The picture perfect Socialist Utopia - Chernobyl
Just the word Chernobyl sends a shiver down the spine of anyone aware of the catastrophic explosion in 1986 of one of four nuclear reactors near Kiev, Ukraine. The blast sent a toxic mushroom cloud high in the sky raining nuclear havoc as far away as Sweden. It was the stuff of science fiction. Surely people would die excruciating deaths from radiation exposure and mutant species would crawl from the contaminated cooling ponds.
Thousands of deaths did occur and health problems continue to plague generations to come. I am not sure about seven-eyed toads, but I don’t doubt they exist. And now the Senior Nomads were off on a jolly tour to visit ground zero - the epicenter of one of the biggest disasters in modern history.
We'd signed-up online before we’d even reached Ukraine for a day trip with one of just two local companies that have permission from the government to take tourists to the site. Here’s the link to their website: Chernobyl Tours, where they offer an “An eye-opening experience of a post-apocalyptic world.” Now who wouldn’t want to see that?
Good to know.
On the appointed day we arrived at 8:00 am and boarded a bus with 40 other curious passengers for the three hour drive north towards the border with Belarus. We were accompanied by two young female tour guides who spoke English with made-for-the-movies Russian accents. Pretty soon you couldn’t help talking that way, too. "You vant to wisit Chherrnobyl?"
The next ten hours was nothing short of a cram course on what happened on April 26, 1986 when reactor number #4 exploded. We had a map, background materials and watched a grainy film on the bus called “Chernobyl Uncensored - a Documentary” that can be found on You Tube. We also signed some rather ominous release forms.
Here’s the recap:
On Saturday, April 26, 1986, a disaster occurred at Reactor No. 4, which is widely regarded as the worst accident in the history of nuclear power in the world. As a result, Reactor No. 4 was completely destroyed and is now being enclosed in a concrete and lead sarcophagus to prevent further escape of radioactivity. Large areas of Europe were affected by the accident. The radioactive cloud spread as far away as Scandinavia.
Here's a site full of information: Knowledge Glue
Our first stop was the 30 km Exclusion Zone. We stopped at a heavily patrolled crossing point where we submitted our passports and passed through security and our names were checked against a list submitted in advance by the tour company. At this point we were also given personal geiger counters so we could track our exposure to a broad range of ionizing alpha and beta particles as well as gamma rays that may be emitting harmful levels of radiation. Right.
He looks happy now - but he was wheezing for a week after the tour.
The whole process was repeated again when we arrived at the 10 km Exclusion Zone where everyone got off the bus for a second security check and this time the bus and our bags were searched as well. Meanwhile, while we waited at the this second checkpoint I Googled “Is it safe to visit Chernobyl?” A little late, I know. I got mixed results - but basically, if you followed instructions and didn’t go digging around in the dirt you’d be okay.
Finally we were getting close to the two cities that were evacuated 40 years ago and never occupied again. We would not, however tour and of the 200 villages that were also evacuated because they were hastily plowed under - each one covered with a sea of cement and mounds of earth. Also off-limits were forests where thousands of trees were also buried - the new growth is contaminated.
Our guide showing a before and after shot of the supermarket.
Before getting up-close to the reactor itself we passed through the town of Chernobyl. We stopped at the outskirts and took a chilling look inside a nursery school where a forlorn stuffed rabbit still lay on a cot and a tiny pink shoe practically made you weep. We saw cottages that had been completely overtaken by twisted vines and drove slowly along the desolate main streets lined with derelict buildings and empty shops. A few major buildings were in use as dormitories and offices for the limited crew of government employees, scientists, and support staff that work in six-week shifts at the plant. They are the brave few managing the efforts to contain the damage and seal the reactor once and for all.
A baby shoe I found sitting in a dusty corner of the nursery.
