March in Chernobyl
Today I visited Chernobyl and the neighboring city of Pripyat as part of a larger tour. Generally I dislike pre-arranged tours. The spontaneity tends to be lost while shuffling on and off a bus and ensuring that everyone has been adequately fed, watered and winded. However the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is guarded by the (apathetic) military, and you must provide some reason for being there, such as being part of a sanctioned tour.
If you google “Chernobyl tour” you’ll find many companies flogging itineraries that take you around the most iconic sights. Your choice doesn’t matter since your guide will be an official employee of the “State Agency of the Exclusion Zone” (ДАЗВ) — only the driver is hired by the tour company. I chose a 2 day tour that promised a rigorous and immersive survey with overnight accommodation, cooked meals, and a free postcard.
We began by meeting in front of the KFC in Kiev, a sort of glowing beacon outside the central train station, Kiev-Pasazherski. Here I met a pair of Canadians and a Belgian with a tripod. We sipped coffee and talked about how frightening the city was. The Canadians were very friendly 30-somethings, goateed and jangling with piercings . They had gotten radiation tattoos together the night before. The Belgian was a quiet and tall photojournalist.
At 8:00 we met Tanya, our sanctioned guide who spoke surprisingly good English. After distributing pamphlets and collecting $350/person, she happily showed us to a mini-bus. Already on board were a 4-pack of portly Germans and a pair of gay Argentinians. With minimal introduction we set off to the north and enjoyed the grim spectacle of Kiev and its satellite villages out the window. In a word, I would describe them as Soviet. You would never know that it was 2016, let alone the 21st century. Crumbling apartment blocks that appeared to be simultaneously abandoned and inhabited. Ancient diesel pickup trucks parked at corners, often with a guy bent under the hood with a wrench. Yellowed advertisements with tragically ambitious captions, like “Authentic Italian Restaurant Experience”. Round-faced, cross-legged women sat at benches waiting for the bus, looking a kind of depressed you didn’t know was possible. In all directions was a plane of gruesome grey concrete below, and a blanket of snow falling from above — sandwiched. When I asked Tanya what the #1 job opportunity was for graduating university students, she said “emigration”.
Having painted such an awful and contemptuous picture of the city, I would like to qualify it by saying I am not convinced the conditions are due to poverty so much as a cultural identity of contradiction. The Ukrainians I saw had iPhones, dentistry, Pringles and Honda CrVs. They didn’t smile, but it is considered rude to smile. They hustled and bustled through the train station and packed into metros with great vigor. Ukrainian flags appeared everywhere as jacket patches, car decals, window dressings and product branding — all worn with pride. Considering a complete nationwide revolution took place only 3 years ago whose proxy war is still smoldering in the East, I would say the capital seems to be in remarkable condition.
We stopped at a gas station. I bought a half liter of bottled water for about 10 Grivna, a colorful monopoly-like currency that currently trades at around 24 to a dollar. I handed her a single 200 note and received a fistful back. The Germans bought cakes which they later learned had expired. Meanwhile I bravely held on to a conversation in Russian with Tanya, who taught me that Russian and Ukrainian truly are two different languages. She said my speaking skills were excellent — a brazen lie which I secretly hoped revealed amorous intentions, given how attractive she was.
Setting off again we were shown a documentary about the disaster on the bus. The technical events are very complicated, but the short story is that about 10 different remote possibilities simultaneously became a reality. Initially, the government denied that anything unusual had happened as a poison gas cloud descended upon Europe. After people’s eyes started turning black, the government admitted there had been a malfunction. The crux of the issue was the remaining white hot smoldering core, which was releasing deadly smoke and ash into the atmosphere. The response reminded me of BP’s fumbling during the Gulf Oil Spill, in which a succession of loony ideas were attempted in great panic at terrible cost to life, the environment, and international reputation. First, water was poured on it. This created toxic steam and a pool underneath the building. The pool was then drained, lest the molten mass seep through the floor and hit it all at once to create a 5 mT explosion. Robots were sent in, but malfunctioned from the radiation. More robots were sent in to destroy the other robots. Helicopters poured boric acid from above. This cooled the mass, but poisoned the ground water. Fleets of lead-clad soldiers were sent in for 5 minute shifts to shovel toxic material off the roof. Finally, a massive iron “sarcophagus” was built around the reactor to contain the toxicity and protect it from rain. Officials knew that many of the 500,000 men who did this work would suffer radiation poisoning, but there was no better way. 18 billion rubles later (1 RUB = 1 USD in 1986 money), the disaster is often cited as one of the contributing factors to the fall of the Soviet Union.
