Chernobyl: Stepping back in Soviet History

Image of a yellow triangle denoting radiation danger which I have called the flag of Chernobyl because of how common it is in the area.
The Chernobyl Flag!

I must admit that when my husband first told me he wanted to visit Chernobyl I knew nothing about it. In fact, I couldn’t even have pointed it out on the map! What’s even more surprising is that he isn’t even the adventurous one in this duo, so I was pretty surprised to hear he wanted to visit an abandoned nuclear plant and fair ground (which is all I thought it was at the time!). However, years of playing Call of Duty with his friends in the abandoned town of Prypiat meant he was adamant. And let’s face it, I’m never going to turn down the chance to go exploring!

We visited Chernobyl in March 2018, before the Netflix Series “Chernobyl” had aired. Although by the time we went it was already growing in popularity with various tour operators already in place, the release of the series has truly put Chernobyl on the tourist trail. In fact, bookings since the release of the series have gone up by 40%! So if you are going now expect queues! Luckily for us, we were one of only 2 tourist groups in the exclusion zone that day!

What is Chernobyl?

Chernobyl is a town in Ukraine near the border with Belarus, however, when people discuss Chernobyl, they mainly refer to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and the now Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone. On 26th April 1986 a routine test went catastrophically wrong resulting in two explosions in Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant that led to widespread fire and the release of radioactive particles into the air.

I won’t spoil the series “Chernobyl” which will do a much better job of describing the events than I will however all I will say is: a lot of lies were told, the truth took a long time to come out, reactions were slow and a lot of lives were affected because of it! Watch Chernobyl, you won’t regret it!

Following the mass evacuation of all towns and villages the area now remains abandoned, a snap shot of Soviet life in 1986 that is slowly being taken over by nature (or zombies if you have an overactive imagination!). We went on a tour of the area with Chernobyl Tour which I can highly recommend as they were fun and informative. However, be prepared, it is not for the faint hearted! This isn’t a playground, it is a disaster site where many people lost their lives and it will certainly get under your skin!

Photo of the Palace of Culture in a small village within the 30 km Chernobyl Exclusion zone. An imposing building with large white large pillars, still standing strong amongst the overgrown trees.
Abandoned Palace of Culture in small village near Chernobyl

The Tour

We set off early in the morning, in freezing temperatures, for the 300km round trip to the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone. The exclusion zone surrounds the failed nuclear plant in a 30km radius and access is strictly monitored by the army. You have to apply to visit in advance and all documents are thoroughly checked before you are allowed in. You can apparently get very long queues here in the summer months, however, since we had chosen a weekday in March during the notorious cold weather that the “Beast of East” brought with it, we were alone and check in was speedy.

*Please note it is worth using the toilet facilities here as you won’t get another chance until you stop for lunch*

Zalissya

Past security we made our way to our first stop: Zalissya! Lying 25km from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant it is the largest village (now abandoned) in the exclusion zone. The 3,000 odd inhabitants were evacuated in May 1986 leaving behind a busy town which has now been taken over by nature and stray dogs!

Image of me playing with a one of the stray Chernobyl dogs. The dog is lying on its back as I scratch it's belly.
Savage dog!

As soon as we got out of the mini van the dogs were all over us, specially me! They were jumping up, grabbing my arms, tripping me up… In fact, they wouldn’t leave me alone! This continued at every stop and it wasn’t until the end of the day that I realised I had treats in my pocket which they could smell!! No wonder I was popular!

Zalissya looked to be a rather vibrant village, with a supermarket, hospital, school and even a Palace of Culture. The Palace of Culture is an imposing building with big white pillars in the entrance which served as a theatre, library and meeting place. Despite the windows having shattered and the floor collapsing, the red communist banner still survives: “Communism is a bright future for all humanity”. The building later became a barrack for the army that was sent in to clean up the reactor.

The red sign reads in Ukranian "Communism is a bright future for all humanity"
Palace of Culture

We spent an hour wandering through the village, stepping into people’s homes, imagining what life might have been like. The belongings left behind tell a story of hope that one day they may return to their beloved home, unaware of the reality that was unfolding just 25 km away. Pots and pans left in cupboards, clothes still in their draws, toys lying on the floor where the kids had left them. We went into the supermarket where the old-fashioned fridges still remained (the milk was out of date though!).

Photo of an abandoned supermarket. All shelves and food has been removed, however the old fashioned fridges remain.
I wonder what happened to the food that was left in the supermarket?

What was once a sizeable village has now been claimed by nature leaving only the most robust buildings. It’s good to know that nature can bounce back much quicker than humanity.  Maybe there is hope for planet earth after all!

Image of one of the houses in Zalissya having been taken over by nature. The house is collapsing under the weight of the foliage.
House for sale – doer upper!

