One of the largest man-made disasters in human history took place on April 26, 1986. Since then, the time in the Zone, called the Chernobyl Zone, has changed its course. Tens of thousands of people had to resettle within days. Thousands more left their homelands over the next few years. As a result, time stopped in the Zone after the evacuation of people. Trees grow in the middle of the streets. Animals walk between houses. Everything done by man, in the name and for the sake of man himself, fell into decay.
The so-called Chernobyl Zone was created the day after the Chernobyl accident, on April 27. A circle with a radius of 30 kilometers was drawn on the map. The settlements located in it were dangerous for living. Those who lived in the critical 10-kilometer zone faced an urgent and obligatory evacuation. The rest left native places gradually, as the housing was commissioned, to resettle the settlers.
Parts of the villages abandoned by people are not even on the map today. Only their names remain… Now, you can hardly find some villages, covered with dense green cobwebs, undergrowth, bushes and abandoned gardens. They greet rare guests with broken windows. However, there are a few villages where people, mostly old residents, have returned after their decontamination. The Chernobyl catastrophe became a cruel warning that not everything in this world is subject to people.
If you get to the Chernobyl zone from Kiev, you will definitely come to the so-called “road of life”. It is the only way where the evacuees left after the explosion at the ChNPP to the regional center Ivankov. In the course of numerous patching repairs today, “the road of life” resembles a “time machine”. Riding on this, it is impossible not to indulge in the memories of someone’s youth or childhood. There is an installation of a huge white egg along the road. It is a stone symbol of the revival of life in the Zone.
Traveling through checkpoints
The exclusion zone is 2600 km2 of the territory, contaminated with radionuclides, which will maintain a high radiation background for hundreds of years. There is a limited traffic on the territory of the Zone. Checkpoints are installed. You need to get permission from the State Agency of Ukraine for the management of the exclusion zone to come here and to go through checks. There are special requirements for guests. And you must not violate them. For example, one should visit the Zone only in the closed outfit. Also, you can not take anything out of the Zone, or smoke. To avoid the threat of contamination, they do not even allow putting things on the ground. Moreover, it is forbidden to enter buildings because most of the walls and roofs are in disrepair.
Having passed the check at the checkpoint and having received instructions, you need to drive several kilometers along a deserted road. There are plaques with the names of the evacuated villages and information on how many people once lived in them. For example, 3,000 people once lived in the village of Zalesye, located near Chernobyl. There were two collective farm brigades in the village, and a large dairy factory worked. After the accident, almost all the inhabitants of Zalesye relocated to the village of Novoye Zalesye. Of the forest dwellers, only five self-settlers, people who independently returned home, remained on the territory of the Zone. The last resident of Zalesye died in 2016.
In total, 1,200 of the nearly 120,000 evacuees returned to the Chernobyl zone. Now, the number of self-settlers is much less. Most of them live without any connection with the outside world. Besides, some houses don’t have even electricity or gas. Periodically, law enforcement officers visit these people. On Thursdays the “car shop” delivers food to the elderly. They say that self-settlers live to an advanced age. However, their number is still decreasing every year.
The communist past remained in the Zone forever
Chernobyl has a long history. The first mention of it dates back to 1193. Then the city belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Later, it became part of the Russian Empire. In the second half of the 18th century, Chernobyl became one of the centers of Hasidism in Eastern Europe. Nowadays, Chernobyl is the administrative center of the Exclusion Zone. All enterprises operating in the Zone today, including the Chernobyl NPP itself, and employ several thousand people. Most of them live outside its borders, although Chernobyl has dormitories, a canteen, a hotel, and a post office. A favorite pastime of foreign tourists is sending postcards from this special city.
A memorial complex was built in Chernobyl at the expense of charitable assistance. It consists of symbolic tablets with the names of the disappeared settlements. But the memorial complex is going to replenish with a dozen more tablets due to the fire that took place in 2020. There are several sculptures, transported from the disappeared villages on the territory of the complex. They created a mini-park. Moreover, there are symbolic mailboxes between the plates. Many people leave letters there on memorial days.
And Chernobyl, like the rest of the villages of the Zone, remained forever in the USSR. There is a huge monument to the leader of the world proletariat on the central square of the city, along the club. A fire department is still operating in the city. Its rescuers were the first to take part in eliminating the accident. 28 firefighters from this unit received lethal doses of radiation exposure. They all died within two months of the accident. Today, a monument has been in front of the fire station. The monument has the inscription “To those who saved the world”. Also, it is an interesting fact that the workers of this unit extinguished the Red Forest, which burned for several weeks in a row in 2020.
Technique is at the exhibition, liquidators are in the graves
The city has a small exhibition of equipment that took part in the elimination of the accident. Of course, all of its exhibits were selected from among the least contaminated objects. There are armored personnel carriers sheathed with metal plates. The staff used them to transport liquidators to the NPP. There are German-American robots, and a lunar rover, with the help of which liquidators threw fragments of graphite rods from the roof of the reactor. Although they did not work for long, they managed to go down in the history of eliminating the consequences of the accident.
