• On April 26, 1986, an explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in what was then the Soviet Union, resulted in a cloud of radioactive particles spreading across parts of Europe.
  • The accident has gone down in history as the worst nuclear disaster.
  • About 350,000 people were evacuated from the area surrounding the power plant known as the exclusion zone and were given little time to prepare for leaving their lives behind.
  • As a result, many homes, places of work, and schools are untouched from how residents left them in 1986.
  • The Scottish-born Canadian photographer David McMillan has visited the abandoned and contaminated areas inside the exclusion zone, including the city of Pripyat, Ukraine, more than 20 times over the course of 25 years.
  • He compiled the resulting photographs into a book that was recently published called “Growth and Decay: Pripyat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.”
  • The photos show just how suddenly time stopped in its tracks for Chernobyl’s residents following the explosion in 1986, when the area’s cities were emptied of its inhabitants, who left with little to their name.
  • “We can’t imagine having to leave everything behind that we have,” McMillan told Business Insider.
  • At the same time, the series also shows what happens to a place when there’s no one left to inhabit it.
  • Take a look at McMillan’s captivating photos.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The photographer David McMillan told Business Insider that he grew up during the Cold War, when tensions between the US and the Soviet Union posed threats of nuclear war.

Foto: Sinking Boat on the Pripyat River, Chernobyl, 1998.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

Source: History


“I had this kind of fear,” McMillan said of growing up during that time period.

Foto: Kindergarten, Pripyat, 2011.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

He said he became concerned about the role nuclear weapons could play in political warfare.

Foto: Schoolroom, Village of Shipelicki, 1995.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

Then, on April 26, 1986, a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine exploded, shooting out toxic radioactive particles across parts of Europe.

Foto: School Auditorium, Pripyat, 2008.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

Source: Business Insider

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About 350,000 people were evacuated, with most leaving their homes, places of work, and worldly belongings behind forever.

Foto: Village Hill, 1995.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

Source: Business Insider


In the years following the disaster, McMillan said he kept up with the news about it, and he eventually decided he had to check it out for himself.

Foto: Science Classroom with Tree, Pripyat, 2009.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

“I was environmentally concerned as a photographer,” McMillan said. “This seemed like an obvious place to go.”

Foto: Doors to Kindergarten Nap Room, Pripyat, 2004.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

He said he decided to venture to the exclusion zone that was now permanently contaminated to see what the aftermath of a nuclear disaster looked like.

Foto: Basketball Court, Pripyat, 2007.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

“This place had experienced it,” McMillan said. “It wasn’t a war, of course — it was an accident — but I wanted to see what would happen to any part of the world if this occurred.”

Foto: Broken Glass Block, School Gymnasium, 2006.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

He said he went to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone for the first time in 1994, eight years after the nuclear meltdown.

Foto: Gymnasium Storage Room, Pripyat, 2004.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

He said he started his journey by looking for people who could help get him in and by obtaining a visa because, at the time, you needed one to enter Ukraine.

Foto: Village Political Sign, 1998.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

“The most difficult thing was to find someone who knew someone in the exclusion zone,” McMillan said.

Foto: Bust of Lenin, 1998.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

He said he eventually connected with a man who lived in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, about 90 miles south of the exclusion zone, who agreed to get him in for a fee.

Foto: Green Gymnasium, Pripyat, 2009.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

He said he stayed on that first trip for five days with a driver and an interpreter and was allowed to photograph anything he wanted.

Foto: Mural, School Hallway, Pripyat, 2003.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

Many of his photos were taken in the city of Pripyat, Ukraine, a city about three miles northwest of the power plant.

Foto: Path in Pripyat, 1996.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

The city was once home to 50,000 people, most of whom worked at the plant, McMillan said.

Foto: Church Interior, 1998.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

Source: Atlas Obscura


The average age of the city’s population at the time was about 26 or 27 years old, McMillan said.

Foto: Toy Horse on Kindergarten Floor, Pripyat, 1998.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

Source: Atlas Obscura


So there were lots of kindergartens, hospitals, and schools, with amenities for entertainment like movie theaters and swimming pools.

Foto: Stairway, Entrance to the Palace of Culture, Pripyat, 1998.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

Source: Atlas Obscura


“It was considered a model city for the rest of the Soviet Union,” McMillan said. “People wanted to live there.”

Foto: Door to Kindergarten Washroom, Pripyat, 2000.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

Now those once glistening establishments are abandoned, deteriorated, and still contaminated, and Pripyat is one of the most unlivable places in the zone, McMillan said.

Foto: Classroom Corner, Pripyat, 1998.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

“Nothing could be salvaged,” McMillan said. “It’s lost, it’s gone.”

Foto: Tire Swings, Pripyat, 2002.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

The scenes depicted in the photos eerily show how residents were so quickly evacuated after the explosion in 1986.

Foto: Kindergarten with Tree, Pripyat, 2012.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

McMillan said they left their furniture, pets, dental and school records, among other items, and were taken to other cities.

Foto: Patient Records, Hospital, Pripyat, 2002.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

Source: History


“They had to essentially start over from zero with all their credentials left behind,” McMillan said.

Foto: School Gymnasium with Tree and Balance Beam, 2006.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

Some of the now crumbled structures were still being constructed at the time of the accident and were never even used, McMillan said.

