Nearly 33 years after the accident occurred, Chernobyl now attracts more visitors than its amusement park, which never saw a paying customer, could ever imagine.
Photograph by Wendelin Jacober.
Originally “doodled” out in 1946 by a small group of people related to University of California Radiation Laboratory, the universal symbol of radiation was eventually adopted by Soviet Russia, who would un-orthodoxically choose to place it on their government buildings. One of these symbols can be found on the skeletal frame of a former office building in the devastated city of Pripyat, standing now only as a chilling reminder of what occurred here.
The hazardous warning symbol can now be seen displayed on several tour buses, at our designated pickup point, which have adopted it now as a beacon to attract paying visitors, rather than its conventional use of deterring them. A deceiving fast food mirage can be seen in the distance, with a McDonalds and KFC restaurant distracting even the casual traveller from the cold, below freezing atmosphere in the city of Kiev.
After a two hour drive we arrive at a checkpoint on a desolate road, which we’re not allowed to photograph or record. Two information centres sit competitively adjacent from one another; the only information they appear to sell ranges from souvenir t shirts to pens, fridge magnets, gas masks and even Chernobyl ice cream. We are each required to show a guard, who’s clutching an automatic rifle, our digital tickets and passports before we’re allowed to pass through a turnstile into Ukraine’s very own fairground; the exclusion zone.
The streets of Pripyat were naturally lifeless in the early
hours of April 26, 1986, when the 17-man crew working on reactor 4 of
Chernobyl’s nuclear powerplant attempted to simulate a blackout. As a result of
the test, they would eventually remain this way. The recipe for nuclear
disaster was compiled of two factors; an already unstable reactor, unknown to
the engineers, and a decrease in the speed of the turbines driving cooling
water to it. The result; an explosion that is often estimated to have deposited
500 times more radioactive material into the atmosphere than the atomic bomb
dropped onto Hiroshima.
The 49,000 residents of Pripyat, where the power station was located, began to be evacuated the next day while the Soviet Union attempted to formulate a cover up. Swedish monitoring stations proved to be the downfall in their futile effort, prompting an international response to the radioactive emissions, that were carried by the wind to countries over a thousand miles away, including those in Europe. By this time, approximately two men had died from the initial explosion while another 29 would by voluntarily exposing themselves to the ‘invisible threat’ to save the lives of others. Their efforts proved to be successful in containing the radioactivity leaking from the reactor’s core, which was enclosed in a steel and concrete sarcophagus later in the year.
We are reminded by our tour guide to be respectful before we enter the zone. Those amongst our group who paid extra are provided with Geiger counters to monitor the levels of radiation around us. They emit a shrieking beep every time the level, measured by our counters in Millisieverts, climbs above 0.3, a deceivingly lower amount of exposure in comparison to a transatlantic flight. This occurs alarmingly often as the tour proceeds ahead. We are informed to look out for several radiation ‘hotspots’ inside the zone; a 19-mile radius set up around the reactor to prevent exposure to levels far greater than what we eventually encountered.
“Welcome to our house as it’s basically our second home.”
During the peak season, tour guides often work seven days a week to accommodate the sheer number of visitors; over 50,000 ‘thrill seekers’ visited the exclusion zone in 2017, an estimated 60-70% of which were foreign. The appeal of Chernobyl and its “dark tourism” was made accessible by the Ukrainian government in 2011 to members of the public who are over 18, after authorities insisted it was safe to do so. Though still debated, it’s clear to see that economic gain has superseded the risk of safety, with options of a two-day visit granting tourists the opportunity to stay in one of two hotels for the night.
Our minibus grinds to a halt. We’ve arrived at one of the
surrounding villages, located within a deadly proximity to the reactor, that
was evacuated shortly after the disaster took place. The tattered remains of
the houses here now barely stand, struggling to upkeep their roles as remnants
of their former occupants, with mementoes of their lives remaining. Upon
entering each house, at our own caution, it isn’t beyond the imagination to
experience an echo of normality prior to the explosion. The aftermath of
looters is visible; floorboards would have been torn up, revealing any
valuables left by residents who conventionally stored them there.
