Once Upon A Time Near Chernobyl
The name Chernobyl reminds everyone of the nuclear plant disaster of 1986. Hardly anybody connects this name with football. Hopefully in future, after reading this article, the name of Chernobyl will also remind them of the connection that exists between the beautiful game and that horrific incident.. Arghya Lahiri has penned this article with this vision.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”……Charles Dickens
Even people who aren’t football fans can connect the year 1986 and football through one person. For years, two goals scored by Diego Armando Maradona against England in the 1986 Mexico World Cup have been viewed billions of times and will be viewed billion more times in future. One was as beautiful as Russian ballet, the other one was perhaps more controversial than the assassination of US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. This story carries all these same elements: beauty, devastation, controversy, football and the year 1986. For many people, Maradona’s journey in the 1986 World Cup was a life changing event. It inspires them, it makes them happy. The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 was a life changing event for millions of people too. But there is a stark contrast to Maradona’s 1986 magic. The Chernobyl disaster ruined people’s lives, making a 30 km radius of area uninhabitable for human beings. The effect of the disaster was so enormous that it affected the environment and lands of not just Eastern Europe but also Scandinavia and United Kingdom which lie thousands of kilometers away from Chernobyl. Not only that, Chernobyl disaster forced a rising, ambitious Soviet football club to face a rapid disintegration.
Plant’s own ‘atom town’ got its club:
In 1954, just 60 km away from Moscow, Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant started its operation. It was the first commercial Nuclear Power Plant in the history of mankind. Amidst the tense atmosphere of the Cold War, mankind had started using atomic energy for peaceful purposes. Since then, Soviet Union started building nuclear power plants one after another. They planned to build a massive one near Kyiv, the first in Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Later they changed the plan and shifted the location to 100 km away from the Kyiv, and 15 km to the north of the town Chornobyl (Chernobyl is the Russian spelling). The construction of VI Lenin Memorial Nuclear Power Plant or Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant (or just Chernobyl), the ninth Nuclear power Plant in Soviet Union was started in 1970. The initial plan was to build six reactors. Thousands of people were needed for the construction, monitoring, service, maintenance, testing, research, further development and expansion of the power plant. For this reason a new satellite ‘atom town’, approx. 3.9 km away from the power plant was planned to be built. The town was established soon and people started living there since 1970. It was named after the nearby river Pripyat. It had good number of schools, a hospital, gyms, kindergartens, an amusement park for children, cinema halls, and plenty of large apartment buildings. With the average age of the town around 26, it was full of young, enthusiastic, ambitious people; a model town and a kind of a symbol of ‘modern’, ‘futuristic’ Soviet Union.
Pripyat was a happy, vibrant place but without any professional football team. It had a small football ground though. The people of Pripyat were weaving a dream, longing for a proper football team who could represent them in championships. Eventually in the mid-70s, the people of Pripyat, with the support and encouragement of the state, formed a football club FK Stroitel Pripyat. Literally Stroitel means ‘builders’ or ‘workers’. The key figure in forming the team was Vasili Kizima Trofimovich. In Communist Party circles, he was a much respected person in USSR. He was a strong believer in the Socialist ideology of the state and received the prestigious Order of Lenin. Though Vasili was not an expert in Atomic Energy, yet he was the lynchpin in the construction of the plant and also the town. One of his visions was to build a football team which would participate in various tournaments. He stated clearly “We have people in four shifts. No one will relax elsewhere and will go to watch football and drink a bottle of beer .“ Initially the team struggled to get enough good quality players from the town and even from outside.
We have people in four shifts. No one will relax elsewhere and will go to watch football and drink a bottle of beer .
Around 3-4 km South of the Chernobyl Plant, there was a village named Chistogavolska. Its football team enjoyed a good reputation in the Kyiv region. Few of their players including Victor Ponomarev, captain and the defender of the Chistogavolska team were roped in. They came to Stroitel Pripyat and the core of the club squad was built around those players.
