Among all oddities populating the extensive area of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – the immense cordoned area surrounding the ill-fated nuclear power-plant – Pripyat does not need any further presentation.
Pripyat was founded anew in 1970, and mainly intended for workers of the immense ‘Lenin’ power-plant, where the nuclear reactors started operations in the mid 1970s, and which went on being continuously expanded over the years. When tragedy struck on April 26th, 1986, four reactors were active, two were under construction – what remains of the ‘ghost construction works’ can still be seen (have a look to this chapter) – but about as many reactor cores were on the drawing board as the number of those already running.
Such a big and relevant industrial asset was managed and operated by a massive workforce of technicians. As a matter of fact, with a population of slightly less than 50’000 at the time of the accident, Pripyat turned out to be the largest village in an extensive and otherwise eminently rural region around the power-plant. An area with an extension comparable to the metro area of Chicago, IL, was cordoned out and totally evacuated in the days following the accident, forming the ‘Chernobyl Exclusion Zone’, which is still today off-limits without a guide, and where people carrying out technical work around the former power-plant, and related labs and businesses, live under a special regulation. Besides Pripyat, this extensive region includes also the nuclear power-plant, the town of Chernobyl, dozens of smaller villages (see Chapter 2), as well as a one-of-a-kind soviet military installation (see Chapter 1).
Being intended mainly for highly-skilled workers – like engineers and physicists in charge of the power-plant processes – Pripyat was built according to relatively high-level soviet standards. The town had five so-called residential ‘microdistricts’, made of high-rise apartment buildings, and each with a school and some other public services, like a small market, a library, sporting facilities, possibly a small theater, etc.
The geographic center of the town was another multi-functional district, with a kind of community center with a community hall for social meetings, a big hotel, a central market, a post office, a travel agency, a sporting center with a stadium, an amusement park – with the now iconic Ferris wheel… – a green urban park, and of course the local presidium of the Communist Party.
The town also featured a large hospital – ‘Medical Center 126’ – covering alone the size of another microdistrict.
All these services, the above-standard quality of the buildings and urban decor, and the setting in the nice countryside of northern Ukraine, in an area rich of rivers and creeks – Pripyat was built close to the right bank of the homonym and nice ‘river Pripyat’ – and not far from Kiev, made Pripyat a nice place to live. Even the workplace of many, the ‘Lenin’ nuclear power-plant, could be conveniently reached less than 3 miles away… The perfect worker’s life in this prototypical socialist village went on for some thousands workers and their families day by day without any major event for about 15 years.
Suddenly, Pripyat was evacuated in a few hours in the early afternoon of April 27th, 1986, about 36 hours after the explosion of reactor N.4, which had taken place in the first hours of April 26th. Notice of the evacuation was given to the citizens about three hours before the operation started. They were told they would have been taken away for precaution for just three days. The combined effect of the hurry and of the presumed short term of the quarantine was that basically everything was left behind by those leaving the town. As an effect of the cordoning-off and the spread of nuclear radiation, contaminating everything in the area, and making any items unattractive except for the most brave metal-looters, the mid-1980s life of Pripyat soviet citizens was crystallized like in a magic life-size 3D picture that you can even walk in! – the incredible ghost town that today everybody knows.
All villages and installations in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone were evacuated too (more than 100’000 were relocated in total), creating as many incredible time capsules from the Cold War era (see Chapter 1 and Chapter 2). What is unique to Pripyat is the overall size of the town, of the buildings in it, and the ensuing concentration of soviet relics around. Furthermore, being directly struck by radiation, due to the direction of the wind on the night of the explosion, together with the power-plant Pripyat is in the innermost, highly contaminated zone where nobody is allowed to live – unlike Chernobyl town, to the south of the power-plant, where some form of business is still going on this day, and where you are likely to spend the night on a multi-day tour. As a result, it is totally uninhabited – at least at night…
Actually, the successful HBO series of 2019 has increased the interest of the western public for this place even further, making Pripyat a de-facto tourist attraction, with tens of thousands visitors per year. Most of them take the ‘typical’ one-day trip from Kiev, where you spend a few hours in the Exclusion Zone, mostly in Pripyat. The ‘Soviet ghost aura’ around this town is so intense you will surely get impressed even by a visit so short. However, the ‘highlights’ in town may turn crowded to an almost paradoxical extent for a ghost town, so that enjoying the unreal silence and loneliness you would expect in a creepy soviet village contaminated by radiation may turn possible only in less known spots, where you will be taken only by private guides, on tours typically lasting two days or more, and purpose-designed to allow you also to take good pictures.
The latter was my option. You can see in this chapter several unusual photographs of Pripyat, taken during a stay of many hours in this ghost town, during a visit to the Exclusion Zone lasting two (freezing) days in late autumn 2019. Practical info about the visit are provided in a section at the end of another chapter (and links therein).
