An illustrated guide to urban exploration in the Russian capital.
12 September 2014
I recently visited the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – including the abandoned city of Pripyat – as part of a 32-hour Russian-language tour.
During my time there I took photos (a lot of photos) featuring villages, schools, holiday camps and train stations throughout the Zone. My tour took me inside the unfinished Reactors Five and Six, up close to the ill-fated Reactor Four, and of course, through the overgrown streets of Pripyat: itself a small revolution in social planning, a communally-designed settlement for 50,000 people which was completely evacuated over the space of just a few days in April 1986.
However, those photos will not be featuring in this report. I’ll post my Chernobyl ruin porn soon enough; but first I wanted to go behind the scenes to analyse the real Chernobyl experience, as well as the broader cultural implications of increasing tourism to the Zone.
More specifically, this report will look at themes such as:
– The rise of Chernobyl as a ‘dark tourism’ destination,
– Why a visit to Pripyat should not be confused with ‘urban exploration’,
– The differences between how Eastern and Western cultures interact with the Zone, and finally:
– What happens to a human body after eating fruit grown in Chernobyl (spoiler: it didn’t kill me)
The Chernobyl Disaster
In the early hours of Saturday 26th April 1986, a routine experiment at Reactor Four of the Chernobyl power station went seriously wrong – leading to a radiation breach equivalent to 400 Hiroshimas.
The experiment was designed to establish how long support systems would last after mains power had been removed; but a combination of poor design and insufficient training led to a fatal error. Automatic shutdown mechanisms were disabled as part of the test, so that when the insertion of fuel rods into the core caused an unexpected power surge, there was no way of venting the resultant steam. Internal pressure loosened the reactor’s cover plate, rupturing the fuel channels and causing a steam explosion in the reactor core.
Two of the facility’s staff were killed instantly; others died later in hospital. The first emergency teams to arrive were firefighters, many of whom had been given little or no briefing as to the nature of the accident. One of those firefighters, interviewed on the scene, described a feeling as of pins and needles, accompanied by a metallic taste in his mouth. He died soon after of acute radiation sickness.
As authorities began to realise the scale of the disaster, radio-controlled bulldozers were deployed to clear the rubble. These robotic carts and diggers were sent in to find and remove radioactive debris; but their electronics were soon scrambled by the radiation, rendering them largely immobile. In the end, it had to be human hands that cleared the bulk of the waste. These human teams (referred to as ‘bio-robots’ by the military) were only able to endure 40 seconds of exposure at a time, as they shovelled the radioactive waste back inside the reactor so that it might be contained.
The reactor core burned until 10th May, when it was eventually sealed using more than 5,000 metric tons of sand, lead, clay and neutron-absorbing boric acid, dropped onto the power station from helicopters above. Later, a concrete and iron sarcophagus would be installed over the core in order to contain the worst of the radiation.
In the city of Pripyat, just 3km from Reactor Four, residents had seen the explosion and the smoke. Nothing happened at first – although one report states that many people fell ill within the first few hours, experiencing the same metallic taste along with uncontrollable fits of coughing and vomiting.
Initially, the accident was heavily downplayed by Soviet state media. It wasn’t until nuclear physicists raised the alarm in Sweden, 1000km away, that the USSR was pressured into a public statement. Establishing a special commission to investigate the scale of the disaster, Soviet scientists soon found evidence of widespread radiation sickness; and at 14:00 on 27th April, an announcement called for the immediate evacuation of Pripyat.
Even then, the message was surprisingly upbeat:
For the attention of the residents of Pripyat! The City Council informs you that due to the accident at Chernobyl Power Station in the city of Pripyat the radioactive conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating. The Communist Party, its officials and the armed forces are taking necessary steps to combat this. … Comrades, leaving your residences temporarily please make sure you have turned off the lights, electrical equipment and water and shut the windows. Please keep calm and orderly in the process of this short-term evacuation.
