I thought quite hard before taking photos during my tour of Chernobyl, let alone posting any of them online. Not being affected by the nuclear disaster of 1986 and not knowing anybody involved, I couldn’t be sure if doing so would offend anybody. I knew I wouldn’t post photos on Instagram for the likes, and wondered whether a blog post about my visit would just be capitalising on other other people’s life-changing or life-destroying misfortune.
I’m still not sure what compelled me to visit. Curiosity? A taste of ‘dark tourism’? I am happy, though, to report our tickets were booked before the premier of the HBO mini-series.
Still, I went, and concluded I had to write about it. By visiting sites of atrocities and disasters, so long as we behave respectfully, we ensure stories of misfortunes are kept alive, hopefully minimising the chances that such things will be repeated in the future.
During my visit to Chernobyl, I found not only the eerie remnants of towns destroyed by nuclear disaster, but learnt lessons from what had been one of the USSR’s nuclear cities, and how quickly civilization unfolds.
The USSR: State Secrets and Vendettas
To me, the most interesting site in the Exclusion Zone wasn’t anything affected by the accident, but rather the Soviet Radar Duga-1, designed to detect American nuclear missiles soon after launch.
Nuclear missiles launched from the USA would have taken a matter of minutes to reach Moscow. While this would have scarcely been enough time to protect the country’s population, it would have given the USSR the opportunity to launch their own warheads to annihilate the United States.
“It wouldn’t have saved the Russians,” our tour guide told us, “but they didn’t want to die alone.”
While a forest was constructed to hide the megalith structure, and signs for a non-existent children’s summer camp apparently distracted questions about the purpose of roads which led to nowhere, the radar was clearly visible from rooftops of nearby towns and military vehicles constantly streamed in and out of the supposed summer camp. Locals were told that the structure was a ‘pasta factory’ (the genesis of the excellent Ukrainian expression which translates to ‘don’t put spaghetti on my ears’, meaning ‘don’t lie to me’, which we should totally adopt in English), and while they knew this wasn’t the case, the USSR was a country where people knew better than to ask questions.
Construction of the enormous Radar cost billions of dollars, enough to build a city. But it didn’t work.
Due to miscalculations, the Radar often lost signal, rendering it ineffective as a detection device of nuclear missiles. The Radar’s final test was supposed to take place only a week after the nuclear incident, leading to a conspiracy theory that the explosion at Chernobyl – and all the deaths that it incurred – was intentional, designed to prevent authorities from havign to admit they wasted a fortune on ineffectual military equipment which was never designed to protect the lives of Soviet people.
A Meditation on Time
Time flattens all we know in no time at all
Prypiat was a model city, built specifically by the USSR for workers of the Chernobyl Nuclear PowerPlant.
“What this meant was that people got homes for free,” our tour guide told us, “as they did up and down the Soviet Union. Well, they weren’t really free, as people worked most their lives for free.”
What’s amazing about Prypiat is that while it was evacuated thirty three years ago, some parts of the city look like they haven’t been ihabted for centuries. Others seem brand new.
Many of the high-rise Soviet living quarters, empty and decrepit from the inside, look inhabitable from the exterior, windows of rooms left suggestively open as if current inhabitants just wanted some fresh air. The canteen operates exactly as it did forty years ago, serving the exact same sort of food. It’s nothing special, but in the Soviet Union these canteens were among the only places that ordinary workers could get a decent portion of meat.
The streets tell a different story. Trees which look old as time have burst through plazas and main roads, turning parts of the city into pleasant forested lanes. Strolling around Prypiat, it’s easy to forget you’re on the site of one of the worst nuclear disasters in history, and even easier to forget that this was a buzzing city not four decades ago.
Our guide showed us photographs of Prypiat’s heyday, holding them up in the air so we could compare areas as they were then and now. The distant places in the photographs are still recognisable: a streetlamp still stands here, the side of a building still juts out thee, but it’s almost impossible to associate the two images, the now and historic, as the same place. The city looks as it it has always been how it is now: more forest than town.
