How 2019 Was Seen Off in Prypiat

We decided to make an article about the visit to the Chornobyl exclusion zone in the format of a journalistic story, to process everything seen and heard through the lens of personal perception and life experience, to listen to emotions without which a trip to the zone is impossible.

In the morning, on 25 December 2019, about 60 journalists of Ukrainian and foreign media went from the Minska subway station in Kyiv to the Chornobyl exclusion zone. Participants of the press tour had to record decoration of the Christmas tree in the central area of Prypiat. The last New Year’s symbol was put there back in 1986 and nothing predicted the greatest man-made accident in history.

For the first time within more than 30 years, the Association of Chornobyl Tour Operators, with the participation of the State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management, transported the former Prypiatians for their personal presence at the opening of the Christmas tree, as it was during their youth in their native town. Since the evacuation of Prypiat population, no holidays were celebrated here: there was no one left to do this.

We enter the Chornobyl exclusion zone through the Dytiatky checkpoint. While the organizers settle all the formalities with passes, you have to wait about an hour or more. I spend this time to learn the safety rules in the exclusion zone: do not sit down and do not put anything on the ground, do not eat outdoors, do not enter buildings, do not pick up local objects and, moreover, do not take them out of the zone. We are moving into the territory where radiation continues its destructive effect and it will be so for more than thousand years. Only if you meet these rules, you can be sure of your safety in the zone. 

The passes were issued, the police checked documents of zone visitors and our column of cars crossed the border between the outside world and the disaster area. We go like in a forest maze: the wall of trees rises on both sides of the route. The road leading to the Chornobyl town is unusually straight, although its condition is far from great: asphalt is covered with holes and cracks.

Another difference from the traffic beyond the zone: the road is empty. There are no other road users with the exception of perhaps 2-3 cars that have come across us. This emptiness is even more convincing than the guard at the checkpoint, says that we have got to the territory where the accident once occurred, which forced people to leave their homes forever.

So, here is Chornobyl, an ancient town that gave the name to the nuclear power plant and with whose name the entire story of the accident is associated. However, here and there you can see signs of life. The workers work on a rotational basis in the zone, there are even hotels and cafes, and the radiation background may be lower than the background in some Kyiv districts.

We pass it without stops. For another 15 minutes, the Chornobyl cooling towers can be seen in the fog and rain mist. The plant itself seemed to hide behind the “thickets” of the supports of the transmission lines, which once transmitted energy generated in the reactors. Going to Prypiat, we had to bypass the NPP territory, so I had some time to look at the Chornobyl NPP closely. Unit 4 is already covered by the Arch of the New Safe Confinement (NSC), so it does not have such an apocalyptic view as before. The current view of the power unit does not remind that once there was a powerful explosion.

We pass the last checkpoint, which guards the entrance directly to Prypiat. Buses come through the thickets of a Prypiat street. This is not a metaphor: during 33 years passed since population evacuation, real jungle has grown in the stone jungle. Almost the entire space between residential buildings is occupied by thickets of trees and shrubs, as if concrete structures were built right in the forest. These abandoned houses stand like skeletons of creatures died a long time ago and whose remains are an ominous reminder of the disaster, they suffered.

We get off the transport on the main square of Prypiat. A four-meter-tall Christmas tree stands in the middle. Behind it, the Energetik Culture House is located; Polissia Hotel is on the right. While the final preparations for the event are underway, journalists look around in the middle of a deserted square covered with trees forged through the asphalt.

Our MKS-U dosimeter shows that the radiation background here fluctuates in the range of 0.6-1 μSv/h. Too long stay in this space cannot pass without leaving a trace for health.

Glass balls already hung on the tree in some places and old mechanical clocks are attached. They are probably the same age as the town. The most important moment comes: the former Prypiatians get photos from their family archives. They captured the 1970s—1980s, their childhood or youth spent in the town of power engineers. Some people cannot hold back tears caused by sudden surge of nostalgia.

Journalists observe and carefully record how residents of Prypiat hang these photos on the Christmas tree, as if drawing a communication line between modernity and their life before the accident. In the photos: residents of Prypiat, their parents, children, school teachers, classmates. For a moment it seems like they are back in their small homeland.

Done: for the first time in 30 years, in the center of an empty town, they celebrate the New Year with a decorated tree.

There is little time left before departure. With the camera and dosimeter, my colleagues and I explore the surroundings of the square.

Then the accompanees lead us to the attractions of the amusement park and the Ferris wheel known from many photos. It is better not to approach to the rusty bumper cars: very significant radiation contamination.

It was necessary to go back before nightfall. Frankly, I wanted to stay in Prypiat longer, because visiting the exclusion zone is like getting into 1986 by a time machine, be in the atmosphere of “developed socialism”. I only read about this era in books, documents or saw in movies, but here I could see it with own eyes.

However, for people for whom Prypiat means home, this trip is a reminder of the light moments in their childhood and youth, which were cut short by the accident at ChNPP Unit 4.

See the full photo report in the Photo Reports Section.

 Igor Bigun, Chief Editor of