Letter From Chernobyl

Chernobyl Reactor Four (Detail)

December 7, 2016

LAST WEEK, authorities in Ukraine completed the installation of a mammoth protective dome over the remains of the infamous reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear plant.

In April, 1986, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union, Chernobyl’s reactor four exploded, sending plumes of radiation across Europe in what is still history’s worst nuclear accident. Soviet helicopters dumped sand and clay over the exposed core, and later the building was encased in thousands of tons of concrete — a structure that become known as “the sarcophagus.” Over time, however, cracks and settling allowed increasing amounts of radiation to leech out, and a more permanent containment shelter was needed. That shelter, now in place, is a 25,000-ton, 300-foot high containment vessel made of steel.

To this day, a 30-kilometer “Exclusion Zone” surrounds the Chernobyl plant, accessible only to researchers, temporary workers, and a small number of villagers — most of them senior citizens — that the Ukrainian government allows to live there. And, believe it or not, tourists. Day trips to Chernobyl can be arranged in the capital, Kiev (Kyiv), and include transportation to and from the site, plus all the admission formalities — including a radiation scan on your way out.

In 2007 I took one of those trips. The photographs below are from that day. Most of them were taken in Pripyat, the abandoned city inside the Exclusion Zone that was once home to 50,000 people. You are free to wander as you please. We had the site almost entirely to ourselves. We walked through apartment blocks, kindergarten classrooms, a high school, a hotel. Pripyat today exists as a sort of Soviet time capsule, a bustling city left in a kind of suspended animation, complete with hammers, sickles, and no shortage of radioactive detritus that was once the stuff of regular, everyday lives. Kids’ toys, a ferris wheel, a classroom chalkboard. It’s these everyday items that leave the most lasting impression — a perversion of normalcy that drives home the sense of tragedy.

I have not captioned the pictures. They more or less speak for themselves. In the photo above (an uncrossed version appears with the others below), our tour guide aims his dosimeter at original sarcophagus and the remains of reactor four. The reading you see on the machine is about sixty times normal background radiation, and we were only allowed to stay here for about ten minutes. The rawness of the blown-out reactor, right there in front of us, was pretty unforgettable. Reactor four is completely hidden now, the sarcophagus concealed under a sterile white shell that looks like a futuristic cross between a football stadium and an airship hangar. Judging from the news photos, it’s a much more sterile, less jarring aesthetic — though I suppose that’s much of the point.




Chernobyl Exclusion Zone


Chernobyl Pripyat Bridge


Chernobyl Pripyat Apartments


Chernobyl Pripyat Phone Booth


Chernobyl Dosimeter


Chernobyl Pripyat KGB Building


Chernobyl Pripyat Hotel


Chernobyl Pripyat Red Star


Chernobyl Pripyat Amusement




Chernobyl Pripyat Classroom


Chernobyl Pripyat Toys


Chernobyl Pripyat Doll


Chernobyl Pripyat Soviet Poster


Chernobyl Pripyat Window & Chair


Chernobyl Pripyat Blackboards


Chernobyl Firefighters Monument


Chernobyl Reactor Four




That last one is a shot of downtown Kiev, the pretty Ukrainian capital. A metropolis of almost three million people, Kiev sits only about 80 miles south of Chernobyl. Prevailing winds saved the city from disaster, carrying the fallout in the opposite direction, north into Belarus, and from there it diffused across northern Europe.

The items below were souvenirs, I guess you’d have to call them, scavenged from Pripyat. Among them are a 1984 copy of Pravda, the Soviet state newspaper; some vintage postage stamps, and what appears to be a school report card, found inside the Pripyat high school. Perhaps some Ukrainian speakers out there can help translate some of this. I’d love to know more about the report card — names, dates, anything. The bottom shot is from a roll of exposed film, found on the floor in one of the other buildings.

Chernobyl Pravda

Chernobyl Stamps

Chernobyl Grades

Chernobyl Grades (inside)

Chernobyl Film


Hopefully these items haven’t turned my apartment radioactive.

I had been in the Soviet Union only a couple of weeks before the accident, visiting Moscow and Leningrad (as St. Petersburg still was called). Among the highlights of that trip were my flights aboard Aeroflot. We flew Finnair from New York to Helsinki (DC-10) and onward to Moscow (DC-9), but a few days later I got to ride on an Aeroflot Tu-154 from Moscow to Leningrad, and then a Tu-134 from Leningrad back to Helsinki. Apple juice. I remember the Aeroflot flight attendants serving plastic cups of apple juice.

