“We can neither expiate nor rectify
the mistakes and misery of that April.
The bowed shoulders of a conscience awakened
must bear the burden of torment for life.
It’s impossible, believe me,
our pain for the lost home.
Pain will endure in the beating hearts
stamped by the memory of fear.
surrounded by prickly bitterness,
our puzzled town asks:
since it loves us
and forgives everything,
why was it abandoned forever?”
-Lyubov Sirota (qtd. in Kharash)
Your own town. Your home. The one place we feel warmth, comfort, and safety. Its a place we can always return to and curl up in its backdrop full of familiarity. It is where we find our house with all of our personal touches, the possessions that hold sentimental value, and the years of memories with the people we cherish. It is the where place we put down our roots, the place we decided to call… home. For thousands of unfortunate people in the Ukraine, home was the city of Pripyat.
The Beginnings of a Young Town
Up in the northern part of the Ukraine dwells the Polissya region. This place is a mixture of marshland, woodland, and arable land. Oaks, elms, maples, pines, and many other tree species linger in the scenery as wolfs, elk, roe deer, foxes, and pigs inhabit the wild areas. In the winter months, the ice-cold air would prickle the skin sending continuous shivers throughout the body as the temperatures decreased to a freezing 26 °F in the coldest months while in the summers only reaching up to about 64 °F. Snowflakes pour down on the Polissya region in the November and December months creating pure white blankets upon the ground (“Ukraine”). In the year 1970, a small area of the region went under construction as its woodlands and marshes were torn down to be replaced with the luxuries and monumental towers of a new town. The developers planed to build a glorious and prospering urban area meant to be a model for other cities in the Ukraine by erecting the suburb under the ‘triangle principle’. This principle arranged the buildings in such a way that it conserved land, reduced building congestion, and decreased traffic jams (Leontiev).
Houses, apartments, hospitals, schools, restaurants, and convenient stores began to populate the once wooded area. The sounds of children in the playgrounds and the rattling and humming of cars on the paved concrete roads became apart of the white noise as more people settled into this little town. The people here engaged in normal activities as any town would. The children could swim in the ponds during the summer while the adults and families could drift upon its gentle waters in small boats and fish for sport as is depicted in the photograph Neptune Day.
The people also took part in Russian festivals and holidays such as Victory Day where the people celebrated the Allies victory over Nazi Germany on May 9th, 1945 (Sheffield), and Day of Knowledge on September 1st where the people celebrate the start of the school year with songs, poetry, speeches, flowers, and white ribbons (Gorshkova). As the town grew, it became a place for old families to grow and blossom, and for new ones to be formed. The young and thriving town held all of its 49,400 residents in its gentle and prosperous hands (Esaulov). This place had become their home.
Many people from Pripyat would travel about three kilometers (“Chernobyl Accident 1986”) to work at a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl (Leontiev). Although the nuclear power plant was considered to be part of a different town, Pripyat fulfilled its original prophecy as a home for the workers at the power plant, thus giving the town the alternate name of ‘atomograd’ meaning ‘the town of the atomic scientists and workers’ (Leontiev). The nuclear power plant consisted of four nuclear reactors with two more being constructed in 1986 (“Chernobyl Accident 1986”). On April 6, 1986, reactor number 4 was being prepared for testing. They wanted to determine how long the generator would continue producing power if the reactor lost its power supply. This was not an unusual test, as it has been done before, but this time the procedure did not go as planed (Norman 1029).
To prevent the test from being interrupted, operators turned off the emergency shutdown systems and removed the control rods that were put in place to stop any nuclear reactions that went out of control during emergency situations. At 1:24 am while the operators were changing the pressure and the amount of cooling water in the reactor to maintain a 200MW power output, fuel was mistakenly mixed in with the cooling water causing a sudden spike in pressure. KABOOM! The cooling channels cringed and burst from the force of the pressure. KABOOM! Air, graphite, zirconium, and the fierce and scorching steam reacted together, combusting from their chemical reaction. Flames sprouted from the reactor spewing dust, metal, building fragments, and radioactive particles from the reactor into the air (Norman 1029-1030). The strong winds from the blast propelled the poisonous debris across the defenseless land, thrashing and burying its venom into the ground and air.
