Visiting Chernobyl

A flawed reactor combined with inadequately trained personnel led to Chernobyl’s catastrophic nuclear meltdown on 26 April 1986.   Within days, the nearby town of Pripyat, the civic area that housed thousands of the plants workers and families, underwent a mass evacuation. Declared a permanent zone of exclusion and deemed unliveable for years to come, the city now sits in silence as nature swallows up the crumbling remnants of a once industrious Soviet era township.

Recent interest in the Chernobyl incident has grown since the airing of HBO’s successful miniseries. Acclaimed by critics, the dramatization depicts the disaster, its catastrophic consequences and the clean-up that followed.

Inside Chernobyl’s ruins you have the ability to contrast time against the longevity of humanity. It’s many overgrown spaces are realms where we can face our mortalities and spend a bit time to philosophise. Each derelict space is like a stage filled with forgotten props.  Speaking of happy family moments and human darkness, of working lives and the everyday pursuits of living, these inanimate scenes allow the observer to reconstruct the erased stories of the past – and by attaching these narratives to our own identities, we begin to better understand ourselves. Like myself, you might conclude at the end of your experience that at our existence is brief in comparison to the structures we build and leave behind – time continues, yet we do not.  But regardless of the thoughts and wisdoms you walk away with, one can’t argue that a visit to Chernobyl is powerful.

A testing malfunction caused Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor number four to meltdown on 26 April 1986.Within days, the nearby town of Pripyat, the civic area that housed thousands of the plants workers and families, underwent a mass evacuation. Declared a permanent zone of exclusion and deemed unliveable for years to come, the city now sits in silence as nature swallows up the crumbling remnants of a once industrious Soviet era township.

Recent interest in the Chernobyl incident has grown since the airing of HBO’s successful miniseries. Acclaimed by critics, the dramatization depicts the disaster, its catastrophic consequences and the clean-up that followed.

Inside Chernobyl’s ruins you have the ability to contrast time against the longevity of humanity. It’s many overgrown spaces are realms where we can face our mortalities and spend a bit time to philosophise. Each derelict space is like a stage filled with forgotten props.  Speaking of happy family moments and human darkness, of working lives and the everyday pursuits of living, these inanimate scenes allow the observer to reconstruct the erased stories of the past – and by attaching these narratives to our own identities, we begin to better understand ourselves. Like myself, you might conclude at the end of your experience that at our existence is brief in comparison to the structures we build and leave behind – time continues, yet we do not.  But regardless of the thoughts and wisdoms you walk away with, one can’t argue that a visit to Chernobyl is powerful.

My first trip to the exclusion zone in 2010 was met with a mixture of fear and adventure. The ‘will I get sick’ question did play on my mind (and because the reactor was still exposed, my fears were a little more amplified). I remember my Geiger counter letting out these high-pitched squeaks and squawks each time we drove past the stricken facility. But I was constantly reassured by my guide that it was all ok (as he closed off the car vents and ensured the windows were tightly wound up). 

It was important not to allow my desire for adventure override the sombre, sad fact that I was visiting a place where a number of people lost their lives as the result of an explosion – a catastrophic event that would roll on to have sinister affects over many parts of Europe for years to come. It’s estimated that thousands of cancer cases have been attributable to the Chernobyl disaster and the legacy mural that greets you on arrival is an immediate reminder of this. It’s imperative that any visitor keep’s these facts in their minds and in their hearts.  This is a sad place - not a cool abandoned city for heroic explorers to exploit for the purposes of click bait.  And please don’t take selfies with big smiles standing in front of the reactor - this is unthoughtful and insulting to the Ukrainian people (you’re not at the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty).

In 2010 the process of going to Chernobyl was still a little underground. The tour felt unofficial and unplanned – but I liked it like this.  It was adventurous and unsterile and I was in Ukraine of all places – a country I found exciting and off the beaten track. When I finally reached Pripyat, I entered as many buildings as I could with my first Canon (a small 50D), and snapped what felt like hundreds of interiors from hotel rooms to civic offices and factory spaces to gymnasiums.  Stepping cautiously over the radioactive patches of moss that dotted the cracked concrete footpaths and roads, I went from building to building, wading through dishevelled rooms to explore each interior as thoroughly as possible. I’ve since learned that entering the cities buildings is forbidden after a government crack-down in 2012 (the result of a tourist injuring themselves), and authorities now prevent visitors from entering Pripyat’s crumbling structures.

The experience of Chernobyl stayed with me for many months and I found myself dreaming of its deserted overgrown streets and dilapidated cityscape. It became an obsession that drove me to organise a second trip with two of my friends the following year.

We spent four days in the zone with accommodation in what was the Chernobyl town compound or ‘Hotel’.  We hired a private guide who drove us into Pripyat each morning.  Dropping us off at the towns centre, we didn’t stick together and instead ran off in different directions to embark on our own solo adventures. I spent most of my time in the hospital, exploring as many derelict patient wards and operating theatres as possible. Having a playful fascination with the macabre and a love of horror movies and eerie places, I found these dour, mould covered spaces so intriguing and beautiful. I remember that soil-like smell of mould permeating the rooms and that harsh stench of mildew from the decayed furniture stinging my nose – but I loved it (only abandoned enthusiasts can really relate to this feeling…). The dried-up plants sitting in pots on the floors of waiting rooms and the dust covered piles of books on side tables filled me with awe – all unmoved since 1986.  I explored doctor’s rooms and treatment areas filled with x-rays, journals and photos - although you’re not supposed to touch anything with your bare hands, curiosity caused me to break the rules and I fossicked through a few tattered patient artefacts and wondered where these people were now?   

Exploring the hallways and classrooms of Pripyat’s schools filled me with a reflective wonderment…these derelict spaces strewn with books, school projects and educational Soviet artefacts of the past had become vintage time capsules.  

There is an incredible beauty found in the lush nature and overgrowth that engulfs this city. Plants, insects, birds and animals all thrive in the space and add an enchanting, organic visual that contrasts the drab, grey, concrete brutalist architecture that juts upwards from the greenery.  It’s unknown what will become of the area in the coming years, but the initiative to cover the reactor with a giant sarcophagus has since been fulfilled making the zone a little safer. 

Chernobyl is an interesting place to visit if you’re after something a little different from the usual tourist norm.  It’s a space where sadness and philosophy clash with the visual wonderment of mother nature and it will stay with you forever.

I exhibited the body of work titled ‘Pripyat’ in Melbourne, 2011

-           Shane Thoms spends most of his time exploring abandoned places around the world.  His next first book ‘Haikyo: The Modern Ruins of Japan’ was released in 2017. Now focusing on abandoned places in Australia, His second book 'Abandoned Australia' will be available worldwide in bookstores and online via Jonglez Publishers in July 2019.