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Chernobyl: A Strange Quiet

Dear readers, I apologize for the prolonged absence. As soon as I returned from Ukraine I jumped into work and then back to grad school (never take five classes and work three jobs, including an editing one that resulted in a 300-page journal that let me indulge in my Ukraine interest). So as part of a resolution to blog and write more regularly this year, I have a lot of catching up to do. So here we go, more stories from Ukraine, stories and photos of food from the trip I took to Japan last year, and coming soon a trip back to Asia to a country I never got a chance to visit the first time around.

One of the places I wanted to visit this summer when I was in Ukraine was Chernobyl, the site of the catastrophic nuclear meltdown in 1986 — a moment I believe eroded a lot of trust and played an important, if sometimes overlooked, role in the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. Why this need to visit? One of my earliest memories involves smelling cigarette smoke. The man smoking the strange thing, something that I had never smelled before, on my parent’s driveway while I peddled my tricycle had come with his daughter to California from Ukraine. They were staying with my family as the daughter, in her early 20s, went to a hospital to receive some cancer tests here in the US. My mom tells funny stories about the young woman knowing all of the lyrics to Madonna songs better than most Americans — and this was in 1990, before the USSR had even collapsed. One story my mom recalls in particular is after the young woman returned from a trip to the mall. She asked my mom how t-shirts, ones that looked identical made from the same material, could cost different prices. It was the capitalism and culture shock that would soon sweep across eastern Europe. All of this left an impression on me and as a teenager I read Irene Zabytko’s The Sky Unwashed, a work of fiction about the reactor’s collapse and how it impacted local people. So I wanted to see the place that is about an hour and half drive from Kyiv. Below is the welcome sign as you drive in:

Chernobyl Sign

I went on an English-speaking tour through Solo East with some non-Ukrainian speaking friends. The guides told me they had been to Chernobyl hundreds of times themselves. Today people still work within the area usually on shifts of about 10 days. I spoke in Ukrainian to one of the guides who told me that the biggest problem now is that the men who come in to work get bored at night because there is nothing to do, so a lot of heavy drinking takes place.

Ferris Wheel 1

The entire area has a strange quiet. I’ve been thinking for months now whether or not I enjoyed the tour. It’s all a bit kitschy — not quite disaster tourism, but kind of. Part of it felt like observing a place that was abandoned by humans where nature has taken over — it could be anywhere really. But then you notice the Soviet artifacts, the pictures of Lenin lying on the floor of an abandoned elementary school:


Other people on the tour brought their own or rented company Geiger counters and were interested in seeing the radiation levels. Here’s a good, short backgrounder on the whole incident.

Radiation Count

For me what stuck out the most was imagining what life must have been like. The town of Pripyat where most workers at the reactor lived, was considered a good place to be during the Soviet period. It had amenities, a nice swimming pool and a carnival had come to town. Scientists and engineers earned higher salaries in the USSR. And then one day the residents were all told something had happened and that they had to leave. Here’s an abandoned restaurant complex:


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