As far as bucket list destinations go, this one might be on the more obscure — and perhaps nerdy — side. Nevertheless, I finally made it to Slavutych, Ukraine — the last city built by the Soviet Union — after wanting to visit for many years. There is nowhere like it in the world.
I have been in Ukraine for more than three months since the start of the full invasion in 2022, bringing used bikes from Europe with my non-profit organisation Bikes4Ukraine.org and distributing them to our network of NGOs, social workers and volunteers who use them to deliver food, water, humanitarian aid, medicine and the post to vulnerable citizens in de-occupied cities and towns. Nevertheless, finding the time to get to Slavutych was tricky with a busy schedule. Until last week.
I spent a couple of hours walking around the city and the scale of the place meant that I explored most of the neighbourhoods in that time, including stopping for lunch at the Old Tallinn restaurant near the central square.
It was a grey, mild Thursday in April and the streets and squares were populated by citizens going about their daily business but it had a half-deserted feel to it. Many women and children have left for the West due to the Russian invasion but there is also the existential crisis facing the city — more on that later. Nevertheless, I had a great vibe about the place — both because I had been longing to visit and because it is essentially a cool, walkable little city.
Slavutych was planned in 1986 and completed in 1988. Its entire raison d’être was to provide homes and a community for the many people who worked at the Chernobyl nuclear power facility.
Quick summary: on 26 April, 1986 the #4 reactor at Chernobyl exploded and chaos and panic ensued. In the days immediately after the explosion, the entire town of Pripyat was evacuated. Pripyat was home to the thousands of people who worked at the Chernobyl facility and their families. Buses from all over Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union were sent to transport them all to safety. 45,000 people, including 8000 children, were evacuated in the first wave. They were told to pack for a couple of days but as it transpired, they were never allowed to return.
The Soviets tried to cover up the entire disaster from the start but it was simply too massive. Radiation was carried on winds as far away as northern Scandinavia. I remember it well, that feeling of horror and fear as the news leaked out.
On 10 October, 1986, it was announced that a new city would be built to house the people who worked at Chernobyl — three reactors were still operational. The first residents moved in in October 1988.
A Planning Tradition — with a twist
The Soviets were efficient at planning and building communities, having developed their ideologies and techniques starting in the 1920s. By the 1960s, housing developments generally featured tower blocks in park-like settings and the construction was standardised, using mass-produced structural insulated panels.
Nevertheless, building Slavutych was a greater challenge not least because of the urgency of providing people with a new community. Firstly, a location was needed. It had to be at a safe distance from the contamination zone around Chernobyl but close enough to allow the roughly 10,000 employees to commute to work.
In addition, there were some basic requirements like water supply and transport infrastructure. It would have been fascinating to be on the team looking for a location for this new city, poring over maps of the area. In the pine forests of northern Ukraine there was a lonely train station in the middle of nowhere, not far from the Dnipro River and 50 km from Chernobyl. It was here that Slavutych was founded and work began. The name of the city is the Old Slavic name for the Dnipro River.
Because of the urgent timeframe, something unusual happened which makes Slavutych unique to this day. Eight republics in the USSR volunteered to help build the city. Instead of one planning vision in the typical Soviet cookie-cutter fashion, there would be a collective planning effort and a division of labour. The eight republics were on the same page regarding Soviet city planning but they were allowed to create neighbourhoods inspired by their culture.
Today, the neighbourhoods — or quarters — are named after the capital cities of the republics who donated time, workers and money to building the city. There is Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Baku, Tbilisi, and Yerevan. Ukraine built Kyiv and Chernihiv and Russia is represented by Moscow, Neva (Leningrad) and Belgorod.
Each quarter is designed for community, something the Soviets were good at. Apartment blocks ranging between five and seven stories surround green space featuring benches and playgrounds. In some quarters there are areas with single-family homes edging up against the apartments. Educational institutions for every age group are evenly spaced throughout the city, as are sports and recreational facilities. Local supermarkets and shops are also always right around the corner.
The city center features a large public square surrounded by City Hall, the post office, a football stadium with a running track, municipal buildings in the classic Soviet brutalist style and the city park with a prominent monument to their fellow citizens who died at Chernobyl.
Apart from the residential areas, there are designated sectors for medical care, municipal services and industry
Exploring the quarters was an urbanist joy. I had a mental map of the place from my research but it was a thrill to see how the architectural styles changed from quarter to quarter and I found myself guessing as to which country had planned this or that area. Starting in Tallinn, I looped around clockwise through the quarters surrounding the city center.
