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Chernobyl: A Strange Quiet

English Entry Sign

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:

Lenin

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:

Restaurant

Towns Impacted

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:

Towns Impacted 2

As we drove we saw the overgrown homes that were abandoned:

Swallowed House

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.

Classrooms

The school had old day beds that I found to be really creepy:

Children's Beds

Soviet Style 2

The actual reactor sites look a lot like you would expect:

Reactors

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.

Worker's Bridge

A sign for the town of Pripyat, established 1970:

Pripryat

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.

Fire Fighters

Soviet Style

Ukraine Sign

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:

Meter

Construction

We stopped and walked around Pripyat, the major town. What was once the bustling town center is now a deserted overgrown ghost land.

Overgrown

Trees in Building

Trees

Below is a photo of the town’s hotel:

Hotel

Old signs leftover from May Day celebrations that were never used:

May Day

Lenin Poster

Rides

Roses

The abandoned carnival area:

Ferris Wheel 2

Ferris Wheel

Rusting bumper cars:

Bumper Cars

Bumper Car Interior

Circus Mouse

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.

Graffiti

The abandoned sports hall:

Sports Hall

Sports Hall Entrance

Tagging on the old swimming pool:

Tagged Pool

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.

Hanging Masks

Gas Masks

Rubel register

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.

Radioactive

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.

Field outside Kyiv

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Wow, this is so fascinating. Great post!

    January 4, 2015
    • Thanks for reading, sticks out as one of the most interesting places I visited in 2014.

      January 5, 2015
  2. Lydia, nice to have you back to blogging. As for Chernobyl, your incredible and poignant photos are such a somber reminder of what Ukraine had gone through — one of the worst tragedies in the late 20th century. It’s really sad to see how almost three decades later the nation is still struggling to cope with its insurmountable problems. But let us all not lose hope.

    January 5, 2015
    • Thanks, Bama. Good to be back — hitting publish felt nice. Ukrainians are an incredibly resilient people who have been through some of history’s most tragic events. The next few years there won’t be easy, but I’m more optimistic than not.

      January 5, 2015
  3. Lydia, thanks for sharing this fascinating post about your visit to Chernobyl. Your photographs really help to illustrate what is left there now – what an eerie place. I remember hearing it on the news, it was so shocking and upsetting. I imagine that your visit was quite gruelling and disturbing – I don’t believe you can be somewhere like that and not feel moved by it. I was amazed reading the backstory that more people hadn’t suffered from the effects of the radiation leak, I’m sure a lot of that has to do with the brave men who gave their lives in the first few hours/days/weeks afterwards. I guess that only time will tell the full extent of damage to human health and the impact of radiation on the surrounding countryside. We have a friend whose wife was on a train in Poland the day after it happened. She was on her way to visit relatives and the flowers she was carrying in her hand, wilted and died. she developed thyroid problems shortly after – she was 100 miles from Chernobyl at the time.

    January 6, 2015
    • Very sad to hear about your friend. A generation of Ukrainians and Belorussians were scarred by radiation and the collapse of the USSR led to a lack of government responsibility and support, especially for those who did survive and fought to put out fires and build a sarcophagus over the reactor. An event that won’t be forgotten.

      January 6, 2015

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