Continued from part one.
Prypiat is a small city in the Kiev Oblast district of Ukraine. It was founded in 1970 to house the workers of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in what was then known as Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Home to nearly 50,000 people, Prypiat was a city boasting much higher standards of living than many of its Soviet counterparts. The city was designed with the maximum in comfort and accommodation for the residents in mind. Prypiat held 13,414 apartments in 160 blocks, plus residences for unmarried workers, 15 primary schools, 5 secondary schools, 1 professional school, 1 hospital with a capacity of 410 patients, as well as numerous shopping, dining, and recreational facilities.
Prypiat was evacuated on April 27, 1986 at 2pm. The citizens were informed of the evacuation by radio broadcast, with only two hours notice. A translation of the evacuation notice is as follows:
“For the attention of the residents of Pripyat! The City Council informs you that due to the accident at Chernobyl Power Station in the city of Pripyat the radioactive conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating. The Communist Party, its officials and the armed forces are taking necessary steps to combat this. Nevertheless, with the view to keep people as safe and healthy as possible, the children being top priority, we need to temporarily evacuate the citizens in the nearest towns of Kiev Oblast. For these reasons, starting from April 27, 1986 2 pm each apartment block will be able to have a bus at its disposal, supervised by the police and the city officials. It is highly advisable to take your documents, some vital personal belongings and a certain amount of food, just in case, with you. The senior executives of public and industrial facilities of the city has decided on the list of employees needed to stay in Pripyat to maintain these facilities in a good working order. All the houses will be guarded by the police during the evacuation period. Comrades, leaving your residences temporarily please make sure you have turned off the lights, electrical equipment and water off and shut the windows. Please keep calm and orderly in the process of this short-term evacuation.”
The evacuation process took 3.5 hours, using 1,100 busses from Kiev. The residents were told that they would be permitted to return to their homes in three days, but no one has lived in Prypiat since that day.
Construction of the city of Slavutych, 45 km away, was begun in June 1986 to house the displaced residents of Prypiat. Most of the survivors were relocated here. The design of the city was planned to be “21st Century” with many very modern conveniences, such as multi-level townhomes and indoor swimming pools. The population in 2007 was 25,000 but that number has dropped in recent years as residents are migrating to other cities, due to loss of work at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
Following our break for lunch at the Chernobyl employees’ cafeteria, we boarded the bus for the final stop on our tour, the ghost town of Prypiat. In the last few years Prypiat has gained a certain level of notoriety due to the several television shows that have filmed episodes there, such as Destination Truth and The Vice Guide to Travel. The recent film Chernobyl Diaries has also stirred up a renewed interest in Prypiat, despite the fact that it was filmed in Hungary.
Prypiat is guarded by the last of the checkpoints, which is manned by a lone guard and a shifty dog. We passed through then left our bus a few minutes later, as we would continue our tour through the city on foot. Our first stop was the Prypiat Hospital. Drenched in lush growth, the building was unrecognizable as a hospital from the from the outside. According to Oksana, the 28 firefighters who responded first to the fire at the reactor were brought to this hospital when they began showing signs of radiation sickness. They were quickly evacuated to Moscow’s Hospital #6, which was the only hospital in the USSR capable of handling their cases. They died in Moscow, but their clothing is still in the basement of the Prypiat Hospital, and is highly contaminated. Behind the hospital is a promenade leading to the Prypiat River. Dilapidated vending machines lined the path to the crumbling stairs that lead to the water.
We continued along the promenade to the Prypiat Cinema, where the statue of Prometheus originally stood. The mosaic tiles of the building are still brightly colored, even as they fall to the ground in pieces. We were able to go around to the emergency exit and enter the theater itself. The darkness inside only served to highlight the eeriness, as the tattered remains of the movie screen swayed in the light breeze.
We left the theater behind and continued down the overgrown sidewalk as Oksana described the “Pram Parade” that took place here nightly, as parents brought their children out during the summer months, 25 years ago. We passed by apartment towers, their doors and windows propped open. We then approached the Cultural Center, once home to a lively community, now decrepit, mouldering and covered with ominous graffiti. Again, our group was allowed to enter a portion of the building. My boots slipped over broken glass and other debris as I made my way into the lobby. A peeling yet very colorful, and very Soviet, mural loomed overhead. The dusty staircases crawled toward the upper floors, but we weren’t allowed to continue.
The boxing gym was our next stop. The octagonal building must once have been beautiful, with a sky high dome and floor to ceiling windows. Now, however, it is still beautiful, in a very different way. The glass in the windows has been broken, and tree branches weave through the cracks. The stuffing from the mats is inches deep all over the floor, and creates a surreal nest for the lone pommel horse, standing in the middle of the room.
As we left the boxing gym, the most iconic symbol of Prypiat was perched tall above the trees, the Ferris wheel. The amusement park was under construction during the first part of 1986, and was scheduled to open on May 1, for the May Day celebration. As we rounded the corner and the large space came into full view, it was incredible. The rusted metal parts of the structure, complete with a laurel design, were in sharp contrast to the still bright yellow of the baskets. A ticket booth, tagged and sad, stood nearby. Oksana told us that it is rumored the amusement park opened for a short time on April 27, 1986 to distract the city’s residents from the quickly escalating crisis at the nearby reactor. Regardless of the truth of that rumor, seeing the amusement park brought the sadness and desolation to the surface, especially given the fact that the most radioactive patch of moss in the world grows just to the left of the bumper cars.
Our last stop was the complex of buildings housing a former grocery store, amongst other things. As we approached, Oksana pointed out the various aisles and shelves, and translated the still standing signs for us: beer, meat, bread, produce. Oxidized and broken shopping carts littered the scene, but the art surrounding us was the main attraction. Decidedly Banksy-esque, well crafted paintings graced the walls and lended a macabre touch of humanity to the landscape. Someone took the time to apply a bit of beauty to this dark place.
We then got back on the bus and left, and then had the two hour trip back to Kiev to process what we had seen. For many people, the Chernobyl accident is a distant memory, and it is a non-issue for the others. Some of the people with us on our tour were children in 1986, the others not even born. What is the attraction? For me it was a reminder of my teen years, at the tail end of the Cold War, and a disaster that seemed to be the Soviet Bloc’s ultimate demise. It was the scene of a terrible accident, and yet, had I not gone, I would not have seen the hope that the Ukrainians have. It was only five years later that Ukraine became an independent nation, yet that fledgling nation was left to clean up and maintain the worst nuclear accident in history.
Ultimately, I am so glad that I went. Even though I still cast a suspicious eye toward the hiking boots and clothes that I wore that day.
Note: I have deliberately omitted death toll information from this post. Due to suspected lack of complete and accurate information from the USSR, numbers vary from 48 people to 650,000 people to over 1,000,000 people. If you’d like to come to your own conclusion, there are many resources available on the web.
Many thanks to our tour company and guide for a very informative and memorable experience.
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Jeannine Thigpen says
Beautifully written and the photos were haunting. I learned a lot. Thank you for sharing your experience.
You were meant to travel and write – very well done.