The village of Zalissya is one of the first that you reach on entering the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Almost 30km from the Nuclear Power Plant it was abandoned in May 1986. Today the village is deserted, the buildings are being engulfed by the surrounding forest and a haunting calm hangs in the air.
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Zalissya Village Before the Disaster and Self-Settlers
Zalissya is one of the more distant villages within the 30km exclusion zone around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. It was the first village within the exclusion zone to be totally abandoned in May 1986, however the 3200 inhabitants were slow to depart as they were initially unaware of the unfolding disaster just 25km away.
More recently Rozaliya Ivanivna returned to the village. A Samosely or self-settler she lived an isolated and harsh life. Totally self sufficient she was alone in the village, where she wanted to be despite the disaster. Her small home and garden remain but since her passing they have started to join all the others in the village in their journey back to a wilderness.
This vibrant and thriving village had a supermarket, Palace of Culture as well as a hospital and school. The Palace of Culture, as with those in many Ukrainian villages was the centre of the community. A meeting place, library and concert hall all rolled into one imposing building with a core of propaganda and control. It was a large building with dominant pillars at the front entrance and an ornate hammer and sickle presiding over the village. Inside the ceilings were high with ornate cornicing, decorative plasterwork around the intricate light fittings and fine door handles and wall coverings that are still visible today.
Zalissia Village Today
After the disaster the Palace of Culture became a barracks for the soldiers sent in to clean up the reactor and the nearby city of Pripyat. Today it is delipidated, the floor slowly falling in on itself and the windows rattling lazily in the breeze. The stage of the concert hall remains with its red banner “Communism is a bright future for all humanity”. A remnant of the past that will never see a bright future.
Vehicles have been abandoned in the village, stripped of valuable parts, too radioactive to be of any use to anyone. Tucked behind trees or in front of buildings exactly where they were last used the army vehicles and old Lada’s are exposed to the elements left to slowly rust away.
Further into the forest, homes are being swallowed by the trees and vegetation. Belongings are littered around some of the homes, left on the promise of a return and reunion, something that would never happen. Later moved by visitors and army personnel the feel in many homes is of chaos and confusion with nothing where it should be. Older cottages are destroyed by fallen trees, others are being slowly engulfed by the onward march of the forest. The main road was once a wide bustling street, but is now a forest path. The houses and public buildings barely visible even in the winter. Each year the path becomes a little narrower as the forest advances.
This village is slowly vanishing, the past becoming distant as nature takes a hold and reclaims the buildings and memories of the village as its own.
Zalissya village will probably be the first location you visit in the Exclusion Zone. It will take time to get used to the atmosphere within the zone and how you want to approach photography.
Entering the houses is done at your own risk so always make sure you are aware of your surroundings. I found it quite uncomfortable, as if I shouldn’t be entering the buildings, prying on other people’s lives.
As the sunlight can be intense and visiting at the right time of day for the light is almost impossible it is better to focus on details. Door handles, discarded belongings and the general landscape will produce photographs that preserve the memory.
Getting to Zalissya Village and Booking a Tour
Zalissya village is located just inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone between the Dytyatky Checkpoint and the outskirts of Chernobyl town.
It is located just off the main P56 route that runs through the Exclusion Zone.
Zalissya can only be visit on a guided tour to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. This needs to be planned in advance with most starting in Kyiv.