In the days and weeks that followed a quarantine area was marked in a 30km diameter from the reactor, which would become known as the ‘Zone of Alienation’.
However, there were those who ignored the orders altogether. One can imagine how strange the news might have sounded, particularly to the older generation; homes to be abandoned immediately, for fear of contamination by deadly invisible energies.
While more than 100,000 people from the region were ferried to their new homes in the unaffected towns and villages of Kiev Province, still as many as 300 residents remained behind in the Zone. Since then, a slow move towards reclaiming the land has brought the full-time population of the Chernobyl Zone up to 700 people.
The death toll associated with the Chernobyl disaster remains highly difficult to calculate – owing to the widespread, yet insidious, nature of radiation. Thirty-one people were killed by the explosion at Reactor Four; sixty-four others from acute radiation poisoning, according to reports from UNSCEAR. However, the ongoing effects of the catastrophe are yet to be fully understood. Unusual patterns of cancer and leukemia diagnoses were reported in the following years, from Belarus in the north down to Bulgaria in the south. While it may be problematic to try linking any one case to the radioactive leak in Ukraine, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s ‘Chernobyl Forum‘ has suggested an eventual causal death toll somewhere around the 4,000 mark.
However, a 2006 feature in the International Journal of Cancer posited that Chernobyl has been responsible for approximately 0.01% of all European cancer incidents since the accident; and that a more realistic estimate would show by 2065, “about 16,000 cases of thyroid cancer and 25,000 cases of other cancers”.
Meanwhile, work continues. These days the Zone is mostly populated by workers at the reactor, which has a staff of around 2,500. Radiation levels remain high (around 35 times higher than your body’s natural level), and so the teams work in shifts; never more than five hours in a day, and with 15 days spent well clear of the Zone for every month worked.
It won’t remain this way forever, though – according to Ukrainian officials, the area should be perfectly habitable again within around 20,000 years.
Dark Tourism in the Dead Zone
I recently discussed Chernobyl with a photographer colleague; he was a Western European, and while extolling the merits of what is undeniably a highly photogenic location, he did make several disparaging comments about the activities of ‘looters’ in the Zone. Something like, “it’s just a shame they don’t stop these people from coming in, taking stuff, and ruining the experience for the rest of us.“
Aside from the teams of engineers and labourers brought in to work on the reactor, such ‘looters’ would have been amongst the first civilian visitors to the Zone. There will be some who simply returned to collect their own belongings – once it became apparent that this was not, in fact, the three-day temporary evacuation announced by the authorities. But then there would have been opportunists: those who entered the Zone searching for objects of value, furniture and scrap metal.
It’s difficult to say exactly when the first tourists started coming. The Ukrainian government permitted paid visits from as early as 2002, but their approval served only to legitimise the existing traffic into the Zone; a Ukrainian friend once shared with me his firsthand experiences of trespassing in the Chernobyl Zone in the late 1990s. It was risky, he told me, and one needed to keep a careful eye out for military patrols: but back then it could be done, simply by sneaking through the forest and climbing a few fences.
In 2004, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone received 870 paying visitors. By 2009 it was 7,500. A report in 2011 suggested that the Zone was receiving as many as 10,000 visitors a year by this point, each of them paying an average fee of £100 (for a potential annual turnover of a million pounds, a sum which will get you a long way in Ukraine).
The business came under serious scrutiny in 2011 however, when Ukraine’s ‘Emergency Situation Ministry’, the political body responsible for managing the site, was accused of profiteering. A spokesman for the prosecutor general commented:
We know a lot of money has been made but we have no idea whose pockets it has ended up in. Why not put the money into the budget and use it to solve the zone’s problems?
All tours were suspended for a brief period, which only served to put Chernobyl back into the headlines; so that by the time official tours recommenced – now including access to the previously off-limits area around the reactors themselves – ticket sales went through the roof.
