Monday, February 9, 2009

Understanding Chernobyl

I remember much talk at one point in among American museums about collecting the 20th century: Barbie dolls, Tupperware, and more. Those objects--and those conversations-- seem simple in comparison with my experience today. I visited a place that's charged with interpreting an incredibly complex event of the 20th century---the Chernobyl nuclear accident. The interpreting is done by the Information Center of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Slavutich, about 150 miles outside of Kiev--I suppose, a sort of industrial history museum, operated by the power plant itself. There's a Chernobyl Museum here in Kiev, which I haven't visited yet, but Slavutich is the new town, constructed after the accident, to house people from the contaminated city of Priypat, now totally abandoned. 3800 Slavutich residents still work at the Chernobyl plant. So the history here is not a theoretical one, but one that affected every single resident of Slavutich and continues to affect them in many ways.

The exhibit starts as many industrial history exhibits do, with the construction of the plant which opened in 1971; after several years of exceptional performance, they were awarded a special certificate--a sort of naming of the plant connected to Lenin. But then, literally, time stops as the accident occurs--something represented by a large stopped clock and date at the end of the room--on April 26, 1926, at 1:23 AM, during a safety test, a power surge overheated reactor 4 which then exploded, sending massive amounts of radiation into the air, crossing international borders. It's hard to imagine, in these days of twitter, cell phone photos and the Internet, how much the Soviets controlled information. The residents of Priypat, the nearest town, where radiation was incredibly high, were only informed that there had been an accident, mostly contained.

We were shown around the museum by Sergei Kasyanchuk, director of the museum, who has made it his life's work to document and collect material about the plant, the accident and the aftermath. Along with first photo taken of the burned out reactor after the explosion, taken from the air, there are photos of workers in hardly any protective clothing, funerals, and a guest book from the small museum in Pripyat, the last entry from the day before the accident.

Three sections of the exhibition will stay with me a long time--one is that large image of the burned out reactor with the stopped clock. The second is the memorial room, a red circular space featuring images of the men and women who were workers at the plant the night of the accident and died immediately or soon thereafter. Many died in Moscow, where they had been evacuated to for treatment, and are buried there as well, quietly, with no ceremony, in lead coffins. Without any text other than names, the space invites contemplation.

The last was perhaps the most surprising. The rest of the plant, 3 other reactors, was not shut down until December 2000, by Leonid Kuchma, then president of a newly independent Ukraine. A panel in the exhibit shows the ceremonies of the plant workers. At a place where many were frightened, others killed, and whose very name has become a synonym for disaster, these workers commemorated the final charted records and placed carnations on top of the reactor, the place that had been their work home for years.

Sergei continues to work and collect information about the accident. The end of the Soviet Union (hastened, some say, by Chernobyl and the aftermath), has made his research easier, but his dedication helped to remind me how important the work of museums can be in commemorating, sharing and documenting difficult stories.

Top to bottom:
Sergei Kasyanchuk at the large mural
Memorial Room
Plant closing Panel

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