Some places shows exactly what horrible places humanity can go to. Pripyat ghost town, which is considered the main victim of the Chernobyl disaster, is proof of this. Since that terrible day in 1986, which fatally struck it, it has remained abandoned – but the signs of destruction and destruction of an entire town that no longer exists are present to this very day.
The Vision of Pripyat: A Prosperous and Young City
Pripyat, perhaps needless to say, was not always a ghost town. Its history is equally short and chilling. It was founded in 1970 as a settlement, in the north of Ukraine and near the border with Belarus, and was named after the river nearby. Like other “atom cities”, its purpose was to serve as a home for Chernobyl nuclear reactor workers and their families. Even under these circumstances, it managed to develop and prosper, until in 1979 it received the status of a city: in 1985, a year before the disaster, the number of inhabitants was about 49,500, with the population growing by several thousand people every year. The authorities in Russia, who saw the city as one of the sources of pride for the communist government, aimed to almost double the number of residents.
The quality of life of Pripyat’s residents was high. The city, which largely attracted young families (the average age was 26), included as of the beginning of 1986 an excellent education system with 15 kindergartens and elementary schools, alongside five high schools. For almost 12,000 children and teenagers, 35 playgrounds and one large park were built here. It was also possible to find in Pripyat a hospital and three clinics, 25 shops and shopping centers, 27 cafes, cafeterias and restaurants, cultural institutions (such as a cinema, a cultural palace and an art school), ten gyms, three indoor swimming pools, two stadiums and more.
One of the undisputed symbols of the city – and in hindsight also the saddest – is the giant wheel that was supposed to be used as a tourist attraction. Pripyat’s amusement park was supposed to open on the first day of May 1986, and provide residents with “culture and relaxation”, by the tradition of the Soviet authorities. Next to the giant wheel, which rose to a height of about 26 meters, there were supposed to be colliding cars, swinging boats and other attractions for the whole family. But what happened a few days before changed the picture completely and meant that this park would never open.
Why is Pripyat Abandoned? The Explosion that Changed Everything
On the night between April 25 and 26, 1985, about 50,000 residents of Pripyat apparently slept peacefully. However, that night a routine experiment carried out in reactor number 4 – one of four reactors that were active at the time – went out of control. Human errors and incorrect planning of the work resulted in overheating of the reactor. The nuclear fuel exploded, the water in the cooling system turned into steam and a fire broke out in the concrete dome, which released radioactive materials into the world’s air. In total, the radiation reached a distance of about 30 kilometers from the reactor and its intensity was about four atomic bombs.
When the residents of Pripyat woke up that day, they couldn’t miss the flames rising from the nearby reactor but they also knew how dire the situation was. It is hard to believe that many of them believed that they were in the midst of the worst ecological disaster of the 20th century. The administration in Russia, in a scandalous decision, decided that if it is impossible to lower the flames in practice – the right step is to try to keep the case on a low profile, at least in appearance. There are even claims that the amusement park was opened for one day, after the disaster, to perhaps try to convey to the residents that everything is fine. However, the reliability of these reports is unclear.
The bottom line is that only a day and a half later, during which the residents did not receive any safety instructions, it was decided to evacuate the city. More than 1,000 buses made the journey from Kyiv, which is about 110 km away. Residents had very little time to prepare for evacuation, which authorities said was supposed to be temporary. The directive was to pack clothes and important documents, but in practice many of the residents did not have enough of that either due to the efficient evacuation campaign, which raises thoughts that it is very possible that the Russian authorities were prepared for this type of scenario. The residents left the city in a panic, on the same buses, leaving countless items behind.
The city froze and turned almost instantly into a ghost town, with residences, hospitals, swimming pools and many other abandoned buildings. The toys left behind are one of the clearest evidence of the horror, evidence of families whose lives will no longer be lives and of children who will be scarred forever. In the years that have passed since then, visitors to the place have placed additional dolls to heighten the sense of horror, some of them covered with AVK masks.
The Failure That Followed
In the beginning, the authorities in Russia still tried to control the catastrophe, with the help of an unimaginable number of about 600,000 emergency personnel. The fire was extinguished and the reactor sealed, but it was too little too late. Attempts to purify the area failed, and it was decided to turn the city and the area surrounding it into a quarantine area.
To enter the city, even to collect the valuables left behind, quite a few permits were needed. Only a small percentage of the residents actually did so, and they moved to live with the help of the authorities in Kyiv or in the new city of Salbotich, which was established about 45 km away with the purpose of housing the evacuees. Those who did “celebrate” in those days were the lawbreakers. Thieves came and took everything nearby (mainly precious metals), vandals destroyed every good plot and outlaws considered it a place of refuge. Street Dwellers made it their home, because it might be better for them to live in an abandoned house in a city full of radiation, rather than freeze to death.
The city has been under Ukrainian control since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. During the current war between Russia and Ukraine, it was announced that the Ukrainian army used the abandoned buildings and deserted streets to train in the abandoned city. During the current war, Russian military forces invaded the city.
