'Look at the end of the world': American impressions of a trip to Chernobyl
In March 2020, Mark O'Connell specially for New York Times spoke about a trip to the Chernobyl exclusion zone, which took place before the coronavirus pandemic. Today, April 26, on the 35th anniversary of the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, we publish fragments of his history in the first person.
We were a hundred kilometers from the Zone, and my thoughts had already turned to death. It had nothing to do with radiation and related to traffic safety. I was driving in a minibus along the highway between Kiev and the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The bus was traveling at an alarming speed, and a driver and guide of about forty years named Igor was busy with extraneous business in his smartphone.
I happened to sit in front with Igor and his young colleague Vika, who was preparing to become an accredited guide. About 40 minutes north of Kiev, a screen came to life in front of us and began to show a film about the Chernobyl disaster. The video was conceived as a textbook and everyone was aware of the basic facts: how early in the morning of April 26, 1986, a safety test ended in an uncontrolled nuclear reaction; how it caused a fire in the reactor core, which burned for at least nine days; how the Soviet government subsequently created a no-go zone around the power plant; how about 130 people were evacuated, of which more than 000 were residents of Pripyat, the “city of the future” built for workers; how huge decontamination efforts required the demolition of entire cities, deforestation and burying them deep in poisoned soil.
My fears about the future - the likely catastrophic consequences of climate change, our vulnerability to all kinds of unthinkable disasters - have for some time turned into an obsession with the idea of an "apocalypse." I was on a kind of perverse pilgrimage: I wanted to see what the end of the world would look like. I wanted to wander through its ruins. I wanted to see something that could not have been seen otherwise, to examine the remains of the human era. The Zone presented this perspective more clearly and harshly than any other place I knew. This was my understanding. But then I did not understand that the future or something like that was closer. What I didn’t realize was that cities across the developed world would soon be locked down in an effort to suppress the spread of a deadly virus, an enemy as invisible and insidious as radiation, and as capable of destroying the essence of society in the blink of an eye.
You immediately feel the power of contradiction. The zone attracts and repels. Everything tells you that this is a place that is hostile and life threatening. And yet the dosimeter, which Igor held out for checking when we were standing by the bus at the border of the Zone, showed a radiation level lower than that which was recorded in Kiev, where we got on the bus in the morning. Except for some points, most of the Zone has relatively low levels of contamination. The outer part of the 30-kilometer zone - the radius of the abandoned land around the reactor itself - can hardly be called a barren hell.
You are immediately struck by the strange beauty of this place, the unbridled riot of nature, finally freed from your main achievement, your problem child. The road you are walking is cut with the carefree persistence of life breaking out, continuing. Midsummer, a hot day, the breeze whispers and butterflies fly over the ruins everywhere ... This is the colossal irony of Chernobyl: since this is the site of a huge ecological catastrophe, this region has been practically devoid of human life for several decades; it is actually a vast nature reserve.
Vika drew our attention to a low building with a collapsed roof. It used to be a shop where, among other things, you could buy ice cream. Three decades is a long time, but it was still impressive how completely nature took control of this place. In these ruins it was no easier to imagine people in jeans and sneakers eating ice cream than to imagine people in togas eating olives on the blown up avenues of Pompeii.
Guides are not allowed to lead people into buildings because there is a risk of collapse of structures. But if some do not, others do. Igor explained that the fate of the local tourism business hangs in the balance and depends on the nationality of the first person to be injured or killed during the tour. If Ukrainian, everything will be as usual. If a European, then the police will have to immediately stop guides who lead people into buildings. But in the worst case, an American. This, Igor said sarcastically, would mean the immediate termination of the entire enterprise.
The excursion got to the outskirts of the city and to an abandoned amusement park, the most recognizable sight of Pripyat. Cinematic view of the disaster: Ferris wheel, unused bumper cars for the game race, overgrown with moss, swaying boats, half destroyed by rust. The park's grand opening was scheduled to commemorate International Workers Day on May 1, 1986, so the park was never used. Radiation levels are generally quite safe, but in some areas they are high: for example, moss on typewriters contained a complex mixture of toxins. Wild dogs and cats may also pose a risk as they roam freely in parts of the Site that have not been disinfected.
In what was once an electronics store, the soles of our shoes crunched against the shattered glass of screens, and we used smartphones to capture the unsettling look of gutted old TVs. We walked around what had once been a record store, amid the chaos of decaying pianos. All this was weighed down by a sad allusion to the inevitable decline of the world, the internal obsolescence of our objects, our culture: the realization that everything that will survive with us is rubbish.
