Bizarre Soviet bus garage’s role in Chernobyl disaster

(CNN) — On the eastern outskirts of the Ukrainian capital, where the city’s historic Darnytsia neighborhood gives way to lush pine forest, lies a hidden relic of the Soviet Union that was once considered the most innovative structure of its kind.

From above, it’s disc-shaped main building resembles a giant flying saucer — perhaps even a vessel from “Star Trek” — that’s made an emergency landing in the middle of a Kiev residential area.

This is Bus Garage Number Seven. Yes, that’s right — just a bus garage. Because when it came to the Soviet era, nothing but the finest, most experimental architecture was good enough for building the cathedrals of everyday living.

Futuristic structure

Expansive rooftop of the bus park number 7 with trees growing

The abandoned bus station is located on the outskirts of Kiev, Ukraine.

Pavlo Fedykovych

Opened in 1973, the unexpected scale of this futuristic building reflected the scope of the livelihoods it supported.

The garage was an important hub for Kiev’s international, domestic and bus city routes, with around 1,400 employees and 400 buses operating daily.

It’s unusual design was the work of a Moscow-based designer listed as V. Zinkevic. The disc-shaped structure, known as the “circus,” was the only one of its kind throughout the Soviet Union.

Not only did this feature provide the vehicles with shelter from the extremes of the Ukranian winter, it also helped to facilitate maintenance, as repair docks were situated nearby.

Employees who worked there at the time say there was a definite buzz about the building.

“The construction lasted eight years,” one former long-term staff member, who asked not to be named, told CNN Travel. “It was the most beautiful bus park in Ukraine and Europe at the time.

“We served the international routes, to Czechoslovakia, Moldova, Germany and Poland.”

Oleg Totskiy, founder of Kiev’s Live View customized tours community and a star of the Ukrainian urban exploring, or urbex, movement, experienced the bus garage at its lowest operational ebb, back in 2014.

“The “circus” impressed me the most,” he says. “You can’t feel the true grandeur of this structure from the outside.”

Engineering feat

Archive photo of the bus park number 7

The disc-shaped building was considered the most innovative structure of its kind when it opened in 1973.

Pavlo Fedykovych / Kyivpastrans

According to Totskiy, Bus Station Number 7 was also unique from an engineering point of view due to its use of suspended structures.

More than 180 steel cables secure the roof, which is carried by a single mushroom-like support column in the center.

The depot played its own role in the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of April 1986, when about 70 buses stationed there were drafted for the mass evacuation of the residents of Pripyat, the town nearest the power station.

According to one former worker, some of the vehicles never made it back after being abandoned in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone because they’d absorbed too much radiation. The rest re-entered service after undergoing decontamination.

Unfortunately for the bus garage, the Soviet Union collapse in 1991 proved to be the beginning of the end.

At first, all international routes were canceled. Then came the Ukraine economic crisis, which lasted for much of the 90s and meant a lack of money to replace increasingly old and decrepit buses.

The terminus lurched on for a few years, but domestic routes were halted in 2005, resulting in a huge drop off in traffic at the building. However, Number 7 didn’t fully close until 2015.

Today its much-lauded covering appears worn and neglected, with numerous trees growing straight out of it. Inside, rusty bus parts and weeds fill the giant chamber that once rumbled with engine noise.

While nature has clearly taken its toll, the bus garage remains one of the most impressive examples of Soviet Modernism.

Though it’s an imposing sight from most angles, Number 7 is particularly breathtaking when seen from a height. The 16th floor of a residential house opposite provides the perfect viewpoint to witness this innovative structure in all its glory.

Space craze

Spectacular interior of the bus park number 7

The structure was devised by Moscow-based designer V. Zinkevic.

Eduard Kryzhanovsky

When it originally opened, the Soviet Union’s obsession with space had reached its peak thanks to Yuri Gagarin becoming the first human to journey beyond our atmosphere in 1961 and author Stanislaw Lem releasing his science fiction novel “Solaris” the same year.

Its space-age design is undoubtedly a direct reflection of this craze.

During this time, many Soviet cities became the landing grounds for enormous concrete buildings with porthole-shaped windows and wide lifeless halls.

These structures were an expression of Ukraine’s “gigantomania,” with Kiev becoming one of the most popular cities for the architectural experiments of cosmonaut era designers.

As a result, Bus Garage Number 7 is just one of dozens of modernist buildings that can be found here.

There is a literal flying saucer on the roof of the former Institute of Scientific and Technical Expertise and Information, while the unusually shaped Salute Hotel, has been dubbed “the grenade.”

While the likes of the Salute Hotel still has a relatively bright future, Bus Garage Number 7 is slowly rotting to destruction.

Once a place where buses gathered, it’s now become something of a bus graveyard. Countless LAZ, Volvo, and Ikarus vehicles, many in a half-ruined, decayed state, can be seen, solemnly wait for disassembly.

If the “Transformers” franchise was real, this is the place where the Autobots and the Decepticons would go to die.

In 2018, there was a brief silver-lining moment, when a petition was launched requesting the Kiev City Council turn the abandoned park into a museum of public transport.

Rescue mission

Dilapidated buses next to the building of the bus park number 7

An appeal launched to turn the bus station into a museum was unsuccessful.

Pavlo Fedykovych

But while the appeal gathered the necessary 10,000 signatures, it was met with silence from officials.

“A museum is a great idea for this building,” says Totskiy. “But the structure is in an emergency condition and without the examination results, it is hard to say if it can be saved at all.”

Sadly, it seems the building’s last glimmer of hope may have been lost with the petition’s defeat.

Bus Garage Number 7 was given a rare moment in the spotlight in 2018, when popular South Korean boy band NCT U filmed a music video there.

More than 80 million people watched the clip, but it didn’t bring much attention to the abandoned structure often used as a modernist Kiev backdrop.

As the rooftop trees grow higher, the chances of the whole building collapsing multiply.

If the bus terminus does fall under the weight of time, it’s unlikely that many Ukrainians will be upset.

Preserving Soviet heritage is quite a controversial topic in a country that suffered greatly during the communist rule.

Famines, deportations, Chernobyl, repressions and totalitarianism haven’t been forgotten and these modernist buildings only serve as a stark reminder of the tragic past.

Some fight ferociously to eliminate all trace of these buildings, others defend the cultural significance of such modernist heritage, while the rest — and possibly the largest group — are simply ignorant to the issue.

This means that, while it once shone brightly on the map of Soviet transit, Bus Garage Number 7 will likely be left to silently rot away, largely unknown to many residents of the country it once served.

When the roof finally collapses, it will take its romantic retro dreams of suburban space exploration with it.