Pripyat, a city near the Dniepr river in northern Ukraine, was built in 1970 to house workers at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, just three kilometres away. Almost 50,000 people lived and worked there.
When Chernobyl reactor no. 4 exploded just after 1am on April 26, 1986, the 1,000 ton concrete containment lid over the reactor was blown aside like a paperweight, blasting out ionising radiation and chunks of radioactive debris. Exposed to the air, the graphite and fuel rods inside the reactor to burst into flames.
Despite dangerous levels of radiation, it was more than 36 hours before the Soviet leadership decided to evacuate the city. By then, sixteen weddings had taken place in Pripyat, and the firemen who attended the fire that first night had begun to die. Men, women and children were told to take only a bag for a few nights, that they were being evacuated as a precaution. They would never return. Pripyat was abandoned, a 30 kilometre exclusion zone was established around the site, and a further 300,000 people in affected parts of Ukraine and Belarus were resettled.
In the days and weeks after the disaster, tens of thousands of men – volunteers, young army conscripts, helicopter pilots, firemen, even miners brought in to reinforce tunnels under the reactor – fought to extinguish the fires and clean up the radioactive debris. With only the most basic protective equipment, they were known as ‘liquidators’.
In the West we know it as the ‘Chernobyl disaster’ or ‘accident’, but in Ukraine and Belarus it is known as ‘the Catastrophe’. It is very difficult to gauge the lasting effects of Chernobyl, made more difficult by incomplete records, a mobile population, conflicting findings and political stonewalling. But Pripyat, empty for years, has become an unlikely tourist destination, the setting for computer games, music videos and films. People now walk among the ghosts.
Through interviews and photographs taken in March 2010, a little of Pripyat’s story is revealed through photographs and the words of those that lived and worked there.
With many thanks to Evgeney Gagushkin, Lyudmila Starodubtseva, Jeanne Rumiantseva and Roman, and Linda Walker of the Chernobyl Children’s Project who made this possible.
The city sign on the road to Pripyat (При́пять in Russian). Flowers and wreaths are a common sight on the statues, signs and plaques that remain in the zone. They have become memorials to what was lost – the city itself; two-thirds of the population were graduates, Pripyat represented the pinnacle of Soviet modernity and achievement.
“I was maybe three years old. There were many children born there, it was a beautiful, happy city. Schools, swimming pools, cinema, everything there was the best. When people came from Moscow to Pripyat, they used to say we lived in a resort. It was a very clean city, designed by a very good architect, built according to modern town planning theories, using the latest designs.”
“We lived in a high-rise flat near the centre, by the culture palace near the main square. After graduation in St Petersburg we got to Pripyat in 1975. We had three bedrooms, everything we needed, all mod cons. We lived there for eight years. it was the best place in the world.”
“Once we saw the damage I was depressed, because the no one else realised the extent of the problem. I realised that no one would ever be coming back. I realised there was no hope for Pripyat.”
When Pripyat was built a statue of Prometheus, the god that gave man the secret of fire, was erected in the city centre. It seemed apt, with nuclear power representing man’s mastery of nature’s most powerful forces. After the accident, it was moved to a new home by the Chernobyl Exclusion Area administration offices, outside the city. Like this monument to the liquidators only a few hundred feet from the reactor, today the only statues inside Pripyat commemorate the brave and the dead.
“Since we worked at the power station, when we were called to clear up we did what we had to do, we did our duty. We realised that the consequences of not doing it were terrible. We realised it was very serious and that we could die from the radiation, but it was no use thinking about it.
“We were ordered to stop the chain reaction in reactor no. 3 and we did. The pilots flew sortie after sortie in helicopters because it had to be done, but it killed them all.
“The fire was put out on the first day, but the reactor core was giving off such heat and light that it seemed as if it was still on fire. You could see it at night, bright, many different colours. Like an electric fireplace, glowing, pulsing with light, all the colours of the rainbow. It was beautiful.”
One of the tallest buildings in Pripyat, it was from here that people watched the multicoloured plume of burning blue, yellow and green fire from the reactor light up the night sky, unaware they were receiving a potentially lethal dose of radiation.
Throughout Eastern Europe, symbols of the Soviet Union and statues of Lenin or Stalin have been torn down. But in Pripyat, where the year is still 1986, the beady eye of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin still watches visitors to the city, and the wreathed hammer, sickle and star of the USSR still adorns buildings.
