Exactly ten years ago, when I was living in Kyiv, I visited Chernobyl for the first time. Following the HBO TV series “Chernobyl”, I thought people might be interested to see what the real place looked like. Here are 25 of my pictures, with captions.
In 2009, 23 years after the catastrophe, the town of Chernobyl itself was still functioning – 4,000 people worked there. The nearby town of Pripyat, a place of 50,000 souls where workers and families were evacuated the day after the explosion, generated the spookiest “ghost town” images.
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In 2009 there was a small but thriving tourist business taking visitors to Chernobyl from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, around two hours’ drive away. To enter the area of Chernobyl and Pripyat you had to pass through a control point.
The sign at the entry to the town of Chernobyl still proudly displayed its nuclear status. It reminded me of the sign at the entry to Los Alamos, New Mexico, into which I hitch-hiked in 1979 (see my series “The Americans” – links in bold capitals are to other posts on this site) which proclaimed the city as “Birthplace of the Atom”.
In 2009 some vehicles which had been used in the 1986 clean-up operation were still parked in Chernobyl itself. They were marked with radioactivity warning signs. But tourists could no longer visit the main vehicle storage park, which had recently been declared too radioactive for safety (see below).
Our tour included “lunch in the Chernobyl canteen”: actually, pretty tasty but perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea.
The firefighters’ memorial in Chernobyl showed an evocative scene of terrified medics seeking to tend firefighters suffering radiation sickness. Fire crews suffered some of the highest casualties in the initial response to the explosion.
The giant catfish in the cooling ponds at Chernobyl came to the surface in their hundreds when we threw bread in the water. Our guide told us they were big not because of mutation, but because they could live their lives in peace with no-one catching them. Catfish can live 60 years.
In 2009 Chernobyl’s reactor No.4 looked like this – partially encased in a “sarcophagus” of concrete built after the 1986 accident. It has since been enclosed in an additional stainless steel dome, completed in 2019.
The sign at the entry to Pripyat is typical of those built outside Soviet cities of the period – a futuristic, concrete vibe.
The centre of Pripyat was slowly being taken over by nature. Otherwise, things were largely as they were when the city was evacuated on 27 April 1986. You can see the Soviet emblem on the top of the block of flats in this picture.
The interiors of many of the large buildings looked like scenes from a post-apocalyptic disaster movie. The murals next to the staircase are typical of Soviet public buildings.
Most of the damage in these scenes is the work of nature, time, or souvenir hunters (see below).
Trees taking over a gymnasium – note the wall bars.
Some plants can act as biomonitors for radioactivity. The uncertainty about where residual radioactivity might be concentrated is one of the unsettling factors in deciding to visit Chernobyl and Pripyat.
We were shown a store-room filled with old Soviet placards. It is sometimes difficult to know whether such scenes are real or have subsequently been staged to entertain or shock tourists. I would view with caution any pictures of Pripyat or Chernobyl which show dolls, toys or gas-masks – most are staged.
The fun-fair at Pripyat, due to open on 1 May five days after the accident, is one of the most famous sights of the city.
When our guide waved his radiation monitor over this patch of repaired ground near the fun-fair, the reading – audible to all of us – went through the roof. According to the guide, the repair pre-dated the accident. How did this patch become so radioactive – before 1986? Or was the reading somehow staged for our benefit?
I would be interested to see a contemporary picture of these rusty bumper-cars, if they are still there ten years later. I imagine their shock value will decrease as they become more overgrown and rusty. Could anyone be tempted to restore them a bit?
I’d be keen to see an update of this picture of a swimming pool, too. Once, it would have been a fine facility.
An abandoned room full of cots. Again, it is hard to know to what extent such pictures have been staged. The doll on one bed looks like a later addition.
This picture of an abandoned school library gives an impression of the chaos of Pripyat in 2009. The fact that the books are worthless and covered in potentially radioactive dust helps explain why no-one feels much like picking them up. But by then, souvenir hunters and scavengers had already been active across much of Pripyat, despite the risk of residual radiation.
An abandoned school room in Pripyat.
Civil defence posters at a school in Pripyat warn children of the dangers of different threats including air, radiation, and chemical threats and how to respond to warnings. Families are encouraged to teach their children how to put on gas masks.
An abandoned piano in Pripyat.
In this school poster a friendly dwarf is encouraging children to wash their hands, especially before eating.
This picture, taken from a helicopter when I visited the site two years later, in 2011, shows a park for abandoned vehicles. I would be interested to know if anyone has more recent pictures. According to some reports, the vehicles have since disappeared, but what happened to them is not clear.
I hope you enjoyed this post – if you did, please share. You may also like my piece The Russians – Vladivostok – set in 1994.
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