Abandoned since the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the city of Pripyat has spent 25 years returning to nature. Off limits to all but a few, the decaying city has become a magnet for a curious breed of ruin enthusiasts: urban explorers
Even a place you're not allowed to visit has some must-see attractions. The city of Pripyat in northern Ukraine has been abandoned since April 1986, when an explosion and fire ripped through reactor number four of the nearby VI Lenin nuclear power plant – a place better known in the west as Chernobyl. Radionuclides including strontium-90 and caesium-137 spewed from the burning reactor core into the skies above Europe, prompting a continent-wide panic. The Soviet authorities evacuated a broad zone around the plant, including the city of Pripyat, the town of Chernobyl and 74 villages.
Emptied of people, Pripyat has spent a quarter of a century returning to nature. Trees and an ocean of other greenery have all but conquered its streets and open spaces, and are infiltrating its buildings. From the upper windows of its many apartment blocks, the city resembles a rus-in-urbe modernist fantasy – towers rising not from parkland but fully developed forest. From all other angles it's a post apocalyptic spectacle. Every window is smashed and every floor littered with debris, pulverised furniture, fallen ceilings and the mulch of 25 autumns never followed by a spring clean. Water, the great un-doer of buildings, has penetrated deep into the frames of Pripyat's structures, fostering exuberant indoor displays of mould, fungus and slime and showing where the buildings will ultimately unzip and crash to the ground. Paint peels like sunburned skin, bricks crumble like filo pastry, floorboards liquesce.
Visiting Pripyat is difficult. Small groups are permitted by Ukraine's Ministry of Emergencies, which displays the kind of wariness and caution you'd expect from its brief. You must have a legitimate reason for your visit, you must be accompanied by a guide at all times, and you must adhere to a long and complicated list of regulations. Wear long-sleeved clothes. No smoking. Do not touch anything, in particular metal. Do not sit down or place anything on the ground. Do not take souvenirs. Radiation is tricksy – it comes in different types, and these different types behave in different ways. There is no clear cause-and-effect when dealing with these hazards – just a swamp of varying risks over varying periods of time. The most serious radiological danger is coming in contact with a "hot particle", a speck of strontium or caesium ejected from the reactor core. That's bad news. But the bad news will not come immediately – it will be delivered by an oncologist months, years or decades hence. There are other dangers, too. There's the risk of injury associated with clambering around in decaying buildings, and other particles on the fly, in particular asbestos in unknown quantities. Wear a face mask.
The melancholy beauty of a modern city overrun by greenery and the zone's notoriety and relative inaccessibility combine to make Pripyat a magnet for a particular kind of unofficial visitor: the urban explorer. Urban exploration is illicit ruin tourism. The internet has galvanised "urbex", as it's sometimes called, into a community and, with that, provided a sense of identity. On urbex forums, they share photographs of the closed, silent worlds they have visited – asylums, steel works, hospitals, military bases, theme parks. Naturally enough, some places have more bragging rights attached than others. The more forbidden and extensive the wreck, the harder it is to get to and get into, the better. And at the top of the global hierarchy is Pripyat.
"Pripyat is one of those Holy Grail places," says Bryan Allen, a Masters student at the University of California, Berkeley, researching "post-industrial latent space" and an urban explorer with six years' experience. "There's a short list of the abandoned places on the planet, and Pripyat is probably number one."
What's at the heart of that appeal? "Pripyat holds something very special," says Allen, "because it's an enormous exertion of an exploration, it's way out there in Ukraine – you have to pay people off to get there, you have to hire a guide, it's a whole other level of risk that you have to go through. [For] urban explorers, a lot of it has to do with risk – this idea of paying for what you're getting, and risking your safety or liberty. It's ever popular in the forums, and you can't take a bad picture of it in their eyes – it's the 'ruin porn' thing."
I visited Pripyat with Allen and 40 others as part of the Architectural Association School of Architecture's Unknown Fields Division in July 2011. Run by tutors Liam Young and Kate Davies, the Unknown Fields Division styles itself as a nomadic design studio, and is best known for its ambitious expeditions to unusual places. (At time of writing, the division has just returned from a midwinter trip to lightless northern Alaska.) There were plans, in 2011, to open Pripyat to tourism. Not mass tourism, but allowing in more organised groups of visitors in order to show that the Chernobyl exclusion zone is not a death-dealing wasteland but a now largely benign natural preserve. But as we prepped for our visit, the Ukrainian government abruptly dropped its tourism initiative and clamped down on travel to the zone. A fresh plume of isotopes from the remains of reactor four? No – an inscrutable scandal within the mesh of organisations governing the zone. Easyjetters will have to wait a while longer. But we got in – just.
We all felt we knew the place before we travelled. Photographers and the urban explorers have saturated the internet with images of the city, part of a fairly recent mania for picturesque desuetude referred to as "ruin porn". Seeing its points of interest – those must-see attractions – for oneself has an unreal sense of heightened reality that leads to a nagging case of authenticity anxiety.
