New East Digital Archive

Under a cloud: what’s it like to live in the town next door to Chernobyl?

Explore Slavutych, the Soviet town that rose out of the ashes of Chernobyl.

It’s hard to imagine life continuing in and around Chernobyl; drone-imagery of the devastated and abandoned city of Pripyat, where many of the powerplant’s workers lived, paints the area as a toxic, uninhabitable wasteland. Yet in 1988, only two years after the meltdown, a new town rose out of the ashes. Slavutych was designed to re-house the evacuated residents of Pripyat. Located 40 miles away from Chernobyl, the purpose-built town was the last major construction of the Soviet era, with considerable funds devoted to its development. As a result, the standard of life in the town is remarkably high, and as Swiss photojournalist Niels Ackermann noted on his first visit in 2012, virtually unchanged since Soviet times.

“I was surprised by how clean and pure the city was,” says Ackermann. “It felt like taking a time machine back to the Soviet era. There was no advertising, very few cars, clean public space. A striking contrast compared to a city like Kiev or the neighbouring Chernihiv where the urban environment is very chaotic.”

Ackermann has returned frequently over four years, documenting Ukraine’s youngest town through the eyes of the post-Soviet generation growing up there. The resulting series White Angel portrays Slavutych as an ordinary town, with everyday boredom, teen-rebellion and young love. “The older you get, the fewer activities there are and that’s one of the key issues the municipality is dealing with. It’s a problem of every small town. They installed some new open-air sporting grounds but one of the main problems is the work schedule in Chernobyl: two weeks of work are followed by two weeks of holidays [to decrease risk of contamination]. Not everybody likes sport and beyond taking care of the home, there isn’t much to do,” Ackermann says.

Though the nuclear plant shut down in 2000, working at Chernobyl is a common career choice for the younger people employed to dismantle the site. “Nobody needs a programmer, a journalist or a graphic designer in Chernobyl. So they all become dosimetrists, truck drivers, welders or the like.” Though this involves abandoning other ambitions, the photographer argues for the value of the project: “They are fixing what the previous generation left broken. They are preparing a safer Ukraine, and most of them have an understanding of what a great task it is and are proud of being part of one of Europe’s major construction projects.”

White Angel is published by Les Editions Noir sur Blanc and available to order here.

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