Especially after the acclaimed HBO series of 2019, the events of the Chernobyl accident, as well as the drama of the local population and emergency staff, are at least basically known to the general public.
Since the nuclear disaster, a large area, comparing well in size with Greater London (but somewhat larger), has been severed from the rest of the world by means of a security cordon, forming the so-called ‘exclusion zone’, on the border between Ukraine and Belarus.
Access to the zone is strictly regulated. You have to carry a radiation dosimeter. Nobody can spend more than some days in a month in it, and no more than four days in a row. Some areas should not be accessed at all, and inside the exclusion zone are two sub-regions, an outer one where also Chernobyl town is, and an inner one, more severely contaminated. The latter is closer around the power-plant, and includes world-famous Pripyat – the mother of all ghost towns. To access this inner zone you are checked further, and stricter permanence restrictions apply.
Despite that, and the obvious – but not so dramatic – unhealthiness of the area, there are many businesses still going on, mainly around the power-plant – decommissioning the whole plant and monitoring the ill-fated reactor 4 is still producing a constant flow of work man-hours – but also in the agencies devoted to studying and monitoring the natural reaction to a never otherwise reached level of scattered radiation. As a matter of fact, huge parts in and around the exclusion zone have been turned into a special natural preserve. There are also services in several centers scattered over the zone, like canteens, hotels, transport companies, ranger stations, etc.
Not least, the Ukrainian Government is somewhat promoting visits to the area by the general public, and following the 30 years anniversary of the accident in 2016, touristic flows have literally exploded, with tens of thousands visitors per year. Clearly, you are not allowed to enter or move around on your own. There are two basic philosophies for visiting.
For those who just like the thrill of being in a contaminated place, an eerie ghost town or in proximity to a damaged nuclear plant for a while, there are quite a few options to get to the zone from Kiev on a one-day guided trip. You won’t see much more than the very basic highlights of the show, but you will be entitled to say ‘I’ve been there’. For those with an interest in taking great pictures, urban explorers, Soviet fans (?) or people with an interest in the history of the accident, private custom-designed multiple-day tours are available, managed by competent authorized guides. Considering the size of the exclusion zone, it is going to be a rush anyway, and you will leave with the sensation of having missed at least as much as what you have seen, but you will definitely see more than on a one-day trip, and not only the most obvious highlights. This was my option when I visited in November 2019 (more practical info at the end of the chapter – scroll down for this), and photographs in this post and related posts on this site (see here for chapter two) cover this incredible experience.
Soviet Over-the-Horizon Anti-ICBM Early Warning System ‘Duga’
Among the highlights most typically overlooked on a short visit to the zone is a one-of-a-kind relic of the Cold War. The Soviet early-warning radar Duga-3, aka ‘the Russian Woodpecker’ (or the ‘Steel Works’ or ‘Steel Yards’ to Western intelligence), started the testing phase in 1976, well into the electronic age. This system was intended to counteract the American intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threat, by detecting a single or more missiles soon after launch from the continental US. This implied detection beyond the line of the horizon, hence the name of this class of defense system – OTH, ‘over the horizon’ back-scatter radar. The physical effect exploited by this device was an alteration of the ionosphere by missile exhaust plumes, studied since the late 1940s, and such to be detectable by the back scatter of a purpose-designed radar beam.
The radar was made of a couple of two gigantic receiver antennas, one a little bigger than the other, and of a set of emitters. The couple of receivers make for a staggering total length of about 2’200 ft! The two antennas worked on two different frequency ranges. The bigger one was the low-frequency antenna, about 450 ft tall, whereas the smaller high frequency one was ‘only’ about 270 ft tall! As a matter of fact, they can be spotted from quite a distance, for example from the taller buildings of Pripyat.
The receivers were built about 7 miles in a straight line northwest of Chernobyl town – and they found themselves about the same distance southwest of the power-plant, today in the inner, highly contaminated circle within the exclusion zone. A segregated residential area for military technical staff and their families, known as Chernobyl-2, was built nearby. A large and sophisticated control center, as well as a training academy for the technical staff, was installed on site too.
