On the drive to Chernobyl I stared out the window of my bus and, like a child or a mystic, projected meaning onto everything I saw.
I saw two dead blackbirds lying neatly together, and a few feet further up, what appeared to be a dead fox whose children were pawing at its corpse. Ordinary things, forest things, things I would not think twice about in the countryside at home in Ireland. I gazed at them in solemn awe until I remembered that animals are the success story of Chernobyl — its only victors.
People say that in the 32 years since the nuclear reactor disaster, during which this area of about 1,000 square miles has been almost totally devoid of human habitation, the animals have thrived. I read about this while preparing to leave for my trip, imagining a post-apocalyptic utopia, a lush, nearly silent paradise where deer and wild dogs wander and monstrously large catfish glide through the beautiful radiated waters.
“Many years ago, my grandmother read in the Bible that there would come a time on earth when everything would be lush, everything would blossom and bear fruit, the rivers would be teeming with fish, the forests full of animals, but man wouldn’t be able to use any of it.”
-Larisa Z., Voices from Chernobyl
I traveled to Ukraine in November 2018 to see the activation of an art project in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. I had heard about it only a week or so before I flew there, in a Facebook group for freelance journalists of which I’m a member.
The project — and the attendance of media at it, including me — was funded by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and called ARTEFACT. The press blurbs I was sent in advance of the trip were dense, imperfect translations: “In the post-truth era we need an information revolution, an appeal to conscious consumption and dissemination, stick to a media diet and strict media hygiene rules.”
I couldn’t quite tell if the blurbs were inscrutable in the way of most texts that accompany an artwork or if they were a different sort of meaningless. They spoke obliquely about fake news and media literacy, and the 1976 Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker (which foresaw a strictly protected uninhabitable post-apocalypse area named The Zone, and has become inextricably linked with Chernobyl). Two British journalists traveled from London as I did, and the remaining three busloads of media were from Ukraine and other Eastern European countries.
The nuclear reactor disaster of 1986 was the reason we were all there — there likely wouldn’t be any draw to a Ukrainian art project in another, un-ruined place — but nobody on the trip seemed quite willing to look it in the eye. Some of our guides appeared vaguely embarrassed by the mention of it. People on the bus made jokes about three-headed fish and radiation-induced impotence.
“Is there Wi-Fi in Chernobyl?” someone asked idly.
Our passports were checked at the military checkpoint on the border of what is called the “exclusion zone.” The exclusion zone is a thousand-mile radius around Chernobyl, established by the Soviet Armed Forces in the days following the disaster, in an attempt to limit public interaction with the highly radiated detritus and land. All residents of the area were evacuated, many against their wishes, but some made their way back home; it’s estimated between 200 and 300 people currently live there illegally.
A booth for tourists sold hot sandwiches and strawberry, vanilla and chocolate ice cream tubs with the label “Chernobyl Ice Cream,” as well as gas masks and T-shirts with lurid yellow illustrations of the symbol for radioactive danger. When one person in our group put their bag on the ground they were reprimanded: we were not to touch anything, not the ground, not the trees, not the adorable and friendly wild dogs who gathered around us, begging for scraps.
We assembled in front of the Monument to Prometheus, a statue originally erected in 1970 at the founding of the now-vacated city of Pripyat, about two kilometers from the Chernobyl reactor. The statue was decontaminated after the disaster and erected here a few yards from the nuclear reactor in a garden of remembrance. The architects of ARTEFACT, including its curator, Svetlana Kurshunova, and artist Valery Korshunov, greeted the press in Ukrainian. A guide translated on the fly for us three English-speaking journalists.
“Welcome to the exclusion zone. We have come here to change our history,” said Kurshunova. “The Zone is safe. We are here to make this place better, and to change the face of Chernobyl.”
I was still unclear on what the art project actually was, but my suspicion about its purpose was confirmed: it was a kind of rebranding exercise.
Korshunov, the artist, spoke next, about the need to encourage media literacy and defeat fake news. Later, over email, Korshunov told me how compromised the Ukrainian media landscape is.
“All the media in Ukraine belongs to the oligarchs. Some of them had business with Russia, some are involved in the conflict. [After the revolution] there were immediately held presidential elections and after that parliament elections. The media was boiling with fakes and scandals. Ukraine has become a testing ground for information technology which manipulates people.I can buy an article on a well-known political resource for 100 to 200 euros. There is no trusted news in our media.”
I was curious to know if the relevance of fake news to Chernobyl referred to Soviet suppression of the facts in 1986, or if they meant that the West spreads fake news now by insisting that Chernobyl is still uninhabitable. When I asked this question, I received only vague answers from a guide I spoke with, from our translator over dinner that evening, and from Korshunov when we later corresponded by email.