After over extending our allocated time at the first “attraction”
we return to the road, which proves to be ironically smooth in comparison to
the streets of Kiev. The next stop on our trip is another village, Kopachi,
which was located 7KM from the Chernobyl reactor at the time. Referred to now
in past tense for good reason, Kopachi was evacuated and subsequently buried;
authorities decided to bulldoze its houses as a means of combating
contamination in the area. As a result of the demolition, the ground water also
became contaminated, which is symbolised by the return of the radioactive sign
placed above the mounds where they were once erected.
A World War II memorial, dedicated to an unknown soldier, is the first sight we are greeted with after stepping down onto an icy, overgrown pathway. Through the foliage, a sinister jigsaw can be pieced together in the distance, much to the drooling anticipation of the travellers heading towards its direction. The closer we get to one of Kopachi’s remaining two infrastructures, the more imposing it becomes; an abandoned bike lays on its side between two pillars, with only a fragmentation of the happiness that it formerly brought to the children of this Kindergarten.
The mis en scène both inside and out of the school is
befitting of a horror film straight from Hollywood; limbless dolls lay amongst
a contaminated bed of leaves, staring hopelessly up at the sky. Each room has
decayed alongside the memories of its former pupils, whose lockers still retain
flickers of their personality in the paintings that distinguish them. One of
them displays the beautiful contradiction of fresh fruit growing on a tree
branch, a concept which will now forever remain to be abstract. After overcoming
the eerie nature that lingers in every crevice of the building, a saddening
thought occurs to me as I observe two French photographers take an abundance of
snapshots inside: this is artificial. Every doll, teddy and book are propped in
a manner that doesn’t fit the overall narrative of desertion, but instead one
of meticulous design.
“It’s the second disaster after the original disaster of the zone.”
Our tour guide explains the toilet situation in the exclusion zone.
I shake the thoughts of preservation away as we head to
Pripyat, shortly after taking a picture with its ominous welcoming sign.
Described by our tour guide as “the best city for the best people”, the nuclear
homestead for powerplant workers was tailored by the Soviet Union with luxury
in mind; a hospital, numerous schools, cinema, swimming pool, gyms and of
course, an amusement park were just some of the facilities that allowed the
community here to thrive. What’s left of the town that hasn’t already been
tagged with graffiti of a post-apocalyptic kind, is no longer structurally
sound. The black and yellow filter of the town has slowly faded to a healthy,
green tint where nature has begun repairing what is rightfully hers, much to
the approval of wildlife.
Wild boar, elk, wolves and deer are just a few of the animals that now create life in an environment that was culpable of destroying it. The situation has twistedly benefitted these species, providing them with a vast habitat with which to roam and an invisible threat that lacks the desire for what we, as humans, don’t-expansion. While the sanctuary has provided a home to elusive animals including the lynx, it has also simultaneously attracted unwelcomed visitors locally known as “stalkers”. Unlike traditional tourists who pay to enter, “stalkers” prefer the cheaper but riskier option of avoiding military detection by illegally crossing into the zone through areas that can’t possibly be monitored. Once inside, they abide by their own rules, roaming much like the lynx to wherever they see fit, including prohibited or otherwise inaccessible locations. There antics can be found on social media, where they boastfully publish posts including photos of their mischief.
“To Those Who Saved the World”
The last location that we visit is perhaps the most meaningful, and one that even we can’t tamper with despite being its creator. The Monument to the Chernobyl Liquidators is dedicated to the firefighters who exposed themselves to deadly amounts of radiation in the following days after the explosion. Beams of sunlight break through the treeline and shine on the memorial, which was set up by the 10th anniversary of the Chernobyl Disaster, to create a reflective mood. On April 26th, the residents in and around Chernobyl drive around beeping their car horns in memory of the men who risked their lives so that we could have ours.