Pripyat: Chernobyl's City of the Dead

Pripyat was the poster city for Russia’s nuclear industry. Less than two miles from Chernobyl, it was a place of boundless promise. Darragh McKeon visits the ghost city that’s now a museum to the world’s greatest nuclear disaster.

WE DRIVE in through the main street, a two-lane road, the margin engulfed by weeds, the flanking tower blocks shrouded by fir trees. Craning my neck and looking up, I can see balconies that are overrun with creepers, their adjacent windows matte black with shadow, vacuums of habitation.

As we near the town centre, I feel a strong sense of dislocation, as if perhaps we shouldn’t be here. I assume this is because of the potential dangers of the place, the speculative health implications of our visit, or maybe it could be to do with the gravitas of its history; that coming to this town is an act of desecration or disrespect, as though we’re putting our dollar down for the freak show, about to enter the tent to gaze and point at the bearded lady or the three-legged man. But that’s not it, I realise. We don’t belong here because nobody belongs here. Drive through a city, any city, even in the middle of the night, and there’s a bulb glowing over a lonely porch, a dog eyeing you suspiciously, or a closed-up petrol station, its owner sleeping upstairs.

Here there is nobody. The city is utterly, utterly dead.

So you first encounter it not as a stranger, a foreigner who doesn’t understand its ways, but instead as a pathologist, slicing through a cadaver stiffened by rigor mortis.

We stop at the main square and get out to walk. We find ourselves speaking in low murmurs, conscious of the silenced past. Pripyat is, above all else, a place of eloquent absence.

We walk with deliberation, intently aware of our movements. I wonder if perhaps this is because we’re so alert to the air we’re breathing, as though we’re instructing our limbs to take note that we’re in an alien atmosphere.

Kolya, our guide, warns us not to touch anything, to be careful not to step on any moss, which zigzags through the cracked concrete. “It’s a sponge for radioactivity,” he tells us. And so our motions become even more pronounced.

We watch where we tread, then we stop and look around, then watch where we tread once more, like a small child negotiating a flight of stairs.

The square fronts onto the city’s Palace of Culture, an imposing building, its ranks of steps facing us. To the right sits the Communist Party headquarters.

To our left is the first in a regimented row of apartment blocks. On its roof stands a set of giant Cyrillic letters in opaque grey, outlined in communist scarlet. Russian is a language that resists a Latinate eye; swirled letters are sharpened with geometric edges, as though they can only be transcribed by chisel. I ask Kolya for a translation. “Let the atom be a worker not a solider,” he says, then hesitates with his explanation.

“Basically they’re saying they want to use it for electricity, not for... you know... bombs.”

Koyla is 22 or 23, wears green camouflage fatigues even though he’s not in the military, and speaks in flowing bullet points, which gives him an air of deliberate insouciance. On our drive in, we passed the nuclear complex.

“That is reactor 1.”

“That is reactor 2.”

“Pripyat had a population of maybe 40,000 people.”

“Chernobyl village had a population of 12,000 people.”

“Now there are maybe 1,000.”

“A few scientists, guides, officials, safety workers.”

“It’s boring but we play cards and keep ourselves busy.”

“Of course, we get to go home regularly.”

“We have two weeks on, then a month off.”

“Let the atom be a worker not a soldier.” The phrase carries a particularly Soviet sense of absolutism and obligation. Even the simple atom is forced to take on a role, to sublimate itself to the orders of others.

Shapes are very consciously defined here. No building seems out of place in relation to another. This is a city that prizes regularity, precise planning, built in the 1970s on the Ukrainian side of the Polesia woodlands, an area popular with hunters. Next to it runs the Pripyat River, 200 metres wide, which flows into the Dnieper and onwards towards Kiev.

Pripyat was the city where the workers for the Chernobyl nuclear plant lived, grateful for their posting in a town that was once the jewel of Soviet modernity. This was a city of boundless promise.

A population of high-level professionals who all served the same employer, so their professional unity no doubt extended to their private lives as well.

You sense it was once a children’s sanctuary, free of malign influences.

Behind the Palace of Culture sits a playground with bumper cars and a Ferris wheel. We walk through crèches that once were state-of-the-art. Rooms with metal enamel cots and cushioned play areas, an abundance of dolls, even still; they lie scattered near windows, sprawled underneath miniature tables and chairs.

Many elderly parents accompanied their children and grandchildren here, eager to escape the grind of larger cities. Families squeezed together in their apartments to make room. Communal living was a situation they were used to.

No doubt it was much easier to do so here, with a river nearby to fish in, forests that invited walkers.

