The nuclear power-plant of Chernobyl took its name from an early medieval village – actually one of the oldest settlements in the Ukrainian region – not far from the right bank of river Dnepr. Following the construction of the plant in the early 1970s, the village of Chernobyl changed appearance, turning into a modern town (for the soviet standard of the 1970s…) for workers of the plant.
Actually, an entire new village was eventually built anew closer to the power station, the ill-famed Pripyat. The proximity to the place of the accident, as well as the north-bound air stream on that fateful day on April 1986, meant that Chernobyl town was hit much less by contamination than more modern and populated Pripyat.
As a matter of fact, today Pripyat is included in the inner ‘high-contamination’ sector of the exclusion zone, whereas Chernobyl town to the south has been spared a contamination so severe, and albeit to a much more limited extent than before the accident, it is still partly inhabited today. You are even likely to spend the night there, if you elect to embark on a multi-day tour of the zone!
Maybe less known to the general public is how large the (relatively) ‘low-contamination’ belt of the exclusion zone is. Considering only the Ukrainian part of the cordoned territory, the limited-access area extends roughly as Greater London, i.e. the whole area inside the Orbital! Clearly, on a territory so big – basically an entire province! – there used to be many villages, in most cases rural settlements, existing before the power-plant was erected. Unlike Chernobyl town, some of these smaller villages had retained their early-soviet, or even pre-soviet appearance.
Another relevant item in the area was the huge military plant centered around the ‘Duga’-type early warning system, installed in the 1970s together with a small secluded military village, Chernobyl-2 – see this dedicated post.
When tragedy struck in 1986, the government of the USSR had the area evacuated very fast, in some cases almost overnight. Where Chernobyl town and the power-plant area soon turned into a nest of new activities, mainly connected with the sealing, monitoring and recover of the leaking plant, most of the villages in the isolated zone turned into ghost towns.
Due to its large size and to the drama investing the families of the workers of the power-plant living there, Pripyat is for sure the most famous of all ghost towns of the zone, and probably also of the world. Yet scattered over the Chernobyl exclusion zone are many other smaller ghost villages, crystallized in time. Scattered over the Ukrainian countryside, immersed in the overgrown vegetation, these places offer an authentic and unique view of the rural life in the Soviet Union in the decades before the 1980s, deep in the Cold War era. Abandoned schools, kindergartens, private housing, public offices, patriotic monuments, etc. are abundant there, and make for mysterious sights, in some cases more intriguing to relic-hunters and urban explorers than what you may find in Pripyat – where the atmosphere may turn a bit too touristic even in a freezing weekend of late November, due to the hundreds of one-day trippers from Kiev, Ukraine’s capital city.
This post from a multi-day private photographic tour to the zone (see details and suggestion for the organization of the trip here) covers Chernobyl town and power-plant, plus many less-known and highly-mysterious villages and locations scattered over the exclusion zone. Photographs were taken in November 2019.
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- Chernobyl Town
- Cooling Towers of Nuclear Power-Plant
- Nuclear Power-Plant
- Kopachi Village Kindergarten
- Zalissya Village
- Isolated School and Kindergarten
- Children’s Camp ‘Emerald’
- Abandoned Barges on Pripyat River
The town of Chernobyl, originally a settlement in the countryside on the left bank of Pripyat river, about 70 miles north of Kiev, and dating from the 12th century, found itself located roughly six miles south of the ‘Lenin’ nuclear power-plant since the 1970s. This fact changed the shape of the town, which was largely expanded with blocks of typical multi-storey soviet monolithic apartment buildings. The population rose quickly from some hundreds to some thousands. A new welcome sign was erected, with some symbolism recalling the industrial vocation of the town.
The town was also an administrative center, with an unmissable KGB building, a justice court, a big communication center and many services for the local population.
Following the accident, the population decreased again to some hundreds, as the town is since then basically in the geographical center of the exclusion zone, albeit being by a small distance out of the inner ‘high-contamination’ sector. According to the rules of the exclusion zone, residents are not allowed to spend all the time there, so there is basically no permanent population.
Today, Chernobyl town may be not the most interesting center in the zone for tourists and explorers, but it is still one of the most active administrative and logistic centers in the cordoned area. It is located on the only major road serving the exclusion zone, going from the southern access point of Dytyatky to the power-plant and Pripyat. It is likely in this ill-famed village that you are going to spend the night, if you are on a multi-day trip!
