Alina Rudya is one of the many individuals who was displaced by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. We asked her some questions to unpack the stories around and within her book of portraits, “Prypyat Mon Amour,” which pays homage to other individuals from her now-abandoned hometown.
What was the inspiration behind Prypyat mon Amour?
Prypyat mon Amour is dedicated to people who, like me, were evacuated from the ghost town of Prypyat (or Pripyat), 3km from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, after the nuclear accident there on April 26, 1986.
In 2011, at the age of 26, I revisited my hometown for the first time — a town I never knew, and never really will. The accident at the plant drastically and radically altered my parents’ lives, and also my own. In many respects, all of my desires and passions sprung from the ruins of Chernobyl. I returned again in 2012, to finish the self-portrait part of the project.
More recently, shortly before the 30th anniversary of the accident, I went back to Prypyat to concentrate not on my life, but on the lives of other people. Those who were also evacuated from the Zone back in 1986.
Some of them are my age, some are older, others have children themselves — but all of them were somehow influenced by the disaster at Chernobyl. I wanted to see how it changed their lives, and I returne to Prypyat with them, to mark the starting point — the Ground Zero, really — of their current life.
The crucial part of my work was photographing these people back in Prypyat, in their abandoned apartments and the familiar surroundings from their past, and hearing their stories about the city they’ve left behind.
What happened to your family in the immediate aftermath?
We were evacuated to Kiev, Ukraine after the explosion, and that is where I grew up until I was twenty. We, like many others, got a small apartment in the suburbs of Kiev. I first left to live abroad when I was twenty, when I moved to Budapest to complete my MA degree in political science.
What was it like growing up away from your home city, knowing you were evacuated against your will?
In moving to a new city, my parents had to change their life plans completely. My father founded the International Chernobyl Center to protect the environment from the causes of ionizing radiation. Basically, everything that happened to me in my life — even living in Berlin and learning German — happened because of Chernobyl.
I didn’t absorb it as a child, but as I grew older — especially after my father died of cancer ten years ago — I realized the gravity of the event, and its impact on the lives of my family and thousands of others.
What made you decide to go back to visit again?
My father, Constantine, was a nuclear physicist and engineer. He worked at the Chernobyl power plant and operated the second reactor on the night of the accident. But he was also an amateur photographer; he kept a developer and had a dark room in our bathroom. I started with photography because of him.
I decided to start the project after the first time I revisited Prypyat in 2011 — five years after my father died. I went to our former apartment in Lenin Street and found a picture of me and my mother on the floor, which my father had left there as a reminder of our happy past there. That’s when I thought of doing something creative about the people who were evacuated; not to portray them as victims of the tragedy, but to concentrate more on the memories they had in a city that doesn’t exist anymore.
What was the town like when you visited? Did you get any sense of familiarity?
I was only one year old when I was evacuated, so of course I don’t remember any places. But I kept thinking of my parents — so young and so hopeful for what the future should have brought them. My mom was 24 and my dad only 28. I still recall the pictures we have from Prypyat: of their friends, sports, the beach… And all these scenes are now empty and deserted. It really made me think about how fragile happiness is, how we have to enjoy and cherish every single moment of our youth.
More and more, the town is being absorbed by nature. There are wild animals in the surroundings; the whole place is covered with trees and greenery you’d never experience in a live city. When I first arrived in March 2011, there were no leaves on the trees yet — just bare branches, in between the skeletons of the buildings. It was eerie. I’ve returned many times in the fall, and I have to say it was one of the most beautiful and sad things I’ve seen. The city is covered in the colors of the rainbow: there are mushrooms, apples, fruits and flowers everywhere. Nevertheless, this picture of life is deceptive: as soon as you step into an empty building, the past comes back to you, haunting you with forgotten memories.
How did you feel, then, returning to a place you didn’t really know?
I have a certain nostalgia for the past I’ve never had, and for the things which never happened to me in that town. Sometimes I imagine: what would have happened if the accident didn’t occur? Would I still be living there, maybe picking mushrooms in the forest and kayaking on the river Prypyat? Would my father still be alive? (His cancer resulted from his exposure to radiation during 1986 and also after, when he worked as a scientist in Chernobyl till the end of his life.) I’ll never know.
Viktor, who worked at the power plant and now is a painter, told me, “Prypyat is a town of my youth. And how can one forget youth?”
Through meeting the people who lived well in the “town of roses,” I relived their experiences. I felt for a moment what they felt: bittersweet nostalgia for the days when they were really happy.
After spending that time in Prypyat, what have you taken away from the experience?
I wasn’t expecting that the whole project would be so psychologically exhausting for me. Not only did I miss my father terribly, but accumulating all those sad, beautiful stories of the people I’ve photographed was really a bit too much. I have a feeling I won’t be returning to Prypyat for some time.
As one of the men I photographed told me, “Everything I loved here is now gone.”
Another girl, Valentina, told me that she doesn’t feel like there is a place in the world that she can call home now. Prypyat was probably that place.
I have the same feeling. Sometimes I think this is where my wanderlust came from: I am always searching for new places in the world, because there’s not one that I can call my home, my roots.
After being funded through Kickstarter, Prypyat Mon Amour was published by Distanz in Berlin, and introduced to the public shortly before the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident. Alina is currently based in Berlin as a freelance photographer. You can find her work on her website and Instagram page.