Inside Slavutych, the city created by the Chernobyl explosion

There’s a clock tower in the middle of the giant central square of Slavutych. Every hour it plays the anthem of the city. The sound comes suddenly, piercing through the silence and emptiness of the surroundings.

In the quiet square it’s a reminder that this city in northern Ukraine is very much alive — an important declaration for a place many of whose citizens came perilously close to perishing in the worst nuclear disaster the world has ever experienced.

Slavutych owes its existence to the Chernobyl explosion of April 26, 1986, and it’s one of the last major feats of social and physical engineering carried out by the Soviet Union.

In the aftermath of the reactor explosion, 45,000 people were evacuated as their nearby hometown Pripyat — once an oasis of greenery and a model of Soviet prosperity — became a radiation-contaminated ghost town.

When they left, in fleets of buses requisitioned from across Ukraine, officials told residents they would return in three days. In the end, no one came back. Pripyat was already dead.

But even after the disaster, the Chernobyl power plant had to continue working. Three reactors remained operational and Ukraine would be heavily reliant on their output for years to come.

That meant creating new homes for power plant workers who were vital to operations.

And so Slavutych was born.

Khrystyna Belchenko, who works in a museum dedicated to local history and the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, says there were three main criteria for creating the city.

“A distance of no more than 50 kilometers from Chernobyl power plant, the existing railway tracks and the unpolluted territory,” she tells CNN Travel.

The spot chosen was a lonely railway station in the middle of a dense pine forest. Work began as soon as the decision was made, in the fall of 1986, to build the new city. And after an incredible mobilization of Soviet construction resources, the first settlers arrived in October 1988.

The new city was an embodiment of an urbanist Soviet dream. “It was planned by 35 project institutes from eight Soviet republics,” recounts Belchenko. A communist miracle of cooperation.

A kaleidoscope of cultures

Slavutych became a sort of architectural and infrastructural apology from Soviet officials to both the displaced population of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and the wider communist empire for which the 1986 disaster had proved a demoralizing embarrassment.

The brightest planning minds were assembled to work on Slavutych. The result was a city that was ahead of its time.

Slavutych was divided into quarters (“kvartaly”), named after the capitals of republics that built them. Each republic had to supply the working force and materials. That, in turn, led to a unique kaleidoscope of distinct forms.

The majority of building designs were borrowed from other Soviet cities because of the lack of time to create something new.

The city’s new residents were given a chance to choose the quarter they’d settle in, an unheard-of generosity of the communist administration.

Soon after it opened its doors at the end of 1988, Slavutych transformed from a collection of empty concrete boxes to a living and breathing city with one of the highest standards of living in the Soviet Union at the time.

Even today, walking from one quarter of the city to another feels like traveling to a different state. There’s a Tbilisky quarter with traditional Georgian crosses on the balconies. The Yerevansky quarter takes its architectural cues from Armenia’s pink houses made with tuff rock.

The Azerbaijan-inspired Bakinsky quarter has mangals, traditional Middle Eastern barbeque grills, in the middle of its courtyards.

There are also three districts built by the Baltic countries that boast minimalist designs and wooden one-story cabins.

Slavutych was even designed with separate bike lanes, something that the majority of Ukrainian cities still don’t have.

“The city is often called the last monument to the Soviet Union,” says Belchenko.

Difficult adjustments

Slavutych’s attractions weren’t for everyone though, and the process of relocation wasn’t always smooth.

“During the first year [of living here] I hated Slavutych and wanted to leave it as quick as possible,” says Tatyana Kuznetsova over a coffee in a cafe in the Bakinsky quarter. Her story is typical of many of the city’s current inhabitants.

“April 26 was a very warm, even hot day,” she recalls. “When we came to school, teachers said that all windows must be shut, it was not allowed to go outside or open doors. We felt that something was wrong but nobody told us the reason.”

Kuznetsova was born in Pripyat and left the city at the age of 11 on 27 April 1986 during the mass evacuation in the aftermath of the explosion.

Having been told they were leaving only for a few days, they packed accordingly. Few thought that they would never see their belongings again.

“I had 12 vinyl records with fairy tales that we bought in Krasnoyarsk and a great collection of toys,” Kuznetsova says, struggling to hold back the tears.

Her family initially settled in Chisinau in Moldova — one of many Soviet cities giving homes to evacuees from Pripyat.