From here we drove into the 10km exclusion zone, the much more highly contaminated area. Whereas people now live within the 30 km radius the 10 km radius surrounding the power plant remains highly contaminated and access to it is restricted. People do work inside the zone, generally on two week rotations to minimise exposure, and they have to carry a dosimeter with them at all times to ensure they aren’t exceeding their daily and weekly radiation allowances.  

Radar Duga -1

Our first stop within the 10 km zone was Radar Duga-1. This radar was a Russian over-the-horizon (OTH) radar used as a Soviet anti-ballistic missile early warning system. Until the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster, nobody was aware of the existence of this radar. Not even the locals! In fact, they were told it was an old abandoned Summer Camp which you would easily believe since the turning lies next to a bus stop adorned with children characters! It was even marked as a children’s camp on the maps!

Photo of the antenna, a massive metal frame.
Duga 1

It’s rare to find soviet era war structures like this, however, because of the nuclear disaster and the contamination they were unable to dismantle it leaving us a rare piece of Soviet History. No description or photo will do justice to the sheer size of it. There are two antennas, the larger one sitting at 150 metres high and 500 metres long, while the second slightly smaller one is still a significant 125 metres tall and 250 metres long. Hard to believe such a structure could have gone undetected for so long! In fact, they didn’t discover it until the US did a fly by to assess the damage to the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant.

Adjacent to Duga – 1 lies a small military base (I think called Chernobyl 2) which housed the 1,500 workers who operated the computer systems needed to run the radar. Since the reason we were in Chernobyl was because of Call of Duty I thought I’d pretend to be clearing out the rooms army style…. It seems I’m the only one silly enough to play that game in real life! It was pretty eerie wandering through the debris strewn corridors. We didn’t find any computers, however there were a number of books and technical drawings lying about as well as some large metal machinery.

Kopachi

Our final stop before lunch was Kopachi, a settlement only a few kilometres south of the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant. It was a thriving village at the time of the disaster, however all that remains now is the kindergarten and the war memorial. All the wooden houses have been destroyed and buried under ground, their location now marked by the mounds of earth that they were hastily covered with.

Eerie photo of a dirty doll, missing an eye, sitting on one of the abandoned bunk beds at the Kopachi Kindergarten.
Doll left behind at the Kopachi Kindergarten

The kindergarten stands alone, with it’s abandoned toys and rusting bunk beds. There is a palpable silence here. A place that would have been filled with laughter now devoid of life. It’s a similar feeling to that of the S-21 prison in Cambodia. Of course part of the eeriness has been created by other visitors who have tampered with the toys putting gas masks on dolls for a more impactful photo.

Despite the ground being covered in snow (meaning radiation is much lower as dust particles are not exposed) we still managed to get some significant readings in the area surrounding the kindergarten, especially by one of the trees where I can only imagine something must have been buried.

Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor 4

As we drove to the nuclear station canteen for lunch we got our first view of Chernobyl’s Nuclear Reactor 4 with its new safe confinement sarcophagus shining in the sun. There was a really interesting program on the BBC “Inside Chernobyl’s Mega Tomb” about how the new hull was put into place. Quite an engineering feat! It is no longer on iPlayer however if you can find it watch it! The documentary follows the construction of the 36,000 tonne steel structure which was built against time to ensure it was in place before the collapse of the hastily built original sarcophagus.

Photo of the memorial monument of two hands holding a structure. The monument sits in front of the now sealed sarcophagus which covers Reactor 4
Reactor 4 hidden under it’s new sarcophagus

Because of the radiation they couldn’t build the sarcophagus in situ. Instead, and incredibly, the new structure was built to one side and then put in place using rail tracks! It is the largest ever structure to have been moved on land!

Soviet Lunch

We had a traditional Soviet lunch in the canteen (all part of the experience!) with the workers. Not the best food I’ve ever had but it did fill the gap! For starters some form of broth followed by a meatball kind of burger with rice. Better than the food however was the experience. In order to get into the canteen you have to pass a radiation test. You hop on a body scanner and wait for it to give you the go ahead before you proceed to ensure you aren’t bringing any contaminants in with you. If for any reason you don’t get the green light then you need to discard of those garments and thoroughly wash!

Photo of me standing in the body scanner with my hands elevated. This machine makes sure you don't have any radioactive particles on you.
Making sure I am not radioactive

The Red Forest

Lunch marked a pace change and the tour got to a whole new level of interesting. Destination Prypiat!

Ukranian sign that says Welcome 1970
Welcome to Prypiat

On the way we stopped off at the signpost that says Welcome! It also happens to be the path the radiation cloud first took creating what is now known as the red forest. Because we were there during the Winter the forest looked to be devoid of life, however, it is actually flourishing with an astonishingly fertile habitat for many endangered species.

When it first happened the trees turned red before keeling over (hence the name). The liquidators bulldozed the area and buried all the trees. This remains one of the most contaminated areas and often tourists end up picking up (unbeknown to them) particles of radiation at this location which means having to go home without your shoes or clothes! Luckily for us this wasn’t an issue as the ground was covered in snow. Otherwise it could have been an uncomfortable ride home since we had brought no spare clothes with us!

