Pripyat is the abandoned city in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the zone surrounding the nuclear power plant where a flawed safety test led to a catastrophic fire and meltdown in Reactor 4 in April 1986. I visited the exclusion zone in a one day trip from Kyiv in June 2009.
Pripyat on foot
While we also stopped at memorials and drove past the Red Forest, the experience that lingers with me still is the visit to Pripyat. The tour bus stopped in the city and we were given time to explore the location on our own. I completely lost track of time, engulfed in exploring the ruins with my camera, and it wasn’t until an insistent, continued honking of a car that I finally snapped out of it and returned to the group.
Pripyat was a city for the soviet elite and still after 25 years of looting and decay, murals and decorations display the proud symbols of the time. Kosmonauts, healthy women, happy children. They probably lived a good life up until the day where they were told to leave the city “temporarily”.
The amusement park is famous on pictures. I also found a public library, a shopping mart, and an abandoned post office. I visited on a warm sunny day in June, the vegetation that slowly reclaimed the site was lush green and very much alive, a sharp contrast to the empty concrete caves left behind by humanity.
We were instructed to not eat, drink or smoke while on the site, and to not pick up anything. Besides in a few areas such as the Red Forest, radiation levels are not high enough to pose a significant increased health risk for a shorter stay. The primary health risk would be if you pick up a radioactive source and carry it close to your body for a long time, such as in a pocket or in your stomach. For that reason, we were guided through a scanning area upon exiting the exclusion zone. The scanners were unmanned, instructions were verbal or in Cyrillic, the equipment looked like something from the 1960ies.
As a Scandinavian I went into this venture with high trust in other people, clearly expecting that “if it was dangerous, it wouldn’t be allowed”. Obviously naive, the trip increased my cultural understanding. After having signed the papers wavering any claims, personal safety was a personal responsibility and rules were not enforced. The tour guide and members of the group freely smoked and were busy living in the moment.
I also visited the museum in Kyiv about Chernobyl. While my Scandinavian brain asked questions such as “how many died from increased exposure following the accident?” and “how were the learnings from Chernobyl applied to prevent similar disasters elsewhere?”, the exhibition told stories of individual heroism of firemen and first responders whose actions in the first days, weeks, and months helped contain the disaster.
I’ve started following Timothy Snyder, an American historian specializing in the modern history of Central and Eastern Europe, who is the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University.
This fall he is teaching an open course on The Making of Modern Ukraine and the lectures are published on YouTube.
It’s been a while since I was sitting through lectures at a university so I also get flashbacks of nostalgia. Solid brainfood though, lots of intellectual calories. Highly recommended if you can squeeze in the occasional 50 minute lecture in your weekly schedule.
As an extra recommendation, Timothy Snyder is under sanctions by Russia.
I previously posted about my visit to Crimea.