On a frigid winters day in Ukraine I am awoken at some ungodly hour by my alarm. I’ve only slept a few hours in excitement at today’s proceedings. I open the curtains and look out over Kiev’s beautiful skyline, lit a wonderful hue of orange by the rising sun. ‘Why you want city view?’ the receptionist had asked when I checked in. ‘It’s just Kiev, not a beautiful city’. Ukrainians have this wonderful knack of being cutely self-deprecating.
A short walk from the hotel is a bus that will take me in the opposite direction to that taken by thousands of frightened citizens on a warm spring day in 1986. We were heading to Chernobyl, the nuclear power station that catastrophically failed over 30 years ago, spewing tonnes of radiation into the atmosphere. Kept quiet by the Soviet government at the time, it was only discovered after a Swedish power station noticed high levels of radiation in the air several days later.
Our guide, Igor, is a relatively young man. I doubt he was even born in 1986, but he spends every day taking curious visitors into the exclusion zone. Isn’t he worried about his daily exposure to radiation, I ask him? ‘Being here every day exposes me to less radiation per year than an airline pilot’ he tells me, despite the site being unsuitable for habitation for another 2,700 years.
We arrive at a military checkpoint into the exclusion zone, where our papers are meticulously checked, eventually the barriers raised and we make our way into what looks like a scene from ‘The Walking Dead’. As we head through the forest, small wooden buildings occasionally come into view through the trees. It wasn’t just the city of Pripyat that was evacuated, but dozens of small villages within a 30km radius of Chernobyl.
We stop at one of them, and are able to walk around abandoned houses and shops trapped in time from 1986. An Aeroflot calendar from 1986 catches my eye. Family photographs smashed and faded – but still poignant. Shopping baskets in a small shop, rusted on the floor. A kindergarten still has toys and posters on the walls. The sound of excited children now replaced by the haunting droning of a dozen Geiger counters.
Eventually, we reach Pripyat. For me it’s a moment that was nothing like I expected. Having looked forward to this moment for years, I walk around mesmerised at the scale of the place. It’s like a real life video game – enormous buildings, playgrounds, hotels, all abandoned and surrounded by trees. All excitement had gone – replaced by a very heavy feeling and sadness. There is just an atmosphere about the place that’s difficult to explain.
We saw the fabled bumper cars and Ferris wheel. They were opened for just a few hours the morning after the accident, to try and take the citizens minds off of their plight.
Hundreds of buses lined the square where citizens were told to pack just the essentials for 3 days – they would be home for the weekend. Pets were left behind – many to be shot by the liquidators sent in to clean up – many surviving and breeding, resulting in wild dogs being everywhere you look in the exclusion zone.
Leaving the zone I was saddened to see a small shop had been set up selling Chernobyl souvenirs. You could buy a hoodie with a picture of a gas mask on saying ‘I survived Chernobyl’. I wondered how the families of the thousands of unfortunate victims would feel if they saw this.
Chernobyl was a fascinating experience. There is far more to the place than a few abandoned buildings – this is a glimpse into life in the Soviet Union. A snapshot in time wonderfully preserved.