In the meantime, reactor 1 of the Chernobyl plant started functioning in 1977 and reactor 2 started in 1978. In 1979, Pripyat was officially designated as a ‘city’ of the Soviet Union’s Ukrainian Republic, having already become a model town. As the city flourished FK Stroitel was also becoming stronger. In 1979, Stanilslav Goncharenko joined FC Stroitel. Earlier in his career he had played for Spartak Kiev and then for Tempe before coming to Pripyat.
Journey of Stroitel Pripyat through different tournaments:
During the 70s and 80s, the Soviet football league system had largely three tiers. Those were the Supreme League, the First League and the Second League. Below the Second league, there were different leagues belonging to different zones (like Russia zones, Ukraine zones etc.). The champion of the each zone had to compete in another league to find a spot in the Soviet Second League. The zonal leagues were comprised by the teams of the Soviet Sports Society Kollektivov Fizicheskoi Kultury (KFK) or Collective of Physical Culture. Clubs who got chance to play in this KFK leagues were majorly amateur clubs. Stroitel Pripyat was such an amateur club. But they knew that if they could climb up the rungs of zonal stages of the Soviet football system and get the chance to play in the Soviet Second League, they would get the recognition of a professional club. Stroitel was also eligible to participate in the championship and cup tournaments of the amateur clubs of the Kiev Oblast or Kiev region. They saw the opportunity to be a Team of Masters. In Soviet Union, football teams of full time professional footballers were known as Teams of Masters. A bright future was ahead of them, the goal was very clear and they just needed footballers with the requisite skill and competitive mentality to sustain through the ups and downs of a rigorous football season.
Two types of players played for Stroitel Pripyat. Some were footballers who were registered in the Sports Society, others were officially paid employees of Chernobyl Power Plant who didn’t need to engage in work related to the plant. Majority of the latter arrived in the winter of 1981 and so they were nicknamed ‘snowdrops’.
Anatolia Shepel, who had retired as a professional footballer at the age of 31, had played for three well-known clubs of Soviet Union, Dynamo Kyiv, Chornomorets Odessa and Dynamo Moscow. He came to Pripyat to take charge of FK Stroitel Pripyat as a coach. Shepel had two Soviet Supreme League medals and one Soviet Cup medal in his trophy cabinet. He also played for the USSR team. He had the proper combination of experience and enthusiasm to guide a young team like Stroitel Pripyat in three tournaments.
In the season of 1981, Stroitel got the opportunity to compete in the championship of the Kyiv region. The players were determined and capitalized on this opportunity to the fullest extent. Fancied teams like Refrizherator Fastov (champions from 1975 to 1978), Mashinostroitel Borodyanka (champion in 1980), Rubin Piskivka (champion in 1979) couldn’t repeat their success while FK Stroitel Pripyat surprised everyone by clinching the crown. It was a poignant moment for the people of the ‘atom town’. Their home team had finally tasted success which was a big boost. But in the same season, Stroitel Pripyat could not do much in the Championship of KFK of the Third Zone of Soviet League system. That season, Refrizherator Fastov won the Championship of KFK of Third Zone with 30 points. Stroitel Pripyat got the fifth spot with 25 points.
For the people of Pripyat City, 1981 was significant for another reason. Construction of the third reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant was finished that year.
Chernobyl Power Plant faced a critical problem in the year 1982. On 9th Sep, reactor 1 experienced a partial core meltdown. When heat generated from a reactor exceeds the heat removed by the coolant, core meltdown occurs and nuclear fuel and fissile (radionuclides capable of sustaining nuclear chain reaction) by-products gets released. The reports were suppressed by the authority and after a few months, reactor 1 became operational again.
At the same, in the footballing arena, a setback occurred too. In the 1982 season, FC Stroitel faced a huge loss as Stanislav Goncharenko left the team and joined Kirovogradskuyu Zvezdu. Despite this, Stroitel Pripyat still maintained their wonderful performance in the tournament of Kyiv region. For the second time they became the champion of the Kyiv Region Championship. Mashinostroitel Borodyanka had to be satisfied with second spot. In that season, eight teams competed against each other in the KFK championship of Third Zone. Citizens of Pripyat were expecting an improvement from the last season. However it turned out to be a disastrous campaign for the Pripyat team. They could manage to win only two matches out of 14, losing eight. At the end of the campaign, they found themselves at the bottom of the table with just eight points. East Kiev topped the table with 18 points and became the champion of the third zone of KFK Championship.
