The Invisible Nest

Text & photography by Jean Paolo TY

Goldmund – My Neighborhood
Corduroy Road (2005)

A silence swallows Pripyat—this was what I noticed when I took my first step in the main square. It immediately established where I was: an abandoned city that once housed workers of the Chernobyl power plant and their families. The autumn weather was ready to make its official shift into winter, adding a hue that amplified this atmosphere. Freezing, I walked towards a building that turned out to be the cultural centre.

Several days earlier, we were visiting small villages around Chernobyl. I recall meeting the youthful mayor of Strakholesie and noticing a long faint scar below her neck. I didn’t think much of it until someone pointed out that it’s probably from thyroid cancer, one of the many health problems from radiation. The mayor’s warm hospitality extended an invitation to have chai at her office. I could sense her slight nervousness in trying to accommodate visitors, even though an impressive spread of Ukrainian pastries and beautifully lined tea cups crowding her desk should suggest confidence.

The cultural centre, like many of the other structures within the zone of alienation, was badly damaged from over two decades of no maintenance. The chipped paint created strange cracked pastel patterns on walls, small trees grew from the concrete, and drops of water from damaged ceilings would momentarily interrupt the silence. This was a unifying trait for the hospital, apartments and schools I visited in Pripyat.

In another village, a group of elderly women were huddled together on a narrow bench that leaned against some wooden fences. It was an image of Russian provincial life, or at least how I imagined it. One of them came closer, fascinated by the contrast of my Asian features. She taught me a few foreign words, and then with her arm locked against mine, she pulled me in the direction of her house. With simple gestures, I understood what she wanted, a picture of her standing in front of her home. She was obviously proud of it and the best thing I could do was acknowledge this with a photograph.

Read more in N˚2: Constant.