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.”

Descriptions from visitors lured to this post-apocalyptic attraction suggest an experience combining elements of Volcanoes National Park in Hawai‘i and Pompeii. Ecological tours started in 2002, despite the slight threat presented by 200 tons of nuclear fuel contained in the damaged Chernobyl reactor core and in radioactive “magma,” shrouded provisionally by a rusty sarcophagus built after the accident. Now, all manner of voyeurism into a Soviet-era time capsule, via motorcycle, accompanied by a Pripyat poetess, through the blogging of an undergraduate ethicist, and mediated by the lenses of innumerable film and documentary producers (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Nicky Larkin, Al-Jazeera and Russia Today), is possible online.


The football forest that now shrouds the stadium built, along with a nearby amusement park with Ferris wheel and bumper cars, for May Day 1986. Surfacing for the athletics track remains rolled up, never installed. (© pripyat.com)

Even domestic opponents of nuclear power and those with greatest reason to be critical of the Soviet response to the disaster—such as novelist, former ambassador and environmental activist Iurii Shcherbak—confess to the morbid fascination that the disaster zone provides. “Like a gigantic magnet, it attracted me,” Shcherbak writes in his magazine series “Chernobyl,” published in Moscow in 1987, “it excited my imagination, it forced me to live in the Zone, its strange, twisted reality, to think only of the accident and its effects, of those struggling for their life in clinics, trying to tame the atomic genie in immediate proximity to the reactor.”

The vision of irradiated grandstands at the Pripyat stadium and the knowledge that the radioactive dust in the trees and soil would prevent football from taking place there for many lifetimes contributes to the macabre scene. Who would have been contesting the International Labor Day matches in Pripyat? Amateur sides of Chernobyl workers, perhaps, but one can imagine that children already had snuck onto the grass surface for the odd kickabout. Statistics create a picture of a young Pripyat community, more prone to procreate than the rest of the USSR. The average age was 26. More than one thousand births took place each year. Of the population of 50,000, more than 15,000 were children.

This fact gave rise to some of the greatest anger after the powerful explosion ripped the roof off of reactor no. 4 early on the morning of 26 Apr 1986, a Saturday. Authorities decided that daily routines in the town should not vary; hence, “on that Saturday, a bright sunny day, there were soccer games in Pripyat,” writes Felicity Barringer for the New York Times. “Women gardened. Children played in the sand. Weddings were held.”

Drawing from orphanage in Kletsk,
Belarus
© Chernobyl Children’s Project
International

The invisible evils of cesium-131 and much longer enduring isotopes—400 times the radioactivity released at Hiroshima—rained onto the town and north into the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. Other than the 30 who died at the scene and from radiation sickness incurred on the day, children were the most vulnerable population in the short term. Since 1990, some 4,000 children and teenagers in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, while birth defects, miscarriages and other maladies have also spiked.

Shcherbak and others from the time recall a Kyiv almost without children in the aftermath of the accident. As winds shifted the radioactive plume to the south, directly over Ukraine’s eternal city, panic resulted with people clogging train stations and bus depots, recalling the period of Nazi incursion in 1941. Children were sequestered indoors, parents advised to wash their children’s hair daily, following the example of the persistent street and window washing—the city “washed and ‘licked,’ ” in Shcherbak’s words, “to an incredible cleanliness.” Ultimately, a large proportion of the children, who had already started inventing radiation games or knocking down blocks and yelling, “Fourth Reactor!” were sent away from Kyiv—to relatives or to summer camps—until the fall. Writes Taras at Ukrainiana (“Chernobyl Is 22,” Apr 26):

I remember those days quite vividly. It was sunny. It was summer-hot. My friends and I would play soccer. As rumors began to spread, my parents would ground me. I remember staring out the firmly sealed window, consumed with jealousy, watching my buddies playing out in the field. I stayed in Kyiv until May 8.

Football became both a potential threat and relief. In the chapter “End of the World” in György Dragomán‘s recently published novel The White King, the Chernobyl accident enters the narrative of 11-year-old Djata, a backup goalkeeper. The vignette helps illustrate the feeling of distrust concerning government directives following the disaster, when iodine was sometimes self-prescribed to personal harm and the belief circulated that red wine or vodka could counter radiation’s effects:

And then the colonel said that last night there was an accident in an atomic power plant in the Great Soviet Union and that the wind brought the radioactivity here, and the fact of the matter was that the game shouldn’t even be allowed to go ahead, but they didn’t want people to panic, so it would be held after all, but he advised us goalies not to dive and to avoid contact with the ball because the ball picks up radioactivity from the grass, and anyway, we should watch out for ourselves because we were handsome, healthy little lads, and then he gave us each this white pill, saying we had to swallow it here and now. “It’s just iodide,” he said, “don’t be scared,” and only after we took the pills did I remember once seeing a movie about the Germans, about how they’d poisoned themselves with white pills like this, and maybe Comrade Colonel wanted to poison us too because he was sorry about telling us about the accident, and I could tell that Janika was thinking the same thing.


