PRIPYAT, Ukraine – The whole city is a necropolis – dead, sinking into a pile of ossifying bones.
Its skeletal remains are empty apartment blocks and windswept plazas, the pavement buckling concrete with saplings squeezing up through the cracks, and everywhere an eerie quiet that echoes with abandonment. Here is a glimpse of a future Apocalypse, what no one will be left to see. Twenty-three years ago Pripyat was vibrant with life; a model city for the modern Soviet Union, purpose-built two kilometres from the Chernobyl reactor "park,'' the start of its construction an event celebrated on the front page of Pravda.
Then came the bulletin on local radio: "An accident has occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. One of the atomic reactors has been damaged. Aid will be given to those affected and a committee of government enquiry has been set up.'' Over a mere four hours on that Sunday, beginning at 2 p.m., all of Pripyat's nearly 50,000 residents were evacuated, 1,100 buses crammed with families trundling away in a convoy that stretched for 15 kilometres. To avoid panic they were told to take only a few essentials. Assured of a return in three days, they left behind photo albums, family heirlooms, even pets. Anyone phoning in to the city was told by operators that Pripyat was closed. They've never gone back. Pripyat hasn't been inhabited since. Seventy-two hours before the radio alert, April 26, 1986, Reactor No. 4 had exploded, releasing hundreds of radioactive elements into the atmosphere. And for that entire time, the people of Pripyat had continued about their business – mothers pushing babies in strollers, children kicking balls in the street, young people promenading in the unusually warm weather, 16 couples registering their marriages at the municipal office.
Meanwhile, Soviet authorities huddled to discuss not only the magnitude of the accident at their showcase nuclear complex but also how to keep a lid on the catastrophe so that the world might never know. Iodine tablets were distributed to the city's residents – iodine intake packs the thyroid so that it doesn't absorb as much of the radioactive isotopes. But only 110 kilometres to the south, in Kiev, children continued with their May Day parade, families unaware of the dangers drifting around them. It was only radioactive wind setting off detectors at a nuclear power plant north of Stockholm – two days after the explosion – that sparked alarm. Swedish scientists tracked the leak to the western Soviet Union and the news began to seep out. That forced Moscow to come clean. Pripyat, a post-nuclear badlands, will never be clean again. But unlike scores of surrounding villages that were buried, interred beneath plowed-over radioactive topsoil – sometimes appearing on the landscape as polluted hills – Pripyat has been left in situ, its radioactive desolation contained inside barbed wire, guarded by checkpoints and watchtowers, entrance permitted only by government-issued permit.
A bus comes trundling along, carrying the mayors of 18 Swedish towns, here on this overcast day to witness up close the 23-years-later aftermath of Pripyat, redux. Several minivans pull up alongside Reactor 4 – the one that blew, now encased in a concrete and lead sarcophagus – disgorging dozens of Pripyat tourist-trippers. It is quite possibly the world's weirdest tourism excursion, guided expeditions through modern ruins, initiated in 2005 because the interest was there, growing more popular since. Attendance requires securing permits from Chernobylinterinform, the zone's information agency. One-day group tours cost $200 to $400, including transportation and a meal in Chernobyl. The Star opted instead for a private two-day pilgrimage, staying overnight in a Chernobyl dorm-cum-motel, originally built by Finland for scientists and "liquidators'' – the contamination scrubbers.
As per the rules, our visit becomes a party-of-three with the inclusion of a tourism company guide and a government chaperone: Sergei & Sergei. Oleksiy Moskalenko, however, is a fringe benefit. A Pripyat cop in 1986, Moskalenko later became deputy head of the security zone and now, though retired, still functions as an on-site officer and raconteur. "I was on duty that night. We had to catch some men who were fishing illegally in the cooling pond 300 metres from the reactor. Then I heard an explosion, like the sound of a flare going off. My first thought was, it's just a transformer that blew up, so I didn't really pay attention. But when we saw a fire a few minutes later, I realized something serious had happened. "We headed back to our base, which was only three kilometres from the power plant. There was a smelly odour from ashes in the form of flakes falling on me.'' Moskalenko had no idea the peril he was in, that he was covered in radioactive dross. At the base, an alarm went out for all police officers to report for work. "I went home first to change.