This, in a way, is more eerie than the famous images of abandoned homes – the recognition that history moves in quick strides, that time flattens all we know in no time at all.
A supermarket, its facade blown open, is still hung with aisle markers, smashed bottles more revealing of recent illicit drinking and looting than the disaster itself. The swimming pool, which had been used for about a decade after the disaster by powerplant workers, is now a broke gaping jaw. A modern building, the changing rooms and the pool itself, complete with timing clock on the wall, are recognisable symbols to our current age, but the caved-in ceiling, the sudden drops are anachronishtic, out of time. These are no ancient ruins, and could be those of any highly-infrastructured swimming pool today.
I asked the guide how the pool, and everything else for that matter, got so damaged in under thirty years. “Most of the damage was done by people,” he said. “Looters, people who come in to steal metal. People did much more damage to the city than time, the elements, or the disaster.”
The nearby village of Kopachi was flattened, buried s nuclear waste under soil. Zalissya, further from the accident’s epicentre, fared better, its homes still standing – just.
Large holes have replaced walls like ominous eyes, doors have been thrown from their hinges. The village’s population were allowed to return after evacuation to collect their belongings, and Soviet authorities supposedly destroyed everything left as nuclear waste. The buildings were washed, allowed to stand, and many people have since returned to Zalissya and other nearby villages, living longer than evacuees who moved out to other cities.
Still, in empty houses, hospitals and nurseries, schoolbooks are thrown open onto pages decorated with children’s handwriting; dolls with smashed faces and worn-out, well-loved teddy bears are placed suggestively on tables and windowsills. The whole thing looks strangely curated.
“The place was abdoned, but this doesn’t look at all like people just left in a hurry,” someone in the tour group says.
Our guide overhears. “No. Tourists find and handle objects, placing them in ways that make them more Instagram friendly.” The remnants of other people’s lives. Nuclear waste.
Creepy, curated photographs from Chernobyl have certainly contributed to the area’s ‘dark tourist’ reputation, and part of the reason why tours to the area exist are, as our tour guide said, “to heal Ukraine’s trauma” of the incident.
The majority of visitors are not Ukrainian. Some locals, known as ‘Stalkers’ (after a video game set in a post-nuclear wasteland), sneak into the exclusion area unlawfully, plundering the place for metal and precious objects, or simply for the thrill. Many people have moved back to their homes, preferring to die where they were born than in an unknown city. Many others refuse to come near Chernobyl, still concerned about the levels of radiation in the area.
Though the strict instructions that come with the tour – wear long sleeves, don’t eat or drink in the open air, don’t sit anywhere, don’t touch anything – and the numerous radiation checkpoints are intimidating, we as individuals are exposed to more radiation in one hour on an airplane than an entire daytrip to Chernobyl. After spending over eight hours on the site, I received an irradiation dose of 0,002 mSv – which is the same as I would have gotten anywhere else in the world.
Travelling to and from Kiev, I received at least six times this amount.
Still, the area and the 1986 nuclear accident – caused entirely by human error – has sparked the imagination of millions of people and left as many equally traumatised. It’s not hard to see why some Ukrainians are fearful of Chernobyl. The same country which suffered between three to seven million deaths during the Holodomor, a man-made famine caused by the Soviet Union, once again endured the loss of lives due to Soviet error and miscalculation. (Even if the Radar Duga conspiracy theory isn’t true, it is widely believed that Soviet authorities knew the design of their powerplant could lead to such an incident, but it was considered too inefficient to redesign all of the plants, the government instead simply hoping no such incident would occur).
The true number of people who died due to the Chernobyl incident is indeterminate, the true number obscured and reduced by the Soviet Union. Due to state interference, we may never know just how many people lost their lives due to human error headed by a State fueled by secrecy and a nationalism which resisted questioning and thought cheap science more valuable than the lives of its citizens. Known or unknown, when we visit Chernobyl, we must respect the memory of every single one.