First, there's the reactor itself – or rather, the concrete sarcophagus that now encases it. Hurriedly built in the weeks following the fire, the sarcophagus is a grim, hunched megastructure, streaked with rust and buttressed like a fortress, topped with a skeletal metal chimney. From those tower block windows, it lurks above the treeline, a medieval cathedral and spire gone seriously sour. From up close – well, for the obvious safety reasons we don't get much closer. Mostly, the sarcophagus is glimpsed dramatically from the windows of a racing bus, obliged to stay above a certain speed on the closest roads to limit exposure. Stopping is a no-no – our guide tells of one tour bus that halted in the wrong place and was joined, within minutes, by a squad of angry men with automatic weapons. There is a viewing area a couple of hundred metres from the sarcophagus where you can stop for no more than 15 minutes and take photographs – a curiously touristic experience, a single sanctioned postcard view, meaning our souvenirs have the samey quality of snaps taken at the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
The "gas mask room" - the gas masks are all child sized (image: Bryan Allen)
Pripyat was a showpiece of the Soviet Union's planned economy, built for the workers of what was intended to be the largest power plant in Europe once all its six proposed reactors were fissioning away. Tours start at its central landmark, the Palace of Culture. The murals depicting brotherhood and abundance are flaking, but still bright. The palms in the shattered planters are dead, but a 25ft birch is thriving in the first-floor sports hall. From the double-height picture windows there's a good view of another delight for the photographers: a yellow ferris wheel. The ferris wheel – also a memorable feature in the numerous computer games set in Pripyat – stands in a fairground, along with stalled dodgems grazing on moss and a carousel so badly rusted it resembles forgotten agricultural machinery. Another popular destination is the airy swimming pool, empty of water and thick with dust, powdered insulation material fallen from the ceiling and covering the cracked plastic floor.
But for urban explorers, the real high point is the so called gas mask room. In one room of the city school, part of the floor is covered with child-sized gas masks. Sightless eyes thick with dust, corrugated tubes snaking and tangling, the gas mask room is an eerie spectacle. More than any other place, it reminds you that Pripyat is not an innocent ruin, but was deserted in the midst of a major catastrophe – that the exodus was an eruption of terror and dislocation in thousands of innocent lives.
The gas mask room is contentious, though. The gathering of the masks might be deliberate. This might not be as they were left in the throes of evacuation. They might, in fact, have been arranged here for more effective sentimental impact – to form, as Allen puts it, "the absolute simulacrum of decay". Urbexers in the past might have constructed a more ghostly sight for urbexers of the future. For himself, Allen doubts the rumours: "I honestly don't think it's as contrived as people think it is." Neither of us, none of us, have any way of telling whether it's real or not.
This question, however, opens up a rabbit hole of further questions. Elsewhere, the school is thoroughly trashed. Barely a book remains on its shelves – they are all on the floors, and gentle decay did not send them there. It's the work of vandals. If you believe it to be "real", then the gas mask room has been left untouched in the midst of this destruction, perhaps out of respect, or superstition, or simple admiration of its spooky charm. In this context, then, its undisturbed, shrine-like nature is, in itself, a form of contrivance. It has been very deliberately and very obviously left undisturbed by many people over a long period.
Something else heightens the sense that what we are seeing has been mediated by unknown others. In this macabre place, there is a visitors' book.
This touristic accessory, more suited to a National Trust property than a city hollowed out by a nuclear accident, is a bizarre intrusion. But the urban explorers set it up for a reason. Because Pripyat is hard to reach, and few will ever make the journey, they want to prove that they were there. But the urbex ethos is founded on the same rule that is drummed into visitors to natural parks: leave no trace. Do not disturb what you find. Leave it in its "natural state" for others to enjoy. The urban explorers look down on vandals and taggers, who smash and scrawl, even as they depend on them to open up new routes into closed sites. But they still want evidence of their visit.
Hence the visitors' book. It's an artefact that expresses the joy of successive explorers at finding themselves in the inner sanctum, the holiest of holies, the object of their pilgrimage. (The religious language is apt – the difficulty of the journey is an important, perhaps the most important, part of the experience, just like a pilgrimage.) Allen says arrival in Pripyat is attended by a "quasi carnival" atmosphere for urban explorers – many of the entries in the book are celebratory, elated, not sombre.
It's a paradox within urbex, this desire to reach out and share an experience with others, given the pursuit itself is so solitary. Urban exploration stems from a desire to be outside normal limits, to walk where others do not, in a world that is deserted and untouched. It is not the search for great wild spaces, wildernesses, where no humans have ever walked. Nor is it the same taste for melancholy that underpinned the ruinlust of the 18th century. It's a vicarious exploration of a post-human world, a place where humans have been and departed. It is a palatable taste of anthroterminus, the end of us all, an excursion that permits a return to the buzzing human sphere. Once back there, the pictures can be shared.
But what builds up, from all those arty shots of moss choked beds and crumbling plaster, is an unrealistic overall picture. "You get the impression from looking at the forum images that it is this compressed place, that there's an amazing sight around each turn," says Allen. But Pripyat and the zone are far larger than that, more spread out, and there is much that the photographers leave out. What gets lost, in the hunt for really choice rot and collapse, is the abundant, thriving plant life that is my dominant memory of the zone. "It's people really trying to hold on to this nostalgic view that the zone is a world in decline," says Allen. "And it's not, it's really quite the opposite."
The rest of the school has been heavily vandalised (image: Will Wiles)