|Pripyat city monument|
This blog mostly focuses on London, my home city, but occasionally it strays beyond the UK capital’s borders. So it was that I recently had a tour of Chernobyl - the site of the infamous catastrophic nuclear accident in April 1986 which horrified the world. The Chernobyl Power Plant disaster took place in what is now Ukraine, near the border with Belarus. Part of the Soviet Union as the Ukranian Soviet Socialist Republic, Ukraine would go on to declare independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union roughly five years later. It's thought that the Chernobyl disaster was a major factor in the USSR's eventual collapse.
Arriving at 5am at Kiev Airport on a plane full of Liverpool FC fans, due to their team playing Real Madrid in the Champions League final in the Ukranian capital that weekend, I faced a baffled woman at passport control when I proclaimed that I wasn’t here to see the football, as she assumed, but rather to visit Chernobyl. Battling lack of sleep and the difficulties of adjusting to the Cyrillic alphabet, my cab drove through Kiev suburbs filled with monumental green apartment blocks towards our apartment (just six pounds a night each). The next morning, apprehensive to say the least, myself and friends arrived at the site after a two-hour van drive from Kiev, arranged from the officially approved tour company – the only way that the vast area comprising Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (also known as ‘The Zone’, or ‘The Zone of Alienation’) can be visited.
After waiting for a while at a foreboding checkpoint in the sweltering heat, we were finally let in, only to carry on driving through long, nearly deserted roads surrounded by woodland. The whole atmosphere felt slightly creepy, as if from a horror film, exacerbated by the knowledge that much of the woodlands had been renamed ‘The Red Forest’ after the disaster, due to the fact that the pine trees had withered and died from the radiation, displaying a ginger-brown colour as they did so. Many of those dead trees were bulldozed and buried in “waste graveyards”, making way for a more healthy set of pines. Yet the silence around us as we wound through the forest was ominous nonetheless. We finally wound up at Chernobyl town, from which the nuclear power plant took its title (the name comes from the Ukranian for a wormwood insect).
|Chernobyl town monument|
Once a thriving city of 14,000 residents, the town was evacuated thirty hours after the disaster; it now has around 690 hardy people, with many houses around the inhabitants’ abodes lying empty. One of the most poignant episodes in this initial tour of the zone was a group of signs dug into the ground, one after the other, retreating into the distance, listing the names of villages - on both sides of the border between Ukraine and Belarus – that had to be evacuated (below).
This sombre scene was coupled with the monument below to the firemen who lost their lives battling the explosion, and a statue of the Angel of Death, a striking symbol personifying death that felt poignant given events (both below).
There was also a museum installation dedicated to the disaster, and a statue of Lenin (below) – the only one left in Ukraine, according to the tour guide’s faltering English. All other monuments to the man in the country have been taken down post-independence.
The Chernobyl hotel, meanwhile, felt like something from a John Le Carré novel set beyond the iron curtain. With its army barracks-style wooden build and soup served in the dining room by unsmiling babushkas, it felt like an authentic Soviet experience twenty-five years on from the collapse of the Union.
|The Chernobyl hotel|
|Soup in the hotel. No butter for the bread|
Meanwhile, in front of the hotel – the only place we were allowed to go without a tour guide presence – we were attacked not by radiation, but rather by huge amount of gnats, who buzzed around our sweaty heads in the heat, and later managed to take bites out of me while asleep in bed (despite my hotel room having windows that couldn’t be opened in order to stop them coming in, with the only air coming through an adjacent mosquito net). Yet it was the bizarre merchandise that really struck me, with everything from the slightly bad taste glow-in-the-dark fridge magnets to t-shirts (“I’ve been to…CHORNOBYL”); to whole gas suits available to buy; to radioactive ice cream; and an incongruously smiling lady below (below).
|The merch stall, Chernobyl-style|
|Chernobyl ice cream...with radioactive sign|
The nearby convenience stores were similarly strange. I couldn’t help but think of Tarkovsky’s Stalker when entering ‘Roadside Picnic’ a convenience store, bar and grill near the Hotel (below).
The film was based on a book also called Roadside Picnic, with the film’s own restricted ‘exclusion zone’ including a room in which supposedly one’s wishes and desires could be realised. That mystical masterpiece was released around seven years before the Chernobyl accident, yet it’s difficult not to make comparisons. Both the Zone in the film, and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, are restricted areas with their own ‘protocol’, where normal rules mostly do not apply. The Zone’s dangers in the film are invisible, just as the radiation is in Chernobyl. It’s rumoured, too, that Tarkosvky’s tragic eventual death may have been due to poison from the chemical plant that was near where they were shooting Stalker. Things got even weirder when I saw a sticker in the hotel advertising a computer game, called S.T.A.L.K.E.R., in which the protagonist runs around the abandoned city of Pripyat (more of which below) and other parts of the Exclusion Zone, battling various creatures. Several iterations of this computer game exist, with subtitles such as ‘Call of Pripyat’ and ‘Shadow of ‘Chernobyl’. As it turns out, 'Stalkers' was apparently later used as a nickname for the scientists and engineers who explored the interior of Chernobyl’s ‘sarcophagus’ that continues to enclosed the actual reactor after its construction following the accident (pictured below).
