk we could make out until we reached the outer track of the Avangard Stadium, where helicopters once took off and landed while conducting emergency operations at the power plant in 1986, now is overgrown by a grove of trees – some of which are over thirty feet tall. Around the perimeter of the facility the tall metal structures that used to hold lights and speakers slowly rust away.
In the center of the city is the main square, where you will find administrative buildings and the famous abandoned Hotel Polesie – one of the tallest buildings in Pripyat, which was used as the base of operations for liquidators in April 1986. From the top of this hotel, on the observation deck, spotters would direct helicopters to drop materials into the crippled Unit 4 reactor.
A few years ago, artists came and spray painted the “Shadows of Hiroshima”, black silhouette images depicting those who died during the disaster.
As we passed the Hotel Polesie we came upon one of the administration buildings that had been utilized as a base of operations after the accident – a tree now growing out of the concrete stairs leading up to the building.
There are many abandoned apartment buildings. Inside any one of them you can find signs of the people who used to live there. Beds, couches, broken ceiling light fixtures, and clothes still hanging from laundry lines on the balconies of apartments.
The fairgrounds are a popular tourist spot just behind the Energetic, in the middle of the city, but they are also where you will find some of the higher ambient radiation levels. The fair was supposed to open on May 1st, a few days after the disaster.
The big yellow Ferris wheel rises over the trees, while the bumper cars underneath slowly rust and decay.
The radiation levels throughout the city are relatively homogeneous although frequent spots of contamination that can still be found if you have the right equipment and know where to look. After the disaster most of the topsoil was scraped up and taken back to the nuclear power station where it is stored. Additional decontamination efforts focused on removing surface contamination from sidewalks, roads, and building structures.
The trail through the central part of town still has patches of residual cesium contamination.
Down by the docks is “The Dish”, a beautiful café with stained glass art and a rounded balcony out back overlooking the water.
Anton explained to us the interpretation of the art and scientists before and after the disaster. Residents used to come pack the balcony of The Dish overlooking the river and docks in order to watch boats arrive and depart from the pier.
We walked down the stone steps to the edge of the pier where we found two scientists doing tests in the river.
Halfway down the steps leading to the water was a small 10-foot landing, in the corners we found pockets of contamination.
A nearby leaf reminded us that even though nature is regaining control over the city doesn’t mean that it is not unaffected by the contamination of the environment.
There was some debate about whether or not we would be allowed to visit the hospital. As the hospital received many of the first victims of the accident, there are areas of the building including the unlit basement (where you can still find gear from the firefighters that responded that night) that are still incredibly contaminated. Some of the highest radiation levels can still be found at the hospital, but be careful of all of the radioactive dust – make sure to at least bring gloves and a mask.
Inside of the hospital some of the old potted plants that used to decorate the facility have continued to grow and reach toward the light coming in through the windows.
As we explored the hospital we entered one of the operating rooms and found some residual contamination on some of the rags littering the floor.
As we left the city, we stopped by one of the old bookstores. The roof was caving in and the building looked to have been scavenged pretty hard. This is the problem with Pripyat these days, what to do with it? It will forever attract tourists and no one is maintaining the buildings, at the same time there would be an assured international outcry if they did try to demolish the city – and that would be expensive. In the meantime, the city continues to transition from a brief period of human inhabitation back into a part of the wild.
All images courtesy of Carl Willis, Heidi Baumgartner, Lucas Hixson, and the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant