Petrified ruin: exploring the abandoned city of Pripyat
Pripyat was built in 1970 to house workers at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear plant. It’s now an empty city, abandoned in 1986 after the worst nuclear accident in history. Recently, Chernobyl and Pripyat have become unlikely tourist destinations and my visit in October 2007 was arranged through a travel agency in Kiev. Visiting Pripyat is a disconcerting experience: because it is the largest post-War ruin in existence, the empty streets and buildings feel like a real-life version of countless ruined cities in post-apocalyptic cinema.
If one is a lover of industrial ruins, as I am, walking through the empty, decaying buildings of Pripyat might seem to represent an opportunity for extreme pleasure – a place, in the words of Tim Edensor, ‘which offers spaces in which the interpretation and practice of the city becomes liberated from the everyday constraints which determine what should be done and where, and which encode the city with meanings’. So, for example we have surprise in the arbitrary arrangements of once ordered things – broken strip lights in a supermarket (1):
…or the sudden reappearance of utopian objects from the past – socialist icons left in a room in the palace of culture (2):
…or the excess of meaning generated by inexplicable objects and juxtapositions – rusted hat stands alone in a decaying room (3):
For Edensor and others, such experiences are potentially transformative, ‘suggesting new forms of thought and comprehension, and … new conceptions of space that confirm the potential of the human to integrate itself, to be whole and free outside of any predetermined system’. Yet, such positive assessments of industrial ruins tend to present them as alternative spaces within the ordered, modern city. It is one thing encountering an industrial ruin in the midst of the ceaseless life of the city; it is quite another if all is ruin, if there is no counterbalancing order at all.
As one proceeds through Pripyat, the sense of ruin quickly becomes overwhelming: the very qualities of fragmentation, plenitude, discontinuity and defamiliarisation that Edensor celebrates, soon overwhelm. Scale overrides the positive attributes of these qualities: the strange beauty of peeling walls in corridors soon become only reminders of the vastness of all that is not seen; the decay of the conventional architectural signs of civilisation – hospitals, schools, supermarkets, hotels – a wearisome succession of incommensurable losses (4):
And the decay seen is not what it seems: not a product of the return of natural processes of decomposition, but from two decades of systematic looting; a consequence of the residents being forced to leave all their belongings behind when the town was evacuated. Finally, juxtapositions of objects become unbearably poignant – children’s toys left on the decaying remains of a merry-go-round (5):
…or simply sinister – a rusty gynaecological chair and gas mask in the grounds of the hospital (6):
Indeed, for the ‘voices of Chernobyl’ – those who experienced the accident and its aftermath at first hand – the site represents something much more than a technological ruin: for one witness ‘Chernobyl was a way into infinity…it shattered existing boundaries’; for another ‘the World no longer seemed eternal as it had done before … we had been deprived of immortality’. For many Chernobyl represented the end of communism, even if its final collapse was delayed until 1991. Before Chernobyl they were protected by the Soviet state apparatus; after it, they were forced to become individuals again, left alone in their own private zones. The sense of Chernobyl as both technological and cosmic catastrophe is embodied in the experience of the spaces of Pripyat and more specifically, in the ‘city-like’ quality of it. With its endless blank corridors, disorientating repetition, and the evidence of violent human agency at work in its spaces, Pripyat is more ruined city than collection of industrial ruins, inviting meditation on loss on a cosmic scale.
Read more about my research on Chernobyl and Pripyat here
See more of my photographs of Chernobyl and Pripyat here