Some remained skeptical, however. One Ukrainian told me:
[President] Yanukovych realised that other people were making good money, and he wanted some for himself. He declared their businesses illegal, doubled the tour prices, and then made sure profits went into his pocket, not theirs.
Speculation aside, Chernobyl tourism is undoubtedly a big business.
For many visitors, it is the abandoned city of Pripyat which will be the main draw – a city that features schools, hospitals, a theatre, swimming pools and sports halls. Most visitors join a guided tour: following a prearranged route through the ghost town, stopping off for photographs at interesting spots along the way. From time to time, visitors may be allowed slightly more freedom to explore on their own. On my own tour for example, we were given 30 minutes of free time to have a look around an empty apartment block; on another occasion, we were left to our own devices in a ruined kindergarten, and told to meet back at the bus for a set time.
Understandably, some might have concerns about the lingering radiation at the site. In reality however, the effect over the course of a day trip (or even a full weekend tour, like mine) is negligible. The level of radiation absorbed in the course of a typical Chernobyl tour is in the region of a few microsieverts per hour. It’s a long way off a fatal dose, which is suggested at 3-5 sieverts (3-5 million microsieverts) over the same period. In fact, most foreign visitors to Chernobyl will pick up more radiation during their connecting flight, than they’ll absorb from the Zone itself.
Some areas are more radioactive than others, of course. Close to the power plant, you’ll be receiving something like 1.7 microsieverts per hour. Meanwhile the iconic ‘Luna Park’ at the centre of Pripyat – a fairground with bumper cars, carousels and a ferris wheel, which was due to open a few days after the disaster – remains one of the city’s radioactive hotspots. Readings here typically show between 0.4 and 9.5 microsieverts per hour. The danger to visitors is virtually non-existent… but you wouldn’t want to live here.
There are precautions to be taken on entering the Zone – but essentially, these boil down to little more than common sense. No shorts, no sandals. Wear long sleeves at all times. If you get dust, grit or mud onto you, wash it off. Do not attempt to take a souvenir home with you. If you bring food and drink into the zone, keep it in a sealed bag. In addition to such provisos, your tour guide will be equipped with a radiation meter, while visitors themselves are scanned in large, walk-through radiation detectors on several occasions each day.
For reasons I’ll get to shortly, Pripyat was not the highlight of my trip. Rather, I found it more interesting to visit the memorials, ruins, mechanical graveyards and unfinished reactors that lay scattered throughout the Zone of Alienation.
Many of these features (such as the Firemen’s Monument, pictured above) have appeared in the years since the disaster and portray Chernobyl not as a fixed point in time, but rather as a region that is slowly building towards recovery while simultaneously remembering its past.
Progress can also been observed at the site of Reactor Four. The old sarcophagus built to contain the radiation back in 1986 is slowly crumbling – having been erected in haste, and under extremely hostile conditions – but a replacement is under construction. The new shell weighs over 20,000 tons and rises to a height of more than 100 metres. Due to be completed in 2015, the casing has been designed to slide neatly over the top of Reactor Four using rail tracks.
Standing in the shadow of the power plant, I had to keep reminding myself where I was. One imagines a malevolent, industrial hell-gate, a radioactive Mount Doom; but in reality these neatly mown lawns, the modernist sculptures and – perhaps most of all – the sight and sound of ongoing work, makes this place feel just like any other industrial park.
It was hard to imagine that beneath the steel and concrete, in the basement of Reactor Four, lurks perhaps the most dangerous single object on the planet. The solidified black lava formation known as the ‘Elephant’s Foot‘ is a product of the melting core, an object of incredible mass and density, which emits as many as 10,000 roentgens per hour – that’s the equivalent of more than four-and-a-half million chest x-rays, and enough to kill someone in a matter of minutes.
If any reminder were needed however, of the disaster that befell here, the petrified forests surrounding the reactor tell everything you need to know. These trees absorbed vast quantities of radiation following the event, killing all living matter whilst turning the bark a reddish-brown colour. It has been known as the ‘Red Forest’ ever since.