Despite being there for the night, on our visit we could not tour the town extensively – there is a curfew at night, plus you are not allowed to move away from the hotel without a guide, who will likely leave you at the hotel to pick you up the next morning. Here are a few pics of the hotel ’10’ (this is the name of the hotel, probably linked to its address…).
One of the highlight of the tour was the visit to the memorial to the victims of the accident, including the deported populations of the villages in the zone. This monument features the names of all the many villages forcibly evacuated following the accident. As said, many of these villages dated from much earlier ages, so people living there for generations were forced to pack up and move away – all of the sudden and forever.
The names are reported on entrance signs aligned along an alley climbing uphill. On top of the hill, a concrete platform reproduces the profile of the exclusion zone, distinguishing between the innermost and outer parts. Each village is represented here by a metal stud planted in this kind of map. Finally, a modern statue of an angel with a trumpet has been placed in a position overlooking the map.
The angel is there for a precise reason. As a matter of fact, the name ‘Chernobyl’ in the local idiom corresponds to ‘Wormwood’. From the Book of Revelation, one of the angels of the Apocalypse let a star fall upon the Earth, causing the extinction of a portion of mankind. The name of the star was – guess – ‘Wormwood’! The cold weather, the fading evening light, the dark silhouette of the angel and the ghost appearance of the nearby housing created an ideal setting for listening to this story from our guide – you too would have been deeply impressed!
Not far from the monument, you can find the local courthouse, where the technicians found responsible for the disaster were trialed. Just cross the road from that building, you can find a statue of Lenin, and close by a big communication center from soviet times, still featuring its huge metal antenna.
Cooling Towers of the Nuclear Power-Plant
Moving north from Chernobyl town, you soon get into the innermost part of the zone, centered around the former nuclear power-plant. You realize you are getting closer as you start seeing a huge funnel emerging from the top of the trees in the distance.
This funnel is one of a couple, and they were never finished. This is actually one of the parts of the power-plant which is easier to visit. Access is cross an artificial channel for the cooling of the plant. You will need to walk along a modern and active railway track, leading to the power-plant some miles further. It is only when you are close to the funnels that you realize how monster-size they are. One of the funnels is largely unfinished, whereas the second one is much higher, and close to completion. We also accessed the latter.
For me, this was the first time ever I walked close to such a plant, and the appearance – a mix of its actual size and shape – made this item really impressive! Furthermore, it may look surprising but the walls of the funnels are suspended on a tubular structure all around the base, so that the walls are not planted in the ground. This is in accordance with the working principle of the funnel, which is basically a heat exchanging surface. The wind blowing through the tubular structure at the base increases air circulation.
Walking past the concrete tubes supporting the funnel, you can even better appreciate its size.
The inner surface of the funnel should have been covered with heat-exchangers. As a matter of fact, at the time of the accident work on this highly contaminated part of the plant was immediately suspended, and never resumed. Only a little part of the heat-exchangers is in place – the scaffolds for masons and plumbers working at the construction of the funnel and of the exchangers are still in place close to the top rim!
An oversized pipe emerges from the ground inside the funnel, likely the primary duct of hot cooling water coming from the plant. It is surrounded by a complex concrete structure. An artistic mural from a famous photograph, portraying a doctor assisting the victims of the nuclear emergency, has been authorized on the base of this concrete structure.
A particular making this part of the visit especially disturbing is that this is one of the radiation hot-spots of the exclusion zone! The guide will let you go in for a limited time, while waiting for you at a distance – going there more frequently, it would turn dangerous for him on the long run. Your guide’s Geiger counter will emit a worrying whistle close to the funnel, which despite other visited places in the zone, was never seriously decontaminated. On top of the cake, the ground at the center of the funnel is covered in moss, reportedly a natural collector of radiation contaminated powder! Our guide recommended not to step over moss, something we took very seriously – as you see, there are no pictures from the center of the funnel…
The freezing wind blowing through the slot at the base made the visit of the funnel particularly uncomfortable – where in most places of the zone we would have liked to stay days instead of hours, here we were glad our guide gave us only ten minutes!
