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The ghost towns of Chernobyl, by Tristan Rutherford

The Times, September 2018

Pripyat was built in 1970 as a showpiece atomic city. To attract bright young scientists to the Chernobyl plant three miles away, it featured indoor swimming pools, ten gymnasiums and a score of restaurants. The average age of residents was 26. This morning I saw two red squirrels mating atop a supermarket refrigerator, which once stocked sausage, frozen fish and other luxuries only available in Moscow and Kiev. Just yesterday a moose wandered through the tumbledown Palace of Culture. Here rusted scaffolds are being clawed back into the earth by rising oaks.

The director of the Soviet Union’s nuclear facilities, Anatoly Alexandrov, once declared the nation’s reactors “as safe as samovars”. But on Saturday 26th April 1986, a routine test at Chernobyl’s reactor 4 caused a nuclear chain reaction, hurling its cement casing skyward with the force of 500 Hiroshimas. Authorities evacuated Pripyat’s 50,000 residents by telling them “to pack everything they need for three days.” Few ever returned.

The chance to tour the world’s only urban jungle has rendered the Chernobyl and Pripyat zone an unlikely tourism success story. Like Pompeii, Angkor and other abandoned cities, it’s a time capsule to another era – an open-air museum dedicated to the folly of humankind. Radiation levels today are allegedly similar to those received during an average transatlantic flight. After officially opening to tourism in 2018, tourism numbers peaked at 1,300 per day in May – or 500,000 a year if the trend continues – although authorities are predicting 100,000 annual visits. British tour agency Explore has started the UK’s first group trips to Chernobyl. I join the post-apocalyptic fun.

Local tour guide Denis leads me to reactor number 5 through waist-height wildflowers. Now the bus that once transported its workers has been probed by arboreal fingers, its corroded structure rent apart like a rusted carcass. Alongside, man-made lake teems with orange-finned carp. Catfish, pike and roach also swim in abundance. Would Denis eat them? “The fishes contain over 1,000 times the regular amount of radiation, so no.” Only a fool would order mushrooms in these parts.

Over lunch at the zone’s only hotel, Denis explains how his father worked at Chernobyl as a nuclear engineer from 1987. Shockingly, the creaking plant continued to produce electricity until 2000. “In 1986, if reactors 1, 2 and 3 had also ignited, that would have been it.” As in, a nuclear winter. The biblical End of Days. On a lighter note my lunch of pork dumplings and bulgur groats tastes unnaturally delicious. I wonder why? I ask Denis if this is only restaurant in Chernobyl. “No, a small café opened last month.” Like I said, business is booming.

That afternoon we tour the settlement of Pripyat. We stroll mostly on foot, with a vehicle in nearby support that has a Geiger counter in the boot. Forest has reclaimed many of the 160 tower blocks, rendering them invisible from even 10m away. Others have curtains drawn and an ironing  board on the balcony: a 1986 USSR frozen in time. As Soviet masonry is assaulted by puncturing frosts and probing branches, these buildings are deemed off-limits to our tour. “But stalkers camp inside them”, explains Denis. These are mostly teenage gangs who sneak into the 30km Chernobyl Exclusion Zone without the passport check that I endured. The stalkers then smoke dope and tell zombie stories, which sounds absolutely terrifying, but perhaps that’s part of the attraction.

Wolves are also a potential danger at night, says Denis. Bears less so, as they stick to the now-sealed Belarus border five miles north. Bison, beavers and boar have all reclaimed a showpiece settlement that was planned as a Soviet Silicon Valley, making the current wasteland popular with naturalists, scientists and historians alike. Indeed a white-tailed eagle was recently spotted in the main Piazza. And there’s even talk of protecting the rewilded city as a Unesco biosphere reserve.

Pripyat’s Jupiter Factory is a case in point. We peer through broken windows into a high-tech laboratory the size of a Heathrow terminal, which produced robotics and military semiconductors. Socialist modernist wall friezes overlook a late 20th-century detritus that the earth will eventually swallow: lockers, sinks, trolleys, lamps. An alder grows through a roof. If a town the size of Torquay were ever abandoned in an atomic flash, in 32 years it would look akin to this Mad Max movie set.

I’m told the nuclear city’s young scientists made love more frequently than a Cambridge undergrad. In the 1980s Pripyat had a baby boom, with 100,000 residents forecast by 1990. One of the settlement’s 35 playgrounds opened the same week as the Chernobyl explosion. It’s a haunting scene of a busted bumper cars and a merry-go-round that spins in the pine-scented wind.

Here we meet a group of German UrbExers. These urban explorers travel the world photographing abandoned military installations, holiday camps and the like. They rate Chernobyl, where organic mulch and Father Time have slashed the foundations of a Soviet dream, as the world’s finest UrbEx sight. To avoid the increasing onslaught of day-trippers, all must bed down in the exceptionally basic Desiatka Hotel. Here I dream of radioactive sheep and an en-suite bathroom.

The following morning’s schedule comes as a pleasant surprise. After a breakfast of omelettes and pickles (again, how do they make it so tasty?) we drive through country lanes, bucolic in their late summer russets, proving the Chernobyl area was first settled in the 12th century.

We’re here to meet self-settlers. The are locals, mostly in their eighties, who ignored government warnings to return to their villages in 1987. Ivan, aged 83, lives in a rustic wilderness from a Tolstoy novel two miles from Pripyat. His wooden cottage, shaded by maple and birch, appears unchanged since Tsarist times. Boxes of hen eggs and foraged blueberries speak of a pastoral land of plenty within a sea of destruction. Anvils, steel beds and even a television ‘borrowed’ from Pripyat complete the abundant scene. Did Ivan not fear the radiation? “You can’t see it, and you can’t smell it, so it’s never worried me.”

From one speculative Unesco site to a real one. Denis drives me two hours south to Kiev, where the Lavra Monstery doubles with the village of Chernobyl as one of Ukraine’s oldest settlements. Above is a telegenic religious complex of spellbinding colour, built by giants to dwarf the worshippers below. Under the onion-domed churches sit the Lavra Caves. Here 100 mummified monks recline in subterranean streets that resemble a Ukrainian Pompeii. The site is also included in Explore’s forthcoming Chernobyl Photography Short Break tour.

To make final sense of Chernobyl I wander into downtown Kiev. The golden domes of the St. Michael's Monastery offer a lesson in communist excess. In the 1930s Soviet authorities dynamited the 12th-century structure with its priceless mosaics. A modernist sports complex was built in its place. A rush towards the future demanded the world’s deepest Metro and the world’s longest airplane, both created in Kiev, fuelled by a nuclear industry that spat energy like a wildfire. St. Michael's was rebuilt brick by brick in 1999, while modernist dreams in Pripyat slowly crumbled into dust.

Tristan Rutherford has written several stories about the Chernobyl region