Chernobyl: 20 years after the catastrophe

A few weeks ago one of my friends told me about the HBO mini-series Chernobyl. I was somewhat skeptical about watching it, and here is why.

I grew up in Gomel, Belarus. On April 26, 1986, I was playing soccer outside when a huge gust of wind blew the ball across the yard. My grandmother ran out and told me and my friends to get inside in case it starts raining. No one knew what actually happened; even when the government finally admitted that there was an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the news downplayed the extent of the damage and of the danger, calling it a “minor accident with only four casualties”.

I am not going to go into the details of the aftermath - plenty of books, articles, and documentaries have been created to tell the story of Chernobyl.

In 2006, twenty years after the accident, I decided to travel to Chernobyl and see for myself the remnants of Chernobyl and Pripyat, the exclusion zone, and the people who live and work there.

It was surprisingly easy to travel into the exclusion zone - a quick Google search got me to SoloEast Travel, a Kiev-based company that organizes Chernobyl tours.

The whole experience of visiting Chernobyl and Pripyat was surreal; after coming back to the United States I pretty much archived the photos and the notebooks.

After the first episode of the HBO miniseries, I went back through my backups and looked through close to 2,000 photos and dozens of scanned notes.

Here are a few of the photos…

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A stork nest on a telephone pole on the way from Kiev to Chernobyl. It is an old Russian/Ukrainian/Byelorussian belief that when storks return to their nests, everything is going to be OK.

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КПП - Контрольно-пропускной пункт. Exclusion Zone entrance checkpoint / passport control

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A monument to the liquidators.

“The Chernobyl liquidators were the civil and military personnel who were called upon to deal with consequences of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union on the site of the event.” - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_liquidators

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A map of the exclusion zone

At the time of my visit, Maria was the sole remaining resident of her village a few kilometers outside of Pripyat

Both of Maria’s sons were in the first wave of Chernobyl liquidators. They died several years after the cleanup was completed

An abandoned house in a village a few kilometers outside of Pripyat

Approaching the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

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Moss (and some other fungi) seem to feast on radiation (ref). Throughout the entire visit, our guides kept telling us to be careful not to step on moss. Just to make a point, one of the guides held up a dosimeter in the air to measure the background radiation; when he set it on a patch of moss the radiation reading doubled immediately.

The city of Pripyat

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The city of Pripyat, central square.

Found this in the basement of one of the government buildings - looks like a storage space for propaganda posters / materials

A school hallway

Nurse’s office inside a school

A bank

Inside of an abandoned apartment

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Daycare / preschool

Sarcophagus around reactor #4. This is the reactor that exploded on April 26, 1986. Now the reactor is surrounded with the New Safe Confinement (NSC or New Shelter), a structure that will supposedly contain the remains of the reactor for the next 100 years. 

Dosimeter reading next to the reactor #4 sarcophagus

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A tremendous amount of military equipment was used during the cleanup. Since all the equipment was heavily contaminated, most of it was destroyed and buried. These few pieces were turned into a monument / memorial.

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Everyone leaving the exclusion zone must go through radiation scan to ensure that one’s clothing, shoes, and personal items have not been contaminated during the visit

Shira's and Ed's Wedding

A few photos from Shira's and Ed's amazing wedding at the Omni William Penn Hotel. Shira, Ed and their families and friends are such amazing and warm people - they really made me feel like a part of the family. I wish you guys all the happiness in the world!

Huge thank you to Jonathan Ch Diaz for helping me photograph this wedding - I couldn't have done it without you my friend!