“No one believed the first newspaper reports, which patently understated the scale of the catastrophe and often contradicted one another. The confidence of readers was re-established only after the press was allowed to examine the events in detail without the original censorship restrictions. The policy of openness (glasnost) and ‘uncompromising criticism’ of outmoded arrangements had been proclaimed at the 27th Congress, but it was only in the tragic days following the Chernobyl disaster that glasnost began to change from an official slogan into an everyday practice. The truth about Chernobyl that eventually hit the newspapers opened the way to a more truthful examination of other social problems” -Boris Kagarlitsky, Russian Marxist theoretician, sociologist and political dissident.
Easing into Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone
Just over 32 years ago, on April 28th, 1986, Reactor 4 suffered a steam explosion and subsequent graphite fire at the Chernobyl nuclear facility outside the town of Pripyat in what was then the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic. It was the first nuclear incident of its kind and the world wouldn’t see another disaster like it until the Fukushima blast in 2011, decades later.
In 2002 it was decided that the radioactivity levels had decreased enough that the country started offering up a chance for those with an interest in the macabre to come take guided tours around the ‘exclusion zone’, the 30 kilometre area around the power plant that had been most heavily affected by the incident.
Visiting Chernobyl and the exclusion zone is eerie above all things. Dilapidated homes being taken back by nature, new plant life bursting through the floors while the leftover detritus of lives lived crumbles inside of houses that will never be recovered. Abandoned playgrounds that haven’t heard the laughter of children in going on forty years. Old cinemas and theatres and gyms all descending into mould and dust.
We visited this desolate place in early May, on a day that was overcast but still hot and sticky, an unfortunate combination when the dress code for visiting consists of long sleeves, trousers and closed toed shoes with socks.
For me the hardest part of visiting was going inside the derelict homes.
When the area around Pripyat and Chernobyl was abandoned, citizens were told to only take enough for 3 days. The idea of leaving your home – your belongings, your beloved pets, and everything else important to you – while thinking you’ll be back soon, not knowing you’ll never return…it breaks my heart to think about it.
Stepping into an dilapidated apartment block ratchets up the sense of eerie abandonment. Jon and Penny ventured all the way to the top floor, where in one of the flats they found a piano gone to rot, tinkling out a few off-key notes before coming down to join me outside. I found going into homes and apartments overwhelming. However, going into shared spaces was different – less emotional somehow.
I think one of the things easily forgotten when discussing Chernobyl is the fact that Pripyat wasn’t some large, bustling city. It was a town of fewer than 50,000 that had been founded as a “nuclear city” in 1970, and it was full of young people – power plant workers in their 20s and 30s, plus their families. It was surrounded by nearly 90 traditional small villages, and many of the people who lived in the surrounding villages had never lived anywhere else. Elderly folks living in their cottages, tending their plots of land and scraping their living from the earth were forced out of their homes, lied to, lost everything they owned and were never allowed to go back after the evacuation. How confusing it all must have been! And then to watch the people they knew and loved die around them, right after the disaster but also regularly, consistently as the years have passed, from radiation-based illnesses, all while the government denied that was what was happening.
Walking into areas like the cultural centres were completely fascinating. These perfectly encapsulate Soviet life, as cultural centres were the big shared buildings where everyone went for their leisure activities. One that we saw included a cinema (old posters of Soviet area stars sat in piles on the floor, leaning haphazardly against the wall), a theatre, and a gymnasium complete with pummel horse and basketball hoop.
It was during our walk through the cultural centre that I asked our tour guide, Maxim, what things had been like for him when the Soviet Union collapsed, and heard the heartbreak in his voice as he pined for a an era that disappeared for him overnight, and a time when he had been happy. He wasn’t from Chernobyl or the surrounding area, but I think that it is easy to connect these two incidents – Chernobyl in 1986 followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 – in terms of a great life-changing catalyst for the inhabitants of Ukraine. All of this was completely out of their control, and yet they were the ones most effected by it all.
After a morning spent driving north from Kiev and then meandering through abandoned villages, we made our way to the actual town of Chernobyl. Our visit was on a strange day, essentially the opposite of when most visitors go, as we’d somehow been allowed to book our visit for a day when other tour groups were cancelled due to the fact that it was a memorial day of sorts. This was one day of the year when the former residents of Chernobyl were allowed to come back and see their old homes, and pay their respects to those they’d lost. We were the only foreigners on tour that day, and we felt very much like the outsiders that we were. Old Soviet military tunes were blasted at full volume in the centre of town, across the street from a larger than life statue of Lenin.