In 2006, a goal festers in the Pripyat high school field. On the day of the Chernobyl accident, physical training and soccer practices went on as usual. (© pripyat.com)

For some, such fears would beget a new psychosis, diagnosed as a “radiophobia” that, to the present, discourages women from having children and attributes any ailment to the Chernobyl fallout. Ukraine still has the lowest birth rates in Europe. Yet soccer did provide solace, as it had in the exploits of a reconstituted Dynamo Kyiv during World War II and would shortly after the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl in 2006—when Ukraine made its first appearance in the World Cup finals as an independent nation, advancing to the quarterfinals.

The Soviet Union’s first match in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico took place on Jun 2. “The big talk now is soccer,” one Kyiv resident told the New York Times‘s Serge Schmemann (“The Talk of Kiev,” 31 May 1986). In its first match against Hungary—a 6–0 victory—the USSR featured nine members of Dynamo Kyiv, recent winners of the European Cup Winners’ Cup. At the helm was legendary Kyiv manager Valeriy Lobanovskyi.

Post-Chernobyl football offered an easy escape to a time when the game proved an exemplar of Soviet success in science and other cultural fields. Robert Edelman in his study of Soviet spectator sport describes how communist ideology attached itself to football as an ideal representation of the resources available in a collective. Edelman quotes a Soviet specialist from the early 1950s, who says: “Soviet football serves the people, the task of communist education, and the improvement of the workers’ health. Soviet football develops on the basis of the latest achievements of science.”

The year of Pripyat’s founding, Shcherbak had published what he calls a “grotesque-fantastic” story, “The Little Football Team,” about a youth side that “looks like an illustration of the growth of humanity from the times of Malthus up to our days.” Teammates cling “tight onto each other’s hands, as if we are a living chain of generations.” Shcherbak refers to the football fable in order to introduce one of the members of that child team, Maksym Ivanovych Drach, son of Ukrainian poet Ivan Drach. The elder Drach in 1974 had dedicated a cycle of poems to the builders of Chernobyl power station and of Pripyat, but, in Shcherbak’s oral history, his son narrates his drafting as a sixth-year medical student in early May 1986 to support doctors in village hospitals surrounding Chernobyl.

Despite the risks, football has been played in the exclusion zone since the accident. The zone is now characterized as a nature preserve, supporting packs of wolves and feral horses along with a few hundred elderly residents and security and scientific workers who still commute to the Chernobyl site. Jonathan Wilson mentions a 1986 exhibition in Chernobyl that attracted the participation of one of the USSR’s great players, Eduard Streltsov. Cryptically, Streltsov is said to have been exposed to radiation at various gulag camps following what may have been trumped-up rape charges in 1958. After a successful comeback, interspersed with periods of heavy smoking and drinking, he died of throat cancer in 1990. Soviet-era football authority Axel Vartanyan says the Chernobyl game “pushed him over the edge.” The meaning of the statement, however, is unclear.

Showing the devil-may-care attitude that is the flip side of Chernobyl-era phobias, at least one soldier, in an oral history by Svetlana Alexievich, readily admits the temptations to which guards posted to the vacant exclusion zone (or “zone of alienation”), overwrought by edginess and ennui, succumbed:

You start going crazy! Those first few days we were afraid to sit on the ground, on the grass; we didn’t walk anywhere, we ran; if a car passed us, we’d put on a gas mask right away for the dust. After our shifts we’d sit in the tents. Ha! After a few months, it all seemed normal. It was just where you lived. We tore plums off the trees, caught fish, the pike there is incredible. And breams—we dried them to eat with beer. People probably told you about this already? We played football. We went swimming! Ha. [Laughs again.] We believed in fate, at bottom we’re all fatalists, not pharmacists.


Included in a Greenpeace calendar (“365 Reasons to Oppose Nuclear Power”), Knoth’s photograph shows Sunday afternoon football in Jul 05 in Narodichi, a one-time Jewish enclave in northern Ukraine (Zhytomyr Oblast). Both teams come from contaminated zones near Chernobyl. (© Robert Knoth | Greenpeace)

The few hopeful images from the documentary project of Robert Knoth are of footballers in Narodichi, a network of villages 60 miles west of Chernobyl. Authorities in 1989 encouraged five of the villages in this area to resettle, given a lowering of the lifetime recommended radiation allowance. Some left. Some stayed. The ones who remained are provided meager food subsidies and told to reject locally grown produce.

