Ruin and reclamation
Our bus is stopped as we reach the border of the exclusion zone. The group disembarks. To our left, soldiers barking instructions and inspecting our credentials. To our right, a stall selling T-shirts, gas masks and cans of air from the heavily contaminated Red Forest. This is Chernobyl, 35 years on from the world's worst nuclear accident: a sombre memorial and popular tourist destination, an active workplace and derelict jungle, a radioactive wasteland and thriving nature reserve.
Established in the aftermath of the disaster, the zone covers 2600 square kilometres in Ukraine alone and borders an exclusion area of a similar size in neighbouring Belarus. It is estimated that it will take another 20,000 years before either can be declared safely habitable.
It is illegal to enter the zone without a state-sanctioned guide, but some do, evading the authorities, squatting in the upper reaches of Pripyat's high rise blocks, breaking into forbidden areas, breathlessly filming their dosimeters as the reading creeps up and up.
I'm here not for radioactive thrills, but to see this unique corner of the world that is still the Soviet Union, to witness nature's slow but irresistable reclamation of entire towns and villages, to have a chance to meet those who defied the regime and returned to their contaminated former villages.
We cross the border and the roads instantly improve. For all its vastness and bleakness, the zone remains an active area and part-time home to 3000 workers enlisted in the maintenance of the former reactors and New Safe Confinement.
Our guide hands me a dosimeter. Its reading is reassuringly low, a background level about half that of neighbouring Kyiv. I attach it securely to my belt as we make our first stop in an abandoned village on the outskirts of the zone.
The houses are shrouded in foliage, some barely accessible. Few items remain: some old toys, books, newspaper cuttings. Possessions of any value had long since been plundered by looters, taking advantage of the disarray that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Nearby we find the secret military settlement of Chernobyl-2, built to serve the enormous 'Duga-1' radar installation. We walk through the old school in an awed silence broken only by the crunching of glass underfoot and the intermittent beeps of our dosimeters, at once both reassuring and decidedly unnerving. My jaw drops as I enter the music room; portraits of composers stubbornly clinging to the walls, an old upright piano rotting in the corner. It's a desperately poignant sight.
We stamp our feet at the door to the minibus to shake off any unwelcome cargo and begin our journey towards the 10km zone. This was the first area to be evacuated, some 48,000 people removed from their homes in a brisk three-hour operation, friends and families fragmented forever in the space of an afternoon.
Ten minutes into our journey, our guide tells us to turn on our dosimeters. The beeping suddenly intensifies and we watch with a kind of horrified fascination as they return readings some 100 times higher than in Chernobyl-2. At that very moment, the doomed Reactor 4 hoves into view for the first time. It's a formidable piece of choreography, but the radiation is coming from the forest, not the power plant. Our heart rates ease with the falling numbers.
Despite the high levels of contamination and in defiance of all expectations, wildlife has flourished in the zone. Some plant and animal species have proved unusually resistant to radiation, and the site has become a highly important area of scientific interest. Elk, roe deer, wolves and even bears have surged in number, spared from human interference.
Built proudly as an 'atomgrad,' a closed city housing the workers of the nearby Chernobyl power plant, Pripyat was once considered a highly desirable place to live. The facilities and standard of living far outstripped the majority of settlements in the Soviet Union, as the regime sought to reward the plant's workers for their contribution to the 'Peaceful Atom.' Its population of nearly 50,000 enjoyed two cultural centres, a school of arts, ten gyms, three indoor swimming pools and two stadiums. An amusement park, slated for opening mere days after the explosion on April 26, 1986, now serves as the kind of tourist attraction its designers could never have foreseen.
"Pripyat is a jungle," declares our guide over the intercom. She means this literally. It is impossible to comprehend the extent to which nature is reclaiming this city until you see it from ground level. Main roads are reduced to narrow paths; entire tower blocks surprise you suddenly from behind a mass of trees.
Rules forbidding tourists from entering buildings are honoured more in the breach than the observance. Our guide is responsible, though. Some places are rightly off-limits, such as the hospital that houses the still heavily-contaminated uniforms of the first firefighters on the scene, and a number of tower blocks in danger of collapse.
While the background radiation in Pripyat is low, there are a number of 'hotspots,' objects or places that were exposed to high levels of radiation in 1986 and which still bear its invisible signature. The most famous of these is a mechanical claw, used to pick up chunks of graphite from the exploded reactor's core, and which for some reason was left in the grounds of the amusement park. One of our group leans inside to capture the highest possible reading. The distinctive alarms of the dosimeters sound as the radiation soars through the 5 microsievert/hr threshold to a final reading of 175. Even this isn't considered dangerous for a short time, but I choose to keep my distance.
