Ukraine | Near Chernobyl, the ‘football forest’ designed to radiate life

Pripyat, Ukraine | Twenty-two years ago, more than 1,000 buses commandeered from Kyiv rumbled north toward this company town to evacuate its 50,000 residents. By sunset on 27 Apr 1986, as Chernobyl reactor no. 4 burned, in one soldier’s recollection, like a “beautiful blue fire,” the town was empty.

Left behind in the silence: a newly built football stadium sitting just to the north of a bright yellow Ferris wheel, a gift from Soviet authorities in commemoration of the upcoming May Day holiday.

Marks on a training wall in a 2006 photograph suggest how life once flourished in Pripyat. (© pripyat.com)

The atomograd (“atom city”) along the River Pripyat has now sat deserted longer than it flourished. Construction began in 1970 for what would be a model high-rise community supporting the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Memorial Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station three miles distant. By 1986 it was, as the football stadium attests, still a settlement in process.

Football would never be played at the new stadium. Children, except for a test ride or two, would never queue up for the fairground attractions. The webmasters for pripyat.com—an interactive community of former Pripyat residents, a virtual city through which one can track down old neighbors and see landmarks in their present disrepair—include several views of Pripyat stadium, its pitch covered with 30- to 40-foot-high trees that have encroached on the model Soviet town. The photo caption refers to the tribunes placed in the grandstand, arrayed before a “football forest.” One contributor in pripyat.com’s forums, in helping a researcher put place names to such landmarks as the stadium and the grand Pripyat avenues, such as Prospekt of Enthusiasts, Street of Builders, Street of Heroes of Stalingrad and Street of Sports (Spor’tivnaya Vlitsa), writes:

There were two stadia in Pripyat. The older one … had a football pitch, asphalted running tracks and simple wooden benches around them. The new, more sophisticated one … was not officially opened. It was under construction when the city was evacuated. … The Park and the New Stadium were to be put into full operation on May 1, 1986. It was sort of a May Day present to the citizens on behalf of the state and city authorities.

According to this writer—and confirmed by principals from the period—Pripyat’s building director, Vasily Kizima, advocated with Soviet authorities for a range of lifestyle and cultural comforts. His motto was, “The new stadium is as important as the new reactor.” A football ground also existed behind the city’s high school, goals now rusting in the wilds. Goals for indoor soccer remain in the sport complex at the town center, in which visitors occasionally have their pictures taken as goalkeepers, to limited comic effect. In addition to its cultural palace (DK Energetik), cinema, library, theater and 33,000 rose bushes, Pripyat provided its residents the best in Soviet-supplied leisure: 10 sporting halls, 10 rifle ranges, indoor swimming pool and three ponds for fishing.

“It was fantastic. It was a warm town, lots of trees, roses,” Olesya Shovkoshitnayha, 32, tells National Geographic of her Pripyat upbringing. “We had sport classes. I played handball, swam, played checkers. We had music. I was in choir. I enjoyed my childhood.”

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