With an unsteady hand, the camera zooms in on two children playing with a toy crane, their small faces innocent and happy as they build a city with tiny blocks and buckets. Above them, men hastily spread thick smudges of cement before adding a brick and quickly tapping it into place with a trowel. At some point that day the children went home, but the men stayed and continued working at their brisk pace, barely pausing to survey the walls slowly rising around them.
That was 1976 and construction workers were busy building Pripyat, proud Soviet city of the future and home to the employees of the Chernobyl power plant three kilometers away. The power plant, which already had four large reactors, was to be the largest power plant in the world and a total of twelve reactors were planned; construction of reactors five and six was already underway. Workers couldn’t build apartments fast enough to house the swells of young people arriving in this new city every day, well-educated men and women in their twenties with promising futures ahead of them. Pripyat was the place to be.
Watching home videos of Pripyat before the 1986 disaster, it’s impossible not to smile and feel affection for this city built from scratch. Yes, the building stock is limited to plain concrete boxes with rows of uniformly distributed windows, typical modern, efficient, and predictably bland Soviet urban planning. And without cultural clues such as building names in Cyrillic and the deciduous forest in the background, Pripyat looks boring enough to be a suburban town anywhere, be it China or Yugoslavia. No, it’s not the city’s bright, modern architecture that warms viewers' hearts but the people, their smiling faces captured on home video as they enjoy a simple, comfortable life in their community.
The city of Pripyat and the power plant were two and the same, and one could not exist without the other. The Chernobyl plant provided such efficient bus service to its employees that few Pripyat citizens owned cars, and the city in turn was very people-oriented. Streets were lined with trees instead of parking, residents and cyclists navigated their small city unencumbered, sounds of birds and footsteps filled the air instead of lumbering vehicles. Apartment buildings looked welcoming surrounded by trees, playgrounds, and people instead of dead zones for parking. In the absence of cars, everything was clean, safe, and thoroughly delightful. (A noticeable lack of consumerism and cell phones adds a genuine vitality to the videos.)
By 30:36 of the Pripyat video compilation, the tone turns somber. Something is awry and, unaware of the situation at the power plant, citizens are visibly confused by the sudden appearance of military personnel in their community. They gawk at tanks driving down wide Lenin avenue, and one citizen questions officers in gas masks only to be brushed off. By the next day, though, Pripyat is empty, its citizens finally notified and evacuated. Officials told residents they could return in a few days, prompting them to leave everything behind but what would fit in an overnight bag. The rest is history, as they say.
The YouTube compilation ends with Pripyat in 1990, camera panning the empty streets for evidence of the city’s past life. Laundry hangs from windows in tatters, café umbrellas sway listlessly in the breeze. Previously tidy landscaping is now unkempt, the 33,000 rose bushes planted throughout the city swallowed up by overgrown bushes. There are no people on the sidewalks or children in the playgrounds, but traces of pre-disaster life are everywhere. Three decades and various clean-up crews failed to eradicate the presence of Pripyat’s citizens, and proof of their existence hides in the thick overgrowth that slowly consumes this city built with eager hands just years before.
Silly me with my endless parade of photo-related disasters, I managed to delete a third of my Chernobyl trip photos before saving them to my computer. Of course, those photos were of my favorite part of the trip: the Duga-3 radar system with its command and training centers. Nicknamed "Chernobyl 2" and tucked into the forest ten kilometers south of the power plant, Duga is one of three Soviet 'over the horizon' radar stations for early detection of ballistic rocket attacks. And let me tell you, this "sturdy but utterly obsolete monument to the bloody and bellicose 20th century" is beyond bizarre.
The radar installation itself is a massive, beautiful array of missile-shaped metal orbs and wires; it's more a modern piece of art than the cutting edge, top secret military equipment it was intended to be. Conspiracy theories abound on the true purpose of the secretive military device, and Sundance Film Festival's recent Russian Woodpecker documentary goes so far to suggest that the Chernobyl disaster was staged to cover up the expensive failure of Duga, which cost 7 billion rubles to build (twice as much as the nuclear power plant).