Not everything in Pripyat remains the same – like the trees that force themselves up through the concrete or the tourists that come to gawp, the present day forces itself upon the city, acquiring 21st century graffiti unimaginable during Soviet times.
Chernobyl has become a major source of tourist income for Ukraine, with proceeds funding a government ministry dedicated to the post-Chernobyl clean-up.
Former residents were allowed to return to collect belongings in the mid-90’s, and guided tours began a few years later. Widespread looting of metal, wood and electrics has been a problem for many years. For a decade after the disaster the city retained a Marie Celeste sense of abandonment – tables laid for dinner, hospitals with beds still unmade. Now the buildings are largely stripped, empty and decaying.
Pripyat’s first and only supermarket – due to open on May 1st 1986, it never did. Signs still mark the frozen section, and trollies still clog what is left of the aisles.
One of 15 abandoned schools in Pripyat, still strewn with books, musical equipment, toys and propaganda – not least the banners painted for May Day parades but never used, the impact of the images of illustrious Soviet leaders fading like the paint’s colours.
Few schoolchildren during the 1980s could boast such familiarity and experience with gasmasks.
So many curious eyes have passed through School No. 4, so many photographers looking for a lasting image, the sense grows that what you see is not the ruined city as it was left 24 years ago, but instead what those unnamed and departed visitors wanted to see, by means of any props found to hand: gas masks, pictures of Lenin, colourful children’s books in bold cyrillic, ragged dolls.
Signs of Life
In truth, Pripyat is not a ghost town – around 4,000 people work in the exclusion zone monitoring the decaying reactor, radiation levels and wildlife. A new city, Slavutych, was built outside the zone after the disaster to house the workers, as Chernobyl’s remaining reactors were still producing power until 2000, when the plant was shut down as part of an agreement with the EU.
Some workers don’t relish the commute from outside the exclusion zone, however, and set up home inside the small town of Chernobyl from where the power plant takes its name, further than Pripyat from the reactor but still inside the zone.
Lyudmila and Evgeney lived in Pripyat. Lyudmila was evacuated while Evgeney, a technician at the plant, stayed behind as a liquidator, and continued to work at the plant until its closure.
“We were working on the third reactor because we were scared that it could be destroyed as well, a chain reaction. The structure was badly damaged, and it was a very thin wall between one reactor and the other. We had to make hundreds of trips to the reactor to cool it down with sand, it took five days to cool down the fuel rods. Only one man had a dosimeter [to measure radiation] and he was crying ‘faster faster faster!’. There were thousands of rads [unit of radiation] in there, we had to run back and forth, eleven of us, wearing only cotton boiler suits.
“Three died there. Others have got various diseases. There are disabilities that can’t be seen, I have high blood pressure and headaches, there have been organic changes in the brain. Lyudmila had an operation in 1985 to treat cancer, after working at the reactor.
“We have a son, 28, he has thyroid problems, He was eight years old when he was diagnosed with a disease that leaves white spots on skin, checkups revealed the thyroid problems too. He went to Cuba on the exchange program for children of Chernobyl.
“When the reactor exploded the concrete cover deflected the stream of neutrons into the forest. But it could have deflected it the other way, towards Pripyat. No one would have survived.”
“The level of radiation was so strong the pine forest turned reddy orange, it supposed to be green but it became orange in only six hours.
“After we were evacuated we were afraid for our friends and family who were still there. We tried to call them but the lines were dead, there was no news, no information. Everyone had to go to May Day celebrations – in Minsk, in Kiev, even with the radiation from Chernobyl spreading in the air we had celebrations with all the children and families out on the streets. The bigwigs in the Communist Party were there showing their devotion with their families, despite knowing the dangers.
“Though there was no official information, people were trying to leave or get to safety, whatever they thought safety was. There was panic. In the Soviet Union, when you hear nothing, you know it’s bad.
“What happened, happened. No matter how the party misbehaved, they also helped people, they were helped to resettle and recover, given flats and houses and jobs.
“We went back only once, in 1995. We had an opportunity to go there and we were curious. The grass grown tall, the place was dirty and destroyed. I didn’t want to go back. Too many memories.
“Before the catastrophe and after the catastrophe – it is like before the war and after the war. No one will ever forget, nothing is ever the same again.”