The radiation background on the roof of the reactor was critical. Equipment went out of order faster than a person. Volunteer soldiers, who later replaced the equipment that had fallen into disrepair, coped with the task no worse than lunar rovers and robots. The technique continues to serve even now, at least as an artifact of the exhibition. But the guys who were throwing pieces of graphite from the roof of the reactor with shovels are no longer alive.
There is an inconspicuous turn into the forest near Chernobyl. There is a collapsed stop, hidden in thickets of trees on the side of the road lined with wide slabs. A smiling “Olympic Bear” is a painting on its wall. In Soviet times, people believed that a pioneer camp or a children’s recreation center was somewhere nearby. In reality, it did not exist.
The road from the stop led to a completely different object, although it was really indicated on the map as a pioneer camp. The road led to the secret object “Arc”. It was an early warning radar for ICBM launches. There were only two such stations in the USSR. And both of them had a top-secret mission. With their help, the USSR could determine the exact time and coordinates of the launch of US ballistic missiles. This made it possible to take measures for the evacuation and retaliate against the enemy.
“Arc” was specially placed near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The station was a reliable source of uninterrupted energy supply to multi-meter communications. The location of the “Arc” was encrypted, giving it the symbolic meaning of a children’s recreation center. Well, who might be interested in a pioneer camp? After the accident at the Chernobyl NPP, a similar facility in Komsomolsk-on-Amur got a part of the equipment of the “Chernobyl Arc”. The Komsomolskaya Arc dismantled after the end of the Cold War, at least as official sources say.
Pripyat: a Soviet breath disguised by the forest
Pripyat became a vivid example of Soviet construction: the same type of high-rise buildings lined with mosaics, monuments to communist leaders, party slogans. The settlement for power engineers finished building in 1970. And in 1979, Pripyat received the status of a city. According to the last census, 47,500 people lived in the city. All citizens evacuated within two days after the explosion at the ChNPP. However, until 1996, the pool continued to work here. The workers of the Chernobyl NPP went there. And even now, two service enterprises continue to function in the ghost town.
The burned and irradiated liquidators who put out the fire in the first hours of the accident got to the medical and sanitary unit of Pripyat. Station workers and local residents who got strong radiation exposure also went there. Medics could notice the symptoms of radiation sickness in patients. But at first, they doubted the diagnosis. Only few among doctors knew about the consequences of radiation exposure.
During the evacuation, residents of Pripyat could “only take documents”. They said that it would last three days. These three days became eternity. People never returned to their homes. The military or specially created detachments of gamekeepers shot pets remaining in empty apartments. The same fate awaited the livestock of rural residents.
Initially, the abandoned dwellings resembled houses to which their inhabitants were going to return. At first, dosimetrists examined the entire housing stock. Household items contaminated with radiation got to radiation repositories. Everything that amenable to decontamination was washed and cleaned. And only then the owners could partially take them out. Subsequently, “looters managed to work” for many years in a row in the exclusion zone. They mercilessly smashed everything they could take out.
The Chernobyl Zone is the territory of the triumph of nature
Today, there is little in Pripyat that reminds us that people lived here, except the lanterns looking out among the trees. The houses hid behind tall trees. And weeds grow through the asphalt. The radiation background in the city is not everywhere above normal. However, even 34 years later, “radiation spots” remain in it. They are places where it goes off scale.
The most popular place in Pripyat among tourists is an amusement park: a ferris wheel and rusted cars. A little further is the city stadium, which is almost impossible to recognize without a guide. It is completely overgrown with trees. You can guess that there was a football field if only you bump into the stands. Several houses have modern graffiti painted on them, making them even spookier. Also, you can find Soviet slogans such as “Glory to the great Lenin” in some places on the roofs of high-rise buildings. Surviving toys are still lying around in the former kindergartens. Notebooks, books, kitchen utensils are dropping around.
Pripyat was a thriving city: a beautiful embankment with a romantic cafe on the shore, a floating restaurant-ship, and cinemas. In addition, the city was famous for the electronics factory “Jupiter”, the hotel “Polesie”, post-apocalyptic photographs of which spread all over the world today. Now, the plundered houses are slowly awaiting their end. The mosaic is peeling off in pieces from the walls of high-rise buildings. It is difficult to recognize the once bright stained-glass windows in the broken shop windows. The influence of a person on everything that we can see decreased to zero here. This is probably why the territory of the Exclusion Zone is both frightening and delightful, inspiring hope.
Paradoxically, but you can feel in some strange way a weak breath of life in the Exclusion Zone. Vegetation abounds here. There are more trees every year. The grass has not seen the spit for a long time. Instead of people, birds and animals inhabited Pripyat, including representatives of a rare fauna for this area. Some people like to call this place the Zone of the Apocalypse. But objectively, it rather resembles the Zone of rebirth. You may see what will happen when there are no people. The world will not stop. Nature will triumph.