This is disaster tourism – and I felt conflicted. Was my very presence there distasteful and disrespectful, given the catastrophic effect that the explosion caused for people and animals in the area? Or was my money going to noble causes that helped survivors of the disaster? I wasn’t really sure, and remain ambivalent even now. Should sites that once witnessed disaster remain closed to the public, or should the public be allowed to bear witness years later? The slightly naff horror film Chernobyl Diaries, in which a bunch of gormless American tourists get stuck in Pripyat, and encounter various zombie people, received angry responses from various charitable organisations dedicated to helping survivors of the disaster.
Leaving aside these ethical concerns, what was undisputed is how fascinating the tour turned out to be. It included visits to Orthodox Churches inside the Zone (below) – proof that religion never really left the former Soviet Union countries despite the USSR’s atheistic pretence.
Furthermore, we also conducted a tour of a gigantic former listening station (below), from which they would diligently watch out for signals from the West in case ‘they’ planned to invade. Stretching high up on many levels, I made it only as far as the first one due to worries about falling down the vertical concrete ladders that connected each ‘floor’; our two-day tour partners, four Polish men, included one hardy soul who climbed all the way to the top. We watched rather awkwardly from near a radioactive sign, indicating radioactive rubbish that had been buried underneath the ground (below).
There was also the second reactor, which was abandoned after the disaster. An enterprising artist had been in here, with their own version of Banksy, as a stray dog walked around (below). Many of the dogs residing in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone have had a hard life, with radiation in their fur and exposure to the brutal cold in the long Ukranian winter.
|The unbuilt reactor|
Then there was the field full of rotting machinery, where our Geiger counter started bleeping at alarming rates, indicating that radiation still hung around here, an unseen threat even despite all these years, yet one too negligible to make any serious differences to those visiting. The Geiger counter went crazy too when exploring an abandoned Kindergarten, where baby dolls had simply been left behind by those who had fled (below).
Then there was the tour of the ‘ghost city’ of Pripyat, built in the 1970s largely to serve the Power Plant. The entire city’s population of 50,000 was evacuated after the disaster, leading to a deeply eerie feeling when climbing up the abandoned tower blocks. Nature had taken hold all around, with once thriving streets now overgrown with trees.
|View of Pripyat city centre from top of building, with the reactor enclosed by the 'sarcophagus' clearly visible|
As we approached the centre of Pripyat, we suddenly witnessed many other tourists on ‘rival’ tours, gaping at the huge former administrative buildings and abandoned playground rides. One building had been some kind of arts centre, with an artists’ studio followed by a large theatre auditorium. Another was an abandoned supermarket, the signs for produce still left hanging from the roof, rotting away. There were factories and warehouses that we went into, all full of decaying machinery.
|Abandoned Ferris wheel in Pripyat city centre|
|Abandoned bumper cars|
|Artists' studio, with theatre in next room|
|The roof of the theatre, with stage pulleys|
|Abandoned building in central Pripyat|
One building we went into ad a room that looked like some kind of indoctrination classroom, addressing the Cold War rivalries of the day with a slant on the superiority of the Soviet Union (below).
In another, a part of the roof had caved in (below).
It was easy to imagine that life had existed here once, with happy families going about their day and people in full employment. Yet now it felt like the end of the world. Or a devastated city in a war zone: with windows smashed in and buildings decaying and peeling, it felt like we could be in Mogadishu or Aleppo, yet without the snipers.
And then we toured the abandoned residential buildings (above). We went into so many of them that we lost count and my head began to hurt. One had disconcertingly crumbling stairs, with the wall having completely fallen away, leading to a sheer open drop next to me as I nervously descended to the top of building. Another had the disturbing vision of a dead dog, decaying on the floor, on the top level, with the windows – shorn of any glass – displaying a panoramic view of the area (both below).
In all the tower blocks, there was apartment after apartment full of crumbling furniture and items, including a typewriter and 80s computer manuals. Wiring in the wall had been pulled out, while pianos lay covered in dust.
|80s typewriter in abandoned apartment|
|80s Ukranian computer magazines|
|Wiring on wall in apartment|
|Baby doll on piano in apartment|
It was the visits to these residential towers that really brought home the tragic enormity of what had happened: people were forced to leave at such short notice that all they could take with them was a suitcase. All other personal possessions had to be simply left behind. A population had been uprooted, the deracinated people of the city forced to move due to an invisible encroaching enemy. It was this that stuck with me the most as we returned, stunned, to the normality of the hustle and bustle of Kiev, the big city at the heart of Ukraine.
All photos taken by GoodnightLondon.