Back in the urban suburb, a restless women, Lyubov Sirota, was outside at the night on that 6th day of April when the skies of the little town were clear, the air was warm, and the streets were empty. Beyond the horizon of the town, she noticed bright light illuminating from the distance (Kharash). “Nobody new anything” (Lyubov Sirota qtd. in Kharash).
In the morning, the radiation level at the nuclear power plant had escalated to 20,000 millisieverts as the reactors continued to release their radioactive contents throughout the night (“Chernobyl Accident 1986”). When radiation levels are around 1,000 rem [10,000 millisieverts], the body will experience internal bleeding, intestinal damage, and, if left untreated for 2 to 3 weeks, death (“Health Effects”). When exposed to about 2,000 rem [20,000 millisieverts], a person will receive central nervous system damage, loss of consciousness, and death if left untreated to a couple of hours or a few days (“Health Effects”). Copious amounts of radioactive poisons lingered in the urban suburb, only to be sucked in by the trees, grass, and water and even into the animals as they ate the radiated plants and drank from the deceiving waters which looked no different than before.
As the dawn broke, the little town of Pripyat came alive. The residents went about their regular routines and activities. Some gathered together and formed picnics out in the forests while others celebrated weddings (Kharash). Families sprinted to the ponds to play in its waters, unknowing of its new colorless contents. Children played in the parks and gardens. All of the residents of the small town were inhaling the air, the contaminated cell altering air, deep into their precious and pure lungs. They ate their food, cakes, ice cream, sandwiches, and other delights, while placing into their mouths the tasteless odorless contaminated remains from the explosion. By the next day, the radiation in the little town had “increased to 100-600 millirems per hour, up to 50,000 times the background radiation, and they continued to increase until…they reached 720-1000 millirems per hour ” (Norman 1031). Thirty-six hours after the explosion, the town’s streets and buildings no longer flourished with the sounds of human life (“April 6, 1986…”). The residents had finally gotten word of the accident and evacuated the town, thinking that they would soon be able to see their beloved little home again.
Many days passed after the explosion and “as many as 4,000 clean-up workers died from the radiation” (“April 6, 1986…”). But the radiation still continues to leave its mark many years after the explosion, silently striking and spreading its poison. Between a few thousand to 100,000 cancer deaths will occur in the next couple of decades due to the radiation from the blast (Norman and Dickson 1141). Reactor number 4 had released iodine-131 and cesium-137 isotopes into the environment (Norman and Dickson 1142). With only a half-life of eight days, iodine-131 imbeds itself into the thyroid gland (Norman and Dickson 1142) and can lead to thyroid cancer (“Frequently Asked Chernobyl Questions”). “By 2000, about 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer had been diagnosed in exposed children” (“Chernobyl Accident 1986”). Cesium-137 has a much longer effect. With a half-life of 30 years, Cesium-137 is known for affecting the whole body over a long period of time by imbedding itself into the soft human tissue (Norman and Dickson 1142) and causing harmful side effects in the liver and spleen (“Frequently Asked Chernobyl Questions”). An increase in birth defects have also been noted in both humans (“April 26, 1986…”) and animals (“Frequently Asked Chernobyl Questions”).
The people from Pripyat began to settle into different villages and other suburbs such as Slavutich (“Chernobyl Accident 1986”) and Troeshchino (Kharash) never to return to the place they once called home. As the town remained uninhabited, its structures began to fall apart. The environment weathered it down, never to be repaired again by man’s hands. Today, the buildings are rusted and crumbling. The paint on the buildings have detached from their walls. Dolls, chairs, paper, photos, gas masks, and toys lay scatted all over school buildings. Earth claimed back its once rich home as radiated moss spread like a disease and infected the whole town with radiation levels now reaching 823 microroentgens an hour, a quantity that is only harmful from long-term exposure (Chivers).
This place is now only visited by curious tourists. Never to be called a home. Its streets remain empty and the winds remain cold. The whole town is silent. Its dying and rotting hands now hold the hollow shell of the once prosperous and young little town. This is all that is left of the city of Pripyat.
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Repik, Vladimir. Untiled. n.d. Photograph. Totally Cool Pix. Disqus, n.d. Web. 05 Nov. 2013.
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