The centerpiece of the exclusion zone is clearly the plant, officially named after Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, but known to the general public through the name of the ancient village nearby – Chernobyl.
Construction of the plant was started in 1970, and the first reactor (N.1) was commissioned in 1977, followed by N.2 in 1978. A second couple of a slightly modified model were commissioned in 1981 (N.3) and 1983 (N.4) respectively. The latter – the youngest – was the one that failed on April 26th, 1986.
The four running reactors at the time of the accident constituted the first unit of the overall design for the power-plant. They physically shared room in a single, enormously long building, where they were arranged in a row, with N.4 at the western end.
The catastrophic failure of N.4 did not mean the immediate cease of operations for the power-plant, as the other reactors went on producing power until they were gradually deactivated (N.2 in 1991, N.1 in 1996 and finally N.3 in 2000). Following the 1986 accident, N.4 was encapsulated by the Soviets in an emergency containment structure, which despite generally doing its job was affected by significant leaking problems. Only in 2016-17 the so-called ‘New Safe Containment’, a huge hangar-like structure capable of more effectively containing radiation, was placed over N.4, immediately showing its effectiveness through a stark reduction of the measured emission, now at much more acceptable levels even in the close vicinity of the plant.
The size of the building can be better appreciated from the distance.
Reactors N.1 and N.2 can be spotted beneath the cubic domes to the end of the building opposite to the New Safe Containment.
Close by the plant, a large node of the Ukrainian distribution grid, with cables, capacitors and connectors, is still active today.
For some reason, the plant cannot be photographed – there are clear signs all around its perimeter. This may be due to the fact this is still an active plant – the power-plant is off, but decommissioning activities are making this area one of the busiest and ‘lively’ in the exclusion zone. There is only one position where you can take a picture, and which is actually very close to the place of the disaster. This observation point is close to the containment structure of reactor N.4, where you can find also a monument to the heroes of the accident.
From here you can appreciate the top-ranking size of this structure. Besides the immense financial cost, this item will need replacement in less than a century, due to natural loss of its containment function.
As said, this first block of four reactors was just part of the intended design. A second block of two further reactors (N.5 & 6) was already under construction at the time of the accident. This was cross an artificial channel, and closer to the cooling funnels portrayed above. Similar to the funnels, construction work on the new reactors ended abruptly on the very day of the accident.
Today, you can spot the concrete casing of N.5 & 6, with many cranes and scaffolds still suspended around, just like construction of the new building was still going on! A rather strange sight…
Further six reactors had been envisaged on the drawing board, but they never materialized.
Kopachi Village Kindergarten
Less than two miles south of the funnels, deep into the ‘highly-contaminated’ sector, you meet what remains of the former village of Kopachi, one of the many pre-existent settlements totally abandoned due to the accident. Kopachi used to be a village of wooden houses. Wooden houses close to the plant had adsorbed much radioactive powder soon after the accident. With the passing of time, the naturally disintegrating wood had started to spread radiation in the air, so the administration of the exclusion zone had the village literally wiped out and buried. Only a few non-wooden buildings are still standing.
Among them is listed most notably a kindergarten. Despite being close to the main road and much visited, this place is rather eerie. Despite the relatively high level of radiation especially close to the ground, you can get access for a few minutes.
Inside the classrooms, music sheets, dolls and children’s toys can be seen everywhere. Hangers with funny symbols for the children’s small coats make for a disturbing sight, similar to the sleeping room with small beds aligned in rows, and even some blanket still there. There is also a ‘Menu’ board still hanging on the wall…
Ahead of the kindergarten, a Soviet war memorial has been inherited by the Ukrainian government, and adorned with the national blue and yellow flag.
The abandoned village of Zalissya is located about 1.5 miles southwest of Chernobyl town, and is conveniently reachable along the main road from there to the Dytyatky entry point.
Likely dating from the years of the Tzar, this village is a prototypical example of a rural settlement in pre-Soviet and early-Soviet times. The only noticeable construction from the main road is a Soviet war memorial, pretty plain in design, yet not small.
To the left side of the monument you can take an unpaved alley leading into the trees. You soon meet an array of small buildings, once hosting public services – a post office, a market. Soon after, you come across the most conspicuous of the buildings in the village – a meeting hall. This is rather disproportionate to the size of the private houses you will see later. The front facade of the building carries a huge communist emblem, and the construction year, 1959.
