Chernobyl (or Чорнобиль / Chornobyl to the locals) is situated to the north of Ukraine close to the border with Belarus. Prior to the nuclear disaster, the city had a population of 14,000. It was largely abandoned in 1986 as the exclusion zone was established (the city of Slavutych was built specifically for the evacuated population) and in 2010 it had a registered population of only 500.
The nuclear power plants are located 14.5 kilometers (9.0 miles) to the north-northwest and Chernobyl is now home to those who maintain the reactors and the administrative personnel who oversee the zone. One of the administrators I spoke to (via translator) worked 6 weeks on, 6 weeks off.
The population is now focused around a few central streets, a number of low rise blocks of flats sit on each side. Utility pipework runs above ground in many places and snakes alongside the roads. In the lead up to 2011, a number of buildings (at least superficially) were tidied up in time for the 25th anniversary and the many visiting dignitaries. Out into suburbia wooden clad houses flank the quiet tree-lined roads. It must have been a pleasant place to live. Following the disaster, it was necessary to put a sign up stating that a house was occupied but it is now obvious by the state of repair. Those that are empty are hidden amongst the undergrowth, many in various states of collapse.
We were dropped at several food shops during my time there, not all are apparent with many located in much larger, but predominantly empty, buildings including one in the bus station. The range of food on offer was similar but one enterprising store did sell commemorative mugs. Beer is cheap as are the slightly soggy chocolate covered wafer things (recommended).
Officially Chernobyl has a curfew for visitors but we took a number of wanders after dark and in the early hours without issue. At night torches were kept off until away from populated areas (not long) and those people we did encounter paid no attention. During daylight, a confident stroll seemed to work.
Chernobyl is not a happy place, and while alcohol is plentiful there is little laughter, few women and no children.
Founded in 1193 the city name is the same as the local Ukrainian name for mugwort or common wormwood (Artemisia vulgaris) a species of plant belonging to the daisy family, чорнобиль or “chornobyl”.
“And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.”
An alternative theory is that it is a combination of the words chornyi (чорний, black) and byllia (билля, grass blades or stalks), which literally means black grass or black stalks.
Chernobyl first appeared in the charter of 1193, described as a hunting-lodge of Knyaz Rostislavich. It has a rich religious history and in the second half of the 18th century became one of the major centers of Hasidic Judaism. In 1898, Chernobyl had a recorded population of 10,800, including 7,200 Jews. In World War I the village was occupied, and in the ensuing Civil War fought over by the Bolsheviks and Ukrainians. During the Polish-Soviet War of 1919–20, it was taken first by the Polish Army and then by the cavalry of the Red Army. In 1921, it was incorporated into the Soviet Socialist Republic.
Between 1929 and 1933 Chernobyl witnessed mass killings during Stalin’s collectivization campaign and many deaths in the famine that followed. The Polish community of Chernobyl was deported to Kazakhstan in 1936 during the Frontier Clearances. The Jewish community was murdered during the German occupation of 1941–44.
Twenty years later, the area was chosen as the site of the first nuclear power station on Ukrainian soil.
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Chernobyl remained part of Ukraine, now an independent nation.
Monument to the liquidators
Located in front of the fire station is a memorial to the liquidators who rushed to reactor number four in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. The firefighters who initially responded to the disaster were unaware of the scale of the incident and while they labored to extinguish the fires, their bodies absorbed high doses of radiation, and many of them later died of Acute Radiation Sickness. Overall, an estimated 600,000 – 1 million workers, including scientists, miners, and Soviet military conscripts, participated in the Chernobyl cleanup efforts.
The plaque on the monument is inscribed “To those who saved the world.”
Assembled for the 25th anniversary is a collection of robotic machines used in the clean up. Radio controlled the circuitry of the initial robots quickly succumbed to the high levels of radiation leaving “biorobots” — soldiers, scientists, and civilians to carry out the clean up.
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