Photographs will follow the course of our visit. We started early in the morning from nearby Chernobyl, where we had spent the night. We were in Pripyat before one-day visitors from Kiev came in – possibly the most impressive part of the visit in terms of ‘ghost aura’, thanks to the silence and loneliness of the place at that time.
You may see the light changing over the day, until we finally left in the afternoon for another part of the Zone. You won’t see people in my pics, but this is the result of the ability of our guide, as well as of some effort on my side especially in the central hours of the day and around the central district.
Red Forest, Bridge of Death and Pripyat Access
One of the most severely contaminated areas in the zone, the ‘red forest’ used to cover the area between the power-plant and the town of Pripyat. Exposed to an unprecedented level of radiation, the trees in the forest changed color to an unnatural red soon after the explosion. As a matter of fact, all those trees have been wiped out and buried underground. A completely new blanket of younger trees now covers the area.
The route coming from the power-plant and going north to Pripyat, only less than 3 miles away, is usually covered by car/bus on visits to this sector – a route likely covered every day by workers living in town and working at the nuclear plant. The road goes through the former area of the red forest, where many radiation danger and warning signals can be seen, and where you are unlikely to stop.
The same road finally points straight into Pripyat, and goes over a railway track. The bridge is a vantage point from where the power-plant could be observed, especially the ill-fated reactor N.4, which lies next to it. On the day of the accident people from nearby Pripyat came to this bridge out of curiosity, to check out the emergency operations taking place around the reactor. Similar to the red forest just ahead of it, the bridge was invested by a massive flow of invisible radioactive debris, also due to the wind direction on the day of the accident. The name ‘Bridge of Death’ given afterwards to this site suggests the epilogue of the story for the most unlucky among those who ventured on the bridge on that fateful day.
From the bridge you can spot the tall buildings of Pripyat, and soon reach the entry checkpoint.
‘Azure’ Swimming Pool and School (Microdistrict 3)
Accessing in the early morning, despite the very cold temperature, we could enjoy a few hours of a really evoking, silent and lonely visit. Venturing in Pripyat, you soon meet an array of many bulky multi-storey apartment buildings close by each other.
Leaving the car close to a major crossing, and walking between microdistrict 3 and 4 to the first highlight on our visit – the sporting center called ‘Lazurnyy’ – or ‘Azure’ in English – we could appreciate the size of some of these builidings. The silence was really striking! Old road signs can be seen along the road.
From the outside, the sporting center must have looked really nice in its heyday. A decorated metal fence can be seen around the complex, which lies in front off School N.3. A giant clock hangs on top of the building. Some soviet decoration can be found in the entrance hall of the complex.
Upstairs, a first hall hosts a gym, with a basketball court. The pool is in an adjoining hall. It is modernly designed, with a large window looking on to the next buildings, some hundreds feet away. The roof is inclined, making this hall look somewhat roomier than it actually is.
A clock and a ‘coat of arms’ of a swimming team (?) adorn the wall. The springboard is also still in place.
Unfortunately, some total idiot writer felt and urge to add his signature on the side of the pool. Luckily, similar accidents are not typical to Pripyat, which is still today heavily guarded.
Next door, you can find School N.3. A rather big building with an inner courtyard, you can find here many interesting sights, including tons of science-themed posters, a full physics lab with experiments – and items looking like models of heat-exchangers of a power-plant… – and more usual classrooms.
There is also a room where the floor is covered with gas masks. This is an example of a staged post-apocalyptic scenery, which have been prepared for tourists, and is actually not totally original – sure the masks were already stored there for civil protection, but they have been apocryphally scattered on the ground only for photographers.
Panoramic View from Rooftop (Microdistrict 5)
Walking from microdistrict 3 to the northwestern corner of microdistrict 5, you get past entire blocks of multi-storey buildings. The tallest in Pripyat are a couple of 16-storeys ‘twin towers’ on two sides of a street on the northern edge of the town – i.e. the farthest from the power-plant.
Climbing to the roof terrace on top of one of the twins – a nice workout with a heavy full complement of photographic gear, especially useful to warm up on a freezing autumn morning! – you get the chance to enjoy a great panorama view over the entire town of Pripyat. From there you may better appreciate the concentration of high-rise buildings in town, as well as the sharp border between the settlement and the wilderness all around – like many industrial towns in the USSR, Pripyat was built basically in the middle of nowhere!
The proximity to the power-plant – with the colossal hangar-like sarcophagus containing what remains of reactor N.4 – is really striking. While convenient for commuting workers, in the event it turned deadly for Pripyat. See Chapter 2 for more on the power-plant.
The colossal Duga anti-ICBM early-warning over-the-horizon detection antennas can be clearly spotted from here too, despite being some 7 miles away – they are really big! See Chapter 1 for more on this incredible, one-of-a-kind Cold War relic.