The emitter antenna was located some tens of miles to the northeast of the receiver, closer to the village of Rozsudiv (aka Rasudovo), out of the exclusion zone. Nothing of the original antenna remains there today.
Building this radar system close to a Gigawatt-size nuclear power-plant might have been done in purpose, for the system needed an outraging electric power supply to work (in the order of some tens of Megawatts). By the way, the system reportedly cost to the USSR about twice the money needed for building the nuclear power-plant…
The Duga system was built in only two operational examples. A set of smaller-scale prototype installations had been originally completed as Duga-N and Duga-2, both located in the village of Kalynivka, near Mykolaiv (aka Nikolayev), southern Ukraine. These systems were successfully tested in the early 1970s, detecting simultaneous launches of four missiles from Baikonur, some 1’600 miles away. As a result of the success, it was decided to deploy two full-scale Duga-3 installations, capable of covering the North American sector. The two selected locations were Chernobyl, Ukraine, and Bolshaya Kartel, in the easternmost part of Russia. As said, these were completed around 1976.
In the event, the whole OTH detection system never went fully operative. Major technical issues related to the instability of the ionosphere in the polar region – an effect that inland-looking testing with the experimental small-scale Duga systems had not highlighted – made the north-pointed Duga-3 largely unreliable. The Soviets military finally accepted the Bolshaya Kartel installation in 1980, whereas testing went on for years in the Chernobyl installation, until it was hastily shut off following the power-plant accident in 1986. Parts of the Chernobyl system were transferred to the twin site in Bolshaya Kartel. The latter ceased operations in 1989, even before the end of the USSR, without having been fully commissioned ever.
The contamination of the plant in Chernobyl-2 made its disassembly economically disadvantageous. As a result, this humongous witness of the Cold War is still standing today, notably the last of the group of OTH early warning radars deployed by the USSR in the years of the confrontation with the West, now totally or partly demolished – for sure, this is the only surviving ‘Steel Works’ antenna.
Navigate this post – Click on links to scroll
- Access and Radar Antennas
- Control Center and Technical Buildings
- Training Center
- Chernobyl-2 – Firefighters Station and Village
- Chernobyl-2 – School
- Chernobyl-2 – Entertainment Center
Similar to all villages in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, the military town of Chernobyl-2 was evacuated and abandoned following the nuclear accident in 1986. It had been built anew for the 1’500 staff of the Duga classified radar station and their families, and as such it was a segregated, secret military town, sufficiently small and far from larger Chernobyl and Pripyat to attract little attention. The local firefighters station was reportedly the only one from the area not taking part in the emergency operations connected with the 1986 accident – it had to devote itself completely to the local military installation and village. This illustrates how serious the concepts of ‘secret’ and ‘segregated’ were for the Soviet military staff!
There are three main focuses in the exploration of this site – the monster antennas, the radar control center & training academy, and the Chernobyl-2 village. In my view, the mixture of a secret Cold War military past, unique Star-Wars-like vintage hi-tech, a history of forced abandonment and nuclear contamination, together with the general ‘something wrong’ atmosphere of the exclusion zone, makes this area one of the most intriguing on the ‘Chernobyl-menu’ of weird sights!
You get access to the area after leaving the main road connecting Chernobyl town to the power-plant soon after the inner-zone checkpoint. You drive some miles deep in the trees along a typical Soviet military road, made of prefabricated concrete slabs. The evergreen trees effectively hide the giant antennas, which you spot only when basically at a walking distance from the target.
You may stop immediately ahead of the original fence of the segregated area – the gate still bolsters the Red Star Soviet military markings! A likely apocryphal huge head of Lenin has been placed besides the entrance. From there on, you must go by foot. By the way, there are a few guards living (at least on shifts, in accordance with contamination limiting regulations) in the original checkpoint by the gate!
Walking to the bigger low-frequency antenna – the taller one, located closer to the site entrance – you pass by a nice Soviet military-themed mural.
Walking closer to the antenna, and going past an abandoned inner control booth, you start to realize the abnormal size of this item – as well as its rather complicated make.
The overall shape is roughly rectangular. To the far ends you can find two pylons, as tall as the central part of the antenna, and holding an array of horizontal cables.
