Seven months ago eight of us went in search of adventure in Kazakhstan. Courtesy of our Kazakh friend’s willingness to be a translator again, this month the group took a trip to another former soviet nation. Two Iranians, a Kazakh, an Indian, a Kiwi, an Aussie and two Brits flew to the Ukraine, to learn a bit about the city of Kiev and the site of Chernobyl, one of the world’s biggest Nuclear disasters to date.
It’s important to stress here – a trip to Chernobyl is not out of morbid fascination with something dark or for the sake of our Instagram feeds. A visit to Auschwitz or the Somme is about paying respect to an element of the incredible tapestry of what humans are capable of. Chernobyl is not the site of a battle, but a deadly accident borne out of bold ambition. It was not horrific immediately, but the processes of its cover up, the sheer power of nuclear radiation and the fact that we still cant fathom its affects – all of this is worth seeing and attempting to understand. The Ukraine is a fascinating, inviting country that hosts Chernobyl, not proudly, but stoically and honestly, as a major part of its past.
Like much of the Eastern block, the Ukraine is profoundly affected by its Soviet history. But pre-Berlin Wall, contrary to glimpses shaped by Hollywood and bombastic Presidents and Prime Ministers – Ukranians, Kazakhs, Azerbaijanis, Tajikhs, Georgians, Slovenians and Belarussians were not brought up to feel like they were ‘the bad guys.’
Whatever ways history may interpret the soviet era, the Ukraine is a country that flits between centuries of European kingdoms, the odd Viking or Mongolian invasion, and the brutalist architecture of soviet determination. In the mix is Kiev, a dignified city of wide gridded streets, between rolling hills and a large river. It reaches from high-rise concrete estates littered with monumental street art, to neo classical and baroque columns around grandiose empirical buildings that are now home to Sushi and Starbucks.
The capital is full of contrasts: fashionable monochrome ladies in red lipstick beside ex-soldier-boys with severe 90s haircuts; hipster bars and vintage speak-easies next to brutalist institutions; swirling art-nouveau facades of naked ladies flanked by political busts of serious men; ornate orthdodox cathedrals beside confiscated Russian tanks; bowls of Borsch and dumplings, and fusion restaurants that deserve all the Michelin stars; gypsies holding prize-chickens for photographs, and Putin’s face on toilet-roll; many, many men called Vladimir and cats with biological-weapon-breath.
There were also a lot of directional arm gestures. We needed to calm down.
We got a guide and a mini bus, and made a very big day-trip.
Chernobyl is a 2.5 hour ride out of town. It wasn’t the main reason for the trip to Kiev, but a destination none of us could argue against. We expected an abandoned city, two-headed mice, maybe some yellow smoke, men in gas masks, craters in the ground and apocalyptic signs – basically a 90s music video.
On the bus, our cheery guide described a time when the whole of Europe teetered on the brink of annihilation, and events that triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union, with a massive smile on his face.
In 1986 the Chernobyl disaster started as a fire in reactor number 4 of the Chernobyl Power Plant. Along with Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011, it ranks as one of only two “Level 9” events – the maximum classification.
Chernobyl began as a nuclear power station built from 1970 onwards, in use from 77 to 2000, well after 86. Contrary to popular belief or selective memory, the accident was not the equivalent of one sudden nuclear bomb, but about thirty Hiroshimas, and not sudden at all, but a week-long disaster that affects a much broader expanse of Europe than the towns of Pripyat and Chernobyl.
The slow release of radiation; triggered by a fire – triggered by an overnight safety-test; released a plume of radioactivity into European air for several days. The world had never experienced anything like this, so Mikhail Gorbachev’s all-seeing government would not have known where to start. It was the civilian emergency services that would bare the brunt, and pay with their lives, from firefighters to helicopter pilots and hospital staff.
A bit like the Ghostbusters scene when the fire-station reactor is shut down, radioactive fumes flowed into the atmosphere, drifting over Europe, – only these took an entire week, and were invisible, with up to 60% settling in Belarus. Local authorities didn’t notice the fire was blazing within the reactor until a journalist & photographer flew over it in a helicopter the following day. Russia failed to alert the international community until Swedish Nuclear Power-station workers across the sea triggered their radiation detectors upon entering their workplace, rather than exiting. Sweden contacted Denmark, Norway and Finland, and the Russian Government now had to put its hands up.
Pripyat was built as Nuclear town from 1970 onwards, close to the plant, to house workers and their families. Its 50,000 residents had 16 years to get used to their burgeoning community: its supermarkets, restaurants, schools, nurseries, sports stadium, fairground, before being calmly uprooted without explanation.
