Walking Backward Against The Wind – Slavutych, Ukraine: The Other Side Of Chernobyl

There is only one place in Ukraine where a visitor can travel to Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Yerevan, Baku, Tbilisi and Moscow in a matter of minutes. They can even go to Kiev without actually being there. This can only be done in the city of Slavutych in northern Ukraine. There is one caveat. The traveler will not actually be in those cities, but instead in districts named after them. The idea sounds intriguing, if only it was not linked to one of the worst ecological disasters in human history, the Chernobyl nuclear accident. The reason districts in Slavutych were given the names of these cities is because workers came from each of them and their respective Soviet republics to build a city for those workers displaced by the disaster. A model community was constructed just 50 kilometers away from the site of Reactor Number 4, site of the cataclysmic meltdown. One might suppose that the proximity of Slavutych to Chernobyl would be too close for comfort, but in the 28 years since it was constructed, Slavutych has become known for its prosperity. Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever, that is except for the radioactive exclusion zone half an hour away from Slavutych.

Apartment blocks in Slavutych, Ukraine

Apartment blocks in Slavutych, Ukraine – many workers and their families from Chernobyl were relocated to the city in 1988 (Credit: fraskini)

On Suspect Terrain – A Utopian Fantasy Rises From Dystopia
The popular perception of a city close to Chernobyl has been informed by Pripyat, that planned Soviet city which was abandoned 36 hours after the meltdown of Reactor Number 4 in the early hours of April 26, 1986. Pripyat’s vacant, crumbling buildings, cracked streets and eerie amusement park have become a surreal symbol of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Popular media has focused on Pripyat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone to the point that Slavutych is rarely, if ever mentioned. That is understandable since Chernobyl was the signature disaster of the nuclear age, while Slavutych was a modest attempt to mitigate the massive damage wrought on the populace by upheaval and relocation. It is ironic that Slavutych is just a half hour away from Chernobyl by public transport.

How could an area so close to Reactor Number 4 not have become horribly contaminated?  The answer is rather banal, it was not downwind of the fallout cloud. Thus, the heavily wooded area where Slavutych would be constructed was relatively unscathed. Nevertheless, two meters of fresh topsoil was brought in and laid before construction started. To say that the first inhabitants of the city were moving onto suspect terrain would be an understatement. Yet the citizens of Slavutych have suffered much less than almost any community in the region. It has been one of the healthiest places to live in Ukraine. Oddly enough this has much to do with Chernobyl, as does just about everything else in the city, from the reason for its existence to its prosperity and wellness. A city built as an escape from the worst nuclear disaster in human history has become known for its youth and wealth. This is especially perplexing when measured against the fact that the city is located within thirty minutes of an exclusion zone that will likely stay uninhabitable for thousands of years to come.

Memorial in Slavutych to Chernobyl victims

Memorial in Slavutych to Chernobyl victims (Credit: mtaHarlemLine)

Prospering From Disaster – The Rise of Slavutych
The success of Slavutych is one of the world’s most improbable stories. The fact that it has thrived can be largely attributed to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. There were four working reactors at Chernobyl, only one of which exploded. The other three continued to operate as a vital power supply for Ukraine. This meant that thousands of workers would have to be housed somewhere in the surrounding area. A railroad siding called Nerafa was selected as the site for Slavutych. The new city’s name was an Old Slavic language word for the nearby Dneiper River. Construction would require clearance of a thick forest, but the river offered an uncontaminated supply of water and the pre-existing transport infrastructure offered ease of access to and from Chernobyl.

In just two years a city rose out of the forest, strangely it was designed with a younger generation in mind. This was because approximately 8,000 children who had been living close to Chernobyl would now be living in Slavutych. The new community had sports facilities, youth centers, good schools and lots of playgrounds. A total of 9,000 workers, many scientists and highly educated engineers moved into the town. They received good housing, high quality medical care and good salaries for working at Chernobyl.  As a newly independent nation Ukraine went through tumultuous economic times during the 1990’s, meanwhile Slavutych’s economy continued to hum along. The quality of life was excellent. Such problems as low wages, unemployment, alcoholism and drug abuse that plagued the rest of Ukraine were minimal in Slavutych. This was a strangely successful, post-apocalyptic utopia.

In essence, Slavutych was a half-size version of Pripyat, with a trajectory that was on the upswing. Unfortunately, Slavutych had much in common with Pripyat, such as being totally reliant on Chernobyl. That ended up being a major problem. In 2001, the three nuclear reactors at Chernobyl were finally shut down. This constricted the flow of money to Slavutych. For 13 years the city had been virtually bankrolled by the entity that ran the power station. Now funding was dramatically reduced. The personnel working at Chernobyl fell from 9,000 to 3,000 workers. Slavutych has been on the wane ever since. Despite such measures as declaring the city a Special Economic Zone, with tax perks for business startups and investment, the city has stagnated. Those who work at the plant today, either help construct the new sarcophagus which will seal Reactor Number 4 for a century or dismantle other parts of the facility. The worker’s labor is now going toward putting themselves out of a job. That brutal paradox sums up Slavutych’s relationship with Chernobyl.

Leaving Slavutych, Ukraine

Leaving Slavutych, Ukraine (Credit: fraskini)

The Dream & the Reality – Fleeing & Fleeting Slavutych
The fate of Slavutych is uncertain, though decline seems all but inevitable. The city and its citizens can only walk backward against the prevailing winds of history for so long. It is remarkable that the city has lasted this long, despite the fact that it was built on the fringes of what is perhaps the worst environmental disaster in modern history. Slavutych’s existence is nothing short of astonishing. The city proves that mankind can live for a limited amount of time, side by side with its worst mistakes. Unfortunately the radiation from the Chernobyl meltdown could outlive humanity. That is a reality that the best efforts of mankind, such as Slavutych, can never mitigate.

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