The most visible part of the antenna is composed of an incredible tubular structure, apparently made of several pod-like substructures. Seen together in the pics, these pods may deceive their actual size – their diameter compares to the height of an adult man!
The pods are connected by cables and pipes. The arrangement make for impressive pattern geometries – almost a nice design object!
Walking along the base of this thing, you will notice it changes shape depending on your point of view. Taking the whole larger antenna in a single photo frame is not an easy task, even with a wide lens – it is really big!
Right besides the taller and longer low-frequency antenna, you find another cable-holding pylon, as well as the ‘smaller twin’, i.e. the high-frequency antenna.
Our visit was rather early in the morning of a very cold late November day, and the sight of this monster antennas was made even weirder by the unreal silence of the area, broken only by the low metallic clacking sound of this mega-structure, dilating after catching the first beams of the morning light… Visiting later in the day would have not been the same – when we left, some other small groups of visitors could be seen around, somewhat breaking the mystery atmosphere.
Past the antenna, you find a concrete technical building running all along it, with a very long corridor.
The major building in the technical area to the back of the antenna hosts the radar operation and control center. Originally, this sheltered arrays of signal-conditioning electronics, computers and related technical stuff, as well as control rooms much similar to NASA space mission control centers you can see in Houston, TX or Cape Canaveral, FL.
Accessing the building, you will be overwhelmed by the number of photo opportunities. A pinnacle for Soviet vintage fanatics is a couple of fine murals – despite most of Soviet military-related artistic works are really naive, there exist exceptions, and these two murals are among them. One of the paintings is fancy-space themed, whereas the other is science-themed.
A highlight is of course the huge control room. Original control stations for the subsystems can still be seen, with plenty of vintage cathode tubes. The main report panel, once occupying the entire end wall of the room, has been largely dismantled, but traces of electronics can clearly be seen.
In the same building, you can find dark rooms with arrays of cabinets once holding electronic boards or electric material.
Another highlight is a kind of propaganda room – not uncommon in Soviet military towns, see this post. Here you can find quotes of Lenin, articles from the Soviet law, as well as photographs and descriptions of US and NATO military assets. A stained glass board portrays the might of the Red Army, whereas another poster denigrates the ‘Yankees’…
From the top of the control building, you can enjoy a nice mid-height view of the antennas.
Back inside, you find another interesting room, with a scale model of the Darth, the Duga radar system and its function. In the same room you can find many control panels. Also interesting are the decorated glass windows, with military-themed stained glasses.
Walking back to where you had started your exploration of the antennas, you find a flat building, originally hosting a training center for the technical staff operating the Duga. A training room is a major highlight of the show. Here you can find descriptions of the working principles of the OTH antennas, as well as a sample list of the US/NATO strategic missile and anti-missile assets! This is really interesting, also because portraits are made by hand and complemented by basic technical data.
There are also technical schemes, and some further purely decorative portraits in naive style.
Military buffs – like myself – would easily loose track of time in this ‘didactic area’! Among the interesting things carelessly left on ground, tons of original Soviet radio and signal conditioning material!
Leaving the innermost technical area, you may then walk to Chernobyl-2, the segregated military village. A rather interesting place here is the firefighters station. Very well preserved, you can find in it an incredible scale model of the Duga and of the village, i.e. the area in the range covered by this station. In the same room, you can find tons of technical posters, and a nice epic mural dedicated to firefighters.
Chernobyl-2 is a ghost town in its own respect. Made of large prefabricated blocks, it is not even one-tenth of Pripyat in size, but it resembles similar military towns in former Soviet-occupied areas of Europe (see for instance this post). Not much visited and very quiet, it makes for a really mysterious sight.
Moving around the deserted blocks, you come across a small playground – basically intact, as if children had left the day before, a really impressive time-capsule effect!
But the time-machine effect reaches its top in a visit of the local school. Similar to other schools in villages of the exclusion zone, this is really in good shape, and offers tons of interesting sights for explorers. In the music room you can see portraits of Russian and European composers – strangely enough, including Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff, which left the USSR for the West… – a vertical piano, and tons of didactic stuff in the cabinets.
A very Soviet room features a kind of celebration of youth service.