As part of the clean-up operation, large portions of the Red Forest were bulldozed to be buried in deep concrete graves along with contaminated machinery and debris; but not all of it. The dead branches can still be seen in places, rising red and skeletal above the new growth.
Away from the reactors though, away from such visual reminders of the deep sickness of the earth, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone feels much like any other place. Its lanes, forests and meadows are green and filled with nature; while the warm sun that shone throughout the duration of my trip probably did a lot to dispel any lingering sense of disease.
The Zone’s abandonments are exactly that: and having explored numerous abandoned locations throughout the former USSR, I found no one site that stood out as being inherently different to Soviet-era ruins anywhere else in Russia or Ukraine.
Chernobyl village, as sparsely inhabited as it is, has the same sleepy atmosphere, the same grim architecture, as any other small, rural town built by the USSR. Meanwhile, the Chernobyl Hotel could be any guesthouse in Ukraine: its friendly yet eccentric manager, the garish interior decor, lending the place a distinctly human feel.
For the most part, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is remarkably unremarkable. It is not a wasteland, and nor is it a museum. It is a living, breathing corner of the Ukrainian countryside, where your knowledge of past events – and current, invisible danger – is thrown into stark contrast with your apparent surroundings.
I did say for the most part.
Pripyat is the exception to this rule, where the scale of the abandonment alone is enough to render most comparisons irrelevant. However, the nature of tourism to Pripyat is fraught with its own unique problems; issues which, for me, raised questions of morality as we waded deep into the detritus of Chernobyl’s ghosts.
Pripyat & The Ethics of Ruin Lust
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has earned notoriety as an unusual tourist destination, and in many ways this site marks the perfect meeting point between the two main themes that I write about on this blog: namely, dark tourism and urban exploration.
I would go so far as to say that Pripyat is often portrayed as some kind of Mecca amongst the urban exploration community, while the photographic results, certainly, rank as some of the finest examples of decay photography you’ll find on the web. However, while photographs of Pripyat may appear the very definition of urban exploration, in practice, I would argue that a tour of the city couldn’t be further from the true spirit of the term.
By the time I’d sorted all my photographs from the Zone, I had a powerful collection of images which seemed to show an untrodden wasteland littered with the debris of lives long-since departed. But that’s not the full picture. The truth is, for every image I kept there were at least another nine I had to trash… obscured as they were by the arms, cameras, heads and tripods of the 30-or-so other people clustering around me to get the same shot.
Unless you book a private tour, making Pripyat look like a ghost town can often be hard work.
Moreover, I have grave doubts regarding the authenticity of many of the ‘artefacts’ which litter the Zone. Some of the most famous images to have come out of Pripyat show scattered gas masks juxtaposed with dolls and children’s toys; to quote a 2011 article on the Telegraph:
Hundreds of discarded gas masks litter the floor of the school canteen, Soviet propaganda continues to hang on classroom walls, and children’s dolls are scattered about, left where their young owners dropped them in a hurry a quarter of a century ago.
Within my own group alone, I observed countless instances of tourists moving these artefacts around, or repositioning furniture for a better shot. I watched a photographer arrange stuffed bears and little dolls so that they sat in line along the edge of a bare, metal-framed bed. I’m sure it made for an excellent photograph… but if my group was by any way representative, then just imagine the cumulative effect of as many as 10,000 visitors interacting with the Zone every year.
There was something I found altogether unpleasant about this level of interference. Dark tourism in general, and particularly tourism in the wake of a catastrophic event like the disaster at Chernobyl, might already be perceived as treading the thin line between investigation and voyeurism; but to rewrite the past in this way, for outsiders to come in and mask the truth beneath their own manufactured scenes, retelling the victims’ stories in whatever way they felt would make a better picture: at times, I found it positively distasteful.