When my wife saw me she insisted I have a shower because my clothes stank. I put on a clean uniform and I saw her throwing my dirty clothes on the balcony. Who knows? Maybe that was something that saved my life.'' Two plant employees died in the initial explosion. The first responders, Pripyat's firefighters, were irradiated from the inside-out, and died within a day. Others would die "obliquely,'' over the years, nobody was really certain of the Chernobyl death toll. At high risk were those who fought the fire, flew helicopters overhead, or cleared rubble around the immediate area afterward. Most had no idea of the dangers, but twigged soon enough when they were allowed to work in only 60-second shifts. Legions of liquidators – 600,000 all told – drawn from the military and reservists would be corralled into service over the coming months, years, removing contaminated topsoil, building above-ground water mains and burying equipment. In the first few days, no one was allowed out of Pripyat except to fight the fire.
Those who returned from the plant were nauseous, dizzy and strangely tanned. Armored personnel carriers were soon groaning through Pripyat, their occupants an alarming sight in camouflage and gas masks. "Nobody knew about the real danger that night until they brought the first fighters to the hospital,'' recalls Moskalenko. "Their symptoms left no doubt that they had acute radiation disease. They were pale, vomiting and weak – irrevocable radiation.'' Doctors urged the first responders go to Moscow right away for treatment. "But we refused. We didn't think we were very contaminated. And most of the fire fighters died within two months. But nobody was thinking about the potential disaster in those days. Some of us went to the hospital in Kiev but we came back to Pripyat to perform our duty – mainly to protect the houses from looters. "You can imagine. People left everything in their apartments – money, jewelry.
Who knew they would never come back? The real looting started after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1992, though, when they took away the inner security at the zone.'' Experts estimate the concrete and cinder-block buildings of Pripyat will stand for another half-century. Already, however, nature is reclaiming its territory: Poplars grow out of storefronts and in stairwells. Greenery is consuming asphalt roads. Reeds sprout from the shallow water table, turning courtyards into swamps. At night, herds of boar roam the streets. Wolves prowl. Pripyat is a modern Pompeii, a kind of time-capsule from the Soviet Union of the mid-1980s. Entering on Lenin Blvd., turning right and driving along Friendship of the People's St., visitors get a peek at the Pripyat Café, the Communist Party headquarters barely visible behind forest growth – the logo of an atom still displayed out front – rows of crumbling apartment blocks and, most poignantly, a nursery school with peeling posters on the wall exhorting children to study, exercise and prepare for a life of hard work.
Just a week before the accident, the main school had held a full civil emergency drill in which children had donned masks and descended into bomb shelters. It wasn't the six reactors at Chernobyl they were told to fear – source of the worst man-made ecological disaster in history – but rather the threat of a nuclear attack from the West. Pupil-size gas masks, mangled, lie underfoot. Textbooks lie open, strewn about. And all over, toys – the Dolls of Chernobyl; there's even a picture book about them; most, for reasons not explained, with faces turned black, but just the faces. Looters and squatters long ago stripped away anything of value, of course, right down to wiring and linoleum panels. But, covered in the chalky residue of disintegrating plaster, some bed springs and bits of broken furniture and cracked toilet torsos remain in the apartments – No. 42 Lesya Ukrainka St., at 16 storeys, one of the best vantage points for a 360-degree view of Pripyat. Everything is decrepit and spongy, succumbing to the elements, rotting.
The city's main square is framed by the Hotel Polissia and the Pripyat Cultural Centre, the community's main social site with its disco, lecture halls, a theatre and a gymnasium. Nearby is an Olympic-sized indoor swimming pool, called the Azure, and the city hospital. An amusement park, which had been scheduled to open May 1, 1986, is corroding where it stands, rusted bumper cars eternally stalled and a 40-gondola Ferris wheel looming out of the weeds. So still ... so still. The giant claw of an earth excavator used by liquidators was left behind also, too contaminated to bring out and too contaminated to bury. Our Geiger counter clicks crazily here, measuring 5,021 microroentgens. The generally accepted background radiation level, around the world, is 300 microroentgens.
Exiting Pripyat, we step into a machine that flashes green when it detects no radioactive dust on us. Oleksiy Moskalenko spent a total of two years in hospital in the five years after the catastrophe undergoing radiation treatment. Yet he won't point the finger of blame at anybody. "Who is there to blame?'' But it's not a rhetorical question. There are individuals to blame and creaky, secretive Soviet institutions that were at fault, except the Soviet Union doesn't exist anymore either.
And that now-eclipsed empire forbade radiation poisoning to be listed as cause-of-death on death certificates. In Pripyat, before the abandonment, there lived a woman, a poet, by the name of Lyubov Sirota. This is the epitaph she wrote for her lost hometown: At night, of course, our town though emptied forever, comes to life. There, our dreams wander like clouds, illuminate windows with moonlight.