Urban exploration has been an interest of mine for many years. The amount of derelict buildings in the United Kingdom is sharply on the decline and those that do remain have either had all their key features destroyed, stolen, or the security on site mitigates any chance of gaining access without breaking the law. This has left me with few opportunities to capture these decaying structures in a way I see fit nearly impossible. Outside the UK there are a few key sites that remain, and of course there is what is considered to be the holy grail in Ukraine; Chernobyl.
The tragedy that surrounds the nuclear disaster of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is well documented and in recent times has been pushed further into the public eye after the success of the television miniseries which aired earlier in 2019. There has been a lot of debate and controversy surround what is being referred to as “dark tourism” which covers visiting places of disaster like Chernobyl. Is it right to visit such places and be taking selfies with Cheshire Cat smiles? Should these places be left alone? Is it disrespectful to the victims? I don’t feel the answer to these questions are simply as straight forward as yes or a no. After visiting myself recently I want to document my account of the trip.
The tour I was a part of was just a singular day inside of the exclusion zone. We visited some of the small villages within the 30km zone, one of which had a population of three-thousand people, now, zero. After this we headed to Chernobyl town which is 8km away from the power plant, people still inhabit this town but they are the workers in the plant and aren’t permanently located here. It was here we stopped for lunch in a hotel, the only one in the town. Once we all had a full stomach, we left to head towards the power plant, more specifically reactor number 4 – the one that exploded. Now sealed under its new dome where robots work to dismantle and remove the remains of the reactor, there is a sense of sadness. We are now stood just a few feet away from it, the source of this great catastrophe.
Leaving the reactor, we head towards the ghost town of Pripyat where 50,000 people used to live. In the minibus we drive down a narrow road which has trees on both sides, this road used to be a wide, open boulevard. We then arrived outside the main square opposite the palace of culture and hotel, which I recognised instantly from playing Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. From here we begin our two-hour tour on foot walking around the centre of this deserted town. Everywhere you go nature has taken over, the concrete of footpaths have been pierced by trees sprouting out of them. There are still remnants of the lives of those who once lived here, inside the apartments there are still sofas, cookers, cupboards left exactly how they were on that day in 1986. The whole town was evacuated in under 4 hours and no one has returned to live since.
It was about half way into the tour around Pripyat that I noticed how quiet it was. Inside the middle school, there was a moment where everything was silent, maybe a slight rustling of the trees in a light breeze, but no birds singing, no cars, none of the background noise you might expect from a town. It was at this moment the magnitude of what happened here really hits you. The exclusion zone which is the place of the worst nuclear disaster of all time provides food for thought. This disaster was a manmade event and while not directly the same, the ever growing threat of climate change will ultimately lead to more disasters, but this time of an ecological nature. Maybe it is time we all took this threat a bit more seriously and take responsibility for our own impact on the environment.
After spending a total of six hours the exclusion zone it was time to return to my hotel in Kyiv, after passing through the two radiation checkpoints it is a two-hour journey back. The experience was very humbling and something I am glad that I did after wanting to visit for many years. The current Ukrainian president wants to open up more areas of the exclusion zone, after my visit you can now visit the control room of the reactor that exploded. But as with all things, “nothing lasts forever” and as it has been over 30 years since the area was abandoned, the rate of decay is increasing. Many of the buildings in the area have collapsed and with each passing day the remaining ones are getting closer to. If you are thinking about going, then maybe sooner rather than later is mantra you need to adhere to.