One of the fellow travelers suggested that the buildings must have been built in a hurry and badly from the beginning.
“No,” Igor replied, quickly brushing the insect off the shoulder of his camouflage jacket. "This is the future of all buildings."
The foyer of the school was strewn with thousands of textbooks and notebooks. Climbing the stairs, from which the railings had been removed long ago, I ran my hand along the wall so as not to fall, and felt the cracked paint under my fingers. I was 6 years old when the disaster struck. What did I remember about the time? Strange births, human bodies distorted beyond nature: images not of the catastrophe itself, but of its long and terrible consequences. I remembered the feeling of enchanted horror that was associated in my mind with communism and democracy, and the quarrel, which I understood as a struggle between good and evil, as well as with the idea of nuclear war, a sense of an unsuccessful future.
In the large classroom upstairs, toddler chairs were arranged in a circle, and on each sat a rotting doll or worn-out teddy bear. The visual effect was eerie enough, but what was really disturbing was the realization that this scene was carefully orchestrated by the visitor precisely in order to be photographed. And it got to the core of what I found creepy about the whole idea of catastrophic tourism, in which I was as involved as anyone who stood here.
I took a drawing with a dinosaur in my hands and was surprised with sadness at the thought that the child who painted this picture could not take it home to show it to parents; he had to leave it all, his school, his home, his poisoned world. And then I realized the strangeness of my presence here, the irregularity of myself as a figure in this scene: a person from the outside, from the post-apocalyptic future, holding this simple and beautiful picture in his hand and looking at it as an artifact of a collapsed civilization.
A special case among the ruins is Pripyat. Venice vice versa: fully interactive virtual rendering of the future world. This place is clearly of our time, but at the same time it is completely different. The city was built as an example of Soviet planning and ingenuity, an ideal place for a highly skilled workforce. Wide avenues lined with evergreen trees, vast city squares, modernist multi-storey residential buildings, hotels, places for sports and entertainment, cultural centers, playgrounds. The people who designed and built Pripyat believed that they were designing and building the future. This is a historical paradox that is too painful to consider.
The Zone is based on Reactor # 4. You don't see him. Not now, when it is enclosed in a huge dome. It is the largest mobile object on the planet, approximately 360 feet (110 m) high at its summit and 840 feet (256 m) wide. The dome is the result of a massive engineering project involving 27 countries. In November 2016, the finished dome was moved on rails over the original shelter, which it fully contained. Zone. Shelter object. Sarcophagus. From the Greek sark means flesh; phagus means to eat.
A couple of hundred meters away, there was an accumulation of fissile material that melted through the concrete floor of the reactor building to the basement below it, cooled and solidified into a monstrous mass that was called Elephant's Foot. It is arguably the most toxic object on the planet. This is the center of the Zone. It is extremely dangerous to be in his presence even for a short time. The hour would be fatal. As hidden as it was, its invisible presence radiated a flicker of the supernatural. Workers in construction helmets walked around the factory and left. It was lunch time. Place of work, usual place. But it is also a kind of holy place, where all the time shrank into a single physical point. The Elephant's Foot will always be here. She will remain here after the death of everything else, an eternal monument to our civilization.
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Wormwood is a shrub that occurs several times in the Bible, is mentioned in Revelation as a kind of curse, possibly the wrath of a vengeful God. Chernobyl is named after a plant that grows in abundance in this region (from the word “Chernobyl” or “common wormwood - Ed.). This question of linguistic curiosity is often raised in commentaries on the crash and its apocalyptic resonances.
Before returning to Kiev, we made a final stop at the cooling tower of Reactor # 5, a high concrete abyss that was nearing completion during the accident and has since remained abandoned. Once inside, we wandered, silently absorbing the immensity of the structure. The tower rose about 500 feet (over 150 m) into the air to a huge opening that surrounded the sky. Hundreds of meters overhead, two birds glided along the inner perimeter of the tower. I sat and looked at them for a long time. There was nothing apocalyptic in what I saw.
I thought that these birds could not know anything about this place. The zone did not exist for them. Rather, they knew it well, but their understanding had nothing to do with ours. This unthinkable monument to the conquest of nature was no different from trees, mountains and other lonely buildings on earth. For these whirling celestial ghosts, there was no distinction between humans and non-human beings. There was only nature. Only the world and what was in it remained.
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