Similar meeting halls were not uncommon in Soviet villages, and were intended for meetings of cultural-political kind, where local people got brainwashed by communist politicians. There are at least three adjoining halls in the building. The larger of the three features a stage with a soviet slogan still hanging from the ceiling!
The decor of the halls is in stark contrast to the simple make of the houses nearby. As you proceed further into the trees, you finally find the village of Zalissya – a group of old wooden chalets. Similar – maybe more – than in Pripyat, you find much hardware left behind by the evacuated population – bottles, pans, pots, cans, baskets, cutlery, clothes, candles, toys,…
Among the strange items to be found here, you will see an abandoned car – cars were left behind during the evacuation, which was carried out by public transport. As a result, the personnel in charge of the decontamination and survey operations after the accident had at their disposal plenty of abandoned cars! When one broke, it was simply left for another, and used for spare parts. This apparently was the fate of the one you see here…
Accessing the houses maybe tricky, as some are badly damaged due to the years spent in disrepair. Nonetheless, this village provokes an incredible time-capsule effect, offering a hands-on glimpse into the everyday life of common soviet people from a rural setting in the years of the Cold War!
Isolated School & Kindergarten
As previously said, the exclusion zone features a quantity of larger and smaller villages. All of them have been abandoned, and some, originally close to the roads once forming a network in the countryside, are today hard to reach except with a walk in the trees – they are not accessible by car.
An inconvenient location has spared some of the spots in the exclusion zone from being battered by day-trippers. You can reach them only with a guide. As a result, these places are especially exciting to visit, as they feature an intense ghost aura – just like inhabitants had just left!
Over our trip, we visited one such village, and in particular we were directed by our guide to spend some time in the school and kindergarten, put on the side of a former small sporting ground, now invaded by vegetation. The evening light and the loneliness played a part in making this one of the eeriest parts of the overall visit to the exclusion zone!
Starting from the school, by the entrance hall you soon meet tons of posters and notice-boards, with quotes from Lenin speeches, flags and emblems.
Adjacent to the hall are two smaller rooms, with literally thousands of letters, copybooks, books, boards, postcards,… most of them hand written! You could easily spend one day taking an inventory of what is in there!
The long building features only one floor, and the classrooms are organized mostly based on themes like geography, biology, language, physics,…
Especially interesting is the language classroom. Most apparently, they used to teach English there! Considering the very low penetration of English in today’s ex-USSR countries – except maybe in the most touristic towns – and the fact that this was the language of the ‘western enemies’, it is surprising to find this level of commitment in teaching this idiom, especially in this small peripheral school.
A very intriguing lab is that devoted to chemistry and biology. Here you can find models of molecules, microscope specimens, collections of plants and seeds, minerals, etc. The silence, the evening light filtering through the windows on a cold autumn day completed the picture at the time of our visit..
Similarly interesting are the geography classroom, stacked with boards, similar to the main corridor of the building.
To the far end of the school, you can find what appears to be a kind of ‘propaganda lab’ – a relatively large room with tons of purely-Soviet items – history books, portraits of heroes, bombastic propaganda posters, and so on. It is apparent that teachers started pouring in some ideas in the minds of soviet children already from an early age…
Close by, the physics lab makes for another interesting sight, with kinematics and thermodynamics small-scale experiments bolted to the desks.
Compared to the school, the kindergarten is somewhat more morbid.
Puppets, toy trucks, dolls and even baby-size slippers make for a few sights that speak by themselves.
Children’s Camp ‘Emerald’
Not far north of Chernobyl town and close to the main road going to the plant, you can find another unique sight – a summer camp made for children from the large area around Chernobyl, before the nuclear disaster changed everything forever.
The location is not far from river Pripyat. It is today immersed in a tall forest, which makes contributes to the dim and shady aura of this place. Of course, some trees used to be there also before the accident, but today some have grown also in unusual places. The summer camp is made of pretty log cabins, placed on the side of a hill, gently descending towards the river. Nice place, except for a nuclear plant a few miles apart.
The cabins are basic and today generally empty, but they feature original wall paintings with animals and some popular characters from fairy tales.
In between some of the cabins, grouped in small clusters, you can find a playground, as well as some notice-boards and water fountains.