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:
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.
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.
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:
As we entered the Chernobyl zone, we came upon memorials. One that was especially striking listed all of the names of towns and small villages that had to be abandoned. It stretched on:
As we drove we saw the overgrown homes that were abandoned:
As I mentioned, we stopped off at at school that is now in an overgrown small forest. It was a bit creepy with old dolls and stuffed animals left behind. I was so thankful that I wore long pants and a long shirt because the mosquitos were vicious. There were so many of them everywhere, with only a small population of tourists to prey on.
The school had old day beds that I found to be really creepy:
The actual reactor sites look a lot like you would expect:
A bridge workers crossed to get to work. Below it is the water that was used to cool the reactors. Swimming in this water today are some of the largest cat fish I have ever seen.
A sign for the town of Pripyat, established 1970:
Below is a photo of another memorial, this one to the fire fighters who went into the reactor and in doing so, sentenced themselves to death. Many died within months, exposed to such high levels of radiation. If they hadn’t gone in, things could have been much, much worse.
Below are some of the different machines that were used in the clean up effort. The Geiger counters showed much higher levels of radiation in the metal machines:
We stopped and walked around Pripyat, the major town. What was once the bustling town center is now a deserted overgrown ghost land.
Below is a photo of the town’s hotel:
Old signs leftover from May Day celebrations that were never used:
The abandoned carnival area:
Rusting bumper cars:
Even though Chernobyl was evacuated, people, especially older grandmothers with nowhere else to go, returned. They wanted to grow old and die in the homes they knew. Our guide also told me for several years graffiti artists have been sneaking in to tag and paint on the crumbling buildings. He stressed to me how dangerous this was after over 20 years of no heating, cold winters, and concrete buildings. He predicted within a decade many of the buildings now standing would start, if not be completely, collapsing. In addition to the artists, video game enthusiasts are also sneaking in.
The abandoned sports hall:
Tagging on the old swimming pool:
We stopped by another building and one of our guide’s proudly explained that he had hung up these gas masks and that people had gathered them and left them in this one building mainly for show for tourists.
On our way out the of the exclusion zone we were forced to go through these radiation reading machines. I doubt they work. The light shown green for everyone and the machines looked decades old.
Then we drove back to Kyiv, passing fields of flowers and old grandmothers selling strawberries, dill, and cucumber by the side of the road. I still have mixed feelings on the whole visit, but I’m glad I saw it.