On 26 April 1986, Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine exploded, sending huge amounts of radiation into the atmosphere and throughout its immediate surroundings. This event would become the world’s worst nuclear accident.
Today, the case study of Pripyat, a town just 8km from Chernobyl, offers a unique lens through which to learn about some of the boldest topics in history and STEM.
Pripyat, the Soviet town frozen in time
The day after the Chernobyl nuclear explosion, emergency services personnel moved frantically to stop further radiation leaks. Not knowing the severity of the nuclear disaster, members of the fire brigade and the army (named ‘liquidators’), along with dozens of men operating trucks, helicopters and cranes, worked in and around the power plant site to encase the damaged nuclear reactor in concrete. In doing so, they helped stop a full nuclear meltdown that could have spread radioactive fallout across much of Europe.
Simultaneously, emergency services began evacuating residents living within a 30km radius of the Chernobyl power plant. Pripyat town, only 6km from Chernobyl, lay in the centre of this nuclear disaster zone. Young and old, the residents of Pripyat were forced to abandon their homes, farms, military posts and schools. They would never return.
Life before the nuclear disaster: education and play
Pripyat town was built in 1970, to coincide with the construction of Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant and the Duga-3 radar facility. The town was built as the Soviet Union’s ‘ninth nuclear city’. Closed to the public, it housed the engineers, scientists, military personnel and their families who built and later ran the power plant and radar station.
Because these workers and their families were seen as important by the Soviet state, no expense was spared on Pripyat’s facilities. At the time of the nuclear disaster, for example, Pripyat town had 15 kindergartens and a number of primary, middle and secondary schools. Back then, no-one could have imagined these education centres would one day become fascinating museums.
Pripyat town today: shadows of daily life
On 26 December 1991, five years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred, the Soviet Union collapsed. The 15 Soviet Bloc countries, including Ukraine, gained their independence from communist control and began to forge their own political path once more.
Yet Ukraine’s Pripyat town would never move on. A shell of civilisation, slowly being overgrown by nature, Pripyat today is forever stuck on 26 April 1986. For visitors, it offers a unique snapshot of Soviet-era life and is arguably the best-preserved Soviet-era town anywhere in the former Soviet Union.
Walking through Pripyat’s empty kindergartens paints a detailed picture of what it was like to be a child at the time of Chernobyl. Each kindergarten has a large, abandoned kitchen, where milk bottles still rest on the tables. Nearby, sleeping rooms full of single beds and cots have been left to waste away. Once warmed by thick blankets and huge central heating pipes, the rooms are now strewn with forsaken toys, dolls and teddy bears. Colourful children’s books lie open on desks, where small children once sat and drew, pens, pencils, crayons and paints at hand.
Outside, old playground equipment stands solemnly. The kindergarten walls, a brightly coloured mix of murals and Soviet-style art, announce the benefits and importance of education.
Abandoned high schools
A visit to Pripyat town’s five deserted high schools shows they were as exceptionally well resourced as the kindergartens. The schools’ libraries housed thousands of books, covering a wide range of subjects from politics, arts and geography, to humanities and sciences. Their science labs were stocked with apparatus to mix chemicals and perform tests. And their music rooms contained a vast range of instruments and sheet music from Russian, German and Austrian composers. Throughout the hallways and common areas, communist artwork emphasised the importance of science, agriculture, arts and technology, and encouraged students to be good workers, contributing towards society and the state.
Now, books stand neglected on the library shelves. Teachers’ diaries and notebooks litter the floors, outlining timetables and programs for a week of classes that never came. Written reports lay open on desks, handwriting stopped part-way down the page. A teacher’s new jacket hangs on her locker door with the price tag still dangling from the bottom button, dated April 1986.
In the science classrooms, textbooks and charts lie idle on tables and walls. And in the schools’ art rooms, elaborate paintings, textiles and sets of colourful enamel and oil-painted tiles wait to be collected by students who left them to dry more than 30 years ago.
Lessons in Soviet civil defence
Exploring Pripyat’s schools can also give you a sense of the subjects being taught to students the day the town was deserted. One of the key classes for senior students was civil defence, as evidenced by the charts and fact sheets left on display.
In one classroom, students were learning basic military skills – things like how to handle automatic firearms, how to dig underground bunkers in preparation for a nuclear war, as well as how to recognise friendly and enemy military equipment, including vehicles, missiles and armour. In another, students were being taught the intricacies of military installations and compounds through miniature wooden models, complete with detailed instructions of patrolling patterns to follow.
Looking around the schools, you can find hundreds of Soviet-issue gas masks, sized for students to wear in case of natural disaster or war. Posters still pinned to the walls teach navigation skills, like how to read a compass or interpret a topographical map. Others explain how to use different types of radiation meters. Nearby, in the schools’ storerooms, shelves are stacked high with books and posters explaining survival skills, including how to hide from the enemy in urban warfare, or how to make signals to be recognised in the forest.
These classroom materials are a stark reminder of the Cold War beliefs that were imposed on young people’s minds at the time. They rehearse the reality of living near a nuclear power plant, as well as the Soviet’s fear of the West starting a war. Above all, they offer a great insight into how the Communist regime forced its philosophies and propaganda onto students before they transitioned to the workforce, joined The Junior Communist party (the ‘Komsomol’), or became part of the military.
Want further information?
Would you like to see some more fascinating photos from inside the decaying schools showing what the students were studying as well as the teaching resources used? Would you like to see Soviet-era propaganda art and learn about the Little Octobrists and the Young Pioneer Organisations that fed into the Young Communist League (commonly known as the Komsomol)? Having undertaken two dedicated research trips to the exclusion zone of Chernobyl and the abandoned town of Pripyat, we at Student Educational Adventures have a wealth of information including a fascinating PowerPoint presentation we could share with you and your students regarding the Soviet-era education system and related issues.
Keen to include Cold War and nuclear themes in your school’s tour to Asia?
Student Educational Adventures can teach your students about the Cold War through a school trip to Vietnam, Cambodia, China or Laos. Your students can study topics such as political revolutions, Chairman Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. They can also explore the American war in Vietnam, the French battle of Dien Bien Phu or the battle of Long Tan, which involved the Australian military.
For students more interested in the nuclear age, nuclear science and the study of the atomic world, a school trip to Japan is a must! Your students can visit Hiroshima to learn about the atomic bombs in World War II; spend time in Fukushima prefecture to understand the nuclear power plant meltdown and life in its surrounding exclusion zone, or develop their knowledge of alternative energy sources and future technologies
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