The Bridge of Death

The drive to the town of Prypiat takes you over The Bridge of Death, so called as this is where all the locals stood the night of the explosion watching the fire, unbeknown to the fact they were standing right in the path of the radiation. It is believed that many of the people who stood on that bridge died within weeks of the explosion, however, we will never know as the government purposefully didn’t keep any records.

Prypiat

Image of a decaying indoor basket ball pitch in the city of Prypiat.
Sports hall in the city of Prypiat

Prypiat was the main town which housed all the families and workers of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The 43,000 inhabitants were evacuated on the 27th April in a matter of a few hours. Nobody has ever returned to live. The city stands as it was left giving you a glimpse into life in Soviet 1986. Yet in the 33 years that has passed nature has truly started to claim the area back. As we drove down the narrow road weaving in between trees we were shown a video of the road we were on. This was the wide 4 carriage way avenue!

View from the rooftops with the new sarcophagus of Reactor 4 in the not so distant horizon
Standing a top of one of the concrete buildings in Prypiat. You can see how close Reactor 4 was!

We wandered into the main square where the hotel and Palace of Culture still sit with their imposing buildings. We also explored the Supermarket and the cinema and concert hall where we stood on the stage looking out at the empty seats.

Prypiat Amusement Park

Image of the bright yellow (now rusting) ferris wheel with a "Caution radiation" sign in front of it
The famous ferris wheel

Behind the main square stands the abandoned amusement part which was due to open as part of the May Day celebrations in 1986. With the town having been evacuated on the 27th April 1987 it meant the rides never got to be enjoyed. The dodgems lie dormant, the 26 m ferris wheel gently swaying in the wind, the yellow capsules a bright contrast against the otherwise grey horizon. The amusement park is one of the most iconic scenes of Chernobyl and features not only in movies but also in a number of video games, including Call of Duty (and the reason why we we’re here!).  

Image of the abandoned dodgems cars in their rusty enclosure.
Fancy a game of dodgems?

From the park we took a walk through the forest, which turned out not to be a forest at all as we discovered when we reached the stands surrounding the football stadium! And from there we moved on to the swimming pool, another setting in the Call of Duty game. According to a another blog the pool was apparently kept in use whilst the liquidators were working in the city. Now, of course, it stands empty and lonely. Yet another location that screams of silence when it should be filled with joy and laughter.

Photo taken from the stand overlooking what was once a football pitch... not just an expanse of trees!
Looking out over the football pitch!

Our final stop was an apartment block from where we were able to get a panoramic view of the city. It was worth the leg burn to see the sprawling city slowly being taken over by nature. The large shiny sarcophagus of Reactor 4 is seen just a stone throw away, a reminder of how close the citizens were to danger! On our way back down from the rooftop we went in to several apartments, a sobering peek into life in 1986.

A photo of pots and pans sitting a top of kitchen surface, left behind by the rushing residents as they evacuated their homes.
A glimpse into people’s homes, their belongings left behind in the rush of the evacuation.

In memory of the heroes

Visiting an abandoned town is eerie in itself. Visiting a disaster site such as Chernobyl, The Killing Fields of Cambodia or Auschwitz gives a whole new perspective. I can’t describe it, but you can feel it. The deafening silence in those places where there should be the sound of joy and laughter cuts right through me. The weight of death and pain is palpable in the air.

Unlike The Killing Fields and Auschwitz, there was no mass murder in Chernobyl. In fact, the official number of recorded deaths was low. The Soviet Union only recorded 31 deaths! The reality however is different. Greenpeace estimates that between 93,000 and 200,000 died as a result of radiation.

The ones I want to mention however are the firefighters, the liquidators, the army and the miners who put their lives at risk; who knowingly walked into the danger zone, who sacrificed themselves to save many others. 28 firefighters died very shortly after the explosion from severe radiation poisoning. Many others however died a much slower more prolonged death. Unlike 911 however, their recognition internationally is pretty non-existent. They were however heroes nonetheless.

Image of a monument constructed to commemorate the firefighters that lost their lives during the Chernobyl disaster. The image shows stone firefighters carrying hoses.
Monument in the town of Chernobyl in memory of the firefighters that lost their lives

Thinking of visiting Chernobyl?

My recommendation would be to do it! It is safe, it is educational, it is interesting and more than anything else it serves as a brilliant reminder of the dangers of nuclear power and nuclear waste. It serves as a great history lesson but more than anything you will be inspired by nature’s capacity to heal.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Chernobyl ranked as one of top dark tourism destination, looking curating this year as I am keen dark tourist, I would really be interested seeing the contaminated firm mans uniforms that was shown in a locked room on the Chernobyl series at the end off it, how not sure if you be allowed to take pictures of these as in auschwitz which we visited last year, you was not allowed to take pictures of the hair which I understand, I be adding about my experience to there on my blog soon

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