Going back to Diego Maradona with whose reference the story began, 1982 was a significant and eventful year for him too. On the positive side he played in his first World Cup and he scored two goals, however the tournament turned out to be a disappointment for him as was fouled horribly in all the five matches and when he retaliated with a dangerous foul of his own in the last of those matches against Brazil, he was sent-off.
Stroitel Pripyat achieved a significant feat in the 1983 season in which Valentin Litvin was the captain. With another set wonderful performances, they became the champion of Kyiv region for the third time becoming only the second team to win the championship for three consecutive seasons since the 60s. Before them, only Refrizherator Fastov won the championship for three or more consecutive seasons, achieving the feat between 1975 and 1978. It brought enormous joy to the people of Pripyat. They had tasted blood and they were asking for more. In the Cup tournament of the Kiev region, Stroitel started their journey encouragingly, but unfortunately lost 1-3 to Kolos Grebonok in the quarterfinal. In that year Dynamo Irpen became the champion of the Cup tournament of Kiev region defeating Mashinostroitel Borodyanka in the final 2-1. Dynamo Irpin also won the KFK Championship of the 3rd zone in the 1983 season with 19 points, staying just one point ahead of Mashinostroitel Borodyanka. Later Dynamo Irpen performed so well in the inter-zonal championship that they achieved a spot in the Soviet Second League in the 1984 season. On the other hand, Stroitel Pripyat improved upon their abject performance in the 1982 KFK third Zone Championship. With five wins and three draws, they got 13 points to end in sixth spot in an eight team table.
However, the people of Pripyat got an exciting news on 22nd Dec 1983. It was The Energy Industry Workers’ Day of USSR. Amidst the festive mood, the authority announced that reactor 4 had become operational since 20th Dec. On that happy day no one could even imagine that one day this reactor 4 would be the reason behind the sudden demise of the city Pripyat.
In the meantime, Pripyat were also building its own youth football system and the youth team were participating in different youth tournaments .The season 1984 was not a memorable one for Stroitel Pripyat. After winning Kiev region championship for three consecutive years, Stroitel Pripyat failed to win it that year as Silmash won that tournament. In the KFK Championship of third zone, Stroitel again finished sixth in a tournament of eight teams. With just three wins and four draws in 14 games, they got just 10 points, the process conceding the second highest number of goals (23), only behind Mashinostroitel Borodyanka, It was quite clear that majorly their defence had let them down.
In the 1985 season, Pripyat were determined to make significant strides over earlier seasons and they did just that in the third zone KFK Championship. Stroitel Pripyat won eight matches and drew four, amassing 20 points while scoring 35 goals, more than any other team and conceding only 11 goals, maintaining the best goal-difference in the tournament in the process. In a match against Lokomotive Znamenka, FC Stroitel Pripyat scored 13 goals and set a tournament record for the highest number of goals scored in a match. However in spite all this, they they could not win that championship, finising behind Neftyanik Akhtyrka. In the KFK Championship, Stroitel Pripyat were the first team that avoided defeat against Neftyanik Akhtyrka on their own home turf.
Regional tournaments did not bring much success to Stroitel Pripyat in the 1985 season either. FC Stroitel failed to win the Kyiv region championship again like the previous season. Mashinostroitel Borodyanka, Stroitel Pripyat’s main rival in the region for the last few years, won the Kyiv Region Championship. Thus FK Stroitel Pripyat failed to win any tournament in what would end up being their last full season.