Foto: Basketball Court, Pripyat, 1994.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

A yellow Ferris wheel was being built for May Day, a significant Soviet holiday on May 1, and was finished just before the disaster on April 26. “It was never used,” McMillan said.

Foto: Ferris Wheel, Pripyat, 1994.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

Source: Business Insider


The solitary Ferris wheel is one of many locations that McMillan returned to and photographed over the course of 25 years on more than 20 trips.

Foto: Ferris Wheel, Pripyat, 2007.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

He didn’t set out with the intention of photographing the same scenes years apart, but “that just started to happen,” McMillan said.

Foto: Mural near Kindergarten, Pripyat, 1998.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

He said he didn’t know how freely he would be allowed to travel, but after his first visit, he said he didn’t think he’d seen enough and felt like there was more to do.

Foto: Mural near Kindergarten, Pripyat, 2006.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

“Maybe it would be interesting to compare what it was once like,” McMillan said he thought at the time.

Foto: Boxing Ring, Palace of Culture, Pripyat, 1996.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

With each visit, the sites he frequented over the years decayed even more. “Things deteriorate pretty quickly,” McMillan said.

Foto: Boxing Ring, Palace of Culture, Pripyat, 2012.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

A striking example of that is a series of photos taken in a school hallway of flags representing the countries of the Soviet Union.

Foto: Flags in Kindergarten Stairwell, Pripyat, 1994.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

“Over the years, the flags had fallen and become damaged,” McMillan said.

Foto: Flags in Kindergarten Stairwell, Pripyat, 2003.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

The Soviet Union itself fell apart in 1991, just five years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Foto: Flags in Kindergarten Stairwell, Pripyat, 2008.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

Source: History


In a photo taken in 2012, the flags are no longer recognizable.

Foto: Flags in Kindergarten Stairwell, Pripyat, 2012.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

Another sign of Pripyat’s Soviet history is a photo taken by McMillan in 1997 of a portrait of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Russian Communist Party.

Foto: Portrait of Lenin, Pripyat, 1997.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

Source: Britannica


The portrait is also unrecognizable in a photo taken in 2009.

Foto: Portrait of Lenin, Pripyat, 2009.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

Other photos show the many facilities that Pripyat residents had access to, such as swimming pools.

Foto: Swimming Pool, Pripyat, 1996.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

A photo taken seven years later shows the pool completely drained and deteriorating.

Foto: Swimming Pool, Pripyat, 2003.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

Over time, McMillan said he also noticed the vegetation taking over.

Foto: Bumper Cars, Pripyat, 1994.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

“The buildings decay, and the natural world fills in the void,” McMillan told Business Insider.

Foto: Bumper Cars, Pripyat, 2008.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

McMillan said he was actually most afraid of buildings collapsing while he was exploring the zone, even more so than the danger posed by radiation.

Foto: Kindergarten Locker Room, Pripyat, 2012.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

“Some of the buildings, you won’t be able to tell if you’re inside or outside,” McMillan said.

Foto: Book Store, Pripyat, 2012.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

He said it had likely been years since anyone had walked into the buildings he was exploring.

Foto: View of the Nuclear Power Plant from Pripyat Rooftop, 1994.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

Besides the “Samosely,” or self-settlers, that live illegally inside the exclusion zone, no one makes their way into this area.

Foto: View of the Nuclear Power Plant from Pripyat Rooftop, 2011.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

Read more: Photos show what daily life is really like inside Chernobyl’s exclusion zone, one of the most polluted areas in the world


But since 2010, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has turned into an unlikely tourist destination. Visitors come to the site via bus.

Foto: Plasticene Sculptures, Pripyat, 1995.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

Source: The Guardian


McMillan said they’re brought in by small tour companies.

Foto: Plasticene Sculptures, Pripyat, 2009.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

And he said the tour doesn’t take them anywhere that isn’t considered safe or off the beaten track.

Foto: Shelves and Toys, Kindergarten, Pripyat, 1997.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

McMillan said the idea of Chernobyl being a tourist destination seems strange to him, but he said he acknowledges that he is also there in an unconventional way.

Foto: Shelves and Toys, Kindergarten, Pripyat, 2011.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

“They’re there with their smartphones taking selfies,” McMillan said.

Foto: School Hallway, Pripyat, 2004.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

McMillan said the tourists pay a fee to get in.

Foto: School Hallway, Pripyat, 2006.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

“People seem to want to do it, and it’s become a source of income for a lot of people,” McMillan said.

Foto: Classroom Entrance, Pripyat, 1994.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

The radiation levels obviously don’t stop the tourists from visiting.

Foto: Classroom Entrance, Pripyat, 2005.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

Nor do they stop McMillan, who said he doesn’t have any health issues from his time spent in the exclusion zone.

Foto: Yellow Room, Pripyat, 1994.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

“As far as I know, I’m fine,” McMillan said.

Foto: Yellow Room, Pripyat, 2005.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

He said he has learned from his experience traveling to and photographing what was left of society in the zone.

Foto: Music Room, Kindergarten, Pripyat, 1995.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan

“You become grateful for the life you have,” McMillan said.

Foto: Music Room, Kindergarten, Pripyat, 2009.sourceCourtesy of David McMillan