One of the more famous quotes about Pripyat in recent popular culture: ‘Fifty thousand people used to live here. Now it’s a ghost town.’
It’s true, but slightly off the mark. Pripyat is more than just a ghost town; it’s an alien relic. It’s of another time, where nuclear matters were muttered under the breaths of civil servants and revolutionaries. The shattering of reactor 4 was a sharp wake-up call, a dry run of what could have been. One misunderstood threat or diplomatic tipping point, and Pripyat wouldn’t be so unique.
We pulled up in a large, crumbling plaza. Before us loomed a large, concrete, modernist structure with smashed-in steps. On its outside walls were shreds of eerie graffiti; the twisted silhouettes of children. Their black profiles stared out at us, the trespassers. The guide gestured toward the building ahead. “Come, the hotel.”
The floor was scattered with every imaginable piece of junk. Tiles, plaster, plastic and glass, bricks, concrete slabs, warped bits of metal – bunched up in crumpled piles or spread out underfoot, it was like walking through the old pictures of the Bosnian conflict. The smashed-in doors and naked markings of missing radiators were not just caused by the natural deterioration of the site but also by looters, seeing what pickings could be stripped from the grounds. There’s no way of knowing who they sold the still-radioactive metal to.
It would be unfair to say there isn’t a breathtaking asthetic to all this defunct construction. But it’s worth remembering that people lived and died here. Since I left, I’ve learnt that there are some who still do. They returned to Pripyat for various reasons – mostly when they have been left without any other place to call home. They’d rather take their chances in the irradiated, windy corridors of this place. Recently, a child was born. Somewhere here, apart from us, they were growing up.
Next, we visited the Palace of Culture, a building seemingly with a mishmash of purposes. A large mural occupied one wall, but there were also gym facilities, lecture halls and studies. Outside was the famous playground, with its paralysed ferris wheel tall among the trees.
Outside, the grasses grow thick around the empty paths. In the concrete forecourt of the amusement park, the guide kneeled over a daisy with the geiger counter. The vegetation has soaked in the contaminated soil, making each white-headed flower a sort of nuclear radar dish.
Our last stop was the school, which is probably not a place to go if you have young children or teach them. We had to gingerly pick our way through the undergrowth to reach the entrance, taking care to avoid the patches of gritty mud. The school was by far the strangest and most haunting of all the places we visited. This was, in part, because the use of the place was still so obvious – it was no great leap of imagination to fill the classrooms with children at desks, hands in the air, or the blackboards with chalk equations. Something about the place seemed even more run-down than the other areas, as well. It was definitely darker in there, and strange whiteish mounds of plaster clung to the floor, the beginnings of stalagmites. I think what was perhaps the most affecting, though, were the keepsakes and items that had been left behind – and that would stay there.
There comes a point at which words start to be redundant, and I think that point is the gasmasks above. There were hundreds of them, piled thick on the floor, lying glaze-eyed in crates, tossed across the room. There must have been a moment in between fetching them and leaving them where it was realized that there would be of no use and that evacuation was more important. In that moment, these masks were pushed aside and left behind, like so much else.
Chernobyl and Pripyat are incredible in the literal sense. They are difficult to believe. They seem fundamentally apart from the world that we know, with our shopping centres and council tax. It’s our own real-life science fiction story, the one where humanity is left reeling by one of its own inventions. We in Europe were lucky, as I said before, to have suffered only the loss of this small town, overgrown and made strange in its inertia now. But how strange this place is, and what a reminder of a period in our history that already seems almost ancient, but that still holds important messages for us now.
Pripyat won’t last much longer – perhaps a few more decades. Ruins that are already cracking at the edges through weathering and disrepair are becoming more unstable. Some buildings have already undergone controlled demolition to lessen the risk. Not too far from now, the last of the people on site will be shepherded away and the area will be sealed off to all but the most intrepid or foolhardy. It will be left as one of the most profoundly empty places on earth, more lifeless for the life that was once there.
The last place we visited was the school’s swimming pool. There was only one entrance and exit, and as we made our way back through to the van outside, I saw something painted on a pillar. I didn’t know if it was official, or graffiti, but it seemed fitting enough.