Today, two of the most radioactive parts of the town are the middle of the playground and the hospital; two points where the first respondents were first brought to; helicopter pilots and firefighters. As human carriers of unprecedented levels of radiation, their presence in the hospital endangered the lives of hospital staff too. At first they showed what looked like burns, then vomiting, and were each given hours… The hospital staff would have months, and often years before they would feel the effects, but they would feel them. These were areas we could not access.
In the first days, residents had been advised to stay indoors, as shelter was better, and wind initially led the fallout away from the town, but as the wind changed, thousands of families and their animals were quietly led away from their homes. People came back over the months and years to collect precious items, but what is left now, among the decaying wall-paper, dusty children’s toys, jars in cupboards, broken pianos and decomposing sofas, is a memorial to our precarious life on this planet – the life we’ve built for ourselves, with its invisible, but invincible threats around us.
A thin but established forest now dances over Pripyat. Shrubs scribble over its once-busy tarmac’d streets, with strange red beetles zagging between fag-butts and rotting wood. Street lamps stand quietly in clusters of trees the same height, and there’s a reverence to the place, but as we run around it, absorbing signs of 1986 soviet life, a sense of pride. I don’t know whether it was the blue sky, or our collective quiet wonder, but Pripyat is not macabre, or even sombre.
It’s not a place of death, torture or violence. It’s the centre of a much wider place that was exposed, betrayed by a lack of honesty, but that still shows its heart and faces. Forced to react, with thousands of lives uprooted and transplanted, the place is a monument of truths, and of transience. Just as Pompei is a glimpse into a distant, deadly past, Pripyat is a frame of nearer catastrophic times, but still very human and very real. As the trees take over the schoolyards, and vines creep into the supermarket, it’s eerily beautiful, a poignant reminder that humans are not permanent, infallible, or gods.
For now, a second “Sarcophagus” sits over the reactor, said to be able to last 100 years. The site is teaming with industrial workers and soldiers, who look nonchalantly at the wide-eyed tourists. Down the road is ‘the red forest’ – where much of the most radioactive land was exposed shallowly, – a large expanse where much of the initial airborne radioactivity landed, where the hand-held scanner in our guide’s hand bleeped ferociously.. The bottoms of the trees are black – and birds freely land, nest, and fly away to other areas. For now, it costs billions to take care of the sarcophagus – generations of Ukrainians will have to worry about the forest later. So for that reason, tourist dollars directly contribute to the upkeep of the site.
31 deaths are attributed to Chernobyl, among the emergency workers and reactor staff. A UN report attributes 64 deaths as of 2008, although the toll is expected to reach 4000 among those exposed to the highest levels; 200,000 emergency workers; 116,000 evacuees and 270,000 residents of the most contaminated areas.
But here’s the kicker. The fateful reactor was number 4, with reactors 5 and 6 under construction, and another 6 planned. The reactors powered nearby cities and towns, yes, but that kind of power would need a very maximum of two reactors – not twelve. About a 45-minute drive from the plant, we were taken to a huge construction of space-age rows of telegraph wires, some 150m in height, by 300m in length – a rigid series of conical cages, ladders, platforms and wires, pointed unashamedly towards the United States. In full view, NATO would have been aware, but people are still confused over its purpose, if it is purely a colossal listening device, or the potential to be much more.
Known as “The Russian Woodpecker”, the structure was in action, interfering with radio waves and airwaves for decades, right up until 1989 and the end of the Cold War.. Popular local belief is that, with a possible six more reactors, the intention was to do much, much more than simply listen, (and here I picture Alan Moore’s ending of “The Watchmen”). The guide explained the amount of power that would be needed to create a weapon that could control the weather – and with incredible amounts of nuclear power under your control – why not?
It was by reaching so far, and literally to the sky, that one of the biggest, and most powerful empires the world has seen, collapsed. One crack – one accidental fire, that cost 16 billion dollars to address, and then fix, back in 1986. Its expense was crippling, and that in turn, transformed the lives of millions across the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Estonia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and many more.
Today, the Ukraine relies on Nuclear power for 60% of its energy supplies, and with it’s ability to take away dependency of fossil fuels and natural resources, and to power entire cities fast, without a viable sustainable alternative, nuclear power is going nowhere. As a global populace, its up to us to understand how to take care of it, harness it, and live with the consequences if we can’t.
Heading back to the city, the combination of Kiev and Chernobyl was a mind-opening trip that hadn’t been what any of us expected. We expected a pretty European city with a smattering of communism and a clash of cultures, with Vodkas in our hands. We expected a bomb site full of horror stories and post apocalyptic film sets.
Instead we found quiet, inspired stories from strong people full of contrasts; a task to attempt to understand even just a tiny bit, a myriad of different types of beauty, different sides of history, solid handshakes with hidden attentiveness. And of course, a trip across a planet that can perfectly cover our steps if it needs to, and we could so easily force its hand.