This was to have been my last post for a while. I felt tired, and stretched, and wanted to see what would happen to my writing if I left it fallow for a while.
And then, I met Pripyat.
Stories are like drugs. They entrap you, and you are in their power, and like the girl with the red shoes you must tell them because they demand your fingers to fly over the keyboard and relate them once more, though firesides are gone and how much longer will people read anything longer than 100 words?
If you stroll into the Tate Modern and take a lift up to Level 5, and turn right and walk until you can walk no more, you will find the Russian propaganda posters.
There are all the usual horror-posters about keeping secrets and doing what the state tells you to; and then there is a set of pictures of the perfect socialist town. They are by a man called Cherkes – I’m thinking this might be Daniil Yakovlevich Cherkes, about whom the glorious Union of Soviet Socialist Republics seems to have saved little information before its demise.
The prints are lithograph on paper, dated 1932.
It reads: : “We are building socialist industry and the Cultural Socialist Town.”
It’s one of the oldest tricks in the town planner’s book: social engineering. Look at the space! The greens where children can play as grow ups watch! This is ideal in every way.
On February 4, 1970, the members of the Party of the Soviet Union looked on as the first peg was hammered into the ground to begin construction of a new town.
They had chosen their place carefully. Situated next to the Pripyat River, in Northern Ukraine, a railway station was already close by and a highway led to the site. It was perfect in every way.
The planners, like Cherkes, had made something beautiful for the people. They planned meticulously, retaining every inch of green space and each mature tree. The people of the town of Pripyat were to have a little Utopia in which to live and breathe.
Which is good, because they were going to be working very hard, at the nearby nuclear plant. There were parks and gardens and four libraries and ten kindergartens.The people wanted for nothing: there was an art school, and bookstore, and medical institutions, cinema, amusement park and theatre. With an average age of 26, the workers were a young and vibrant lot. It is said that in the evenings, when the workers arrived home from the plant, the streets would be full of parents with babies in buggy strollers, taking the evening air.
In 1979 the population had grown so much that Pripyat was declared a city. People thrived here: it had been designed to be one of the most beautiful cities in the Ukraine.
And I am sure you know the end of the story.
Today, Pripyat has a population of zero. It is surrounded by a Zone of Alienation, because its local nuclear power plant was named Chernobyl. The pavements where strollers wheeled with such optimism are silent, and the place has become a place where only the curious venture. The city is crumbling, and the buildings collapsing.
The city has one great roaming ghost, and its name is Radiation.
It is a plaintive fate for socialist industry, and the Cultural Socialist Town.
You can see the streets of Pripyat from the present day here