A new stadium for Pripyat:
FC Stroitel Pripyat used to play their home matches in a small ground. It was close to the entrance to the city. Its stand was hardly recognizable. When the club started doing well in regional matches and nurtured the ambition of playing beyond the zonal KFK Championship, the authority decided to build a stadium with a bigger pitch and better facilities. With the encouragement of the state a plan was drawn up and work started to make a beautiful dream come true. They named the stadium ‘Avanguard’ which literally means ‘Advance Guard’. The first day of May, The International Worker’s Day, is a very significant occasion in any communist state. So officials decided to inaugurate the stadium on 1st May, 1986.The stadium could seat 5000 people and the stands were partially covered. It also had an enclosed area in the uppermost tier for journalists, important persons and dignitaries. The stadium area was quite vast and enclosed by concrete pillars and barbed-wire. Light-towers were also built to organise matches in the evening. The football pitch was surrounded by an asphalt track. This advancement of football infrastructure was a great gift to the people of Pripyat and they were eagerly waiting for its opening. The new stadium was an ornament for the authority as well as the people of the ‘nuclear city’. At the same time, developments were taking place in the nuclear plant also. When the construction of reactor 5 was started, Vasili Trofimovich proclaimed proudly “The new stadium is as important to the people as the new reactor.”
The day that shook the world:
By 1986, Soviet Union, the leader of the Eastern Block and the inspiration for almost all the left inclined people around the world, was an aging empire. The ‘fun’ and ‘comfortable’ life of the ‘capitalist west’ was too tempting for the citizens of Soviet Union to ignore. That is why 1986 was very significant for USSR. It was the year when premiere Mikhail Gorbachev had uttered two old Russian words that became immensely significant in global politics, ‘Glasnost’ or openness and ‘Perestroika’ or restructuring of an almost 70-years-old Communist regime. It was significant for few other reasons also. In this year two legendary chess players, Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov, met for the third time in the World Chess Championship. In that very year, USSR launched Mir which would work as a space station and later would go on to be the largest spacecraft roaming around in space. But people connect the year 1986 and Soviet Union with only one name: Chernobyl. Chernobyl had cost effective RBMK-1000 type reactors which was heavily criticized for being high risk. Old KGB files show that from the very beginning, a few scientists and engineers had raised concern about the faulty construction of reactors. A test was scheduled to be performed on reactor 4 on 26th Apr 1986. Its previous track record was not something to be proud of as it had failed earlier. The preparation was started since the morning of 25th Apr. In the early hours of 26th Apr, different steps of the test went wrong and a sudden surge of power was experienced. At 1:23 am Moscow time, the first explosion occurred at the reactor 4 of Chernobyl power plant followed by few more explosions. The greatest catastrophe initiated by human beings in the history of the mankind had just begun. Radioactive isotopes were ejected in the air immediately. Graphite started burning just after the explosion and that smoke carried radioactive isotopes of iodine (I-131), caesium (Cs-134 and Cs-137) and strontium(Sr-90).Cs 137, which with a half-life of about 30 years, could emit both beta and gamma rays. Some people working in the reactor died immediately or in next few hours. Firemen were exposed to the radiation as they were not carrying any protective suits. Very soon they had to be admitted to hospital. The citizen of Pripyat were not informed about the intensity of the accident. In the morning, people started their day normally but as the day progressed, they started to fall ill due to gamma, beta and neutron radiation. The inevitable had just happened. Vomiting, coughing, dizziness was experienced by many people. People of nearby villages also became sick. Almost 36 hours after the accident, the authority made an official announcement to the Pripyat citizens to evacuate the city immediately with nothing more than necessary papers and items, not even pets. Except people who were needed for the plant, for medical purposes, or were firemen and volunteers serving during post disaster period, everyone left the city in four hours, taken away by almost 1200 buses. Few footballers who played for Stroitel Pripyat also stayed behind to volunteer knowing fully the consequence of this. Citizens of Pripyat were told that they would be back in next few days. They never returned.
