The town of Pripyat belongs to the Kievan district (Kievskaya oblast) of Ukraine. It is situated on the right bank of the Pripyat, which flows into the Dnieper.
The town itself is young, yet the territory it was built on is very old. Known as Polesie (lit. ‘forest land’), this endless terrain of woodland and marshes stretches across the south-east of Belarus and northern Ukraine. Some scholars believe that it was in Polesie that the Eastern Slavs appeared as the distinctive ethnic and cultural group. More than a thousand years ago this territory was a part of Kievan Russia, the early medieval forerunner of modern states of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The adjacent areas are rich in archeological and historical sites, ranging from the stone age to the later Middle ages The nearby town of Chernobyl, whose name was given first to the power plant and later became a synonym of the greatest ecological catastrophe humankind has ever seen, possesses the history of many centuries. From the Middle ages it had a strong Jewish population whose religious leaders are still venerated by the Jews. Thus the territories contaminated by the 1986 nuclear disaster are the heartland of East Europe in terms of ethnic, cultural, religious and political history.
Chernobyl is the name for the catastrophe, yet Pripyat is the most visible symbol of it. It was founded on the 4th of February 1970 as the settlement for the construction workers and staff of the Chernobyl power plant. The latter was started in the same year – first as construction site, then as one of the biggest nuclear electric power stations in Europe. Pripyat was officially called atomograd (‘the town of the atomic scientists and workers’), the ninth settlement of the kind in the USSR.
Still, the new town was far from being a mere industrial settlement. Soon it became an important junction and the main staging post for the whole of Polesie. The existing railway station of Yanov was close to the city. The newly built river port immediately extended the river Pripyat fairway that amounted up to 591 km (370 miles) in 1976. The convenient highway network in the area made it suitable for the passenger bus operation between the adjacent villages and towns. For instance, the timetable for May 21 1982 lists 52 departures and arrivals of the 14 daily services.
By November 1985 the town of Pripyat had 47500 citizens of 25 ethnic groups. The annual increase in population was more than 1500. Half of them were babies born to the citizens, the rest being the settlers who moved to Pripyat from various parts of the Soviet Union. The town’s population was expected to reach the figure of 75000-78000 in due course.
It was natural that the people aimed to settle in Pripyat. Designed as the exemplary socialist town built on a blanc space, it had all the commodities and attractions a Soviet city could dream of. It was frequently visited by the excursions and official delegations of the similar new-built settlements and cities, who studied Pripyat’s experience and styled itself after her.
The streets and avenues received the traditional Soviet names. Apart from the high street, which was to bear the name of Lenin, one would find People’s Friendship Street and Stalingrad Heroes’ Street. There were the Embankment Street and the Prospects of Builders and Enthusiasts. One of the main streets was named after Lesya Ukrainka, the 19th-century Ukrainian poet. Last but not least, the nuclear theme was not forgotten. The city had Kurchatov Street for Igor Kurchatov was the founding father of the Soviet nuclear programme.
Pripyat is a monocentric town. The administrative buildings, such as the gorsovet (Town’s council) and gorkom (Town’s committee of the Communist Party) were situated in the centre of the city, along with the cultural and recreational facilities, namely Prometheus Cinema, GPKiO (City’s Park of Culture and Leisure) and Energetic Culture Centre, which housed the theatre, the library, the dancing and meeting halls and various hobby clubs. The department stores and supermarkets were built next to them, and the Polissya hotel as well (“Polissya’ is the Ukrainian name for Polesie).
Pripyat was the town of architectural innovations. The new projects were designed for and put to test in Pripyat before they were adopted as the Soviet standard. There were 19 culture centres of the Energetic project and 11 cinemas similar to the Prometheus all over the former USSR. It was planned that a vast number of public facilities would be built and open by the end of 1988. The list included two shopping centres (one of them was to be called Pripyat Dawns), the two sporting complexes (Chernigov and Pripyatian respectively), the Pioneer’s Palace (children’s education and leisure centre), the new cinema of two halls, the Jubilee Palace of Arts and the October Hotel. At the corner of Lesya Ukrainka Street and Builders’ Prospect the 52-metre high TV broadcasting tower was to be built.
The city planning of Pripyat followed the ‘triangle principle’ invented by the Moscow architect Nikolai Ostozhenko and his studio. Later on, when the Pripyat’s project was being adopted, the Kievan architects introduced some alterations into it. That made the street layout of Pripyat unique, despite the fact that a dozen of Soviet newly built cities follow the same ‘triangle principle’ of construction. Some neighbourhood units of Pripyat have exact replicas in the two other atomgrads (Kurchatov and Semipalatinsk), the cities of Volgodonsk and Togliatti.
The ‘triangle principle’ is based on an apt combination of the living towers and the standard blocks of flats. It saves much land, which, in its own turn, may be turned into the green areas and gardens. Free spaces between the structures make the urban area less visually dense. The traditional idea behind the high-rise buildings was to save land; on the contrary, Soviet architects, wanted to make life more comfortable. They aimed to achieve this both with the use of extensive spaces between the blocks and with the equiangular thoroughfare planning. It is interesting to know that the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev paid considerable interest to the city planning, and used to give some personal advice to the architects. Traffic jams, which by the early 1970s became the inevitable trouble of any European or American city, were one of Brezhnev’s concerns. Although the cities of the USSR had yet not been suffering from it, Brezhnev expected the progress of the Soviet car industry to jam the Soviet streets in the coming 15 to 20 years, and the specialists considered developing new towns to be particularly vulnerable. Therefore the equiangular principle of the street layout was employed as a standard rule of the Soviet city planning. Pripyat and ten other new cities, which were styled after her, were made traffic jam safe: indeed, towns like Volgodonsk and Togliatti are never jammed during the rush hours even today. Nor would Pripyat…