The Radioactive Cars of Chernobyl – Can You Identify Them?

I’ve been contacted by the University of Turin, which recently found a collection of photographic prints in their archives made thirteen years after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. In 1999, a team of Italian roboticists was allowed to send rovers equipped with cameras into the Ukrainian city of Pripyat and its surroundings. Venturing deep into the radioactive exclusion zone, the remotely controlled rovers returned with hundreds of stunning photographs, some of which were of abandoned cars and trucks left exposed to the elements.

The University is planning an exhibition of these photos, but they are struggling to identify the cars, trucks and buses in them. So they’ve asked if CC could assist in that process. I’m really not an expert on older Russian vehicles, but since we have readers who undoubtedly are, I’m sure we’ll be able to help them out.

These photos have never been seen before by the public, so in any case, it’s a privilege to share them with you and the world.  I’m sure you’ll be amazed as much as I was.

FM-01 (Foto Mobile 01) and the smaller FM-02, nicknamed Madre and Bambino, were conceived and built before the advent of high-resolution digital photography. Heavy shielding and thick lenses served to protect the film from radiation, but some damage was inevitable. Nonetheless, the pictures are a fascinating time capsule into the Ukrainian automotive landscape of 1986, if obscured somewhat by some extreme patina, to put it lightly.

As I said, I am no expert on Russian cars, but I’ll do my best and leave it to the Russophiles to correct me. I believe this is likely a Lada VAZ-2104 and a Moskvitch-2115. Something about their conditions—perhaps the radioactivity—has made them appear more difficult to identify than I expected, although I don’t know how that would happen exactly.

Given the condition of these vehicles, it would not surprise me if many of them were abandoned long before the evacuation of Pripyat. Another Lada, I assume, and what maybe is a hatchback variant?


IzhAvto-2202, I think. But please help me out here.

Amur-131L? Or a 146M?

A GAZ-21TP (“Volga”), presumably. Maybe a custom-built version of the Volga for an apparatchik? Maybe the director of the plant, even?

Are these UAZ buses?

This one I can recognize! The odds of a genuine 911 in the Ukraine in 1986 are very low, and its not quite right; look at those crude fender flares and headlights. Almost certainly a home-brew clone, probably on a ZAZ Zaporozhets chassis, as the Zaporozhets also had an air cooled rear engine.

I believe that is a Lada Niva in the foreground, but I can’t identify the other car.


A ZIL-50F airport shuttle, it would seem.

Some of the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor can be seen in the background behind these UAZ buses.

A Moskvitch-2041(?) keeping company with a late-model Lada. Or?


This UAZ bus looks like it is straight out of the 1950s, but the Soviet Union was known for using the same bus body tooling for decades with minimal changes.

A LuAZ-922V?

A KAMAZ bus with a UAZ bus in the background.

I admit that I’m struggling some here, and more than a bit embarrassed, as some of my guesses are probably wildly off the mark. Something about these photos is making me feel a bit woozy and nauseous, as if I’m having mild radiation sickness by proxy. How is that possible?