It dawns on me, too, that my travel habits are at times decidedly macabre. In addition to my trip to Chernobyl, I’ve been to the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex in Poland, as well as to the various “killing fields” sites around Phnom Penh, in Cambodia.


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15 Responses to “Letter From Chernobyl”
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  1. Alexander says:

    It is hard to believe that it wasn’t even 100 years ago! Thanks for sharing!!

  2. Art Knight says:

    Those nightmarish images give me chills.

    On a happier note I’m pleased to see that Oprah made the paper!

  3. Cam Bek says:

    Very interesting Chernobyl visit. Thanks for sharing it. One the saddest photographs I’ve ever seen, was that taken out of the rear window of a bus as people were being evacuated from the Exclusion Zone.

    The dogs must have known that their owners were abandoning them because they were running as fast as they could, barking. Their canine faces are forever etched into my mind. I don’t believe all pets were forced to be abandoned.

    The cavalier attitude toward nuclear safety within theSoviet gov’t has always seemed to me outrageous to the point of criminal. As is their keeping the accident secret from countries downwind for two days.

    I am sure Chernobyl figured in the implosion of the USSR.

    Thanks again for sharing you interesting trip. -cb

  4. Dave says:

    The exposed film is motion picture film, with the optically recorded sound track on the bottom edge.

  5. Peter Duffy says:

    Readers might like to consider “Wolves Eat Dogs” – excellent thriller by Martin Cruz Smith (of “Gorky Park” fame) in which his quirky Moscow detective, Arkady Renko, seeks to solve the inexplicable suicide of a Putin-era billionaire. Chernobyl is the star performer.
    The radiation cloud moved up to Sweden, then on down across much of Scotland and Northern England and Wales. For years after, the much prized Welsh lamb could not be sold in UK/EU because of the contamination of the grass-lands. Contrary to expectations, the sheep-droppings fed the radiation back into the hills – the embargo took far longer then expected to be lifted. What happened to all that radioactive lamb? Maybe ask Martin Cruz Smith.

  6. UncleStu says:

    When nuclear power was starting to be promoted. Their favorite selling points and slogan were:

    “Clean – Safe – Too Cheap to Meter”

    It was really catchy.

    Funny how they don’t use that slogan anymore.

    How about this one to replace it:

    “Clean (never mind the disposal dump) – “Safe” (never mind Fukushima and the 10,000 year half-life) – “Too chea…” (we were only kidding – that was just locker room talk)

    It doesn’t roll off the tongue like the old slogan, does it?

  7. Rod says:

    Yes, ghostly indeed. Like the Mary Celeste. And it happened in an extremely interesting period of Soviet history, with Gorbachev in charge and Mathias Rust landing his Cessna on freaking Red Square and whatnot.

    As for the root question — nuclear power stations — my take is the same as sgcollins: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KOBEloymLQA&t=339s

  8. Ma Zhenguo says:

    As to the report card, apart from what Gary already said, I will just add that she attended ‘middle school’ n.2 in 1982-1983. Also, the report card is written in Russian, not Ukranian.
    Incidentally, she fared slightly better in Russian literature (B-B-A) than in Ukranian literature (B-B-B). Unfortunately, there is no mark for the subject “Foundations of Soviet Institutions and Law”.

  9. Dick Waitt says:

    This was (supposedly) accidental, from a facility that was designed to be a power generation station. Consider what things would look like if it were the result of the explosion of a nuclear bomb… just one bomb…

  10. Andy Sallee says:

    I went to Belarus in 2001 and got within 2 miles of the reactor in the Restricted Zone. It was like being in a science fiction movie where everyone vanished. The countryside was beautiful but what happened there was profoundly sad.

    I loved Belarus and it’s people. Here is a video I made from that trip:

  11. Gary says:

    It’s a report card for a Nadezhda Aleksandrovna Sonkina for Middle School #2 in Pripyat’. Overall good grades (4s and 5s, meaning Bs and As), but she struggled a bit in “Mathematics (analysis).”

  12. Chris Jones says:

    FYI, the newspaper is “Komsomolskaya Pravda” as opposed to “Pravda”. The latter was the official newspaper of the Communist party of the Soviet Union, while the pictured newspaper was the official newspaper of the youth organization of that party.