The Telegraph’s claim of, “children’s dolls … left where their young owners dropped them … a quarter of a century ago,” begins to seem somewhat naive. Perhaps I’m a cynic, but it wouldn’t surprise me if extra shipments of toys, gas masks and propaganda posters had been delivered to Pripyat post-evacuation. Local businesses have been making a healthy profit on Chernobyl tours for over a decade now, while there have been widespread investigations of corruption and profiteering. I find it hard to believe that in all that time, not one of those businesses would have taken the time to dress the site up a little for the tourists.
Over the course of the tour, I felt myself growing more and more jaded. Our guides would lead us into a school, for example, push open a door onto a room where several dozen gas masks hung suspended from the ceiling on wires; and then they would retreat, throwing smug, knowing looks to one another as the cameras came out, and photographers started jostling for position. It was like feeding time at the zoo.
Naturally, there is probably some truth hidden amongst it all – miniature stories, like the upright piano abandoned on the seventh floor of an apartment building, too big for the elevators, too heavy to drag down the stairs – but these genuine insights felt few and far between.
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and in particular the city of Pripyat, exists in a carefully managed state of decline; but rather than natural decay, this feels more like bad taxidermy.
What’s more, in order to keep up with a strict itinerary these tour groups are often rushed swiftly from one popular site to the next. I would find myself just setting up a tripod for the perfect shot, when someone would yell back at me in Russian, “Bystro! Bystro!” and I’d be expected to run to catch up with the rest of the group. It only served to further confound any sense of ‘exploration’ that I might have felt in this location.
Do please note, that none of these criticisms should suggest that I found the tour anything less than incredible; the experience was wholly fascinating, and at times deeply moving. However, the shattering of the popular myth which paints Pripyat as some kind of profound time capsule, meant that over the course of the weekend I would find myself gravitating more towards solid historical artefacts such as the reactors, the architecture itself, the city planning, and conversations with those who now inhabit the Zone… while experiencing an increasing lack of interest in the illusionary dioramas of decay created by my fellow photographers.
With so much noise, so much traffic over the years, I found it really quite difficult to establish a connection with my surroundings. Besides, this was hardly my first ‘ghost town’ experience. From the purely photographic perspective, I found more of value while exploring abandoned villages in the Balkans than I did in Pripyat… and it was certainly nothing on the scale of China’s unfinished metropolis, Ordos: an empty city which is 20 times larger than Pripyat, and can be explored freely without the hassle of curfews and constant supervision.
Returning to this conceptualised image then, of Pripyat as the urban explorer’s Mecca: I find it debatable, in fact, if a visit to Pripyat could even be called “urban exploration”. The very definition of that term applies it to places that are usually unseen, or off-limits; but the streets of Pripyat, though not inhabited, are nevertheless extremely well trodden.
That’s not to say that such experiences cannot be had in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone; simply that it’s against the rules. I’ve already mentioned my Ukrainian friend, who had gained illicit entry to the Zone back in the 1990s… and during my own visit to Chernobyl, I too had an opportunity to engage in some recreational trespassing.
On Saturday night most of the tour group had gathered together at our hotel in Chernobyl village, to unwind with bottles of beer and vodka. With the others distracted, my Ukrainian friend and I set out, unaccompanied, onto the streets of Chernobyl.
According to travel advice I’ve read online, police in Chernobyl are liable to arrest visitors even for crossing the road and walking to the village shop without a guide. The usual response is to take trespassers into custody, before contacting tour guides who’ll need to come and collect them from the local police station. We didn’t have any trouble though, and the few people we did pass on the street merely gave us a polite nod; and although the village was largely uninhabited we would pass little clusters of houses that had lights shining in the windows.
On the outskirts of the village, we passed a series of unlit apartment blocks and decided to try a door. These were simple residences, still privately owned and thus excluded from tours. The first building was secured with a chain around the door handles; the second featured just a rusted padlock which hung from the latch, open.
