Project: The Colors of Revolution

Frozen in time
Post-Chernobyl Pripyat offers glimpse at former Soviet Union,
changes in Ukraine unnoticed in radiation zone

by Thaddeus McCleary

A welcome sign to the city Pripyat.
A welcome sign to the city Pripyat.

On April 26, 1986, townspeople of Pripyat watched as a fire engulfed Unit 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. A single bridge served as the entrance to the city, with a clear view of the facility in the distance. Hundreds of people hurried for the best view along the bridge, not knowing that the evening’s wind was routing fatal amounts of radiation directly towards them. All of those along the bridge perished before evacuations began the next day.

All of the 50,000 workers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and their families were provided flats within rows of high rise buildings surrounding Pripyat’s city center. With construction of the city completed alongside the power plant, Pripyat was the most complete creation of the Khrushchev era.

Workers commuted by rail directly to the power plant center while families could get all they needed from the stores and cafes at the heart of the city. A large gymnasium for plant workers was used even after the disaster, including a basketball court and a swimming pool. A man-made lake and an amusement park provided plenty of recreation for young families.

While firefighters continued to fight the blaze at Unit 4, citizens were given less than a day to prepare to evacuate in busses with only what they could carry. Within three hours, 1000 busses cleared the city of all of its inhabitants. Surely, inside the broken windows of these countless apartment buildings lay time capsules of this travesty of modernization.

Today, bits of gray structures can be seen through the thick trees and brush that have filled the city limits. Vacant buildings and streets are filled only with the sounds of the wildlife that has reestablished its home in the area.

“Living in Ukraine feels much different now,” explained Maxim, a radiation monitor inside the thirty kilometer radiation zone, as he gazed at relics of the Soviet Union in Pripyat’s city park. “Being here reminds me of my childhood.”

A memorial to Vladimir Lenin remains in Pripyat’s city park.
A memorial to Vladimir Lenin remains in Pripyat’s city park.

For most cities in Ukraine the expansion of tourism involves heavy renovation of old structures and destruction of Soviet Union structures throughout city limits. Across the Dnieper River outside Kyiv is what locals have named ‘New Kyiv.’ As a response to living quarter shortages in old Ukrainian cities, apartment high rises were stacked side by side along the river while metro rail expansion and bridge construction created a strong commuter labor force throughout the city.

In the city of Dnepropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine, Soviet structures have been targeted by retail store developers for demolition. A multi-level shopping mall now extends through several blocks of a former residential area.

Inside the thirty kilometer radiation zone near Chernobyl, changes throughout the rest of Ukraine go unnoticed. With the completion of the sarcophagus in October of 1986, the world was left only to seal and contain the catastrophe that continues to destroy the area. For some who choose to visit the area, they will find Pripyat a city frozen in time.