let atom be worker, not soldier

(Click the images for higher resolution versions!)


The dead city of Pripyat is one of the purest articulations of Soviet planned city philosophy, built from the ground up in modular “Microdistricts” around a central hub of large public buildings. Each microdistrict has housing for workers and their families (in the communist high-rise-and-shared-courtyard style), and various public service buildings, all carefully planned so that no resident had to walk more than a few hundred metres to reach a school, nursery, café or grocery shop, and only a little further to get to the centre of town, with its department store, bus station and community centres. As new reactors were built and came online, and other interests like the Jupiter works were built in the area, new microdistricts were built to accommodate their personnel. Microdistricts 6 and 7, intended to house workers for the new reactors, were under construction at the time of the accident; they were caught directly in the fallout plume, and are no-go zones now.


All of this is rather academic knowledge, because the city is, as mentioned, dead, and so choked with plants and trees it’s very hard to see from one building to another, let alone get a feel for the wider layout. The road we entered the city by, once a four-lane thoroughfare, was a tree tunnel barely wide enough for the van, the buildings either side appear as ghosts seen among the leaves; it may only be a few more years until the whole place is impassable. At the centre, we climbed the Hotel Polissiya, famous from That Call Of Duty Scene, crunching through broken glass and random detritus to look out across the city.


The grand plaza at the heart of Pripyat is named Lenin Square; windswept-looking birch trees and random weeds are pushing up through cracks in the concrete and asphalt, but its scale and grandeur are evident still. Overlooking it is the “Energetik” Palace of Culture,* the centrepiece of the city, a sort of huge combined community centre/entertainment & leisure venue. Opposite us, across the grand plaza, two tall tower blocks bore hammer-and-sickle crests like giant cap badges on their roofs. A longer, lower building between them was topped by big metal letters spelling out the motto of the Soviet nuclear industry: LET ATOM BE WORKER, NOT SOLDIER.


The buildings are grey concrete, very square and blocky in that forceful Communist way; the sort of thing which looks great on an architectural model or concept art, grim to modern eyes but full of proud little architectural flourishes you don’t see in the even-more-lifeless British brutalism of the period. Now the windows are all broken, the stairs are crumbling and the lurid murals to socialist peace and love are chipped and fading; little stalactites dangle in rows from the ceiling beams.


We entered the Palace’s once-lovely multi-level foyer and crossed the wreckage of a parquet floor into a dark, empty theatre auditorium, backstage darkly cavernous and full of worryingly rotten floorboards and rusting set machinery. Other areas of the Palace had cinemas, lounges, an indoor sports pitch with its painted wooden floor still mostly intact. There was graffiti on most walls, broken glass on every floor, random wonderful curios here and there, like huge posters of Communist leaders’ faces. A skinny white-tailed fox poked its muzzle through a door, found us inside, and padded off disgruntled.


The Palace’s basement held a little swimming pool, where an entire windowpane had fallen into the pool somehow and smashed. The boxing ring, in an odd round annexe which reminded me of a cathedral chapterhouse,** had no floor, and was built on things which looked for all the world like flowerbeds; it turned out they were, and this structure had been a botanical garden before it was turned over to punching. Down some fire-escape steps, we moved through a little wood full of lilacs and birdsong – the birds sound the same as back home, and only the moss-verged asphalt underfoot gave the lie to the appearance of a perfect wilderness.


Far too many photos have been taken of the empty amusement park, where the Ferris wheel, the dodgems and various other rides are succumbing picturesquely to rust and vegetation. Our guide indicated the many uncovered manholes, where an incautious step can lead to the stepper being dropped into a shitload of radioactive waste; even the covered ones had enough heat leaking through that we were advised not to sit down if we wanted children. The department store nearby was gutted and thoroughly eerie, a maze of rooms, empty of furniture but littered with huge piles of unrecognisable little metal stampings and broken fluoro light tubes which exploded underfoot. Empty safes stood against the walls with their doors rusted open, empty lift shafts with yawning doors promising excitement for the unwary ambler, rusting kitchen machinery filled dark, mildewy side rooms. In places, rain has broken down the materials enough to make lines of ugly little treacle-pudding stalagmites on the floor; the imitation marble cladding on the store’s main staircase is still there, but stained like the inside of an old teapot.


We took the bus to the northwest edge of town, huffed and puffed our way up the glass-strewn staircases of a 16-storey residential block, and enjoyed the perfect view. The landscape was nothing but sunlit forest from horizon to horizon, with only the roofs of Pripyat’s buildings peeking through, as though the whole city had been drowned in green; in the middle distance, the vastness of the NPP and NSC rose, geometric and implacable. On one horizon we made out the Duga-3 “Steel Yard” array, two rectangular grids of antennae almost a kilometre long between them; from our Pripyat crow’s nest, they looked almost small. Looking towards the river, our long lenses made out familiar sight to all CoP players, a pair of tall rusted dock cranes (redder than in the game); we tried to place them on our map, but the only plausible location was a small lake, and that just didn’t seem right. At the top of the lift shaft was a quiet, pitch-dark machinery room, with little Ukrainian health and safety posters from back when people gave a shit about that sort of thing; we balanced their uniqueness as souvenirs against the issues of moral sacrilege, potential for being caught, and isotope-themed fun, and decided to just take photos.


I could have spent hours up on that windswept asphalt roof, watching birches swishing in the dead city streets and sunlit stormclouds scudding across the horizon; but sunset was coming on, and nobody wanted to be caught out in the dark. So we drove back to the town of Chernobyl and found our rooms in the only tourist hotel in the Zone of Alienation. It turned out to be a surprisingly well-appointed timber lodge, where dinner came with excellent corrugated chips, the rooms were spacious and well-kept, and the wifi actually managed to stay up despite being blitzed by dozens of nerds uploading high-resolution photos.


There was only a single cloud to the general silver lining, which came when Bill kindly gave me a calabash gourd with yerba m8 and I needed to dispose of some calabash bits:

“The problem with this hotel is, there’s no bins.”
“Why don’t you just chuck it in the-” (I opened the drawer of the bedside table. There was a nappy inside, and the pungent stench that rolled out indicated that it is not fresh.)
“As you were saying, the problem with this hotel is, there’s no bins.”
“I’m slightly less impressed with this place now.”
* This is a very weak pun; Energetik means the same as in English, but also means power plant worker. Ho ho ho.

** Coventry Cathedral, specifically. This is Pripyat.

Kiev & Chernobyl 2015
Kiev monasteries & Mother Motherland – Maidan, St. Michael’s & St Andrew’s– Chernobyl Nuclear Power PlantPalace of Culture – Duga array & Pripyat Hospital – City of Pripyat & Chernobyl monuments


One thought on “let atom be worker, not soldier

  1. Philip Reeve says:

    […] recommended to me by Jeremy Levett, who is no mean historian and travel writer himself. His superb series of blogs about his visit to Chernobyl and its blighted environs were another of my favourite reads this […]

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