Most people of any political persuasion will now concede that Chernobyl was handled abominably by the Kremlin, which suppressed information and reacted with unacceptable indolence. Gorbachev took two weeks to publicly address the situation and, when he did, spent much of his speech arguing that foreign powers were exaggerating the seriousness of Chernobyl for strategic gain.
One survivor, as reported in the Svetlana Alexievich’s 1997 oral history Voices from Chernobyl, commented “Only good can happen in the USSR. Nothing bad, or inexplicable.” Post-revolution, Ukrainians are eager to talk about Soviet secrecy and all the harm it did. At ARTEFACT, they commemorated these failures, but seemed also to be insisting that The Zone is safe again. As part of the regeneration of Ukraine, there is a desire to move past the tragedy, to put a new face on Chernobyl.
“Some people do not want anything to pass in Pripyat. They see this place as too sad and tragic for any kind of event,” Korshunov told me. “Others want to change the alienation zone, fill it with new meanings. We hope that the activation of ARTEFACT will be the first point to rethink the tragedy of Chernobyl. Culture always helps to solve important social problems. We hope that cultural events will come to the Exclusion Zone and through art will open the feelings and emotions of nation.”
But there is a fatal contradiction at the heart of ARTEFACT; any attempt at rejuvenating the Exclusion Zone can only be symbolic. Though tourists are now allowed to pass through under strictly controlled conditions, there seems to me something sad in making the area fit for foreign visitors and press when those evacuated will never be allowed to return.
“I believe in history, the judgement of history … Chernobyl is not over. It has only just started.”
-Vasily Borisovich Nesterenko, former director of the Institute of Atomic Sciences, Voices from Chernobyl
It has thus far been impossible to know the truth about Chernobyl’s long-term effects. The deliberate minimization of risk by the Soviet Union played a part in this ignorance at first. Now, the statistical white noise of unrelated cancer deaths drowns out the disaster’s contemporary consequences. We will never know for sure how many people were killed or sickened by Chernobyl.
Some things are indisputable. At 1:23 a.m. on the April 26, 1986, one of Chernobyl’s four nuclear reactors exploded, instantly killing two plant workers. In the following weeks, 29 firefighters died of acute radiation poisoning; around 20 who assisted in clean-up efforts at the site would later die of radiation-related illnesses.
Radiated iodine was ingested by children through drinking milk from cows who had eaten contaminated grass in the first few weeks following the accident. The sale of milk was stopped in some cities, but with no government intervention, rural communities fended for themselves. Thyroid cancer spiked among children — iodine concentrates in the thyroid — although it appears that the vast majority recovered, with nine known deaths out of the 6,848 who became ill.
The reportage on Chernobyl’s consequences is astonishingly divergent. The World Health Organization estimates that 4,000 people who were either involved in the clean-up of the site or lived in the immediate area have died or will die from Chernobyl-related cancers. Anti-nuclear activists, such as the Australian physician Helen Caldicott, have said that the figure could be as high as 985,000. Pro-nuclear energy environmentalists like George Monbiot have convincingly disputed those inflated numbers.
Many people of my generation grew up in the ‘90s seeing distressing photographs from Chernobyl of horribly deformed children, lying in state asylums and orphanages. While the hellishness of these images is beyond question, their statistical significance is debated. Some argue that the perceived increase of deformities can be explained by selective media interest and increased reporting by parents and health-care professionals of infant anomalies.
“Newspaper reporters flocked to us, took photographs with cheap effects. The window of an abandoned home: they would put a violin on the sill and call it Chernobyl Symphony. There was no need to invent anything.”
-Viktor Latun, photographer, Voices from Chernobyl
The area where the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant once stood is not a visually arresting place; it’s more akin to a disused industrial site than a horror film. But Pripyat has become an iconic ghost city. Previously home to nearly 50,000 people, it was evacuated in its entirety on April 27, 1986. School books and gas masks still litter the classrooms, saucepans remain on long-cold stoves. It’s Chernobyl’s Pompeii, the area that the steady trickle of tourists allowed in since 2011 are most eager to photograph.
Before leaving our bus, we were told to put on faintly ludicrous white hazmat suits.
“To protect from… I don’t know what,” our guide said, drily.
I couldn’t imagine that these suits, which seemed barely adequate to paint a wall in, had much power to protect us from radiation. I felt a guilty squirm of excitement. And then I thought maybe that’s why we were told to wear them — maybe the guides wanted us to feel titillated by proximity of danger, maybe the suits are here to help us feel it.
Pripyat’s fairground is its most recognizable location, and one can see why. It’s almost too on-the-nose; symbols of innocence and play rotting in elegant disarray, melting into nature. One of the news crews moved over toward the carousel and a cameraman nudged it with his elbow so that it began to rotate eerily. They clucked approvingly and filmed as it released a keening, haunting noise.
