During the early hours of April 26, 1986, a perfect storm of human error and mechanical malfunction at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant culminated to produce what would grow to become the most catastrophic nuclear disaster in history over the course of nine days. The fallout, environmental damage, and human toll of the event can still be measured to this day. Classified as a Level 7 Nuclear Event, or the maximum level available on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the Chernobyl Disaster of 1986, followed by the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster of 2011, are the only instances of a Level 7 Nuclear Event to date. Located in view of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, the model city of Pripyat, which was home to 50,000 people at the time of the disaster, was evacuated in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. The city and all its contents were abandoned almost overnight, leaving behind a city frozen in time. This edition of Cityscape takes in-depth look at the ruins of Pripyat, where the ghosts of Chernobyl are said to haunt the city still.
In 1970, Pripyat was founded as the ninth nuclear city in the Soviet Union. It was one of many so-called "closed cities," to exist within the USSR at the time, a designation reserved for sites of military or strategic importance that required special identification and clearance to enter or exit the region. This being said, Pripyat and Chernobyl were not considered by the state to be as high a security risk as a military installation, and thus the workers and families who inhabited the city were able to enjoy a level of freedom and standard of living that was seen as quite favourable by Soviet standards. The city itself was built as a model town, complete with schools, sports facilities, and even an amusement park.
By the mid-1980s, Pripyat had blossomed into a charming city of 50,000 people and a pleasant place to raise a family. The region's moderate climate allowed for summer months spent boating, swimming, and lounging on the beach, or enjoying some free time at the amusement park, Energetika Cultural Centre, or Prometheus Cinema. For many, life was good in Pripyat and the Chernobyl Nulear Power Plant was viewed as a respectable place to work. The state-of-the-art facility was a symbol of Soviet scientific prowess and pride, and the facility itself was responsible for providing power to the nearby capital of Kiev.
On the day of the disaster, as a radioactive cloud billowed out into the sky, a calm female voice came over the public loudspeakers and informed residents that there had been an "accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station," and that "the radioactive conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating," thus necessitating a "temporary evacuation." Over the course of two days, the entire city, save for a team of firefighters, military personnel, and others kept back to help shutdown and contain the disaster, were evacuated by bus, told to leave all of their belongings behind as they would be back home within a matter of days.
Done silently without news or media coverage, the evacuation zone gradually spread outward from Pripyat over the next two days. The Communist Party only made the news public on April 28, 1986, following the sounding of radiation alarms at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden, more than 1,000 kilometres away. The official statement on behalf of the Kremlin was a terse few lines, once again referring to the disaster simply as an "accident," the effects of which were in the process of being "remedied."
Following the evacuation, firefighters and clean-up crews worked tirelessly to shut down the remaining active reactors and to mitigate the devastation that a further explosion or other such nuclear event could bring. The heroic men and women who stayed behind were known at the time as "Liquidators," and though their sacrifice was downplayed by the state, it is publicly recognized to this day. After all immediate danger was contained, their numbers soon grew to over 600,000, with the state shipping in thousands upon thousands of workers and military personnel from the surrounding countryside to help with the clean-up effort.
Radiation levels have dropped significantly over the years to the point that limited exposure can be tolerated today. Pripyat has become something of a mecca for urban explorers, drawing hundreds of tourists every year who are willing to risk their health for a chance to explore the ruins of the city and capture the experience on film. In fact, visiting Pripyat has become so popular that today those interested in a guided tour can board a bus in Kiev, spend the day exploring, and be back in time for supper.
Among the most popular sites to explore and photograph, the abandoned amusement park offers no end of bleak juxtapositions between childhood innocence and death. The yellow cars of the ferris wheel, a favourite among those to visit Pripyat, has become a symbol of the lost city. Below, a collection of empty bumper cars, seemingly abandoned mid-play, are another popular site to explore, as evidenced by the graffiti visible on at least two of the cars.
Moving on from the amusement park, the ruins of the Energetika Cultural Centre have similarly provided urban explorers and photographers with no end of material; the abandoned pool, gymnasium, and structure itself are another fan favourite for tour groups. Viewed below, the shell of the Energetika Cultural Centre stands prominently in the centre of Pripyat. The structure, like so many others built within the Soviet Union at this time, is a Brutalist-inspired pile made almost entirely out of concrete.
Inside the Energetika Cultural Centre, the swimming pool and gymnasium are among the most photographed sites within the ruined facility. The Liquidators actually continued to make use of the now-abandoned rec centre, pool and all, right up until 1996. Due to this additional decade of use, visitors may feel an increased amount of human connection to the site and the long-term health effects suffered by tens of thousands of surviving ex-workers to this day.
Adjacent to the pool room are the ruins of the attached gymnasium, basketball net still in place. The once-gleaming oak floorboards have been destroyed from exposure. The eerie stillness of the space, accentuated by the rays of natural light that stream in from the missing outer wall, make this another must-see stop for tour groups.
Back outside, the streets of Pripyat are overgrown and devoid of human activity (save for the odd tour group). The intervening 30 years since the disaster have allowed nature to reclaim many of the public spaces, parks, and other voids, and the pavement and concrete seem to be no match for the march of time. The perfect stand-in for a dystopian future, Pripyat has since become the inspiration behind countless movies, television shows, and video games, with the eerie calm of a city frozen in time providing more than enough to spark the imagination.
In all, 31 first responders died within three months of the explosion, and another 237 suffered from acute radiation sickness, followed over the next few months and years by an additional 4,000 exposure-related deaths from cancer and other health complications that can be linked directly to the aftermath of the disaster. There remain potentially hundreds of thousands of former employees and Liquidators who have continued to suffer the consequences of Chernobyl more than 30 years after the event. With no plans for redevelopment, as the entire area is part of an Exclusion Zone that extends outwards from Chernobyl for almost 100 kilometres, it is all but certain that Pripyat will remain very much as it is: a sprawling ruin left to the elements, with more and more of its former splendour devoured each year by greenery as Mother Nature takes her course.
Cityscape will return soon with a new installment, and in the meantime, SkyriseCities welcomes new suggestions for additional cities and styles to cover in the weeks to come. Got an idea for the next issue? Let us know!