Photo Essay: Chernobyl 2012

Peace Corps / Sunday, September 30th, 2012

Sometimes you do things because the opportunity is there and you’re not quite sure if it will come about again in your lifetime. Sometimes people ask you why you’re doing exactly that and you explain it to them the way you see it. And sometimes they respond that future insurance companies might not insure you for cancer if they find out you went to Chernobyl.

For what it’s worth, my 2008 copy of Lonely Planet Ukraine informs me that spending three hours in the Chernobyl exclusion zone gives you the same exposure to radiation as a New York to London flight. As far as I’m concerned, if insurance companies don’t want to insure me for a one day trip of a lifetime, they must also not insure people for a one way trip across the pond. But I digress, and that’s not really what’s important. What is important is that I seized an opportunity presented while in Peace Corps Ukraine to visit Chernobyl and had a great experience. Let me tell you about it.

I was really bummed back in August when I missed my flight to Germany. I felt like I might have missed out on something rather cool. When the suggestion was tossed around about visiting Chernobyl, I made sure I didn’t miss out on another potentially cool thing. Andy, who I was supposed to go to Germany with, wanted to book a trip to visit the Exclusion Zone and he wanted to know if I’d like to go. I quickly signed up. My reasoning was along the lines of, “I want to see this and I can picture myself coming to Ukraine again for the sole purpose of visiting Chernobyl. The cost of the flight alone is enough to discourage most people. Let’s take that our of the equation.” Boom, done.

I’ve included 70 of my photos below from the trip. In total there were just under 200 and the rest can be seen on Google+. With the photos below, I want to walk you through my day and tell a few interesting stories that came about and what went through my mind.

First off, I went on the trip with two of my Peace Corps friends, Andy and Kate. We were joined by a British man, Chris, who always wanted to visit Kiev and thought visiting Chernobyl while he was there made the same kind of sense as it did for me, Andy, and Kate. We met at 9:00 a.m. and were bused out to the exclusion zone, roughly a two-hour drive. At one of the checkpoints we met our guide, Evghenya. Guide in hand, we drove into the exclusion zone.


This photo was a surprise for me. I had read about these horses about a year ago. Apparently, they’re a rare breed of horse from Russia and a few escaped into the exclusion zone. There, they thrived with the lack of human intervention in their lives. While we were driving, our guide kept an eye out for them. He mush have known they were around and hoped we’d be able to see them. It was rather spectacular to be able to see them with my own eyes.

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We started the day in a museum of sorts. I think we were mostly there so our guide could show us a decent map of the area where we’d be visiting. That’s all we really learned in there. The focus of the museum seemed to be on the children who died as a result of the catastrophe. Seeing the dolls piled around and the old and empty strollers was rather creepy. I did, however, like the art hanging in the doorway. It’s the boat with “We are all in one boat” written on it in all different languages.


This monument is in the town within the exclusion zone where about 2,000 people live. It’s dedicated to the people who did their best to contain the disaster. Two days after seeing this in person, I was elsewhere in Ukraine and I saw a monument with an image of this monument etched on it. It was nice to know what it was and to tell people, “I was there the other day.”


This was a small area showcasing the machinery used to contain the disaster. There were other vehicles, though this one was my favorite. Our guide told us that these were the real things but I didn’t believe him. They seemed too small. This one, for example, was shorter than I am tall. Plus, there were full-sized vehicles behind these. I also couldn’t figure out how they were operated. Maybe remotely? That would explain the lack of size and the lack of human controls.


“Nobody is forgotten. Nothing is forgotten.”

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And then we came to an old kindergarten. What impressed me, and partly what I had come to see, was how untouched and overgrown things had become in 26 years since the evacuation. I knew it’d feel abandoned, but I didn’t know how. Decay of things left behind. Decay of man-made. Growth and life in things untouched and uninhibited by man.

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We got to go inside the kindergarten. There weren’t any safety warnings. There weren’t any reminders of the rules agreement we had signed promising not to touch anything or sit on anything. All it turned out to be was, go in, look around, take photos. Observe. Reflect. Ponder the very nature of the disaster. This was a place where children spent their days. Was it safe so close to a ticking bomb? Are any of the current kindergartens near the current reactors elsewhere in the world any safer? Would it have been better had this place never existed instead of it existing and the world reclaiming it for its own?

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More of the school. Eerie was the best word to describe its abandonment.


Then we came to Pripyat, the town built to house the workers of the Chernobyl power plant.

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GPOY. As the teachers at my school constantly remind me when I go anywhere, there’s only proof that I had been if there’s photo proof of me being there. I snapped a few to prove it, just in case. The second photo shows two things, first that I’m clearly starting to be affected by the radiation and thus my arm is glowing. Second, the sun was really bright that day. So bright that I cried while posing for this photo.

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The signs of a Soviet city. You need to have the hammer and sickle visible in the city center, clearly. Also, the palace of culture must be in the city center and be in view of the symbols of the Union. I don’t know a town, city, or village in Ukraine that doesn’t have a palace of culture. Few places still have the hammer and sickle around.

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We poked our heads in to the side of the theater part of the palace of culture and came across these gems. I really like the first image, though I’m not completely sure what the propaganda is for. My primitive Russian skills and being too lazy to look it up force me to draw assumptions that it has something to do with a railroad. The second image we guessed to be a ballot box. Then we questioned if there were even elections in the Soviet Union, we didn’t do our homework. Then we questioned the purpose of a ballot box in a place like the Soviet Union.