Soon we hit the first checkpoint at the 30 km exclusion zone. They knew Tanya and after a cursory glance at our passports let the bus through. We stopped to take pictures at signs and memorial statues until making our way to the town center. I wandered away from the group to investigate some caved in houses where I found and pocketed a newsletter hailing from 1986. I was later given a light scolding from Tanya for having wandered.
Surprisingly, around 150 people later returned to Chernobyl and live there today. I met a man and his dog briefly at the local Church where he was pumping ground water. The only word I could make out on the Church was Бог, or Bog, which means god. I didn’t have the heart or the language skills to ask him why he was still here. We exchanged pleasantries and I put a few Grivna in the collections box.
Next was the frozen Pripyat river. A pile of used liquor bottles lined the embankment, most probably left by contemporary workers in the area. Tanya said this had prompted the building of five local bars. The workers are currently focused on building sarcophagus #2, which will encapsulate the first and perhaps herald the opening of the 30 km exclusion zone as a national park in 2017. It is a massive steel dome that will be pushed over the first and welded shut. It is a miserable job in a miserable place. “But they receive high salaries in compensate! It is enviable!” Tanya told me. Perhaps this is true. They are men and should not be pitied. I believe this all reveals the fundamental nature of Soviet thought, which I am calling the Matryoshka Theory.
To solve a problem, create a large encompassing solution. Do not worry about the ramifications — you can always solve your solution with a bigger solution! That solution will in turn provide a livelihood for your children. And so on, until we either win the war or meet the end of time.
We were taken to our hotel for a spot of lunch. I had chicken soup, a damn good pizza, a chicken cutlet with cheese, and a bottle of water. I was stuffed and would later burn all of those calories shivering. The next stop and last in Chernobyl was a kindergarten. This marked the beginning of the “urban decay” part of the trip. In front of the kindergarten was a foreboding radiation sign, which Tanya said was “exaggerated”. As we stepped off the bus and walked through the garden, our complimentary Geiger counters went off in unison, flashing a microsieve count jumping in orders of magnitude. Tanya showed us how to change the threshold for beeping and reassured us that our exposure was equal to that of a 6 hour flight. The kindergarten was in excellent terrible condition, with multiplication tables and one-eyed dolls tastefully strewn about. I suspect it has suffered some arrangement and posturing by well-intentioned photographers, but the experience still felt plenty authentic. The fact that the contents of the room had not been gathered and hung in a museum or sold to a collector made me feel guilty for having taken the newsletter. Stepping back outside I attempted to walk around the building but was warned not to by one of the Germans, as the soil was still quite radioactive and particles would cling to my shoes. The trees and snowfall were especially atmospheric.
The next stop was Pripyat, which required crossing the 10km exclusion zone (another checkpoint). Here we could finally see the reactors and sarcophagus in the distance. Taking pictures is forbidden, a rule that stopped no one. Our Geiger counters again went off the charts at about a kilometer away. Along the road we saw workers making their way towards a bus stop. They wore military clothing (“purely for warmth” said Tanya) and thick beanies. They wore Geiger counters but no protective gear. Shifts would rotate every 15 days in deference to some research that had shown a 2 week break for radiation exposure allowed the body time to heal. After picture time we passed on through to the town square in Pripyat.