There is also a math/science room, with books, models, portraits.
Most surprisingly to Westerners, you can find a language teaching room, where apparently English was taught. Considering the limited penetration of English in today’s Russia, and the fact that this was the language of enemy propaganda from the Soviet standpoint, this room makes for a rather puzzling sight!
Other rooms include a biology lab – with some botanical specimens still in place! – and much more.
There is also the unmissable school gym, rather well preserved.
A final highlight of the village of Chernobyl-2 is the entertainment center. This offered a theater and a large gym, together in the same building. Both are still in a relatively good shape. A nostalgic quote on a red banner is still hanging from the ceiling in the large theater.
The gym is decorated with naive sport-themed paintings, as well as Russian bears on stained glasses.
Going back to the entrance, you meet more service buildings, which have been converted to deposits of scrap material.
All in all, the Duga radar and Chernobyl-2 military village are for sure an unmissable sight for technically-minded people and Cold War historians!
As said in the introduction, this site is often overlooked on one-day trips. However, if you are interested in something more than just being in the exclusion zone, and especially if you want to take good pictures, you will definitely need to take a longer tour. The Duga radar and annexed village are often a part of multiple-day tours.
Depending on the type of tour, you may customize the experience, and ask for a bit longer time here. If you are a technically-minded person, a Cold War historian, or interested in military history, this is among the most most interesting sites you will find in the exclusion zone – and by chance, in the world, since the majority of the BMEW (ballistic missiles early warning) system of the USSR have been demolished today (see for instance Skrunda, Latvia, in this post).
Personally I chose to take a private custom two-days tour to the zone in a party of two (me and a friend of mine, plus the guide). We spent a full morning in the area of the Duga. For serious explorers, I totally suggest to choose at least this option, or better a longer tour, as so long a stay in the Duga (or other similarly interesting) area, while still barely sufficient to satisfy your appetite, is simply not possible on a short and pre-programmed 1-day trip.
General Data and Advice for a Trip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
Type of Trip
You can see this advice in any serious travel account from Chernobyl area, and I can confirm it – just forget to see everything on a single (even multi-day) trip to the exclusion zone, it is simply too extensive and dense of interesting sights. Yet a private two-days tour is surely already ok for a satisfying photographic trip. Of course, personally I am planning to go back for checking out other places in the zone.
Generally speaking, my first two-days visiting experience was extremely positive, largely thanks to two factors – a great travel-mate, my friend Paolo, sharing my passions and most of my crazy exploration ideas, and a great guide, Misha, who owns and operates a guided tour service in Kiev, now totally dedicated to the exclusion zone. Together with Paolo we arranged this trip two and a half months in advance, with a focus on taking pics of some specific highlights of the exclusion zone. We agreed on a schedule with Misha before being there, specifying the Duga among the highlights. Misha totally understood the spirit of our visit, and drove us to unique places, including some not often included in most trips, concentrating on photo opportunities. He took extraordinary care of avoiding the crowds. We felt safe at every time, and I must say the organization of the visit prepared by our guide was virtually flawless – no wasted time, only interesting sights, millions of photo opportunities. The only thing I regret is not having had more time!
Albeit you will be driven in a comfortable sedan around the zone, be prepared to walk a lot and quick even on bad terrain – in many instances there is no way to avoid that. If you want to take good pictures inside, you will need to take a tripod and/or a powerful flash. On top of this, go there with a very good familiarity of your photographic gear. It is essential you can take pictures reasonably fast even with a tripod, or you will not be able to get much of your time in the zone. As I work with a massive Canon reflex camera, I have multiple lenses and gear. I suggest having them in pods around your belt, to be able to switch lenses fast. Let us add that in the freezing air of late November (about 14°F in sunlight during our stay), you will need warm clothes and suitable gloves to both protect your hands from cold air and allowing operation of your camera. So, it maybe obvious to professionals, but a trip to the exclusion zone should not be your first experience with urban exploration or with your camera either, otherwise you will get disappointed very easily.