Everything in Knoth’s pictures is not as it appears. Knoth witnesses an amateur district final that, despite the air of normalcy and engaged supporters, has more somber overtones in this territory of impoverishment and absence. Knoth recalls via e-mail that “the scene itself was typical Eastern Europe: lots of food and alcohol, resulting in men getting into fights and all that … it wasn’t that cheerful.”

Worldwide charitable networks, including clubs such as Arsenal, which facilitates football instruction in Cherginov, east of Chernobyl, have helped lead the response to the needs of children and the environment. An international consortium has financed a $505 million, 20,000-ton steel arch to enclose the deteriorating enclosure at reactor no. 4.

Yet the wind stirs trees at Pripyat stadium with no one as witness. Similarly, Knoth chooses an iconic image of bedridden Belorussian Chernobyl victim Anna Pesenko, 18, who has suffered with brain tumors since 1994, as the entry image for his ongoing exhibition of Chernobyl pictures. These are all forgotten places and people.

Sources

Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, trans. Keith Gessen (New York: Picador, 2006); Felicity Barringer, “Chernobyl: Five Years Later the Danger Persists,” New York Times Magazine, 14 Apr 1991; Antoinette de Jong, “Chernobyl—Twenty Years On,” in Certificate No. 000358: Nuclear Devastation in Kazakhstan, Belarus, the Urals, and Siberia, by Robert Knoth and Antoinette de Jong (Amsterdam: Mets & Schilt, 2006); György Dragomán, The White King: A Novel, trans. Paul Olchváry (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008); Robert Edelman, Serious Fun: A History of Spectator Sports in the USSR (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Iurii Shcherbak, Chernobyl: A Documentary Story, trans. Ian Press (Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, in association with the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta, 1989); Richard Stone, “The Long Shadow of Chernobyl,” National Geographic, April 2006; Jonathan Wilson, Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football (London: Orion, 2006), 264–80.

Updates

  • The blog Darkness at Noon reports on a Jul 08 trip to the exclusion zone, including video, and comments on the resilience of the natural world, particularly in Pripyat:

    I was prepared to encounter a place permanently suspended in a deathly state. I pictured some sort of post-apocalyptic world where life had been scoured from all surfaces, rooted out from all nooks and crannies; I pictured a world that had faded and turned grayish brown, like a long-forgotten film that has been discovered after years collecting dust.

    What I found, much to my surprise, was a place characterized by abundant life.

  • Ukraine Minister of Extraordinary Situations Volodymyr Shandra says that the ministry would recommend that parliament remove 332 inhabited areas from a list of contaminated zones (“A Yellow-and-Blue Bird with Chernobyl Mark,” Zerkalo nedeli, Apr 26). But he concludes that the scar would remain for some time.

    The scientists calculated that ten half-life periods of plutonium (about 240 thousand years) are necessary in order to decontaminate the territory of the Chernobyl zone. The Chernobyl mark on the bird-Ukraine is like a birthmark. It can be a lifelong yoke or it can be one of those marks that distinguish us among others and make others love us.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (6)

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  1. Taras says:

    Thank you so much for your humanistic perspective on Ukrainian football through the historical prism of Chernobyl!

    Not much football was played in Kyiv in 1986. In Prypyat, not much would be played ever since 1986. Still, Dynamo Kyiv went on to win the 1986 Cup Winners’ Cup. In this regard, the year 1986 was a bittersweet one.

    Even though I’m not much of a football fan anymore, I remember playing with my friends at my parents’ hometown of Korets, Rivne oblast. We would watch the 1986 FIFA World Cup and then would go outside and play in a state of euphoria. We also watched the 1986 Goodwill Games. I did not return to Kyiv until late fall.

    Once again, thank you! Thank you for your avid interest in Ukrainian football and your uniquely context-rich perspective. And thank you for incorporating my memories into your story.

    Ukraine needs more voices like yours!

  2. Thanks very much for your kind remarks and for the first-person recollections of a historic spring and summer. A toast to the memory of playing euphorically!

  3. [...] Football at Chernobyl [The Global Game] [...]

  4. [...] a tragic chronology that made Ukraine in the 20th century a ground zero for human suffering. (See Apr 29 on the connections between football and the Chernobyl nuclear [...]

  5. chornobyl says:

    In Chernobyl not all so terrible. The natural rehabilitation process [has reduced] the negative radio-ecological consequences of nuclear accident. Information about the present situation in Chernobyl alienation zone can be found on the website http://www.chornobyl.in.ua.

  6. Roel says:

    I am a journalist from Holland and I will travel in december to Kiev. I am very interested if there was football played in het stadium of Pripyat and on which level. Was it popular? Was it professional? And what happened with the players? The stadium? Thank you very much for any information!!

    Friendly greeting, Roel Wiche (Netherlands Press Association – GPD)

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