Inside we explored six floors of the building, many of the apartments frozen in time with bags half-packed, and crockery still on tables. Most of the rooms had been emptied at some point, but enough personal items remained – notepads, newspapers, clothing, pickle jars – to give a real sense of life, a snapshot of broken continuity. Over the course of the weekend, this would stand out as my single most authentic experience in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
28 Stalkers & An Urban Explorer
I had hoped that joining a Russian-language tour would offer me an insight into how contemporary, post-Soviet culture reappropriates the legacy of the Chernobyl disaster. It was also significantly cheaper, at less than half the price of typical tours marketed to Westerners.
Before drawing any comparisons, it would be fair to note that this was my first trip to Chernobyl; and so I’ve never witnessed an English-language tour. Instead, the cultural observations that follow are based on my experiences exploring other comparable sites with Westerners, from talking to Westerners who have visited the Zone, and from reading an extensive selection of newspaper articles, blog posts and other reports where Westerners discuss their experiences in – and impressions of – Chernobyl.
Based on such knowledge though, I did observe a marked difference in the way my tour group (consisting of Russians and Ukrainians) interacted with the Zone, compared with Western attitudes to such places.
These behaviours seemed to hint at the differing roles to which ghost towns, abandonments and wastelands are assigned in these respective metacultures of ‘East’ and ‘West’.
In Western Europe, Australia and North America, the concept of ‘urban exploration’ is perhaps the most popular representation for the willing journey into such netherworlds. Urban explorers comprise a vast online community; and though it would seem illogical to ascribe any set of rules to a group of individuals who define themselves (at least in part) by their eagerness to break rules, nevertheless the practice has its own (albeit unofficial) creed: “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.”
The basis of this philosophy is one of custodianship. The explorer is not a part of the decay process, but rather is allotted the role of an archivist: they document, record, perhaps even fetishise the dilapidation of such ruins; but they do not leave their mark.
The Russian approach, as far as I was able to observe it, is notably different.
During my tour, I watched members of the group tossing their litter into bushes, smashing glass panels, writing their names in radioactive dust and, in general, physically interacting with their surroundings to the full. The Zone was not treated as an object of study, so much as an obstacle to be traversed; more than that though, the aggressively destructive behaviour that I observed on several occasions seemed to go so far as to personify the terrain as an enemy.
(You’ll note here that I’m describing Russian behaviour – having dropped my Ukrainian comrades from the comparison altogether. This is not accidental, and it’s something I’ll address a little later.)
A strong parallel for this aggressive attitude towards the wasteland – and perhaps, its very origin – can be found in a work of 20th century Russian literature. In 1971, the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky wrote a science fiction novel titled Roadside Picnic (later adapted to film in the form of Andrei Tarkovsky’s seminal dystopia, Stalker).
The story is set in our own world, in the wake of some unexplained intergalactic ‘event’: extraterrestrial beings have landed, but rather than making contact with the human race they simply pollute one large portion of the planet’s surface before moving on. Scientists, in the novel, hypothesise that perhaps these visitors had landed to perform routine maintenance on their craft; or even, as the book’s title playfully suggests, for a ‘roadside picnic’.
Released a year after Moscow’s moon landing, and in the same year that the USSR launched their proud space station Salyut-1, it was a bold, satirical and ostensibly political statement on the part of these Russian authors to hypothesise a universe in which other species might consider the Soviet Union, and its achievements in space, to be of no interest whatsoever.
In the novel, this mysterious event leads to the creation of ‘the Zone’; a barren, hostile region littered with alien debris. These artefacts range from strange devices with the potential for weaponisation, through to deadly flesh-eating slimes, and localised gravitational shifts. The story’s protagonist, Redrick Schuhart, is a ‘stalker’: a mercenary who enters the Zone to search for artefacts which can be sold for high value on the black market. The terrain of this fictional world bears such strong thematic ties to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, that it’s sometimes easy to forget that the release of the novel preceded the Ukrainian disaster by 15 years.
