Chernobyl and Pripyat
CHERNOBYL: 25 YEARS AFTER
On April 26, 1986 during a systems test at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant located in northern Ukraine, there was an explosion and fire in reactor #4 which released large quantities of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere, spreading over much of Western Russia and Europe. It is considered the worst nuclear accident in history, and it is the only one classified as a level 7 event on the International Nuclear Event Scale. As a result, the Soviet government created what has come to be called an "exclusion zone" or "zone of alienation" roughly 30km in diameter around the Chernobyl plant. All of the residents were evacuated from this area and most never returned. Within the zone there is little to no human habitation and the area is slowly being overtaken by trees and plants. While it is still heavily contaminated with radiation, animals have returned here as well. The place is very quiet, except for the sound of the wind and the occasional call of birds or sounds of deer walking through the forest. I spent time both within and outside of this zone, and I was fascinated by the extreme contrasts between these two areas, which after all are only rather randomly divided by fences and checkpoints.
Within the innermost portion of the exclusion zone lays the now abandoned city of Pripyat. On April 27, residents were hastily evacuated and told to bring only what was necessary. Because authorities had said their evacuation would only last approximately three days, most of the residents left their personal belongings, many of which are still there today. Though the area has been scavenged over the years both by humans and by animals, much remains of the life here. It was clear to me as I walked through what amounts to modern ruins that the people here were once relatively happy. This was a well-planned and vibrant city, full of art and literature. Children's pictures on the walls of the schools depict an idyllic and happy childhood. The painted murals are still full of color and life. I could even see the ruins of their very own amusement park.
All of this now stands in stark contrast to the decaying structures, dusty and poisonous interiors, and the deafening silence of it all. The only things living here now are the plants and animals that had no hand in the destruction here. It is my guess that within another 20-30 years, very little of Pripyat will remain visible. Perhaps some would prefer that it go away completely, but Pripyat serves as a constant reminder of how fragile our human lives really are, and how the actions of a few have the potential to create widespread ruin for so many.
After spending time inside the zone, it was a welcome change to travel outside of it. I met people who made me cry, then made me laugh. Every one of these people has been affected by Chernobyl in some way. Most lost loved ones in the aftermath. These people whose lives were (and still are) so drastically affected by Chernobyl have a spirit which is rarely seen. They are true survivors. It is this survivor spirit which drew me here in the first place, and it is their strength, resolve and humor which I will remember most. Despite their hardship, they welcomed me into their homes and fed me foods which they grew in their gardens. They sang songs for me. They told me of their memories of that horrible time when people fled by the thousands from Pripyat, just down the road. They told me of the coffins which returned to Pripyat days later by the same road.
Just outside of the exclusion zone’s last checkpoint, people live in much same the way they always have. They hunt, fish, work and play. They write, play music and create art. They celebrate birthdays. They remember those who they lost in the aftermath. Strangely, people from Kyiv are beginning to move into the area also. There is new construction of large western-style homes along the river bank. People drive their Jeep Cherokees with new boats in tow to the river here and go fishing, though few of them will ever eat their catch. There is a sort of rebirth going on here which defies logic. Some are even calling it the "Chernobyl Riviera".
Beautiful sunny afternoons were spent here on the river. At times I had to remind myself that Chernobyl reactor #4 was only about 20 miles upriver from where I was idyllically lazing in the summer heat, occasionally dipping my hands and feet into the cool waters of the river while I ate one of the best peaches I had ever had. It was grown right here in the shadow of #4.
LIMITED EDITION prints from the Chernobyl and Pripyat portfolio are now available for purchase. 50% of the proceeds from the sale of prints will be donated to Children of Chernobyl Relief and Development Fund.
If you are interested in purchasing prints, or would like a matted and/or framed print, please contact me directly. Thank you.