On April 26, 1986, one of the world's worst disasters occurred in the Ukrainian city of Pripyat (then part of the USSR). There was an explosion caused by a flawed reactor design at the Chernobyl power plant, which spewed radiation into the air. Only Chernobyl and Fukushima have been rated as a level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale—that's the highest the scale goes.
The city of Pripyat was evacuated, and a total of 31 people died as an immediate result of the accident itself, while as many as 500,000 were affected. Pripyat became a tourist attraction in 2011, and is today captured by photographers who snap haunting images of abandoned toys and dilapidated buildings, sometimes referred to as "ruin porn."
Lore and legends surround the area, from ghosts and Chernobyl mutants, to a strange ominous black bird that some believe to be the harbinger of disaster. In addition to these stories, you'll find creepy true tales of people and places that fell victim to a catastrophic nuclear meltdown.
Chernobyl's Mutant Animals
Many reports of deformed and strange beasts near Chernobyl can be found all over the Internet, indicating that radiation had severe effects on the animal population.
To be sure, some severe mutations were seen right after the accident. The piglet in the photo above suffered from dipygus and is on display at the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum. It was born near the site of the explosion.
Contemporary animals, however, are typically okay, even though their internal radiation levels are higher than most. They do not suffer significant genetic mutations, though some species have issues. For instance, some birds have developed smaller brains and some rodents have decreased litters or do not live as long. In fact, animal populations seem to be doing better now than they were when humans were farming there before. Scientists continue to debate, however, what the long-term effects of exposure will be for the animals that live there.
The Soviet Government Sent In Soldiers When The Meltdown Destroyed Robot Cleaning Crews
After evacuating the residents of Pripyat, the city bordering the Chernobyl power plant, the Soviet government sent robots into the Exclusion Zone to contain the meltdown and put out a raging fire. The excessive radiation in the air prevented the robots from doing their work, so the government rounded up a bunch of soldiers and gave them a choice - serve two years in Afghanistan, where the Soviets were engaged in a brutal war against mujahideen, or spend two minutes shoveling sand onto the exposed reactor at Chernobyl.
Soldiers who chose Chernobyl were known as liquidators. At the time of the meltdown, and into the 21st century, Ukrainians believe vodka prevents the adverse effects of radiation. So liquidators typically took a shot of vodka and shoveled sand onto the exposed reactor for two minutes. Most liquidators died or contracted an illness due to radiation poisoning.
The Ghosts of Chernobyl
As with any site where a number of people have lost their lives, Pripyat is rife with ghost stories. Andrei Kharsukov, a nuclear physicist from New York, told one such story after visiting the area in 1997:
Kharsukov said he went to the power station at 7:30 a.m. and went to the Reactor Four sarcophagus, which is where the explosion occurred. He could not go inside due to radiation, but as he took radiation readings, he heard someone screaming for rescue from a fire inside.
"I ran upstairs to tell someone, but they said that when I entered the reactor control room, I was the first person to open that door in three years, and the only way to get inside the old reactor is through the doors I came in through. If someone had gone inside the reactor when I was not looking, they would have tripped an alarm that goes off when the reactor door is opened mechanically.
"The reactor door requires a password and a handprint, yet someone, or something, was inside. Later that evening, as we were eating dinner outside the building by the river next to the plant, a flood light turned on in the room of the installation. There was no way anyone could be inside. As we ate, we figured there was a power surge or something. Then just as my colleague said that, the light turned off."
A Generation Of So-Called Stalkers Romanticize The Ruins
In 2014, Slate ran an extensive piece by Holly Morris on a subcultural phenomenon known as Stalkers. These young Russians and Ukrainians, almost all of whom are men, romanticize the apocalyptic environment of the Exclusion Zone, the cordoned-off area surrounding Chernobyl. The sneak in, explore buildings, sleep in ruins, and even bring Geiger counters along to see how much radiation they expose themselves to on their journeys.
Stalkers take their name from characters in the novel Roadside Picnic, which was turned into a classic Soviet film, entitled Stalker and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. The term refers to thieves who sneak into Zones harboring lethal phenomena, places to which authorities have forbidden entrance.
Some Stalkers of the Exclusion Zone are inspired by a Ukrainian first-person shooter game called S.T.A.L.K.E.R., which is extremely popular. By sneaking into the Zone, they can live out scenes from the game, while sifting through years of frozen history. Soviet ID cards and other objects left behind are tactile evidence of a mythical world many of these young people grew up hearing about but never lived through.
Stalkers court danger by eating fruit that grows in the Zone, while sharing tales of ancestors who lived and worked there when disaster struck. They dress in paramilitary gear, and wear gas masks, balaclavas, and other such covers over their faces.