October 03, 2017

Photo Essay: A Day In the Life Before Disaster Struck

When contemplating the Chernobyl disaster, I haven't been able to stop thinking about what it must've been like to live right there in the town of Pripyat, the Soviet vision of Utopia that was built as a company town for the nearby nuclear power plant.

It was an "Atom City." It was modern. It was the future.

Circa July 2005 (Petr Pavlicek/IAEA, via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

But now that it's being consumed by over 30 years of overgrowth, it can be hard to envision what it was like back in 1986—when, though no atomic bomb was dropped, a "silent killer" hung heavy in the air and fell upon the belongings of all those who'd moved there (and some who'd been born there).

The pieces of the puzzle all come together based on the buildings that remain. And, as far as the casual eye can tell, all the buildings do remain, including the post office...

...and the high-rise apartment buildings, though most of their radioactive contents (furniture and personal effects) have been removed and buried elsewhere as hazardous waste.

Wood floorboards where families once walked to breakfast and to bed now sprout bright green moss.

And a red fox loiters around the outside of where Chernobyl workers and their families bought electronics for their new homes in their new, utopian city.

The field has lost its clearing for soccer balls to score, and the floodlight tower has got no power.

The Avanhard Stadium (Стадіон «Авангард») is monolith of wood rot—devoid of players from the Stroitel football club, a team comprised of local "builders."

In fact, aside from the occasional concrete that rises above, everything in Pripyat kind of looks like some kind of field or wooded area. You can barely recognize the divided boulevards that used to bring traffic in and out of town.

Ornamental gardens and fountains in town squares have been replaced by wild fungi and nightshades.

And while the water was only drained from the Azure swimming pool (Басейн Лазурний) in 1998...

...after a dozen years of liquidators charged with cleaning the Chernobyl mess swimming laps in its eight lanes...'s just as obscured and abandoned now as any of the other buildings that were vacated in 1986.

But the people of Pripyat did love their sport once.

Sports and sporting facilities and gymnasiums were so prized, in fact, that they were given their own space in Pripyat's own palace—that is, the Palace of Culture "Energetik" (Энергетик).

Among the "performing arts" variety of cultural institutions (which included a cinema, theatre, and concert hall)...

...there were also courts for shooting hoops...

...a gym, a boxing ring, a handball court, and even a firing range.

The grandeur was intended for both recreation and entertainment—but it was, at its core, a palace of the state.

There was no such thing as art for the sake of art to the Soviets. There was always meaning behind everything.

And the Soviet regime that designed the Palace of Culture made sure that its programming contained just the right balance of propaganda.

But as long as the people of Pripyat prospered, who would mind?

Perhaps at the Pripyat Cafe, at the marina along the Pripyat River, you could just have a meal without making a nationalistic statement.

But even so, the act of eating at "The Dish," as it was known, couldn't have been just a matter of nutritional intake.

Not with its colored-glass mural, "Radiance," to gaze upon.

It's one of the most beautiful and most horrific glimpses into the daily lives of the Pripyat townspeople...

...because its raw-edged, strip-cut construction is so delicate that it's pieces are disintegrating.

A few panels have fallen off the window and been cast aside, perhaps at one time propped up against the wall. But now, as the discarded pieces sinks into the floor, visitors traipse across the colored glass strips and shards—and the crunch is deafening.

It can be difficult to find "before" photos of Pripyat (for some of the cafe, click here)...

...but, in most cases, it's pretty easy to imagine, say, the water vending machine without the rust.

To really get a perspective of what Pripyat was like before the third trumpet of the apocalypse sounded, maybe you need to visit during the winter, after the trees have all lost their leaves.

Maybe you need to climb to the rooftops to get an aerial view. After all, you can see Reaktor 4 in its new safety containment structure from up there.

Or maybe there's no sense in preserving Pripyat—either in practice or in memory. Maybe it's okay to let the sun set upon this company town, to walk across the already-broken glass, and to tear down the railings as they rust.

But my inclination at a place like this is to preserve—not only what it used to be, but what it is right now.

Eventually, we will lose Pripyat—whether it's its black-and-white version or in full Kodak color.

The Hotel Polissya (Готе́ль Полісся) won't be habitable for thousands of years—and neither will any of the other buildings on Kurchatova Street, at the main square, or pretty much anywhere in Pripyat at all, for that matter.

Soon, nature will entirely obscure what became a command post for the Chernobyl cleanup effort (that is, once its guests were evacuated).

It's already started to happen.

The ecosystem has forged on—without us delicate humans to ravage its fruits and put them into supermarkets and restaurants.

And so, it's not far-fetched to think that what was once a palace will become merely a sacristy in a cathedral of trees—and, without its walls or windows, a portico that leads to a faded, forested folly in alternating shades of red, gray, and green.

For photos of everyday life in Pripyat before the Chernobyl disaster, click here (via Gizmodo).

Related Posts:
Crossing Over Into the Zone of Alienation
Photo Essay: The Abandoned Hospital Where Radiation Illness Fills The Air
Photo Essay: The Hallowed Halls of Pripyat's Primary School, Evacuated
Photo Essay: Amusement Park, Shuttered By Nuclear Fallout
Photo Essay: The Train Graveyard of The Exclusion Zone
Meet Simon, The Red Fox of the Radioactive Red Forest

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