Forget about the rest of the world, even the citizens of Soviet Union were not informed about this. Honestly speaking, it took few more days to shake the world. Few days after the accident, engineers of the foremost nuclear plant in Sweden, almost 1000 km away from Chernobyl, detected a sudden increase in the radiation level and after analysing, they found that the source might be Chernobyl. They challenged Moscow. Moscow denied it first but later Soviet authorities admitted it under pressure from the Swedish authority. In a TV broadcast, Soviet Union Government told the nation about the accident. Few statistics can be provided to portray the viciousness of that radiation leak. 400 roentgens per hour of radioactive radiation would be fatal for a human body. The plume emitting from the destroyed reactor and spreading outside was carrying particles with a radiation level of 1500 roentgen per hour. The radioactive particles spread in the air were 90 times more than that of Hiroshima bombing. Hospitals of Kiev, Moscow were being flooded with the patients, experiencing radiation related illness, coming from different parts of west Russia, Ukraine, Belarus. Firemen and other personnel busy in clearing of the debris and fixing leakages to prevent more explosions, were exposed to heavy dose of radiation. Clouds carrying nucleoids, washed away by rain in the uplands of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Northern England and affected the grazing lands of sheep.
It was the semi-final of the Cup tournament of Kiev region. Suddenly a helicopter embarked on the ground where they were engaged in training. Personnel from the state, wearing protective suits and carrying equipment to measure radioactive radiation, came out of the helicopter and enquired about the schedule of the next match. Then they told Mashinostroitel Borodyanka’s coach Victor Zhilin “you no longer need to go to Pripyat”.
On 26th Apr, around 90 km away from Pripyat, players from Mashinostroitel Borodyanka were busy in their pre match training at their own ground at Borodyanka. They had a match against FK Stroitel Pripyat at Pripyat on 27th Apr. It was the semi-final of the Cup tournament of Kiev region. Suddenly a helicopter embarked on the ground where they were engaged in training. Personnel from the state, wearing protective suits and carrying equipment to measure radioactive radiation, came out of the helicopter and enquired about the schedule of the next match. Then they told Mashinostroitel Borodyanka’s coach Victor Zhilin “you no longer need to go to Pripyat”. In Pripyat, players were confused by the activities of government officials and army personnel in the morning of 26th Apr. Few hours later they were informed by their coach Anyukhina that their stadium was being used as a makeshift helipad and they were asked not to practice or play. There was also a scheduled match of the youth teams at Pripyat on 26th April. It was cancelled, too. Since then, the beautiful game was never played in Pripyat. Incidentally, Borodyanka won the cup tournament of Kiev region in that season. When Kiev region was battling against the aftermath of the disaster that year, the happiest moment for the people of that region was perhaps Machinestroitel Borodyanka’s triumph in the Cup tournament of KFK of the whole Ukrainian SSR. People of Borodyanka also accepted many of the refugees from Pripyat City. A good number of people from Borodyanka volunteered in the liquidation process during post-disaster period.
The last stand of an unfulfilled dream:
The city Pripyat was thriving with a population of almost 50000 people till the fateful day of 26th Apr 1986 changed everything. Now it is a ghost town. A 30km-radius zone around the Chernobyl plant is designated as exclusion zone or the zone of alienation where people are forbidden to live. Plenty of triangular shaped metal boards marked with the sign of radioactive radiation are planted in the zone. For the evacuated people of Pripyat, a new town was established in 1986. It is around 45 km away from Pripyat, near the Dnieper river. The name of the town is Slauvytch.
Stroitel Pripyat could not complete the 1986 season. But the passion for the beautiful game was not defeated. The authority then built a team with the help of the people transferred to this new town and existing ex-players of Stroitel Pripyat like Alexander Vishnevsky. It was given a new name, FK Stroitel Slavutych.
Stroitel Slavutych competed in the KFK Championship of 4th zone in 1987. The players displaying sheer professionalism made themselves ready for the upcoming tournament. There were nine teams in that zone of KFK Championship. Stroitel Slavutych did well considering the trouble they had faced the previous year. They managed to finish in third position with 21 points.
In the 1988 season they played in the third zone of KFK Championship. But they could not perform well. In a tournament of 12 teams, they lost in 11 matches out of 22. They had to be satisfied with eighth spot in the table.