Her father’s work at Chernobyl brought the family back to Ukraine in 1990, and the family moved into a freshly built Slavutych.

“When I first came to Slavutych it felt good because I’d longed for coming here for a long time,” she says. However, the reason for her enthusiasm wasn’t the new city; it was the proximity to her old home in Pripyat. “Even if I couldn’t be directly there, I’m at least close.”

Today, Pripyat is one of the world’s most famous ghost towns, attracting tourists with its overgrown and abandoned buildings, frozen in time on the day of evacuation. The recent “Chernobyl” HBO TV series has led to a surge in visitors.

Though its empty apartments, streets, shops and carnival rides are a grim reminder of the disaster, Kuznetsova talks about her old home with warmth.

Going home

The Chernobyl tragedy took away Kuznetsova’s childhood and the pain of this loss still echoes decades later. She has been back, but the return was bittersweet.

“When we got off the bus I couldn’t comprehend how grass this high can grow out of the asphalt,” she says about the first post-evacuation visit to Pripyat with her father in 1992, during which they were only allowed to spend 15 minutes in the central square.

She says returning was tough emotionally, but she couldn’t resist the chance to walk the streets of her beloved city once again.

“It was like meeting a person you haven’t seen for a long time. You recognize his features but you understand that he’s changed and grew older. It isn’t the same person you knew anymore.”

In 1993, Kuznetsova returned to Pripyat again, this time with her mother. They were allowed to visit their old apartment.

“We went up to the 8th floor, stood in front of the door and [it felt like] standing between the present and the past. I understood that behind that door lay what should have been seven years ago.”

She says she never opened the door — it was too painful and too scary.

Since then Kuznetsova has made regular visits to Pripyat. “When I go there, I don’t understand why. With each year [Pripyat] gets darker, it gets worse. [Going there] feels like sprinkling salt on the almost-healed wound.”

But the abandoned city still lures her, she says. “As I arrive [to Pripyat] I don’t want to go anywhere. As I depart there’s a strong urge to go back.”

A city’s renewal

Kuznetsova’s obsession with her former home seems to be shared by many in Slavutych. The shadow of Pripyat lives in their hearts and minds, despite the appeal of their new city.

For many, the new life in Slavutych coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the eventual decommissioning and closure, in December 2000, of Chernobyl’s remaining reactors.

Up to that point, the nuclear power station had been the primary workplace for most of the city’s 25,000 inhabitants.

“There were demonstrations on the streets, the workers that devoted their lives to Chernobyl couldn’t understand why it should be closed,” says Belchenko.

Overnight, Slavutych went from being a satellite city for Chernobyl power plant to a post-Soviet town trying to find its place and purpose in crisis-torn Ukraine.

Tetyana Boyko, the head of the department of information in the city council, says the city struggled at first to find its feet, but is now striving to become an open-minded center for innovation and artistic creativity.

“Slavutych is a city of new ideas. I like our brand very much,” she says, while being interviewed on a new bench in the city’s central square that has special pockets for people to swap books — one of Slavutych’s new urban initiatives.

The city does seem to be renewing itself. It has one of the highest birth rates in Ukraine, and its average age is among the country’s youngest. It seems that people want to live here.

Slavutych hosts several annual art events, among them an international festival of film and urbanism poignantly named “86.”

It’s by no means a typical Ukrainian city. It’s small but not provincial and is administered by the capital, Kiev, rather than the surrounding province of Chernihiv Oblast. Most of its population have a scientific background.

There’s no public transport but there are taxis with a fixed rate of 23 hryvnias — less than a dollar — per ride. It may seem empty, but children can be seen everywhere.

Being here feels less like traveling back in time and more like an alternative history scenario.

Lyudmila Bogun, a creator of a Chernobyl-themed YouTube channel and editor-in-chief of the local newspaper, offers one of the most accurate descriptions of the city.

“Slavutych feels like a city in a capsule,” she tells CNN while boarding the train to the nearby city of Chernihiv (the only other train out of Slavutych goes to Chernobyl.)

The walls of this capsule have been defined by the Chernobyl tragedy, the exodus from Pripyat and the legacy of the Soviet Union.

But while the city residents left behind was robbed of its future, Slavutych’s future is unwritten, and one day it may yet emerge from the capsule.

Pavlo Fedykovych is a freelance travel journalist and blogger. He has written for Lonely Planet, The Independent Travel, The Guardian Travel, BBC Travel. He tweets at @de_weg_