Unimaginable Damage that gave birth to Pripyat Ghost Town
When talking about the towns affected by the Chernobyl disaster, most people think of Chernobyl itself. Nevertheless, if you look at it on a geographical level, you see that Pripyat ghost town is the main victim of the disaster. It was located closer to the reactor compared to Chernobyl and was also larger. Therefore the damage is many times more significant, and the same visual images that we associate with the disaster are present here to a greater extent (for comparison, Chernobyl is still partially inhabited). A prime example of this is Hospital 126, where the clothes and equipment of the firefighters who were sent to try to put out the fire are still found, many of whom died on the spot or after a short period.
The truth is that it is difficult to estimate the damage caused by that terrible explosion, which killed two of the factory workers on the spot. About 30 more workers died in the three months after the Chernobyl disaster. They were buried in sealed concrete coffins, due to the fear that even in their death they would spread dangerous radiation.
As for the residents, estimates of the number of deaths due to radiation exposure vary. The optimistic forecast speaks of a few dozen, while a more pessimistic forecast – such as that of the United Nations from 2004 – is about 5,000 people. In 2006, the World Health Organization, the WHO, estimated the number of deaths at about 9,000.
Of course, we should take into consideration the long-term damage, when the most prominent possible effect of the strong radiation is the development of cancerous tumors. According to the Greenpeace organization, the number of people who have died or will die from cancer or other diseases due to radiation exposure is about 90,000. Millions of families have been affected in one way or another that require financial assistance. To this, of course, we can add enormous economic damage at the macro level, which was estimated by the Belarusian government at more than 230 million dollars in the three decades that have passed since then.
Those who want to be exposed to the horrors of Chernobyl will be able to do so as part of the excellent and successful HBO series, which naturally infuriated the Russian authorities who claimed a distortion of reality and declared that they would produce their own version. There are also some good movies about the disaster, or rather its consequences.
The horror film “Chernobyl Diaries” from 2012 is one of the more memorable examples. The film, filmed in part in the abandoned city itself, focuses on a group of six young people who decide to visit the ghost town Pripyat, with the help of A local guide, and paying for it, they encounter supernatural visions, monsters, menacing animals and other dangers, including the Ukrainian army.
is Pripyat Still Radioactive?
Coming back to reality, Pripyat remains abandoned to this day and is considered one of the scariest places to visit. It is a city that has almost completely frozen, as can be deduced from the communist posters that still hang there: on some of them the hammer and sickle symbol of communism appears, and on others the figure of Lenin. What did manage to recover – and here too men are to blame – is nature. Unsurprisingly, the vegetation grew here in the streets and even in the houses themselves, although there were also casualties in the disaster sector. In what is known today as the “Red Forest” there are trees that, due to the intense radiation, turned red-brown and died after a while.
In the animal sector, there are various species of animals that have “taken over” the streets of Pripyat ghost town: for example, wolves are found in the environment surrounding Chernobyl in much higher numbers than in populated urban areas. In some cases, these are animals or those that appeared here for the first time only after the disaster. In total, about 400 species of animals were found in the Chernobyl area, including wolves, brown bears, deer, elk – and the list goes on.
Is Pripyat still abandoned by human beings? Mostly. Pripyat serves today as a source for research examining the damage of nuclear radiation and ways to deal with it. This is also why you can find a total of about 1,000 professionals here, including doctors, researchers, radiation experts and other maintenance personnel. Tests are being conducted all the time, but the answer to the question is Pripyat still radioactive is clear: According to the scientists’ estimates, only in about 900 years will the radiation levels in the city decrease so that it will be safe for habitation again. There are even much more pessimistic estimates.
Pripyat Ghost Town Today: You Can Visit, But you shouldn’t
The city is a pilgrimage center for the curious to this day, even though the danger of radiation is still present and may have a short-term effect. Of course, in Pripyat, as in the city of Chernobyl itself, some visitors do so without permission as part of the “Dark Tourism”. It is possible – even if not really recommended – to join one of Pripyat tours. Pripyat tourism offers a chance to go through the streets, between the abandoned buildings and inside them (all the doors were left open in an attempt to prevent a dangerous “incarceration” of the radiation in the closed buildings), with some restrictions regarding tours to Pripyat.
First, there is an absolute prohibition to taking objects out of the city due to the fear that the radiation will pass through them to other areas. Second, every tourist must present certificates upon entering the city and pass an inspection upon exiting it, which examines the level of radiation in their clothing. The tour organizers claim that the short stay in the city is safe, and that the levels of radiation absorbed by the body are compared to no more than a few hours flight.
From time to time, the city ignites the imagination of people who can visit it in the safest environment there is – through the Internet. In early 2021, we heard about a TikTok user who allegedly found a photo of a ghost pointing at the camera, while virtual wandering through Google Earth in the city’s abandoned post office, which was apparently “just” a statue. A few weeks later, the wander led to a pile of “human bones” surrounded by rusting handcuffs, which in reality were probably the bones of some animal that lived there.
The city will remain abandoned for hundreds of years, and we all should have one hope: Taking into consideration the current war in this area and the danger of atomic bombs globally, we all pray that we won’t see more Abandoned cities like that.