Considering the buildings have been in total disrepair from some decades now, they are pretty well conserved, testifying about the overall not-so-bad quality – better than expected especially for soviet standard. Traces of architectural decorations are also to be found on the balconies, definitely unusual for industrial towns (see for instance the depressing northern suburbs of the large port of Murmansk in this post).
Likely the most photographed spot in Pripyat, the Ferris wheel is to be found in an amusement park in the central district of the town, close by administrative and service buildings.
Considering its age and disrepair, it is not in so bad a shape. The Ferris wheel is not the only item in this small amusement park. There are a bumper car track, a big swing, what appears to be the skeleton of a chairoplane, and a smaller indoor shooting range.
The deer painted on the wall of the shooting range appear very well preserved, and it is hard to tell whether they are from the time.
Again part of the central district, the central post office is home to one of the finest murals in the whole Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. A true protagonist in the iconography of the USSR, a cosmonaut occupies the central scene of the mural, which is centered on the idea of writing, language and communication in history.
While often kitschy and of poor artistic value, in some cases Soviet murals are more interesting, featuring a unique mix of ingenuity, rhetoric and design skill which most suitably adorn public offices, military halls or front facades.
This is also the case for the external ceramic frieze on the side the southern side of the same post office. Traces of public phone booths, an original mailbox and the opening timetable of the post office are still there to see!
The central square of Pripyat is one of the most crowded places in the whole Exclusion Zone. Not only tourists can be found everywhere in the adjoining buildings, but buses of every size are parked ahead of it, making it look possibly more jammed than in the years before 1986.
Despite that, some highlights of Pripyat are to be found around the square, so it is of course worth a stop. To the west of the square you can find a large restaurant, with its big banner still on top of the building. In an adjoining building, the central shopping mall is an impressive sight, with indications like ‘Fruit’, ‘Vegetables’ and so on still there.
One block away still to the west, a big, tall building has the coat of arms of the USSR on top.
To the north of the square, a massive civic center (‘Palace of Culture’) can be found, once hosting a hall for social events, and an adjoining indoor sporting facility.
The hall features another interesting soviet fresco, and what appears to be a large ballroom.
The sporting facility includes a very big basketball/soccer court, a very small pool, and a boxing ring.
To the east, the square is completed by the Hotel ‘Polissia’, which is joined to the Palace of Culture via a long curved patio.
Hospital – Medical Center 126
As said, the hospital occupies a large area, equivalent in size to a microdistrict. This large medical center is composed of many buildings, and on the day of the accident it found itself on the front line, trying to give assistance to the death-bound firefighters, hit by acute radiation syndrome, as well as to many inhabitants of Pripyat, who were exposed to extreme – albeit not immediately lethal – doses of radiation, experiencing physical symptoms in the hours following the accident and preceding evacuation.
For some reason, this area is one of the most contaminated in Pripyat today, and venturing is usually a matter of a few minutes for safety reasons. Adding to the unhealthy aura of this place, rumors support that the uniforms of the firefighters, hastily thrown in the basement when they were given medical assistance, are still there, somewhere beyond a bricked-up door…
We walked inside the largest building in the complex, and kept on the floor of the gynecology and pediatric department. Here you can find baby cots, delivery rooms, medical cabinets and more standard hospital bedrooms as well.
Empty cradles, abandoned registers, medical posters and hardware make for a really spooky sight.
To the far end of the building, you can find a kind of conference room, with traces of decoration on the wall.
Leaving the main building of the hospital, walking past a water reservoir, we reached the morgue and dissection room. Already pretty horrible in normal life, this is one of the spookiest sights in Pripyat’s post-apocalyptic setting!
Chemical reactants and a smoky incinerator for medical waste complete the picture – who knows whether they incinerated some used clothes and gauze after the accident… better to avoid touching the soot-covered walls here!
Cafe Pripyat, Passenger Port and Floating Pier
Cross the road on the northwestern corner of the hospital district, you find a very peculiar building, appearing like the set for some James Bond movie scene. The assembly is made of two small buildings with large windows, connected by a covered passage.
The eastern end of the complex is Cafe Pripyat.
Besides some sculptures on the outside, the main hall of the cafe features a very nice – and well preserved – example of artistic stained glass windows. The incredible light of the day added to the ensemble – making it for sure the most pleasant sight in Pripyat.
The covered passages features triangular concrete posts.
The complex is on top of a low cliff, on the bank of a backwater of river Pripyat, and a descending stair takes you to a former pier.
The geography of waterways here is not very clear. Today, it appears that the water you access from this complex is basically an isolated pond. However, this may be an artificial result. As a matter of fact, the area around the power-plant, and down to Chernobyl some miles away, used to be served by hydrofoils. It appears unlikely that a pier this big was built without this type of service in mind, so maybe what is now a reservoir, used to be a receptacle of river Pripyat, and a stop in the water transport lines.
An interesting element to be sighted somewhat downstream with respect to the pier is a floating part of the pier, which got detached from the fixed part and got stranded after floating abandoned for a while.