Finally, we reach the square, home to Pripyat's hotel, Palace of Culture and supermarket (apparently the first of its kind in the Soviet Union). It was in this hotel that the Soviet authorities and workers stayed in the aftermath of the disaster. Here, too, the buildings are slowly starting to succumb to nature's attentions. Trees have started emerging, improbably, from the roofs of the high rises. We pass a collapsed wing of a tower block, fatally weakened by roots and finished off by heavy rainfall.
Our final stop for the day is Cafe Pripyat, down by the waterfront. Some of its beautiful stained glass remains, glowing in the last of day's sunlight. As we leave the lake behind, my dosimeter catches a final memory from 1986: the liquidators throwing off their contaminated clothes and boots from the reactor before being taken away to an uncertain future.
Valentina finishes each answer with a downward look and a little sigh. I’m hit by the strangeness of our position: eight tourists in an elderly woman's house, asking questions about a time of intense pain and upheaval, 35 years on. Is our presence a respectful one or merely an intrusion? I ask her directly if she finds it too difficult, reliving these memories over and over again. Not at all, she replies matter-of-factly. It’s a lonely existence in Chernobyl, and this way she gets to meet new people from all over the world. She looks up with a little smile and asks us where we’re all from.
In late April 1986, Valentina and her family were evacuated from their home. They were forbidden from bringing pets, and with assurances that they would be returning a few days later, they left with only a handful of personal items. Valentina tells us that they had no reason to disbelieve the authorities, nor to doubt the official version of events. After all, they weren’t scientists. Soon, though, it became clear that the village she grew up in was destined to be closed off to the outside world forever. Family members began to be slowly resettled in different parts of the country. Valentina had other ideas.
Valentina is a 'settler,' one of those who moved back to the Chernobyl exclusion zone against the orders of the government. Her original home was considered too dangerous to destroy*, so was entombed with hundreds of others, their former existence marked only by strange little hills along the side of the road. She found another which later met a similar fate on the orders of the government. Valentina wrote directly to Gorbachev to protest. By this stage, though, the regime had started to soften its approach to those like her who chose to return, and while she wasn’t able to save her house, she was caught by the Soviet safety net, and given a home and support to enable her to live the life of her choosing.
The conversation continues and before long there are nibbles and ‘Chernobyl vodka’ on the table. “Take some,” our guide tells us sternly. “In Ukraine, it’s rude if you don’t!” A vodka shot at 2pm is a bracing endeavour, but one must be polite. Valentina, meanwhile, has produced an accordion, and to everyone’s delight, embarks on an exuberant duet in a minor key, her little dog howling raucously at her feet.
You might reasonably expect that someone with such appalling first-hand experience of the failings of the Soviet Union might harbour bitterness towards the old regime, or express relief that the communist government had been dismantled five years after the explosion. If anything, though, Valentina speaks almost wistfully about those days. I ask how the local population came to see the USSR differently in the months following the disaster; she pivots away from the question to criticise the actions of the current government instead. She is pressed by another member of the group: how did things start to change after the fall of the Iron Curtain? “Everything got worse,” she replies emphatically, “starting with the food.”
One of our group is Ukrainian, a young medical student from the Black Sea resort of Odesa. He is politely stunned to hear what seems to be an unusually lenient attitude towards the old regime. It's not hard to imagine such opinions being taboo in modern Ukraine. Apparently, though, it is not uncommon to find some among older generations who miss aspects of life under communist rule. Despite everything that happened to Valentina and her family, she always felt that the government would provide for her, and they did. When the Soviet Union collapsed, I suspect that this feeling began to die with it. Chernobyl must be a terrible place to feel vulnerable.
Valentina acknowledges that her little village will quietly slip away as her generation dies, belatedly joining those that have already been pillaged and reclaimed by the forest. Who would move here, with such little infrastructure and such obvious dangers? Her face lights up suddenly. “But by coming, you are helping to keep Chernobyl alive,” she says with a smile.
* homes of wooden construction proved the most problematic for the liquidators, as they absorbed the water used to wash off radioactive debris from other buildings.
A few of the shots featured were taken with a Soviet Helios 44-2 lens, manufactured in 1972, that I picked up in Kyiv. For the rest, I used my Fujifilm travel kit: X100V & X-E3 with 18mm f2 and 35mm f1.4 lenses.