We make our way through a loading door to the backstage area inside the Palace of Culture. Stage backdrops lean against the wall in preparation for the Mayday celebrations that were due to be held that year, in 1986, six days after the disaster, five days after the evacuation.

The backdrops are print portraits of prominent Communist Party leaders, their faces 20 feet high. I recognise Lenin and Brezhnev, the general secretary of the Communist Party for almost two decades from the mid-60s. The others I can’t place. I ask Kolya if he can name them, but he shakes his head. “It was all over by the time I was born.”

The faces look out with neutral disinterest, resigned to their oblivion. The auditorium still impresses.

Everything intact. Damp has yet to find its way in. The carpet looks spotless and full, as if recently vacuumed. The rows of seats await their patrons. A mezzanine level overlooks us.

The silence here is of a different quality to that outside. It feels familiar to me. I spent most of my 20s as a theatre director and even though my productions mostly took place in small black studios or cold improvised venues, I’ve stood many times on a silent stage.

As with other spaces built for public events, a courtroom or a stadium, it’s a place that naturally hums with expectation.

I think of Nikolai Ryzhkov, chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR at the time of the disaster. His face is perhaps included in the solemn portraits behind me. His visit to the site came on May 2. He arrived accompanied by Yegor Ligachev, secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

They sat for a few days with the scientific delegations, impressed them with their willingness to listen to the assembled expertise, to engage with the intricate complexities of the issue.

A governmental commission was formed in situ, headed by Ryzhkov himself. On the July 14 he surprised and invigorated the leaders of the cleanup with a speech in Moscow, declaring that the Chernobyl accident “did not occur by chance,” stating instead, “It was inevitable.” An extraordinary admission by an official of his status.

The resonances of the empty stage seem to counter its surroundings. Unlike its sister buildings, this auditorium doesn’t hark back to former glories; instead, it sits in stoic anticipation of its future, prepared for what is to come.

I land at Minsk airport the previous evening. I’ve arrived to join a delegation from the Irish charity Chernobyl Children International, which has been working in Belarus for the past 20 years. Its founder, Adi Roche, has invited me along to see some of their projects firsthand.

In Pripyat we step into apartment blocks, names still on the grids of postboxes in the lobbies. In the stairwells, the handrails have been sheered away, sold for scrap. The same is true of each apartment. All possessions have been looted, their radioactive contents sold off to unwitting buyers in the markets of who knows what towns or cities.

Only some skeletal remains of furniture are left. Some chipboard shelving units. The base of a bed.

Painted walls are uniformly coloured in beige, magnolia, or sky blue.

I slide open a door to the balcony and stare down at the communal yard, which houses a small climbing frame and a slide. Next to them, a copse of thin trees still holds its landscaped shape. Scenes from the evacuation play themselves out below me.

My mind skips forward and back, without guidance, time frames overlapping. What rises is a piece of testimony I’ve come across somewhere; families gathering on these balconies the night after the accident to gaze at the magenta sky, an evening portrayed in wistful tones. A week later, back in my own apartment, I take a book from my shelf and listen to Nadezhda Vygovskaya recall the day her life changed irrevocably:

The apartments are differentiated I slide open a door to a balcony and I can still see the bright-crimson glow, it was like the reactor was glowing. This wasn’t any ordinary fire, it was some kind of emanation.

It was pretty. I’d never seen anything like it in the movies. That evening everyone spilled out onto their balconies, and those who didn’t have them.

All went to their friends’ houses. We were on the ninth floor, we had a great view. People brought their kids out, picked them up, said, “Look! Remember!” And these were people who worked at the reactor — engineers, workers, physics instructors.

They stood in the black dust, talking, breathing, wondering at it. People came from all around on their cars and their bikes to have a look. We didn’t know that death could be so beautiful. Though I wouldn’t say that it had no smell — it wasn’t a spring or an autumn smell, but something else, and it wasn’t the smell of the earth. My throat tickled, and my eyes watered.

In the morning I woke up and looked around and I remember feeling — this isn’t something I made up later, I thought it right then — something isn’t right, something has changed forever. At eight that morning there were already military people on the streets in gas masks telling people to prepare for an evacuation: they’d take us away for three days, wash everything, check things out.

The kids were told to take their school books. Still, my husband put our documents and our wedding photos in his briefcase.

The only thing I took was a gauze kerchief in case the weather turned bad.

Later, Nadezhda tells us that their future wasted little time in making itself apparent. “In Kiev,” she says, “many had heart attacks and strokes, right there at the train station, on the buses.”

More than 50% of the surface of 13 European countries and 30% of eight other countries have been covered by Chernobyl fallout.