The smaller city of Prypiat was the city closest to the blast - less than a mile away, and it has become the poster child for the disaster. It was a modern day marvel of Soviet propaganda. People fortunate to live there worked at the Nuclear plant or nearby and they had access to more goods and services than almost any other city other than Moscow. The message to the world world was it safe place to live and work. All 49,000 citizens were put on 1,300 buses twenty-four hours after the accident with little or no information other than rumors. The official word was the evacuation was an precautionary measure and they should only take the clothes, food, personal effects and money they’d need for three days (all of which was very contaminated). They were allowed to return once, six months later and under heavy escort to retrieve only what they could carry. Most of the contents of homes and buildings in the city had already been destroyed or buried by the government. The villagers were not even that lucky - they were never allowed to return. The population was re-housed in cinder block towers near Kiev or far-away villages and faced an inhospitable welcome.
There were eerie scenes like this in every building.
The community center basket ball court
The government opened the holiday amusement park a day early to distract residents from the blast. Hundreds of people spent a pleasant day outdoors with their children getting saturated in radiation.
Since then the buildings have been left to the elements - too toxic to knock down. Most of them have been looted and hardly a window remains unbroken, and trees grow up through floors, But many of them still have heartbreaking artifacts left behind including piles of mail at the post office and classroom materials at the schools. We spent two hours wandering the cracked streets and touring eery abandoned buildings. I had to laugh at the complete lack of any safety instructions or cautionary signage as we tramped up crumbling stairs, walked over inch thick shards of glass from hundreds of broken windows, and pushed dangling wires aside to get into empty rooms. It truly felt like the set from an horror film. In fact, I found this trailer from a movie shot in 2012. Watch it if you dare: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1991245/
If you are interested there are many documentary films and lengthy reports on the cover-up and tragic aftermath of this event. The long term health issue alone make your blood curl - no horror film needed:
The Russian publication, Chernobyl, concludes that 985,000 premature cancer deaths occurred worldwide between 1986 and 2004 as a result of radioactive contamination from Chernobyl.
And that brings me back to our personal Geiger counters that emitted nerve-grating beeps of various intensity all day. Think of 40 car alarms going off at the same time. Oddly, when we were at the actual reactor site the readings were less intense than when we were inside buildings or near “hot spots” where radioactive material had been buried. At the end of the day our exposure was equivalent to a few full body X-rays and a 13 hour flight. Who knew you were exposed to radiation on an airplane? Possibly the most disturbing part of our tour was at the very end when our tour guides admonished us not to post photos of the buildings we walked through on social media, because really, we shouldn’t have been inside. Beep. Beep. Beep!
Thank you for visiting Chernobyl. Have a nice day!
The trip to Chernobyl will be one of the most memorable of our entire journey. We learned so much about the incredibly oppressive, secretive Soviet government that put the safety of a large part of the world, let alone it’s citizens, well behind the need to deny the cause or effects of the disaster.
Safely back in Kiev, over the next few days we stood on the very square where the Orange Revolution took place in 2004. Then, 9 years later, the same square was filled again for the Euromaidan when over 1 million Ukrainians occupied the square twenty-four hours for months on end braving sniper fire and brutal beatings, burning buildings and freezing weather and there were many deaths along the way to finally wrestling real independence from the grip of a still-corrupted government.
One of many memorials in Kiev dedicated to those who died fighting for independence.
Eventually President Yankovich realized he could no longer fight against the will of the people and fled to Russia in the middle of the night. Freedom was declared and a nation was reborn a second time. Shortly thereafter, the citizens stormed the gates of the grounds of Mezhyhirya, his private residence that I wrote about in my last post: Ukraine 1: Corruption Perfected.
Michael and a vendor at the market sharing pictures of home.
In our nearly four years of travel I would say two weeks spent in the fascinating country of Ukraine will be a highlight. You could just feel the patriotic pride of the people we met. From our tour guides who were bursting to share their history, to the restaurant servers who were insistent that we choose Ukrainian offerings, to ourwheel pounding taxi driver, and the many strangers we struck up conversations with - every one had a story to tell to us. And they were all so pleased that we two Americans were unafraid to visit their country. Just ask Igor (also see previous blog). This fledgling democracy still has what seem to insurmountable challenges, and obviously Russia is doing more than sabre rattling on the eastern border - but don’t count them out. Pray for them instead.
Thanks for following along,
Debbie and Michael Campbell
The Senior Nomads