Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Leaving Pripyat


27 years ago, in the month of April, our world changed. Thousands suffered, millions cried. Until Japan's recent tragedy, it was the only level 7 event on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

Pripyat is a small town 3 km away from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. I never imagined that one day I'd meet one of Pripyat's children, one of the 49,000 residents who had to leave his home forever on that April afternoon. Roman has agreed to share his experiences with readers of this blog. It's impossible to say how long the shadow of this nuclear disaster will continue to haunt the land, but it's clear it will be for much longer than the three days that Roman's family was told to pack for.

Here's Pripyat in 2009-
photo credit: Timm Suess via photopin cc 

Roman, please tell us, where were you born? Where did you live as a child?

I was born in the town of Pripyat (Припять) and lived there until the evacuation.

What are your most vivid memories of your hometown?

I remember lots of things: great nature around the town (pine forests that we walked in and vacationed in, spacious river marshes we roamed by motor boat and yacht), interesting spots near the town (a few villages), lots of fun within the town (playing with friends, the swimming pool, movie theater, parks and other amusements).

I recall once around the early kindergarten years I heard a siren so there must have been some accident related to the nuclear power plant (NPP). What I don't remember- any crime or unhappy faces around me.

photo credit: Timm Suess via photopin cc

Do you remember the day you found out about the disaster at Chernobyl?

*Saturday, April 26th, 1986*

The day of the NPP disaster I recall quite clearly: in the early morning, my mom and I went to the bus station for a sightseeing trip to the town of Chernobyl, about 10 km away. However, we remained in town since all buses were reserved for "some important action". At that early time no one told us to stay indoors, so we just hiked in the surrounding villages. There we noticed that the village water wells were sealed. This worried my mom and we went back home.

That evening my mom was informed that a radiation leak might have happened at the NPP, so early antirad measures were to be taken, like consuming some kalium iodide and sealing the housing unit as much as possible.

How did you find out that you had to leave your town?

*Sunday, April 27th, 1986*

The next morning we were informed by radio that a "temporary three-day evacuation" would start around noon and that minimum luggage should be taken. With our cash, documents, and some basic things in one bag, we waited for about an hour outdoors. Then a small (33 seat) bus took us out of the town.

While on road, the bus made a bathroom stop within direct visibility of the burning NPP (about 3-5 km away). I went out too. Later I worried this could impair my future children in some way. 3 "tests" have shown that it did not :) (knock-on-wood)

At a village we transferred to a larger bus, which brought us to Kiev's main railroad station. There we could choose any direction to travel in. We picked Kharkov because our relatives lived there.

View Leaving Pripyat Interview in a larger map

Later, it became known that some "witty" people had escaped the town earlier in their own cars, taking as many of their belongings as possible. True or not, I've since heard of at least one cancer death in an apartment full of the radiation-dusty carpets and furniture of one of the escapees.

Do you remember something that you had to leave behind?

We had to leave almost everything when evacuating. The thing I missed the most for the first few years was a toy railroad very similar to this one:
It was fixed to a large wooden board with some handmade bridges, hills, houses, etc. Although there had been big plans to extend it, I had to leave it behind.

What was your first reaction to Kharkov when you arrived?

I don't remember anything special. We lodged with our relatives upon arriving . Afterwards, when radiometering was done in that apartment, it turned out that the sofa we slept on was "glowing in the dark" so it had to be disposed of as radioactive waste.

A few days after our arrival to Kharkov we went to the Radiology Institute (Pushkinska metro) and were hospitalized for decontamination. Our belongings (except for documents) were disposed of as radioactive waste. It looks like it had been a government mistake to let us go freely (after being moved to Kiev) because we seeded radionuclides from our clothes everywhere we went.

Decontamination was namely thus: shaving head bald and drinking liters of salted water to vomit. Maybe this could be considered the biggest impression of my first days in Kharkov :)

Have you been given an opportunity to return? If so, have you taken advantage of it?

My mom visited the town later and was allowed to take some belongings which weren't "glowing".

photo credit: Timm Suess via photopin cc

Because you lived in a heavily affected area, does the government of Ukraine treat you differently than other citizens?

Yes, definitely. We used the following:
  • new apartment;
  • yearly thorough health check;
  • remuneration of damages (as far as I remember, 7000 roubles. In comparison, it was the cost of a new car in 1986 in the USSR; the median salary was ~130 roubles, with free medical service & education and low utility costs);
  • some nutritional support (this greatly helped us in the "wild 90s" when it was provided not in hyperinflating money but instead as food products);
  • certain rehabilitation (of health, not from drug addiction :) ) in the summer (though this was diminished by the hyperinflation of 90s);
  • free public transport (until roughly mid 90s);
  • journey to Germany for 3 weeks to stay in a children's camp with lot of travelling around and some medical checks.
There were other exemptions though I either don't remember or didn't use them.

What are your thoughts on Chernobyl now, almost 30 years later?

I believe this lesson should not be lost, should not be forgotten. Newer reactors built after that are said to be much safer and safety improvements were made to most of those already built (but sadly, not to all of them).

Personally, I'm happy with my life path so far. Who knows- would I have met all those nice people who taught me about life and would I have such a family as I do now?

photo credit: Timm Suess via photopin cc

What do you think of Chernobyl being open to tourists? 

I think the way it's being shown to tourists is good and probably for the best. There should not be free admission for anyone who wants in. There are still some "glowing" spots so things brought out of the area should be checked for contamination.

Generally, the town of Pripyat and the alienated villages nearby are examples of how nature recovers after human presence. It's a big wildlife reserve, after all... though you won't find any two-headed cows :)

I'd like to visit it at some point.

photo credit: Timm Suess via photopin cc

Thank you, Roman. Thank you, readers.

Want more?

  • "was founded in 2004 by former Pripyat residents as the ‘unofficial’ web site for Pripyat. Since its foundation, the web site has grown into the world’s largest online community about the Chernobyl disaster." They've got some fascinating photo albums- try ChNPP before the disaster and Pripyat before the disaster for a look into daily life before that fateful Saturday. 
  • Those who remain in the Chernobyl area, the самоселы, are a rather loosely kept secret. There are thousands of articles on these people in Russian, but in English I'm not sure what to recommend. Start with Wikipedia's самоселы entry.


  1. It's a really cool entry! Thank you!

  2. What a haunting look at a devastating point in history. I got chills reading about the "clever" people who escaped from Pripyat only to have a brush with cancer later. Roman, thanks for sharing your story!

  3. I was really glad to hear about recompensation. Thank you Roman and Katherine, for sharing this story.

    1. Thank you for reading and for the share, MCD!
      Are you guys by chance planning to visit this area while you're in Ukraine?