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Is that? Is that what I think it is? Is this the thing that so many people come to photograph. Is this the sadness of the day, left to decay? For those who haven’t Wikipedia’d this like I have, this is the Ferris Wheel of the Pripyat Amusement Park. It was only operated for a couple of hours one day. The whole park was set to open shortly after the catastrophe took place. The city officials, in trying to calm the locals, opened the amusement park for a few hours before the evacuation notice was given for the city. Now it stands alone to rust as the world grows around it, both untouched.

[pe2-gallery] IMG_2044.JPGIMG_2045.JPG[/pe2-gallery] The Geiger counter is reading the highest I saw it get in the photo on the left. I tried snapping it a moment earlier when it touched 81 before instantly jumping back down, but I’m too slow on the trigger. This was a solitary spot on the ground near the bumper cars. If you ask me, the cars are more beautiful than the Ferris Wheel. Something about them made me think not of this one place, but of amusement parks from back home too. The bumper cars all over seemed to fall to ruin, regardless of location.


This Ferris Wheel is rather big. It was hard to capture it all in one shot close up. Keep in mind, each one of the baskets could easily seat four people.

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This was my most memorable moment of the day. The guide told us that he was taking us to see the pool and the stadium. We followed him blindly. I assume, because he had said the pool first, that we’d see the pool first. We began by walking down a paved path, but then forked off to a foot path through a bunch of trees and brush. It wasn’t until we were about two-thirds of the way through that I realized we were seeing the stadium first. In fact, we were on the football field. I realized this as I realized the bleachers were in front of us. Again, the amount of flora that can grow in 26 years astounds and amazes me. It gives me hope.

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The entrance to school #3 and inside the entrance hall.

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Gas masks for the school children. We were told that they weren’t all always in one place but looters had arranged them for a dramatic effect. Regardless, it was still moving. It was up on the list with things I saw in Auschwitz, but I can’t say why.

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Scenes from the school lunchroom.


A broken world.


The first page in a school book, a poem about Lenin.

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The basketball court and the swimming pool in the community fitness building. Even in their decay, they were quite beautiful. I would have loved to swim in that pool. Just imagine doing laps as the warm sun streamed through the big, open windows. It would have been very calming.


This was the entrance to the community fitness center. Not exactly easy to find, unless you had a map.


A close up of the Soviet hammer and sickle. This was had been repainted by some, or one, of the locals a few years back.

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These photos came from the riverside hangout that was a popular place to be back in the day. The river front was beautiful, and I can see why the Soviets like to spend time there. It only makes me wonder how much trash would have accumulated by now had Ukrainians continued to live there.

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This is Pripyat School #1. I also work at school #1, but in Konotop. It felt like my place. Also, I happened to love the propaganda hanging in the entrance hall. The vibrant colors reminded me of a comic book.

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The Pripyat music school. The mosaic on the outside was in great shape and still looking nice. The inside, however, was not doing so well. I got to wondering where all the debris was coming from. Some of it obviously was from furniture and whatnot breaking down over time. More of it came from looters destroying things. But that still left a bit of a mess unexplained. Then it hit me, I looked up and saw that the ceilings had all fallen down.

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The first photo is the construction of the new sarcophagus  I don’t think I was supposed to take it because Ukraine has weird rules about what you can and cannot photograph. No one was hurt because of it, so my conscious is clean. The second photograph is the reactor #4. The problem child.


This is a photo of cayenne pepper on the lunch table we ate at. In Ukraine. I was shocked and amazed. My mom suggested that people who live and work in the area already know what it’s like to live life with a little danger, so what’s a little more with your meal?

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This was Kate’s favorite part of the day. Our guide told us we were going to go on the old train bridge over the cooling water reservoirs to feed the catfish. Okay, we thought, big deal. It was. We were each given half a loaf a bread to break off chunks and throw into the water. Once we started doing this, enormous catfish started showing up among the normal sized ones. Some of them were clearly more than two meters in length. The theory is that the radioactive water, along with the lack of human predators fishing them, allow them to grow to such sizes. Amazing regardless.

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The monument in memory of the catastrophe and the reactor #4 itself.


This is the Geiger counter reading a steady 12.48. We’re still a couple hundred meters off. We were told just outside the building it would read a steady 500. We didn’t test it.

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I wasn’t sure what kind of photo you’re supposed to take in front of a nuclear reactor gone bad. You’ll see standard tourist, happy tourist, and tourist remembering that this spot was and still is the cause of so much trouble.


Andy, Kate, and I in front of reactor #4.


A ginkgo tree planted on the 26th anniversary of the catastrophe. Life will be restored.


Self explanatory.

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Okay, maybe these were inappropriate, but they were fun to take.


One of the cooling towers. Both of them looked unfinished, but this one was more complete looking.


Andy getting cleared for radiation levels before leaving the exclusion zone.

In the end, it was a great day. Sure, it eventually became a lot of, “Oh hey, another abandoned building to poke around in,” but I saw a lot of things that got me thinking, too. I have a good feeling that this little planet can survive if you take humans out of the equation. The things we create just cause problems but if it’s all left alone, it thrives and crushes our tributes to ourselves.

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