In Russia the term ‘stalker’ has entered contemporary dialogue as a popular parallel to the Western notion of the ‘urban explorer’. This term however, coined by the Strugatsky brothers, brings with it a certain philosophy seemingly inspired by their fictional dystopia.
While exploration is the practice of discovering new worlds through a process of creating maps, documenting and recording – a celebration of the unknown – the stalker distrusts the unknown as they step into a strange and hostile terrain. In Roadside Picnic, stalkers must tread with caution: they follow a map, or follow a leader, seldom daring to tread new or uncharted routes. As Redrick Schuhart discovers, veering even a few steps from the approved path could mean stumbling across some new and undocumented terror.
Watching these stalkers interacting with the Chernobyl Zone, I was reminded of something a Russian friend had told me once; that where Westerners see potential, Russians see risk. By way of example, he offered the word “chainsaw”. In English, the word tells us what it is, and what it can do. Meanwhile, the corresponding Russian word – “benzopily,” literally meaning “gas saw” – describes what the privilege will cost you.
As the weekend went on, I noticed that the Russians in our group didn’t just treat the terrain with undisguised enmity; there also seemed to be an element of fearful respect in their behaviour. They would follow the tour leader religiously, and with complete obedience. If an area was introduced as off-limits, then the order would be respected. If they fell behind the group, they would rush to catch up. There was a defining sense of solidarity.
My own behaviour must have stood out in stark contrast; I was forever wandering off, or sneaking into restricted areas when no one was looking. Given my limited Russian, on most occasions they simply assumed that I’d misunderstood a warning.
The Ukrainians, meanwhile, were a different breed to their Russian cousins.
While I usually take pleasure in challenging cultural stereotypes (for a great example, check out this weekend I spent in a Baltic forest with a bunch of tee-total, dreadlocked Russian hippies), on this occasion the differences between these groups were drawn as clearly as a line in the radioactive dust. Where many of the Russians (and particularly the young men) were loud and brash, the Ukrainians were more often solemn and reflective. At one point I watched a Ukrainian girl scolding two Russians for leaving their empty beer bottles behind in the bushes.
Then there was the group who decided to come in costume: three young Russians had arrived for the tour dressed up in hazmat suits, and my initial assumption was one of paranoia on their part. As it transpired however, this was just another part of the game. They pulled faces as they posed for photos in their protective clothing, or mimicked moves from the music video to Intergalactic, a track by US hip-hop band the Beastie Boys.
While their confidence, their swagger, seemed to belie a sense of authority in the Zone, it felt to me as though it was left for the Ukrainians to mourn the tragedy; while any blame for this scenario belonged to a political entity long since dissolved. Even our Ukrainian tour guide would express exasperation from time to time, by shaking his head, or rolling his eyes at his boisterous Russian clients.
Fruits of the Red Forest
Sat outside the Chernobyl Hotel on Saturday evening, we got chatting, briefly, to our hostess; a Ukrainian woman who had lived in the region as a child, until being evacuated along with everyone else. Fifteen years ago, she decided to come back. Now living in Chernobyl village, she manages the Chernobyl Hotel and presumably makes a regular income from the hundreds of dark tourists who’ll visit the site in any given month.
There were apple trees growing around us in the garden, their fruit dropping into the long grass where they rotted and drew wasps. My friend was joking, I think, when she asked if the apples were edible; our host seemed to find the question strange.
“Of course they are,” she insisted. “I’ve been eating them for fifteen years.”
And so, in the name of scientific enquiry, the two of us picked juicy-looking apples from the tree and ate them. The fruit tasted fine, and I felt nothing – that is, until I woke up the next morning.
I didn’t sleep well at the Chernobyl Hotel – between a hard bed and a cold draught coming in through the window frame – and when I woke up, I found I was barely able to move. There was a sharp pain in my lower back every time I tried, which felt like an electric current shooting down the length of my spine.
