Visiting the Evacuated City of Pripyat in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
The Founding of Pripyat
Pripyat was founded on February 4th, 1970 in northern Ukraine, close to what was then Belorussia and now known as the independent nation of Belarus. This city was built just a few miles away from the town of Chernobyl, which had been populated since at least 1193 (the date of the earliest written record of it). It is also a few miles away from the infamous Chernobyl Power Plant which began operation in 1977.
The city of Pripyat was built purposely to house the workers for the plant which was planned to have a total of six reactors but only managed to have four before the disaster struck.
Population of Pripyat Before The Disaster
The population of Pripyat grew as the workforce required for the Chernobyl Power Plant grew. Pripyat was designated as a city in 1979, two years after Reactor 1 came online at the power plant. This was followed by Reactor 2 in 1979, Reactor 3 in 1981 and Reactor 4 in 1984. Reactors 5 and 6 were still under construction at the time of the disaster in 1986 and were never completed.
At its height, the city had a population just shy of 50,000 people.
Who Lived in Pripyat?
Perhaps Pripyat's most famous residents were the firefighter Vasily Ignatenko and his wife Ludmilla. They lived in small one-bedroom apartment next to the Pripyat fire station where Vasily worked. On the night of the explosion of reactor 4, Vasily was one of the eight firefighters who attended the scene from Pripyat. They all believed they were attending a regular fire and had no idea of the intense radiation they were to be exposed to. All 8 firefighters were amongst the 30 people to lose their lives in the days and weeks that followed the disaster.
Ludmilla, pregnant with their child would live on even though she was exposed to seriously high levels of radiation from her bedside vigil to Vasily in hospital. She kept her pregnancy secret from the authorities and from hospital staff (although some staff were reportedly bribed) for fear of not being able to see her husband. Her baby died, however, due to the absorption of all the radiation that Ludmilla was exposed to.
Pripyat was also home to Anatoly Sitnikov and his wife, Elvira. They resided in apartment 88 of a 9-storey apartment block from which they were able to see across the Chernobyl Power Plant and Reactor number 4. Anatoly was the Deputy Chief Engineer for the 1st and 2nd Reactors. He wasn't on duty on the night of the accident but was called from his bed to go and inspect what was left of Reactor 4. He was exposed to a lethal dose of radiation and died in hospital of acute radiation sickness shortly after.
Like most new settlements of its time, Pripyat was a construction of the Soviet Union and designed to fit within its utopian narrative and vision for the future. It had a strong cultural and communal sense about it with a focus on sport and education.
Around the central square was the palace of culture, a supermarket and a hotel. With grand boulevards linking it to the residential blocks which lined streets with revolutionary names such as Lenin Avenue and Revolutionary Street. And of course, a large statue of Lenin stood in the centre.
Inside the Abandoned Buildings of Pripyat
All of the buildings in Pripyat have been completely stripped of anything of any value. But inside the buildings, you can still get a sense their original purpose and imagine what it would have been like before that fateful night in 1986. The school building still has desks in classrooms and other equipment that is still in the same place as it was over 30 years ago.
There's a way on to the roof of the 3-storey building which gives a glimpse of just how much nature has taken over the city in the years since the evacuation.
The swimming pool building still stands and offers a very clear window into what life was like in the city.
Pripyat Ferris Wheel
A famous symbol of Pripyat is the Ferris Wheel and the small amusement park. The park was due to open on May 1st, 1986, but the disaster put paid to that and it stands now having never been used—although some say that it opened for a very brief period following the disaster but this must have been literally for only a few hours as the evacuation of the city took place only two days after the incident.
Radioactivity in Pripyat
The low radiation levels in Pripyat make it safe to visit for a few hours, but it will never again be safe to live there. It would be next to impossible—or at the very least, far too risky—to make the place inhabitable again. Whilst the 'liquidators' did what they could to remove radioactive materials from the city there are many areas of contamination that remain. For example, a water channel runs through the middle of the amusement park. If you put a dosimeter to the floor where the channel lies beneath it will show high levels of radiation.
In Pripyat, you will also find a mechanical claw that was used to remove highly radioactive graphite from the Chernobyl reactor. Why this has been left in Pripyat I do not know.
Pripyat Was a City of the Soviet Union
When Pripyat was planned and built in the 1970s all the streets were landscaped and carefully designed in a style befitting the Soviet aesthetic of the time. Looking at photos from the pre-1986 period one can see very few trees. Today, however, Pripyat is a ghost city within a forest. On the ground, it is difficult to orient oneself or even make a lot of the buildings that are still there but which are now shrouded from view by all of the trees.
From the roof of the taller buildings, such as the 9 and 16-storey apartment blocks, you get a real sense of how the city has been completely reclaimed by nature. What's more, you can clearly see the Chernobyl Power Plant from the top of these buildings. On a grey day, the silver steel of the enormous reactor 4 containment facility blends in with the sky. But you can still clearly make it out.
Video of Pripyat Before the Disaster
If you enjoyed reading this article about the evacuated city of Pripyat in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone please feel free to leave me a comment in the space at the bottom of the page.
If you are interested in reading more about Chernobyl and/or would like to know more about how you can plan a visit to the Exclusion Zone please click on the link below.
- One Day Tour to Chernobyl and Pripyat
Travel tips and advice for planning a one day tour from Kiev to the Chernobyl exclusion zone and the evacuated city of Pripyat, complete with photos.
Would you visit the Pripyat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone?
© 2019 Matt Doran