In Voices from Chernobyl, a journalist describes how he and others fell into acting as though they were at war — war being a thing they could understand, and the experience of Chernobyl so alien:
I caught myself filming things exactly how I had seen them in the war films. And just then, I noticed I wasn’t alone: the other people involved in all this activity were behaving the same way. They were all searching for some form of behavior that we were already familiar with. We were trying to conform to something.
ARTEFACT turned out to be in Pripyat proper. We followed a path which had been cleared for us, past the old apartment buildings and the fairground, into the forest to a clearing. A large silver star-shaped object was at the center of this “digital sculpture.” It had screens in its middle, and was surrounded by lights and animations projecting onto the abandoned buildings. Clips of the Tarkovsky film Stalker and other archive footage were displayed on LED screens to a disarmingly jaunty Eurodance soundtrack.
I hung back by the fences to smoke, until a woman yelled at me in Russian to put out my cigarette. A group of men passing around a small bottle of vodka were also strongly reprimanded, but the language barrier meant that I didn’t know why — my best guess is that it’s dangerous to ingest anything in the more highly radiated parts of the zone like Pripyat. Feral cats mewled pathetically in the yard behind us. An older Ukrainian journalist commented to nobody in particular that the exhibit felt inappropriate, and some of his younger colleagues rolled their eyes. We stayed for an hour and a half, and then were shepherded to our bus and back to Kiev.
“Then suddenly it hit me: I couldn’t smell a thing. The orchard was in blossom, but there was no smell. It was only later I learned that the body reacts to high radiation levels by blocking certain senses. (...) I asked the others in my group, there were three of us, ‘Does the apple blossom smell?’ Something had happened to us. The lilac didn’t smell either. Even the lilac! And this sensation came over me that everything around was fake. I was in the middle of a stage set. And my mind wasn’t in a fit state to get to grips with this, it had nothing to fall back on. There was no map.”
-Surgey Gurin, cameraman, Voices from Chernobyl
Chernobyl is a story of absence, of negatives and unknowns. A World Health Organization report published three decades after the disaster in 2016 reported that the psycho-social impact of Chernobyl is the public health impact which affected the largest number of people:
A similar effect is now reported in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, that caused evacuation and relocation of large group of people, who lost their homes, jobs and were placed in temporary housing in shelters. Several international studies reported that Chernobyl-affected populations had anxiety levels that were twice as high than non-exposed population, and were more likely to report multiple unexplained physical symptoms and subjective poor health. To some extent, these symptoms were driven by the belief that their health was adversely affected by the disaster.
Rumors of what was called “Chernobyl AIDS” spread in the aftermath of the disaster. It was said that the “Chernobyl people” who were re-homed in Kiev and other cities should be avoided by ordinary people. Anything that required proximity to such survivors — friendship, romance — was discouraged. The rumor had no basis in fact, given that none of those survivors had suffered acute radiation poisoning and so could not sicken anyone else, but it didn’t need any. The effect of such a disaster had the intuitive feel of something that was transmittable, something too awful to be contained.
The artist, the curator, and the government workers spoke in their press releases and speeches about changing the face of Chernobyl. I thought of an interview I had read with the head of the Exclusion Zone Management Agency, Vitalii V. Petruk, in 2016: “How do we turn our shame into our advantage?” he said, in reference to controversial logging taking place within the zone. Ukraine is ranked 130 out of the 180 countries on the world’s corruption perception index, tying with Sierra Leone and Iran. There were reports that the wood from the Exclusion Zone being cut and sold had illegally high levels of radiation.
I asked our hosts if anyone but us journalists would ever see the show, if the public might be invited, or perhaps even Pripyat evacuees interested in returning. They would not. It was a set erected for only one night, and only for the media.
What does it mean to rebrand a place like Chernobyl? What does it mean to change its face? Chernobyl, a tragedy characterized by dislocation and unanswered questions, can not be reconfigured without the people whose absence characterize it.
The worst toll of Chernobyl has not turned out to be unprecedented masses of mutated genes and a whole generation dead from radiation-related cancers. It was instead the psychological effect of profound dislocation from one’s own home and body. Evacuation, and the constant mystery of what was taking place inside your body. Every symptom became suspect.
Objects assumed an oppressive, malignant energy. Were the carrots from the field really a different color than the year before, or was your mind playing tricks on you? Was the dog behaving strangely, did it smell something differently than it once did? Your baby, born a few months after the disaster — was it just a birthmark on its ear, or something far more dangerous?
The emptiness of Chernobyl was not eroded but emphasized by the spectacle we were there to see. It isn’t that nothing should be taking place in Pripyat. It’s that the one thing which should, the one thing which would remedy its horror, never can.