Tuesday, March 3, 2009
My Day as a Disaster Tourist: Visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
Voyeur, witness to history, curiousity-seeker, tourist, intruder, and guest: I felt like I was some part of all these when I visited the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone last weekend. It's a visitor experience like no other I can remember, to a historic site that is like no other. It's interesting--I live close to New York City, but have never visited the site of the Twin Towers since 9/11. But I did take the opportunity to visit the site of the world's worst nuclear accident.
The trip was organized by Pripyat.com, an international NGO founded by a group who had lived in Pripyat as children. What's Pripyat? It's the city that was built to house the workers at the Chernobyl plant--both the plant and the city were built in the 1970s. Just 2 km from the plant, the city housed 50,000 people and was designed as an exemplary town by the Soviets. But then the accident at the Chernobyl plant happened, spewing radiation into the air across Europe and of course contaminating nearby Pripyat. The Soviet government's decision: without telling the residents full details of the accident, they were evacuated within a 24 hour period shortly after the accident--and the city was abandoned, most residents leaving with only what they could carry of their lives. The initial goal of Pripyat.com was to provide a place for former residents of the town to connect with neighbors and share information--it's now grown to be a major center for information about Chernobyl and the region.
What did we visit?
Leaving Kyiv early in the morning, a bus full of mostly young people, almost all Ukrainians and Russians, headed towards Chernobyl, stopping at check points at the 30 km border of the Zone and then the 10 km border. We then stopped at Chernobyl town, a town that existed before the nuclear plant and is now half-abandoned, half still lived in by workers at the plant. After a brief orientation, the bus headed off through scrub forest and, as we rounded a curve, the curved cooling tower came into view, followed by the never -completed reactors 5 and 6, with their construction cranes still in the air, unmoving for almost 25 years. Next is the site of the accident itself: Block 4, where the explosion and fire happened. This block is now covered by a sarcophagus, that is about to undergo a multi-billion dollar replacement process. In effect, the sarcophagus is the right name-- just was a way to bury the problem.
It's a very strange thing to stop, get out, and be with other tourists taking pictures of the plant, posed in front of the memorial. I found it particularly unusual that people wanted to take pictures of their friends posing in front of the plant. Why would you want that picture? To demonstrate that you were there? But I did, admit, take pictures as well. As I looked at the plant, though, tears did come to my eyes. It just represented, not the safety or danger of nuclear power, but a real sense of folly, and a sense of how little the Soviet Union cared for its own people. In addition to those living near the plant, more than 800,000 clean-up workers called liquidators were ordered to help clean up the disaster and their health problems remain a critical concern.
From there we went to Pripyat--and got out of the bus to spend 3 hours on foot exploring a totally abandoned city. Somehow the work I do has led me to many abandoned places from factories to resorts, but this was different. First, it was just the scale of it--50,o00 is alot of people and even though this Soviet city had less of some things than Western cities of the same size, there are still living spaces for 50,000, stores, post office, a sports palace and a house of culture, schools, and more. And every space, just abandoned. Some places are full of objects--the kindergarten building, for instance, but in others, looters have removed much of what is there over the last several decades.
I was struck by the resilience of nature. It is slowly taking over--trees and shrubs growing up, and we were told that wolves had been spotted. There's considerable debate about the effects of the accident on the natural world here--some people advocate that removing humans was good for the environment, others are continuing to study the effects of radiation on species of all kinds.
And it was quiet--imagine being in a place where there are no sounds: no traffic, no people, no sort of any of the sounds that now make up our daily lives, almost wherever we live. Just the wind. You expect to be in the country with these sounds, not surrounded by high-rise apartment buildings.
In talking about historic sites with my colleagues, we've often spoken about places that have a feel of the former residents. In ways that are hard to determine, the spirit of a house's residents often linger. Sometimes it's the objects that remain, but somehow it seems less definable than just that. And here in Pripyat, the spirit did linger. You could imagine swimming at the pool, living in your little Soviet apartment with the padded entry door (as I do now), walking the streets with your child. It is now a place of only memories, and for former residents, the memories are not solely those of the accident, but of a place and a time that they called home.
Pripyat.com is working on getting the site declared a national park (that's not quite the term here, but the concept is the same) and to convert the site to a museum. I don't quite know how that would work-- I think many people should see it, but at the same time many people seeing it would unalterably change the power of the experience.
The decades of Soviet rule here in Ukraine has meant that information is still, in many ways, carefully guarded. Scholars are reluctant to share their work; museums worry about digitizing collections online, and the idea of opening up museums to other voices and other perspectives is a new approach. And at Chernobyl, it was a two full weeks after the accident that the government even admitted something more significant than a fire had happened at the site. For me, the trip reinforced my conviction that we are all best served by an open society and a free press. Some argue that the accident and the aftermath hastened the end of the Soviet Union.
So although the visual memories of the site will long stay with me, I'm particularly impressed by Pripyat.com's desire and commitment to create a place on the web that connects people and invites a full sharing of memories and information. Their work can serve as a collaborative model for sharing other aspects of Ukraine's history.
And yes, when you leave the zone you go through two different radiation checks. In general, the radiation you receive is less than you get on a flight to London from here.