With a little effort I managed to get myself up, pack my bags and get to the bus; but the pain stayed with me. We visited Pripyat again in the morning, where I tried to block out the feeling in order to make the most of my surroundings. The sensation grew more debilitating though, as time went on.
By lunchtime, as we sat down to a meal of borscht, hard bread, schnitzel and salad in the Chernobyl workers’ canteen, I was becoming vaguely aware of a metallic taste in my mouth – though whether it was real, or a product of mind-numbing pain and hypochondria, I couldn’t rightly say.
My imagination began to run riot – there were moments when I was literally convinced that I was suffering from radiation poisoning – but throughout the course of the day, two facts served to keep me at least relatively grounded. Firstly, my friend and fellow fruit-eater was completely unaffected (what if Ukrainians are just different? my imagination was nagging. What if they have a higher tolerance to this stuff?).
The second factor, and perhaps the more telling, were the radiation tests that we underwent on entering the canteen.
Despite being given the all-clear however, the pain grew worse all afternoon. I was experiencing sharp spasms in my lower back, that I could feel building up for a few minutes before suddenly erupting into a lightning bolt of pain which would shoot down my body with a painful jolt.
Over the course of the day I became gradually less mobile… so that by the time we left the Zone at around 8pm, and the bus pulled up alongside a beautiful, socialist-realist monument bearing the Chernobyl town name, I couldn’t even drag myself off the vehicle to get a photo of it.
Queueing up at the checkpoint, I followed the rest of the group as we washed our boots in the shallow water bath, then stepped one after another into the final radiation scanner. As my turn came up, I could feel cold sweat pricking my brow, under the impassionate gazes of the armed security personnel who stood around us in the small border control building. I stepped up to the machine, my legs shaking, and placed one hand on either side of the metal apparatus in front of me.
I was terrified that an alarm would go off. Part of me was convinced by this point, that I had become contaminated… and that a flashing red light would lead to my immediate detainment and subsequent quarantine. I held my breath, pressed against the metal panels, and… nothing. The soldier in front simply waved me on through.
Back on the bus we cleared the checkpoint, and pulled out onto the long road to Kiev. The intense pain would stay with me for a few more days, easing into a more manageable discomfort which lasted for around a week. I sought medical advice, to be told it was nothing more than a pinched nerve; likely a result of all that climbing over rooftops and up rusted fire escapes, further aggravated by an uncomfortable, cold night at the hotel.
So as it turns out, the apple I ate in Chernobyl village had been fine. My personal advice though, if you’re planning a trip, is not to eat the fruit… the radiation might not get you, but the paranoia will.
I have a photographer friend who visits Pripyat – almost religiously – every year. The Zone did not offer that same kind of appeal for me, though. When I take photographs I like to feel that I’m capturing something; a fleeting moment, a memory, a story. While Pripyat remains one of the most photogenic places that I’ve seen, it nevertheless offers none of these things.
Don’t kid yourself. For every photograph you take in Pripyat, there are a thousand other photographers who have that exact same shot. You are not capturing a moment of history – you’re simply replicating a pretty scene that was more than likely constructed purely for your benefit… and as a means to take your money. Pripyat is not a time capsule, and neither is it, strictly speaking, a ‘ghost town’: but rather it’s a kind of radioactive Disneyland, the ultimate photographers’ boot camp.
With that said, I would highly recommend a visit to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone for anyone interested in learning about one of the most significant events of 20th century history; not just from a scientific perspective, but also political – the repercussions having caused a shockwave which was felt throughout the ailing USSR, while subsequent clean-up efforts helped to forge stronger humanitarian bonds between a post-Soviet Russia and the West.
Go to Chernobyl. Visit the reactors. Talk to the locals. Admire the revolutionary design of a model socialist city, with its broad, tree-lined streets, its abundance of schools and hospitals and cultural institutions. There is history here, there is meaning, significance and there is tragedy – but these things are not to be found in the surface debris of gas masks and children’s toys.