Time of the Visit
Something you may not think necessary if this is your first time to the zone – arrange your schedule to take countermeasures against the crowds! Listen to your guide’s advice in this respect, and get prepared to start your day out early, have lunch late and finish at sunset, especially if you want to get good pictures without somebody in the frame. This may not be the case in less visited Chernobyl-2 and Duga area, but the central square of Pripyat may turn as busy as in its pre-1986 heyday around noon, with several tourist buses parked side by side, and flocks of 1-day visitors everywhere with their guides – ok, it is not like Venice in the summer, but enough to strip the place of its mysterious aura, and such to severely disturb many potential photographic sets. This was in late November, our guide reported in summer is by far worse.
The best time of the year for the climate is the mid-season. Summer can be very hot and humid, winter can be really cold (well below freezing). In the cold season, the trees hide the buildings to a less extend, and this may be and advantage for pictures. Abandoned places are often invaded by vegetation, to the point you get disoriented, and perspectives tend to be obstructed.
Concerning the radiation/safety aspect, you can be sure you will not be driven by any guide in any dangerous places. Everybody is given a personal dosimeter when entering the zone. This item works in principle like a gas meter – its internal reading runs up every time you are exposed to radiation. The more intense the radiation, the faster it runs up. It will be checked by the local Authority when you leave, and based on the time frame of your stay, the final reading must stay under an assigned threshold. If it is over, your guide will be questioned. For this simple reason, guides are very careful and arrange the visit so that the total dose is below the threshold.
I went with military surplus clothes and undergarments for thermal protection. The only item I did not take back home was a pair of boots, purchased from a made in China shop for 18 dollars just for this trip. As I had imagined, they got covered in dust, and considering their value, I elected not to risk carrying them home. By the law, you should not go around with exposed legs or arms, but visiting in winter will make this rule not difficult to comply with…
As obvious, you will not be leaving with any unauthorized token, for two reasons – 1) you are checked in dedicated booths when leaving the zone or when accessing the canteen (there is only one central canteen for all tourists), hence if you have sources of radioactive emission with you, you will be stopped, and 2) you need to be a real idiot to dare to take away with you and installing at home something contaminated by radiation! Of course, you will be tempted, but of course you need to resist. This is what make the exclusion zone the world’s best time-capsule from the Soviet era – more than anywhere else, everything is, and is destined to remain, largely as it used to be in 1986.
There are of course souvenir shops, at the entrance of the exclusion zone – where you will stop anyway – in the canteen and in the hotel ’10’.
Services include the central canteen and at least a hotel. The canteen is close to the power-plant, inside the highly contaminated area but far from hot-spots. It is modern, clean, and you are given good Ukrainian food. This was included in the guided tour, so I can’t say what instrument of payment they are accepting (cash, credit, …).
Except for the canteen and hotel, we were shown a convenience shop in Chernobyl town, but of course you are not to find much in terms of food services around. You may better carry something with you from the ‘outside world’ (water, snacks,…) if needed.
The hotel where we stayed is located in Chernobyl town, and is called ’10’ (‘Desyat’, meaning ‘ten’ in Russian). Facilities are totally ok. We got a twin room with shared toilet services (showers and service are separated from each other, very clean and ensuring privacy – totally ok, just not one for each room). The atmosphere is friendly despite not much English spoken, and they serve dinner and breakfast at pre-determined times with a fixed menu (tasty Ukrainian food), plus there is a bar service running all the evening. Free fully working WiFi. The hotel was reserved and payed for by the guide, we only paid for bar service (water, tea, beer, …).
Our guide left us there after dark, and picked us early the next morning.
There is a curfew after dark, and you are locked in the building during the night – but you are never allowed to move around without a guide, so the only difference when the curfew is active is you can’t move around in the hotel parking… That said, the sight of Chernobyl at night would easily fit in a post-apocalyptic video-game or horror movie, especially in the cold season – silence, big dark Soviet-style apartment buildings with a couple of lighted windows, nobody around, a chilling wind and some dog barking in the distance… you will definitely better appreciate a cup of tea in the bar than being free to move around!
Guided Tour Suggestion
From the website of our guide Mikhailo Teslenko you will get practical info for setting up your trip to the zone. I can definitely suggest to come in contact with this guide, who is always friendly and answers professionally, very fast and with detailed info.