After a lovely lunch (it was included as part of our tour – it is still not possible to eat food grown in Chernobyl, but the food served to tourists is the same as that eaten by the current Chernobyl workers, and it’s shipped in from Kiev), we headed back out of the town to give the visitors their peace. Our tour guide was very insistent that we stay out of everyone’s way and of course we agreed with him! Even these photos weren’t taken during the day, as Maxim had our driver take us back to these spaces before our 7pm curfew for leaving the heavily militarized exclusion zone. He hoped that most of the families would have left by then.
The statue seen here is another statue to the men who put out the fire that burned for days from Reactor 4. Chunky and more brutalist than it looks here, the plaque in the front says “For those who saved the world”.
Those who worked clean up for Chernobyl were called “bio-robots”. They died very soon after.
Duga Radar Centre
Because of this strange day we’d shown up on, our itinerary was very different to what usually happens. There was no Pripyat, no abandoned amusement park, and no close up of Reactor 4 in its new sarcophagus. Personally, I wasn’t bothered by any of that. The exclusion zone is 30 kilometres, after all, and these places mean something to the people who used to live there, so making space for them was obviously of utmost importance. Our changed up day meant we spent a bit more time after lunch at the Duga Radar Centre.
Duga was an extremely powerful, extremely massive radar system nearly 1000 feet tall, also known as the “Russian Woodpecker” by short wave listeners during the Cold War due to the tapping noises they made over the wires. On official maps it was listed as a children’s summer camp. It was most definitely not a children’s summer camp.
There were two Duga systems, one in Siberia, and one in Chernobyl. Before the disaster, the one in Chernobyl was unknown to the outside world despite having been built in the mid 1970s, and operational since then. There are still quite a few conspiracy theories floating around today about the true purpose of the station and its surrounding complex, with the theories ranging everywhere from environmental disruption to mind control experimentation. As with so much of the exclusion zone, it is a fascinating place, intent on keeping its own secrets.
After several hours wandering around the Duga system and being eaten alive by mosquitos (I’m not sure about the radiation levels of mosquitos in Chernobyl, but they are persistent, whatever the case), it was finally time to go. We drove back down the long and winding road into Chernobyl town for a final look at the statues and monuments before hurrying to the checkpoint, where we were sent through machines that checked our radiation levels before being allowed to leave.
The hour and a half drive back to Kiev was quiet and contemplative. We were glad to leave the silence of the exclusion zone behind, and grateful to have been allowed to see it. That night we went out for a late dinner at a traditional Ukrainian restaurant near our hotel. We drank vodka, ate varenky and felt alive.
Things to know before you go to Chernobyl
- Don’t go in the late spring or summer! We were there in early May and it was already too hot. Mosquito season was in full swing, it was humid and muggy, and none of that goes well with the dress code – long sleeves, trousers, socks, and closed toed shoes. An autumnal visit (before it gets too cold) would be infinitely better.
- If you ARE going around when we did, perhaps skip the week or two around the anniversary of the accident (April 26th), to avoid memorials, visiting families, and government shutdowns.
- Stay low key dehydrated. There are very few opportunities to go to the bathroom during the day (and it’s a long, long day), so don’t drink too much water, or get drunk the night before in Kiev! With that being said also try to bring some toilet tissue with you too – when we did come across places they often didn’t have any. Hand sanitizer too.
- Remember where you are. I think sometimes it’s easy to get swept up in how fascinating it all is, but don’t forget that people died here, people lost family here and had their lives changed forever in this place. Be respectful. This isn’t a creepy amusement park (even the creepy amusement park, which technically is). And stay on the paths and/or where your guide tells you to go. Radioactivity is much higher in the grass and dirt.
- The only way to visit is by booking a tour. Chernobyl is highly protected. We chose to do a private tour (Jon and myself and our two friends) through Green Tours Ukraine and we would highly recommend it. These must be booked at LEAST ten days in advance, and no one can get past the checkpoint without the appropriate paperwork. The private option worked out really well as we had Maxim all day and everything was taken care of- we were picked up at our hotel in Kiev first thing in the morning, shown around the exclusion zone all day, fed a very satisfying lunch, and deposited back at our hotel around 9pm that evening.
- Read something about the disaster before you go to get to grips with what you’ll be experiencing. I read Chernobyl Prayer in the weeks leading up to our trip and it ripped my heart out. It was an incredibly difficult read, consisting of reflections of people who lived there and were affected by the disaster and it put everything in perspective for me. Even if you don’t prepare in any other way, please read this book.