The City the Chernobyl Disaster Left Behind, Then and Now - Atlas Obscura

The City the Chernobyl Disaster Left Behind, Then and Now

Archival images of Pripyat before the accident offer a stunning contrast to what visitors will find today.

The ‘Friendship of Nations’ monument stood in the center of a roundabout near the main road entrance to Pripyat. It featured emergency sirens stylized as horns, emerging between crests depicting the emblems of all 15 Soviet republics. Now the roundabout is buried, and the structure itself almost entirely hidden by trees.
The ‘Friendship of Nations’ monument stood in the center of a roundabout near the main road entrance to Pripyat. It featured emergency sirens stylized as horns, emerging between crests depicting the emblems of all 15 Soviet republics. Now the roundabout is buried, and the structure itself almost entirely hidden by trees. Darmon Richter (left); Sergey Yakunin/PRIPYAT-CITY.RU (right)

Built to house the workers of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, by 1986 Pripyat was a thriving atomgrad. Schools and kindergartens, a cinema, palace of culture, swimming pools, river port, and a respectable selection of shops and cafés—all these amenities served the city’s young populace, by then numbering nearly 50,000 residents. New administrative districts were under construction in anticipation of further growth. Pripyat offered a standard of life above and beyond that of many contemporary Soviet cities, so much so that, “to men and women born in the sour hinterlands of the USSR’s factory cities… the new atomgrad was a true workers’ paradise,” as Adam Higginbotham explains in his recent history of the disaster, Midnight in Chernobyl.

The city of Pripyat stood in the front line of that disaster—just a couple of miles from the ill-fated plant—and now, in the 33 years since the last human resident left, nature has reclaimed it.

Located beside the city’s river port, these shelters connected to the popular Pripyat Cafe and served as a shady promenade for waterside strolls. Their view of the city is now completely cut off, and the concrete support structures show severe signs of decay.
Located beside the city’s river port, these shelters connected to the popular Pripyat Cafe and served as a shady promenade for waterside strolls. Their view of the city is now completely cut off, and the concrete support structures show severe signs of decay. Darmon Richter (left); Sergey Yakunin/PRIPYAT-CITY.RU (right)

In 2017, the most recent year for which figures are available, an estimated 60,000 paying visitors entered the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. A search for #Chernobyl on Instagram brings up hundreds of thousands of hits, many illustrating a new visual language of the post-disaster landscape: gas masks, headless dolls, souvenir kiosks. The historical authenticity of such scenes is often questionable, but beneath the dense green vegetation, amid thickets of new-grown forest, survive real fragments of this would-be utopia gone to ruin.

Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl includes a moving selection of archival images from Pripyat. They’re moving, often, because they’re just so blissfully mundane. Children squat in a playground, drawing chalk lines on the tarmac; retirees gossip on benches; majorettes march out of sync; seemingly everywhere, there are families pushing prams.

Many of those archival photographs are impossible to reproduce now that the forest has moved back in. Vantage points that once offered views of broad, open boulevards are cocooned now by tightly woven trees. In summer, the leaves draw in close around the shells of former buildings, cutting each off from its neighbors. Roads are invisible. Paving stones lie buried under decades of dirt and moss. The football field, now thick with vegetation, is recognizable only by the spectator stalls that face onto a solid rectangle of forest.

The Ferris wheel in Pripyat’s Luna Park was intended for a grand opening on May 1, 1986. That ceremony never came, and now fresh trees have broken through the surrounding tarmac.
The Ferris wheel in Pripyat’s Luna Park was intended for a grand opening on May 1, 1986. That ceremony never came, and now fresh trees have broken through the surrounding tarmac. Darmon Richter (left); Petr Vyhovsky/PRIPYAT-CITY.RU (right)

This disconnect between past and present, between nostalgic family photos and the half-buried city—a post-modern Pompeii explored by tens of thousands of international tourists—can only expand. Nature is relentless. Trees have snuck up on the Ferris wheel in Luna Park. Pripyat’s School No. 1 has lost an outer wall, leaving third-floor classrooms open to the sky. The city’s main thoroughfare, Lenina Avenue, has shrunk from a two-lane boulevard lined in sidewalks and neat grass to a single dusty track flanked by undergrowth so dense that, in summer, it’s hard to see the houses for the trees.

Official Chernobyl tours, heavily regulated by the Ukrainian government, offer less each year to the growing number of visitors. The city of Pripyat is falling apart, and the death of a tourist could do serious damage to what is now a multimillion-dollar industry for Ukraine. Rules about not entering the buildings, typically somewhat lax in the past, are increasingly being enforced. The modernist diving board at Pripyat pool was until recently one of the most popular photo targets in the city, but the installation of motion detectors has now ensured its removal from itineraries.

Pripyat’s main swimming pool was located inside a striking modernist building near the Palace of Culture. It was used as late as the 1990s by clean-up workers, but now the empty pool is graffitied, choked with litter and leaves, while bushes block the view out the dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows.
Pripyat’s main swimming pool was located inside a striking modernist building near the Palace of Culture. It was used as late as the 1990s by clean-up workers, but now the empty pool is graffitied, choked with litter and leaves, while bushes block the view out the dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows. Darmon Richter (left); PRIPYAT-CITY.RU (right)

It is already difficult to reconcile these forest ruins with the lives that once inhabited them. Some enterprising companies are now offering premium helicopter tours over Pripyat, and one day, when the roads become impassable and the entire area is deemed unsafe for tourists, these may be the only views that are left: concrete skeletons breaking above the surface of the forest, and the sarcophagus over Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 shining silver on the horizon. In the meantime, the atomgrad, consumed by nature, sinks to the forest floor, taking its memories, nostalgia, and political aspirations with it.

Pripyat was always a green city, but in the 33 years since the accident the trees have filled all empty spaces between the buildings. They reach almost as high as rooftops in places, while the view of the Chernobyl Reactor on the horizon has been augmented since 2017 with the installation of the new safe confinement shelter, a 350-foot steel sarcophagus.
Pripyat was always a green city, but in the 33 years since the accident the trees have filled all empty spaces between the buildings. They reach almost as high as rooftops in places, while the view of the Chernobyl Reactor on the horizon has been augmented since 2017 with the installation of the new safe confinement shelter, a 350-foot steel sarcophagus. Darmon Richter (top); Nikolay Belekhov/PRIPYAT-CITY.RU (bottom)