On April 26, 1986, I was a baby living in the city of Prypyat, then part of the Soviet Union. The next day my mother and I were forced to evacuate the city following the explosion at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant. At the time, the city had nearly 50, 000 residents. Now it is a ghost town.
Five years ago, at the age of 26, I decided to revisit the town of my early childhood. Though it is a place I don’t remember well, the experience changed my life forever.
When we drove into the jungle that once was the main street – named after Vladimir Lenin, of course – I was hit by a mysterious wave of nostalgia. It was, I decided, nostalgia for the things that never happened to me here.
Lenin Street 17, Apartment 24, would haunt me throughout my life.
All apartments in Prypyat have been looted and it is hard to imagine life in these empty walls. My flat was no exception. I found only pieces of broken furniture, some old wallpaper and two kopecks on the windowsill left for me by my father in 2003, when he visited this place last.
Then I came across an old family picture on the floor. The photograph is of me and my mom in this very room 25 years ago. It was one of my father’s favorites. He even noted this fact on the roll of negatives, which I found in Kyiv. This is why he left it 10 years ago, hanging on the wall of what was once our living room – as a memory of the happy times which these abandoned walls once saw.
This symbolic gesture is very meaningful, since my father, Constantine Rudya, dedicated his life to Chornobyl, working as a scientific director at the International Chornobyl Center. He spent a lot of time collaborating with scientists from Germany, France, the United States and Japan.
He was exposed to the radiation frequently, revisiting the sarcophagus of the fourth block on a regular basis. He died of cancer in February 2006.
Constantine Rudya, who worked at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant, died in 2006 of cancer.
In 1986, my father was barely 28 years old and working as an operator on the second block of the Chornobyl plant. He worked there also on the night of the accident and for 18 months after the catastrophe.
I found old films dating from 1983 to 1986 of Prypyat in my father’s archive. Shots of him and his co-workers and friends playing tennis, having fun on the beach of the Prypyat River, celebrating someone’s birthday in the dormitory.
Some of these people are also not alive anymore. All that is left are memories and old photographs.
The 30-kilometer exclusion zone is each year visited by many tourists and journalists. It has become an attraction, a destination for thrill seekers.
I try to imagine how life would be if the accident had never happened, although – as we know now – the plant’s design was so defective that the accident was destined to happen sooner or later, according to my father’s good friend, Olexiy, who was an operator on the fourth block of the plant.
I try to imagine supermarkets, nightclubs and casinos on the streets of Prypyat. I try to visualize posters of political candidates, of streets with ATMs and internet cafes.
The city of Prypyat existed no more than 16 years before the accident – it was built specifically for the workers of what supposed to be the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe. Now, stuck in the 1980s, it remains a Soviet museum.
We are used to seeing nightmarish pictures of Chornobyl and Prypyat, with the post-apocalyptic hollows of broken windows and frightening remnants of the human presence in the form of toys, old books and broken beds.
But fear is not the impression of the exclusion zone that I received. The silent and mysterious beauty of the surrounding landscape is overwhelming. There are wild forests full of animals, a beautiful sky and a calm river which flows silently through the territory. This scene will not change for centuries.
The broken windows and abandoned buildings did not scare me. Rather, a shiver ran down my spine thinking about what the lives of the 50, 000 people who once lived here could have been like.
What would have happened if, in 1986, nothing had gone wrong? Would I have gone to a kindergarten and a local school? Would I have kayaked with my dad on the rivers Uzh and Prypyat?
Would I have had my graduation ball in the Polissya restaurant?
Would I have grown up a small-town girl, met my first love in Prypyat, got married and had two kids by the age of 26? Would their grandfather still be alive? I will never know.
Excerpts from Alina Rudya’s ‘Prypyat Mon Amour’ book
April 26, 1986: The last wedding in Prypyat
“Irina and Sergei..became the seventh and the last couple to be married that day, the last couple to be married in the town of Prypyat ever ... The wedding night ended at three in the morning when the witnesses urged Irina and Sergei to jump out of bed, quickly change their clothes and run to the diesel train which was going to the city of Chernihiv. Fire trucks were spread throughout the town, dousing the asphalt with anti-radiation foam, and Irina, who blistered her feet in her new wedding shoes, had to run barefoot through puddles of radioactive water. They jumped onto the train with hundreds of other scared passengers. On the way to Chernihiv, the train passed the burning fourth reactor. Someone opened the door of the diesel a little to see what happened. All they saw was the crimson glowing spot of a burning reactor in the distance.”
Voices of Prypyat
Marina Rudya, mother of author
“The city was young and full of young professionals and graduates from all over the Soviet Union...The (Communist) party workers evacuated their families already one hour after the accident, but we stayed for another 36 hours -- that is how rotten the whole Soviet system was....Constantine (her husband and Alina’s father) later founded the Chornobyl Center for Nuclear Safety and together with scientists from Japan, USA, Germany, would climb back to the sarcophagus of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant again and again to do scientific research. That definitely added up to his huge exposure on the night of the accident....What would have happened if the accident hadn’t occurred? Well, dad would probably be alive. Grandma Zhenya and Sergei too. Both died from cancer because they want to Prypyat to pick up some valuable things and lived there for a week. Now I understand how dangerous it was.”
“Before the launch of Reactor 1 in Chornobyl in 1977, a special badge was made using one of my sketches, as was a commemorative medal after the construction fo the sarcophagus for Reactor 4 in 1986.”
“And now, 30 years later, I am here again (in Prypyat). I almost do not recognize these once familiar streets of my life, since nature has taken them back...This is not a city, it is almost a forest. I barely found our home and if we hadn’t had a guide, I would probably get lost.”
“The explosion of the reactor broke a lot of things in my life. My comrades were killed instantly or died within a few years. A painful evacuation happened, my plans collapsed, my profession was devalued.”
“Everything I loved is gone. A lot of time has passed since the evacuation. I grew up. Everything changed.”
“The Energetik Palace of Culture became our second home...Prypyat is always in our hearts. It was all too brief, but it was definitely the happiest time of our lives.”
“For me Prypyat is associated with childhood and my parents. I think about them and how their lives would be if the accident didn’t happen.”