But if Duga’s stunning antenna array and questionable backstory aren’t fascinating enough, a tour of Duga's command center and control rooms is sure to render anyone speechless. Our group entered the dilapidated cluster of buildings at the base of the array and got to work exploring the maze of rooms dedicated to protecting Soviet citizens from American missiles, each room more surreal than the previous one. Despite peeling paint, walls had been freshly painted with bold, confident colors like cobalt blue and clay red, and mixed with white ceiling tiles, oversized 1970s technology, and the aura of decay, I was overwhelmed by this raw, bizarre beauty. Each room is its own work of art, I thought to myself.
The command center was a scene from a science fair gone awry: Styrofoam models sat broken and grimy; a hand-painted section of the earth’s atmosphere was punctured and sprouting mold; colorful buttons and their particle board panels were in complete disarray. Instead of being impressed by such uber-modern technology, I couldn’t help but laugh at the thought of serious Soviet military men, man boys, playing with their fancy gadgets, pretending they were protecting their citizens from danger thousands of kilometers away when the real threat was in plain view. Like so much of the Soviet Union, it was superficially impressive but fundamentally pointless.
Next to the oversized antenna array is a small town, a miniature Pripyat home to a thousand military personnel and their families. Unfortunately, our group didn’t visit the town, so that -- combined with my lack of photographs -- is reason enough to return to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
Cafe Pripyat & pier
Tragically, I lost many of my photos from the fire station. The most interesting part of this building was the scale model of Pripyat, used by first responders to identify locations.
Avantgard stadium & track
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone wouldn't be an official part of Ukraine without a smattering of moments and memorials, and there are plenty honoring the brave firefighters, liquidators, and victims.
Just like the book The World Without Us explains, Mother Nature is slowly reclaiming the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in the absence of humans. Most of the site looks normal, although the 1986 disaster left a few bizarre clues to the massive amount of radiation unleashed. Sure, there is the red forest and its small clusters of copper-colored coniferous trees, and the comically oversized catfish swimming in the water near the power plant. But most of nature looks normal, albeit strange as it gradually devours the once bustling city. Lara told us that there are no birds or insects in the area (not sure I understand that), so the forests are oddly silent with its few wild horses and foxes dependent on snack food-bearing tourists for survival.
Power plant tour
The tour of the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station was an interesting experience, especially so because I got to see inside the lives of power plant employees. The building itself is desperately boring, but the interior finishes suggest a optimism and efficiency the Soviet Union never quite realized through their nuclear power program. The "golden corridor" is lined with ridged metal paneling and flimsy sheets of linoleum buckling thanks to cheap adhesives; time has not been kind to the power plant, but upgrading the facility would be a pointless endeavor. I passed a cracked door and peeked in: a few wan employees were sitting on a bench quietly smoking cigarettes in the dingy break room. When at work, most employees sit in windowless rooms lit by florescent lights, surrounded by massive computers that whir and blink as they monitor the reactors.
Many power plant employees commute into Chernobyl via train, and our group took this train to our hotel in nearby Slavutich (the hotel in Chernobyl was full, high tourist season). It was surreal to pass through radiation checkpoints and passport checks to enter the dark, secured tunnel that served as the train's platform. Cheery music playing in the background sang about life being a holiday, but standing in the gloomy, dystopian station, a holiday couldn't be any further away.
And... should I be concerned about radiation?
The total number of victims of the Chernobyl disaster is unknown, although officials estimate 600,000 lives were affected. About 4,000 people have died from radiation exposure and related cancers, a number that includes all of the firefighters that responded to the reactor explosion. According to the tour company, there are many types of radiation types and site visitors are exposed to gamma radiation, contaminants the body disposes of very quickly. More harmful beta radiation, which stays in the human body forever, is located only close to the reactor shell. Anyone visiting the site, regardless of season, is required to wear long sleeves and pants; aka, cover it up. There are radiation hot spots throughout the exclusion zone, spots where the highly radioactive material ejected from the reactor core landed in 1986. There were a few checkpoints, including at the canteen and train station, within the exclusion zone where people and vehicles had to pass radiation monitors.