Tanya told us that we would be walking around for several hours and to take everything we needed. I wasn’t prepared for being in the cold for that long, but I also knew that walking through creepy buildings was what I paid for. The cold hurt a lot at first, but after a half hour, after I “lost my heat”, it stopped registering. We crossed through the town square and investigated an old grocery store. The facade was totally blown out. Inside trolleys were turned up and the freezers had grown black mold. A pile of decomposing sofas laid in the bread department for some reason. The back corridors were long and black and made for some very fun exploring. Pieces of broken machinery were also strewn about. I’m not sure how it had gotten to that state — I suspect looters. Eventually I found myself standing above a loading station, with a massive apartment block crowned with a hammer and sickle in the distance.
I was split off from the group and really needed to pee. After desecrating a pine, I caught up with them in the theater. It was connected with a sports hall and library, and seemed almost designed for creepiness. Tattered banners with the heads of by-gone soviet figures hung limply from fallen poles. A bizarre concrete fungus dripped from the ceiling in stalactites. I walked up stairways and got completely lost among the ruins. At one point, I kicked in a door and heard a groan from above. A collapsed air duct was precariously balanced on its frame and was in danger of severing my head. Carefully I made my way past and walked through a library or culture center or something, where old textbooks formed a red carpet over the decaying floorboards. A colorful mural depicting women carrying baskets of bread communicated boundless hope.
I finally caught up with the group in the gymnasium. The fat German woman was very upset. “Could you please tell us when you leave the group?” I told her I had been lost, and she said something unkind about me to her friend in German. I almost retorted, but decided to let it go. Bog later smote her with aching feet, and she remained hobbled in the bus for the rest of the trip. I believe she was brought against her will by more adventuresome friends, and would have much preferred lounging in a beach chair to poking about dilapidated buildings in the cold.
At this point I was tired and super-uncomfortable. My head was frozen and I had long given up trying to keep my nose dry. My feet hurt and I was starving. We headed back to a cold bus that began to fog with puffs of breath. I felt grateful and began to count down the minutes until we returned to our hotel. But the day was not over — Tanya was hell bent on giving us our money’s worth.
Next was a gynecology, which of course served as a bed ward during the disaster. As mortally poisoned workers flooded back in droves from the reactor, the hospital staff was faced with the difficult question of what would be done with their contaminated corpses. Step 1 was to remove their clothing, which was dumped in the basement until someone could come up with a better idea. Over the next 30 years no one did. Today this basement is one of the few “hotspots” left in Chernobyl. Recently the entrances have been blocked with pits of sand to ward off curious imbeciles. Other than that, the gynecology was more of the same — dark crumbling water-damaged corridors, rotting mattresses and wooden furniture, rusting baby cribs stacked in an agonizing, gnarled pose. A surgery room still had some shattered equipment in position for procedure. For me, this was the least creepy building we had been in so far. I was greatly impressed with the sophistication of Soviet medical care, and left the ward entirely unspooked.
Finally a middle school had been saved as the best for last. By this point we were running out of daylight, so our exploring needed to be done quickly. The first sight was an enormous pile of gas masks thrown in a corner. I have no idea why they were there; I suspect they may have simply been standard issue cold war gear for the classroom, and had nothing to do with the disaster. More textbooks, more one-eyed toys. I made my way upstairs and found a science lab with broken beakers, satellite posters, and botany diagrams. Half finished circuit boards. Language rooms with colorful grammar charts and heaving bookshelves. Ghost portraits of famous writers burned into walls, presumably as murals had dissolved. As my eyes moved delicately across the decor, I began to feel, to my own great surprise, a heaving sadness swell in my heart. This school seemed so enthusiastic, so well equipped to spark and delight children’s minds. For the first time on the tour my perspective shifted. It stopped being an interactive museum. This was once a burgeoning and passionate community that had erected an incredible amount of infrastructure. This was their home, and they had cared deeply for it. I tried explaining to Tanya, but she didn’t understand why I was getting so sentimental. “All Soviet schools were like this.”