In 1986, the number of people living in areas with pronounced Chernobyl contamination was at least 150 million. I quote the following from a study published in 2009 by the New York Academy of Sciences, the most comprehensive report available regarding the consequences of Chernobyl:

“PM contamination of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No citizen of any country can be assured that he or she can be protected from radioactive contamination. One nuclear reactor can pollute half the globe. Chernobyl fallout covered the entire Northern Hemisphere.”

These numbers are overwhelming, but the evidence behind them is unambiguous. Given what we know about the laws of biology (and there are enormous gaps in scientific knowledge regarding the relationship between the body and the radionuclide), the aftereffects of this disaster haven’t even reached full fruition.

Broadly speaking, radiation exposure can be categorised into two groups:

- severe exposure, usually external, and is responsible for the initial deaths of the type that Nadezhda Vygovskaya witnessed, those that occurred soon after the disaster in the countries most affected: Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.

- chronic radiation is a much more stealthy phenomenon; it builds imperceptibly over the long term and affects the body internally, engendering an array of debilitating illnesses, most prominently cancer. We can say with certainty that multiple future generations will be at least as vulnerable to it as we are today.

Put simply: acute radiation is the hara, chronic radiation is the tortoise.

Gomel, Belarus — 215km from Chernobyl. The morning after our visit to Pripyat we open the door to an apartment and see a man buckle in front of us.

He is tall and lean. The stripes on the side of his tracksuit bottoms take the line of his lank hair and elongated face.

The hair drops away from behind his ears as he bends forward, a hand obscuring his features, tears gaining momentum. The only sound comes from his laboured breathing.

It seems as though he remains standing only because of the arrangement of his skeleton. His muscles have gone slack, his head hangs on a wavering forearm.

Roche steps forward to embrace him and he dissolves into her shoulder. His cries release in convulsions. We close the door gently behind us and stand in his orange vestibule, so narrow that we’re almost touching him. We gaze into the other rooms in an attempt to salvage some privacy for him.

Roche’s charity provides hospice care for Vasily’s daughter, Sasha. They make sure a nurse calls to the apartment four times a week, bringing diapers, wipes, and baby food. Vasily also receives a small stipend, enough to feed himself and his daughter but not his gambling habit.

This is his only income. They receive no state benefits.

Roche has been here several times before, we can see from her eyes that her reception has never been like this.

Something has happened. Our call is a routine visit. A nurse is in the kitchen. Our translator moves to speak to her. As we wait, I notice the stench: wheaty and stale; the scent of sweat and faeces, magnified by the overpowering heat.

The heat is so strong that I can feel vapour streams trickle out from under my coat. Later, I find out that the windows don’t open, apparently a typical feature of Soviet tower blocks, and that residents don’t have any control over the temperature.

In wintertime all the apartment blocks in Belarus are as stifling as a sauna.

Recently, Sasha’s health has plummeted, turning to pneumonia in the past few days. An hour ago, a visiting doctor ordered that she be moved to a country hospital 15 miles away. The ambulance is due this afternoon.

Vasily has no car and won’t be allowed to stay in residence. In the city, only the children’s hospital has space available.

They refuse to take her. Their age limit is 14. Now 17, Sasha’s death on their premises would mean multiple explanations and extra paperwork.

Seven years ago, Vasily’s marriage ended. He gave up his job as a night watchman to be his daughter’s sole carer, a position that is broken only for an hour or two each week when the nurse arrives to check on things or a relative comes by to let him go outside for an evening.

Sasha hasn’t touched fresh air for a decade.

The room to my left is furnished only by a large armchair and a TV set that sits on a dilapidated stand next to the window. The chair has a stained hand towel draped around its armrest.

Surrounding it is an archipelago of carer’s paraphernalia: diapers and sudocream, baby wipes and talc, bandages, gels, towels, a feeding bottle, moisturiser, cotton balls. The chair retains the indentations of many hours of use.

Through the window of the living room in front of us, I can see a neighbouring block. Its lintels and windowsills are painted in confectionary pink, its doors and archways in baby blue. Veins of cracks run down the façade, leaking onto the pavement, running into potholes in the driveway, where an elderly woman beats the dust out of a suspended rug.

Vasily, spent, beckons us forward. We step inside the living room and he motions to the sofa. Sasha is resting there.

The sofa is a two-seater, but there is still ample room for her to lie outstretched upon it. She faces the wall. The outline of her body can be clearly seen through the tightly wrapped blanket covering her. She has the body of a six-year-old.

A short, frail frame; without contours. Her head generates a response of shock and pity. Sasha is hydrocephalic, a congenital condition that caused her head to swell to grotesque proportions. Weighing 20lbs, it is almost the size of her upper body and shaped like a speech bubble; an enormous dome tapering off into a slender chin. She lies in a foetal position, each breath a struggle, her inhalations catching in her sinuses. She is almost hairless, a light down covers her skull, which is pockmarked with large, seeping calluses.

