Letter from Europe

Slavutych and the nuclear industry

Issue no. 2021/13

Picture above: The Ukrainian city of Slavutych (photo © atlant1403 / shutterstock.com)


The Ukrainian city of Slavutych is a striking surviving example of a planned Soviet city underpinned by utopian principles – and even if the latter were sometimes diluted by pragmatism, there is a palpable sense of a well-designed and carefully planned community. It also is an atomgorod which offers a green setting and steady employment to its citizens.

Dear fellow travellers

Slavutych is a remarkable place. While many mid-sized towns in Ukraine have lost a third or more of their citizens over the past 20 years, things are different in Slavutych, where the town’s population of about 24,000 has hardly fluctuated since the start of this century.

Slavutych has a very unusual feel. Walking north from the railway station through the city park, the three residential quarters to the right are named after Yerevan, Baku and Tbilisi respectively. Architects from eight different Soviet republics were involved in the design of Slavutych - a nice reference to Soviet regional identities.

Yerevan, now the capital of independent Armenia, has long been noted for its pink building stone. The colour palette actually ranges from pastel pinks through to amber. It comes from the distinctive volcanic tufa found so widely across Yerevan’s hinterland.

It’s that same rose shades which make the Yerevan district of Slavutych so striking. The Armenian connection is not limited to the building material. There’s an impressive sculptural tribute, designed by Armenians, to the builders of this part of Slavutych.

A planned Soviet city

Wandering north beyond the city centre, there’s another trio of striking residential quarters, and here the theme is Baltic. Those three districts are named after Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. The latter is especially interesting for its individual family dwellings, not so very different from what one might find in a small town in Lithuania.

Slavutych is a striking surviving example of a planned Soviet city underpinned by utopian principles – and even if the latter were sometimes diluted by pragmatism, there is a palpable sense of a well-designed and carefully planned community. A steady supply of jobs and pleasant surroundings make Slavutych something of a one-off.

But what kind of jobs? The answer to that question lies in the very origins of Slavutych.

The town is what was known in Soviet times as an atomgrad – a city built to serve the specific needs of the nuclear industry. There were two flavours of atomgrad. Some served nuclear weapons facilities, others provided housing for worked at nuclear power stations. Slavutych is in the second category.

Slavutych was the very last atomgrad to be constructed in the Soviet era. It dates from the late 1980s, and was built within a relatively brief period to accommodate workers and their families resettled from Pripyat – the Ukrainian town near the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl where 35 years ago the nuclear catastrophe took place.

Slavutych is very interesting on many counts. Tucked away in the pine forests of Polissya, this very green city reveals the influence of perestroika in Soviet planning circles. There are the same theatrical monuments, the drama of boulevards and sightlines, which we see in other atomgrad communities. But it’s all a little less heavy handed than elsewhere, with architectural nods to postmodernism and non-Soviet influences.

The train to Chernobyl

What might surprise visitors is that many residents of Slavutych still work at Chernobyl. The new city is at a safe distance, and well away from the exclusion zone that surrounds the stricken reactor.

The 1986 disaster at Chernobyl didn’t mean that day-to-day work at the reactor just stopped. Indeed, the three other reactors at the site remained in operation for many years after the disaster. Today the emphasis is on containment and clearing up, and those are tasks which will continue for decades. So there’s still plenty of work for the workers of Slavutych, who each day make the trip by train from their home city to Chernobyl and back.

That journey to work must rate as one of Europe’s most interesting short train rides, as the railway from Slavutych to Chernobyl cuts through a slice of Belarusian territory. It’s a novelty that no longer warrants remark by the regular commuters, who doze or chat during the train journey. For those on pre-booked tours of the Chernobyl site, where tourism is has become big business, special arrangements can be made to use this unusual train service.

We feature another community in this part of Ukraine in issue 64 of hidden europe which is published next month. In what may be judged as a slightly ‘nuclear’ issue of the magazine, we also remark on an early experimental nuclear reactor in the forests of rural Brandenburg (in eastern Germany). You can take out a subscription to hidden europe in our online shop. It is a bargain, dare we say. Just €26 a year for delivery to addresses across Europe, with an extra €3 per year for delivery to destinations outside Europe.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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