When I went to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone I was deeply impressed by Pripyat. The city was home to most of the workers of the nuclear power plant and evacuated two days after the disaster. Now it's a larger than life museum about the Soviet Union. It is the last city of the CCCP.
Now historians discuss, what it meant to live in the Soviet Union and current nationalist movements in Russia are revitalizing the glory of the past. Families pass on their stories and the architecture of the communist times live on. But it was only until I headed to Pripyat, that I could really capture the spirit of the fallen empire. The city tells so much about the planning and identity of being a Soviet city, planned from the scratch. Now it is frozen in time.
Pripyat was a city in Northern Ukraine, that only existed because of the nearby nuclear power plant. It was created in 1970 as the trabant town around the shining Star Chernobyl. It is a prime example of socialist construction. In it’s prime 50.000 people lived there and they had more less everything a Soviet citizen would ask for.
But when disaster struck in the morning of the 26th of April in 1986 everything changed. When reactor number four overheated and detonated the citizens of Pripyat and some of the workers, who came home had an idea of the impact of the catastrophe, while the rest of the world wasn’t informed. But only 36 hours after the accident the authorities started the evacuation of Pripyat.
Which was definitely way to late. Many citizens fell ill afterwards, because they had been exposed too long to the radioactive particles, that were exposed to the air after the explosion.
In a short radio message the city was informed, that evacuation starts at 2 p.m. on the 27th. They original plan was, that everybody could return after 3 days. Now we know, that this became a eternity. Everybody could only take things of most importance with them for there were only 1200 buses to take roughly 50k people.
When it was certain, that Pripyat was lost and the first liquidators cleaned the city people were allowed to come back for a very brief time to collect more of their belonging. Nonetheless, many of the 13.000 apartments of Pripyat still look like if they were just left a moment ago.
Life stopped with full throttle in Pripyat. This is most visible at one particular site: the amusement park. Every larger city of the Soviet Union needed a place of recreation, especially the places of great value. So Pripyat was getting one, too.
As a staircase wit of history the city planners wanted to open the new amusement park on May 1st for the grand may celebrations in 1986, maybe one of the biggest public holidays in the socialist world. Unfortunately reactor number 4 went up in the air four days before the grand opening, so eventually it has never been touched and filled with children’s laughter. Among the rides were bumper cars, swing boats and a giant ferris wheel. This Chernobyl Eye, never set in motion, became one of the international symbols of the disaster.
For me one of the most impressive encounters in Pripyat was school No.3, one of the large polytechnical schools in the region. If I am not mistaken kids from first until tenth grade were educated. A large mass of children, that had to be controlled.
What made our tour so powerful was the element of freedom. We were given 45 minutes to move freely and to explore. Therefore it was really like a real life computer game, which we could explore. You have the feeling, that you are the very first person to ever put foot in a particular room. That you make a real discovery. Of course this is an illusion, but it is a priceless feeling.
Everybody went off to search four floors and so many of the rooms. You find educational books and flags and agitation material at the walls. No room is like another and it feels like the kids might just have left. The paint is slowly falling of the walls, which is really interesting to most abandoned places. Because not living and acting in a room makes everything die.
Some pictures of gas masks on the ground floor are very iconic in Chernobyl coverage. But it is not really clear, if they were used at the days, after the disaster or put there for photo opportunity. For me, the obvious shots were not not so interesting.
And as I was really limited on my ISO as an analogue photographer I instantly strived to go up at the building. my logic was, the higher I will go, the more light I will probably have. And so I went up and up to the roof and - bam - I found my money shot. In a little chamber, next to the roof, were two open boxes of gas masks.
I know, imagination and belief plays a big role if you go to such abandoned places. And Chernobyl and Pripyat are mother and father of such places. But I like to believe, that these boxes were put there for me and I used my time wisely to put them in the right light. The weather was great and so I had great contrast and found just the perfect exposure. The shots I made were among the most important ones for me on this trip.
Next stop was the hospital in Pripyat. Yet another great setting for a movie scene and a good insight into a Soviet Clinic. There are still plenty of instruments and bottles of medication on display. Complete surgery rooms are strong and the wild chaos of the corridors pull you in. The waiting room is a little bit dusty, but would be ready for new patients. Probably in the days after the disaster hell broke loose here in the clinic.
Again, we had 45 minutes to explore and it was striking. With a little hint of our guide Igor I discovered the very intimidating pediatric department. The room for the newborns is mind dazzling. The cradles are empty, but placed in perfect order. It kind of gives the impression, that there is a larger force pulling the strings and that the babies might have an afterlife. It's haunting.
The radiation is fairly ok at the hospital. But there are some items, the liquidators left after the cleansing. We checked one of the gloves, tainted in radiated dirt, which had an enormous output of milli-sievert. So you should definitely not rub it in your face.
When we are talking about the spirit of a city from the CCCP I believe there must have been a giant pride in being Soviet. Mostly due to the victory of the second world war and the propaganda, that followed. Especially in a city, that was based on modern technology such as nuclear power.
Another achievement of the Soviet Union was space travel. I am such a grand fan of everything Kosmos. When we hit the post building of Pripyat of our second day of exploration, I stayed outside the building, because I saw the sparkling mosaic of a fairy on the outside. Everybody was inside the building and I took my time to capture the scene, I was also losing time because I had to change two films. After five minutes the gang headed back to the bus going for the next stop. I curiously asked what I had missed. And what I saw blew my mind, a mural of a kosmonaut.
When we went to the next stop I asked our guide Igor, if I could be allowed to go on my own and run quickly back to the post office. I got the pass and I ran like a mad man back to the premises. My heart was pounding and I was alone with the kosmonaut and his flying love interest. Maybe it’s very awkward, but this solo encounter was one of my favourite moments on the whole trip. The combination of being on my own in Pripyat and a kosmonaut. It couldn’t get any better then that.
I also tried to imagine how it was for a ten year old boy in Pripyat. Going to the post office, standing in line, to send a letter to a friend in Vladiwostok, at the end of the Asian continent. And while you wait to be served you are looking at the kosmonaut and the flying socialist fairy, you dream about space travel and about love. Powerful that is, and you probably think there is no better place in the world than the CCCP, which combines love and the exploration of the universe in smart propaganda.
There have been three cleansing waves on the whole territory trying to remove the superficial radiation on surfaces in Pripyat. On the third wave, the troops also removed all the metal they could detach from constructions to recycle. Metal apparently doesn't store radiation, so it could be a valuable resource. So besides vandalism many of the premises are in a sorry state, because of the attempt to remove and secure the metal.
I watched a short documentary about Pripyat just before the accident and a year after, when scientists returned to measure the radiation. After one year, the lawns and the trees were still in a very urbanized style, in neat order. But when we went up one of the highest living houses everything was in a forest. A city completely captured but wild plants and trees, houses embedded in green and brown. From above it is really hard to see particular buildings, because everything is forest.
The plain and practical architecture of the cubicles was quite common for the the socialist block. Beauty didn't play a big role in the construction, especially as there was no private ownership and all the houses were provided by the state. And on top uniformity delivered a sense, that everybody was equal, from the scientist to the worker, everybody was a chicken in laying battery. But for me, who lived sometime in the region it also a warm feeling of coming home, when I put my eyes on the cubic socialist houses. And seeing them embedded in a thick forest is quite an awkward sensation.
I conclude my first tale about Pripyat with a view on the Sarcophagus of Chernobyl. And if the radiation doesn't kick in, all of sudden, you will soon have a good chance to read the second part of my travelog about Pripyat, the last city of the Soviet Union...