I saw enough of the planned cities of the USSR before 1990 to know that I detest them. It’s the sport of dictators to dream up new, idealised models of human organisation, and their prerogative to delegate the execution to the most unimaginative toadies, people who have had any spark of imagination or creativity or challenge kicked out of them.
Pripyat is a great example. The main restaurant was called “Restaurant”, the supermarket “Supermarket” and the Café…you guessed it “Café”. The families of those who worked on Nuclear Power plant No 1 lived in Residential Block 1 and their children studied at School Number 1. The families of those who worked on Nuclear Power plant No 2 lived in Residential Block 2 and so on up to Unit 6.
I have strong ties to my work colleagues, but I also appreciate a separation of work and family life. I can’t imagine us all living next door to one another. Don’t all human beings crave independence and anonymity as well as companionship? variety and spontaneity as well as structure? beauty as well as efficiency? some control over the way they live their lives?
With an average age of 26, Pripyat was a town of young and well-educated people. The USSR promised everyone their own apartment, the trouble was the waiting list could be decades long. In Pripyat it was less than six months. The pay was better than elsewhere, and the shops were stocked with goods that could only be dreamed of in other parts of the USSR– from bananas to jeans. Although the town had its own prison, it was barely used. The only occasion anyone can remember was when, at short notice, the planned disco in the Palace of Culture was cancelled. Some young men started smashing beer bottles in protest and were bundled into the cells to cool off.
As we explored, our guide would stop and show us old photographs showing how Pripyat looked in the same place in the 1980s.
In the autumn sunlight, with golden poplars and silver birches swaying in a light breeze, the ground a carpet of ochre and russet leaves, the irony is that Pripyat looks more appealing now that the forest has reclaimed it.
Fiona Erskine’s debut thriller “The Chemical Detective” will be published by the Oneworld imprint, Point Blank Books in April 2019.