Friday, April 24, 2015

Pripyat: Visiting Chernobyl's Ghost City

"What I remember most about the hours we spent in Pripyat is the sound and feel of walking on broken glass."

Thanks a lot, National Geographic, for writing one of my strongest impressions of the experience six months before I even had the experience.

The shattered window panes that adorn the interior floors of Pripyat's abandoned buildings emit a distinctive crunching underfoot, and it's a feeling akin to walking on small pieces of gravel, albeit a shade smoother.  Pause and listen to other tourists moving through a different room or the floor above, and the glass takes on a distinctly musical, tinkling sound.

But there is something besides glass covering the floor in many rooms.  It feels soft underfoot, with a slight give and an occasional slip as it rearranges against the pressure of my shoe.  My soul cringes with each step, and I feel slimy, like I am defiling a precious object meant to be lovingly cherished rather than carelessly thrown on the dusty ground.

Books.  Piles of books, with spines broken and pages fluttering sadly in the silent breeze.

Once upon a time approximately thirty years ago, Pripyat (При́пять) was a growing population hub, having only recently attained the status of "city."  The youth of the city was reflected by the youth of it's 50,000 inhabitants--the average Pripyatian was 26 years old.  The city had schools, stores, restaurants, gymnasiums, swimming pools, a football stadium, a hospital.  The future was bright.

On 26 April 1986, everything changed irrevocably for Pripyat.  A power surge triggered an explosion inside Reactor 4 at the nearby Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, initiating the worst nuclear disaster the world had ever witnessed.

On 27 April 1986, the residents of Pripyat were told to gather whatever belongings they needed for three days, and to temporarily evacuate.  Four hours later, silence reigned the streets.  Every last person had been bused out and, unbeknownst to them at the time, they would never return.  Pripyat is now a city of memories.

Over the years, many people have illegaly stolen into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone--some for publicity stunts, some to poach the burgeoning wildlife populations, some for the "adventure" of braving the nuclear radiation, and some to succumb to the vandalism temptations of the ghost city's unguarded possessions.

Pripyat is covered in shattered glass, but not because every window was blown out by the explosion at the power plant.  Rusted shopping carts are strewn about the grocery store, but not because people dropped everything to run away from an approaching fireball.  Every desk in the school buildings is overturned, but not because there was a stampede to evacuate the children.  Pripyat looks like the Soviet Pompeii, but not directly because of the disaster at Chernobyl.

Pripyat was unaware of any accident at Chornobyl until hours after the fact.  There was no tremor through the earth, fireball in the air, or mushroom cloud to warn the people what had happened.  When the announcement finally came, the city's residents had a bit of time to gather their things before they climbed into buses and were whisked away to new lives.

There was probably chaos, but not of the screaming, stampeding, destructive variety.  After all, these people expected to return to their homes after a few days.  The destruction of Pripyat is a product of vandalism.

And the haunting of Pripyat is a product of time.  Trees grow through the bottom of the creaky Ferris wheel, and the former football pitch looks like a forest park.  The woods are slowly encroaching the apartment blocks, and filling in the school courtyards and city squares.  Nature makes a surprising amount of progress when its unimpeded for three decades.

In a way, the vandalism of Pripyat dims the haunting effect the abandoned city would otherwise have had.  It's easier to visualize people fleeing in panic, overturning desks and leaving plates on the table in the wake of a nuclear disaster.  Imagine instead that all the dishes were put away, books returned to the shelf, everything prepared as if the people were simply closing up to go on a short holiday.  Then add trees growing out of the front stoop and the vines shadowing the windows because no one ever came back to trim them away.  Dust collecting on the school desks and sporting equipment because no one ever came back to use them.  A city that looks like its holding its breath, ready to spring back to life at a moment's notice even as it's being slowly buried by nature.  This Pripyat would be terrifying.

This is the football stadium, with a track around the perimeter.

Mail box

This is the reality of Pripyat.  It looks like it was torn asunder by a natural disaster.  The fact that it was a man-made catastrophe makes no different to the ghosts that remain.

*Why am I switching back and forth with my spelling?  "Chornobyl" [Чорнобиль] is Ukrainian.  "Chernobyl" [Чернобыль] is Russian.  The place is best known by the Russian spelling, but it's located in Ukraine.

No comments:

Post a Comment