It was the last time they played in the championship. The team could not be continued further. The lives of the Pripyat citizens took a wrong turn on that April day. But still those people, uprooted from Pripyat and turned into refugees in their own country, were holding their dream tight with Stroitel Slavutych. However finally they threw in the towel. They realised that they could not go on like this much longer as they would never get back what they had left behind in Pripyat. The struggle for resettlement in a new town was too hard to carry on the journey of Stroitel Slavutych with the same enthusiasm that was earlier associated with Stroitel Pripyat. Ultimately FK Stroitel Slavutych had to be disbanded.
The urban wilderness and the unsatisfied soul:
If you have watched the Will Smith starrer film I am Legend, you have seen this: a ghost city full of trees and bushes, infested with wild animals. Now Pripyat is exactly the same. Trees have grown everywhere. And the invisible killer called radioactive radiation with different intensities can be detected all over the place. The intensity of the radiation in Pripyat has come down over the years. Three reactors were operational after the 1986 accident but those were shut down in different phases, in 1991(reactor 2), in 1996(reactor 1) and in 2000(reactor 3).Few months after the incident, a metallic structure named sarcophagus (this Greek word is made popular by the ancient Egyptian coffins of the same name. Those were used to preserve bodies for a very long time) was built over reactor 4 to save the surroundings from high radiation, block more radioactive particle which were still coming out and to protect the reactor from anymore accident caused by water leakage. Last year, the Ukrainian Government officially launched the decommissioning process of the plant. Few years back, Ukrainian Government had opened Pripyat for tourists to visits conducted under the supervision of designated guides and officials. This area was visited by hundreds of journalists and football fans who poured into Ukraine during Euro 2012. Extreme care is taken so that the tourists do not get exposed to high dose of radioactive radiation.
For those who love football, the sight of Avanguard stadium might make them philosophical. It is like the hero of a sci-fi film trying hard to adapt and survive in a post-apocalyptic world. The stadium did not get the pleasure of a football match being played on its pitch. The wooden seats are eroding. The whole ground is filled with trees. Containers for line markers are still lying there under the staircases of the stadium. The tiny radioactive isotopes are dot the stadium rather than larger spherical objects being kicked around by human being. It is reported that now this place has more animals than that were there before the establishment of this plant and its satellite town. The empty buildings, amusement park with the iconic ferry wheel and bumper cars give a sense of sudden abandonment, rather disillusionment. And the sound of blowing wind and chirping of birds make this place more eerie and surreal instead of making it more natural. In this urban wilderness, the dug-out of the football ground where home matches used to take place, the rusted goal posts of the school ground and the forlorn stand, pitch and soul of Avanguard are the last reminiscent of the wonderful footballing past of Pripyat. The saturnine atmosphere of the Chernobyl town and the cruel fate of Priyapat club, was little bit redeemed though. Twenty years after the disaster, players of Stroitel Pripyat and few people of the Pripyat city arranged a match in a small ground of Kiev. It was that match with Mashinostroitel Borodyanka which could not be held on 27th Apr 1986. These people’s lives were shattered by the unforgettable accident. They have been struggling through many adversities of life since that ill-fated day of April, 1986. Financially they are not so strong, they have health troubles caused by the radiation. But for twenty years, deep beneath their hearts, these amazing people were carrying another pain: they missed a football match. Most of the people and many players could not come as they were scattered and still struggling to get a grip on their lives. But those who were supposed to play for Stroitel Pripyat on that match-day of 1986, did not fail to attend. What happened later and in-between were just facts. Just like what happened to Maradona in the 90s and later are mere facts. As a player, as a commentator, as a football manager, as a spectator, as a rebel Diego continues to be the manifestation of football passion that cannot be understood properly in the sphere of data and statistics. This passion is just like energy which cannot be destroyed, it only changes its shape. The real take-away of the Stroitel Pripyat’s story is nothing but the passion and dream of the citizens and footballers of Pripyat and it cannot be measured or quantified. It was injured severely, it has been going in and out of coma several times. But it never died. It is only overshadowed by the enormous scale of the Chernobyl disaster.
1. Dead Cities from steamcommunity.com
2. The New York Times
Feature Image: Youngsters play in their FC Stroitel Pripyat strips, just weeks before the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. (Source: Pripyat – a book-photo story)