Vasily has treated them carefully with white antiseptic powder to soak up and quell the irritation. A bandage is wrapped from her forehead around to the back of her crown to catch any discharge. She is blind and vulnerable as a newborn.

The sofa is not a temporary resting place, it is her bed. On a normal day, Vasily cradles her in the armchair and at night lays her here, then unrolls a mattress onto the ground next to her, where he settles down for the night, reaching up to place a hand of reassurance on her body.

Sasha’s and Vasily’s lives have changed only minimally since her mother left.

Vasily has the option of admitting Sasha to an orphanage, but he refuses to do so. Neglect there is assured. In these institutions even the official documentation refers to congenitally deformed children as imbeciles and retards. Despite their numbers, they are not considered part of the general population. Stories of sexual abuse in orphanages — even amongst the most stricken cases — are rife.

Born ten years after the catastrophe, it cannot be irrefutably proven that Sasha’s condition is linked to nuclear fallout.

Nor can it be proven that the congenital disorder affecting Denis and Georg — our next port of call — is anything other than a consequence of bad luck.

Stand in a darkened corridor of no distinction. Open a door. Each apartment contains its own particular sorrow, washed over with undiluted love.

In one: Igor, 12, lies contorted on a sofa. In his mouth, his gums overwhelm his tiny teeth. As he’s unable to produce tears, his pupils — despite his mother’s attentiveness with an eyedropper — have the texture of sandpaper.

In another: Kyrill, nine, is missing a chromosome and a father. His right shoulder is implanted under his neck.

His condition doesn’t have a name. His father, like many Belarusian men, took his child’s frailty to be a slight on his masculinity. Olga hasn’t seen him in almost a decade.

From 1986 to 1988 in the heavily contaminated Luninets District, 167 children per 1,000 had diagnosed illnesses. From 1992 to 1994 that number had risen to 611 per 1,000.

In 1998, 68% of Belarusian children living in heavily contaminated areas had vascular dystonia and heart syndrome (characterised by dizziness, breathing difficulties, and fatigue). Three years later it was 74%.

In less contaminated areas that number rose from 40% to 53%.

Even in the distant future, the situation is likely to get worse as the genetic effects from the disaster take hold. Research on animals has indicated that after 20 generations of reproduction our resistance to radioactivity will drop significantly, likely creating even more varied and virulent illnesses in 400 years time.

All of which doesn’t even take into account the problems associated with nuclear waste storage. Problems of such scale and intricacy that it is irrefutable, even by the nuclear bodies, that for several hundred thousand years each generation of our descendants will be obliged to manage our toxic legacy.

In my hotel room in Minsk, I pack for my flight home. I’ve been told to throw away any clothes I wore in the exclusion zone, so I fold whatever remains into a sports bag.

The wallpaper around me is of patterned bricks, with sections where the bricks have fallen away to repeatedly reveal a pastoral farmhouse.

Outside, a woman throws feed over a picket fence to her chickens. I can’t escape the sense that the management is encouraging me to get away, to take a break from the grinding oppression.

On the TV in the corner a chef cooks a spaghetti carbonara with all the typical decorum of a cookery show, but then he breaks from routine and conscientiously cleans up after himself, using a spray bottle and a soft cloth. He smiles and presents the bottle of oven cleaner to the camera, extolling its virtues.

Alexi drives me back to the airport in his battered grey van. We are alone and silent. He steers with one hand; with the other he clenches a cigarette between his thumb and index finger. The landscape is covered in fog.

“My father was involved in Chernobyl?”

“You should have mentioned it. I would have liked to speak to him,” I said.

“He’s not well. He wouldn’t have been able to hold a conversation.”

“How long has he been ill?”

“Seven years. He’s had two heart attacks and a stroke. He’s 56.”

“I’m sorry to hear it.”

“It’s normal. All his friends are sick.

They can’t leave their homes. They never see each other.”

“Do you remember that time?”

He flicks the cigarette out the window.

“Not much. I remember being excited about the day he was coming back. I thought he’d bring me home a military belt buckle or something.”

“Have you talked to him about it?”

“Are you kidding me?”

His paleness extends to his demeanour, like all life has been washed out of him.

“What about your friends? When you’re drinking together, do they talk about what they know?”

He keeps his gaze on the road.

His head shifts back in an ironic snicker.

“You don’t fucking get it. I’ve probably said the word ‘Chernobyl’ four times in my life.”


The biggest cancer killer will take your breath away

Hopefully she had an idea...

Power of the press: Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks discuss 'The Post'

More From The Irish Examiner