The Baltic quarters are my favourite. The differences in architectural style are subtle but recognizable and the inherently Nordic feel appealed to my personal esthetics. They feature a mix of apartment blocks and single-family homes built of wood.
Across the main north-south street I moved into the Russian sphere and while I couldn’t declare “ah, of COURSE this is Belgorod or Neva”, the architecture provided a clear divide. On a pedestrian pathway it was interesting to see how Neva (Leningrad) was clearly marked by ornate street lights while Belgorod on the left was left without. Moving into the Moscow quarter, the trees in the public space between the buildings were birch — a tree symbolically associated with Russia — whereas back in the Baltic quarters, it is fir trees.
Then it was time to head south and I realised that the placement of the neighbourhoods resemble the actual geographic location of the countries/cities in relation to Slavutych. The Baltics are in the north-west (even if Tallinn and Vilnius should switch spots), the Russian quarters are north and north-east and Tbilisi, Baku and Yerevan correspond to their locations in the Caucasus region. And Chernihiv is off to the right, where it actually is in reality.
In the Caucasus quarters, there is much more architectural styling, with window shapes typical of the region and details in the construction that are decidedly exotic in the north of Ukraine. In Yerevan, the Armenians even brought their outdoor kitchens, firmly importing their BBQ game in the region with bravado.
The Kyiv quarter is the largest and features both apartment blocks and low-rise homes. On the photo on the right you can see some of the car parking garages on the outskirts of the urban landscape, and the road leading to the south.
I explored the original quarters and didn’t have time to venture farther east to Chernihiv and Dobrynyskyy. These are newer developments and I can see that their development is a sharp departure from the Soviet planning of the rest, with less focus on community and public space and even a big box supermarket with “ample parking”. Originally, Slavutych was designed to be 80% apartments and 20% houses but the balance seems to be changing. The map of these two quarters is incomplete.
There were few cars on the streets of Slavutych as I walked around and I was pleased to discover large areas with garages that were part of the original design. In a walkable, bikeable city, you don’t need cars parked outside your home — you can wander down to the garage when you need to drive. An early version of neighbourhoods like, for example, Vauban in Freiburg, Germany, with parking facilities on the periphery.
Which brings me to a wonderful quirk about Slavutych. At some point during the design and planning phase in the late 1980s, someone raised their hand and said, “hey… what about bike lanes?” That was not a phrase uttered in those parts at that point in history. Indeed, Slavutych had to be the only city in the Soviet Union at that time with a network of protected bike lanes. Even today it remains unique. Protected bike lanes are still a rarity in the cities of the former Soviet bloc, while Slavutych has been rolling down them since 1988.
While we’re talking quirks, I heard an amusing story from the first days of the war. The Russian invaders came bumbling down the road from Belarus and stopped at an intersection in the middle of the woods. They looked at their maps but couldn’t figure out what that large road was that headed north into the distance. They sent some troops up and discovered Slavutych. They had decided to invade a foreign nation with maps dating from 1985 and construction in Slavutych started in 1986. Hilarious. Although the Russians surrounded the city and shelled it before invading and taking the mayor hostage. It was finally agreed that they would leave on the condition that no Ukrainian military could be present in the city. The Russians retreated from the region in April.
Slavutych is a lovely city but it now faces a serious existential crisis. In its heyday when three reactors were still operational at Chernobyl, 9000–10000 people would commute daily to the nuclear facility. In 2001, however, the decision was made to turn off the remaining reactors and decommission the whole facility. Now only 3000 people make the journey — it still requires a considerable workforce to keep the place safe — but a large number of people lost their jobs.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the train line suddenly ran through Belarus, which involved crossing the border four times a day. Because of the invasion, the border is closed so most of the people still working at Chernobyl have to make a massive detour around Belarus and many stay in Chernobyl for the week and come home on the weekends.
Slavutych is now wondering what to do, what to become, since the raison d’etre of the place has been drastically reduced. It still has one of the most highly-educated populations in the country and is an attractive city for families. Being the last city built by the Soviets, it is by default the youngest city in Ukraine — and that also applies to the demographics. The Ukrainian government has been retraining people for years but no one has figured out what the city will become now that its nuclear past is watered down considerably. The city is slowly depopulating.
There is talk of becoming a research hub or an innovation center but I haven’t been able to find anything specific. The city had a pre-invasion population of over 24,000, which includes a lot of children. The invasion continues to impact the life of the city, with many leaving for safety in Europe and the continued uncertainty about the future.
Slavutych is so incredibly unique that I hope that it can redefine itself and transition into something else that will maintain the style, vibe and charm of the city.