It can be said that the disaster on reactor 4 at the nuclear plant at Chernobyl was the beginning of the crash of the Soviet Union, a golden era, Chernobyl was the pride of the Soviet Union and in times of a revolution it was a symbol of how well industry could create lives and work for the people of the union, a model soviet city. A cultural centre, full of life, the well educated Pripyat was a golden town, full of workers of the nuclear plant Chernobyl and their families, there were schools, a hospital, night life and hotels.It was how the Soviet Union imagined life should be like, an amusement park had recently been built as a celebration of the success of the town, but the disaster happened just before its opening which was meant to be on May Day 1986, this was my 4th birthday when the disaster happened.The Chernobyl accident cost the former Soviet Union billions of dollars, and some people believe it may have caused the collapse of the Soviet government. Reactor 4 was just 3 years old when the disaster happened, it is now contained within a sarcophagus to stop any more leakage which could cause so much damage to surrounding countries and as far as Europe.My trip to Chernobyl started exactly one month before today as I write this blog, it started by watching documentary’s and viewing photos previously taken in the city of Chernobyl and neighbouring town Pripyat.
It was soon I realised that this journey would be for me a lot more emotional then I had first imagined. To begin with what I had gathered had happened was a nuclear power plant had blown up, the disaster and its clean up killing innocent people and the nearby town of pripyat had been evacuated.What I didn’t know was that the there was an attempt to cover up the disaster and it was days after that the town of Pripyat was evacuated and in fact as a result hundreds and if not thousands of innocent people have died or become ill as result of the subsequent radiation let out into the atmosphere. Unborn babies were born disfigured as a result and many children suffered from cancers such as thyroid cancer. For seven months, 500,000 men combat with the radiation, risking their lives to prevent further explosions which could have destroyed Europe.One afternoon I sat tears streaming down my face at what had happened and I had to ask myself how this trip would actually affect me. I have visited many abandoned building over the last year, some affecting me but never had I encountered a whole town which a disaster of this scope had caused so much devastation and sadness.
People have also asked me about the radiation and if it is safe, the answer is yes, the levels of radiation have gone down so much now that I will probably receive more radiation from my plane journey then in the actual city. There are certain places to avoid like the radiation claw, which helped to scoop the radiation, underneath the hospital, the firefighters had to dispose of their radioactive clothing and also some of the moss is quite radioactive as most of the radiation is now in the ground, a lot of plants have grown radiative.
While in the Ukraine we stayed in Slavutych, this was the town that was built by the Soviet Union in 1986 shortly after the disaster at Chernobyl, so that the thousands of people that had been evacuated from the nearby (now deserted) town of Pripyat had a new place to live away from the accident. Now there lives around 25,000 people who are all still very heavily connected to Chernobyl as they either worked there or still do. The town of Pripyat, was where all the workers of the Chernobyl Plant and their families had lived, the soviet union actually tried to cover up the disaster and conceal the scale of what had happened and people went about their daily lives after the accident had happened. The evacuation began at 14:00 on 27 April. An excerpt of the evacuation announcement was translated into English in the program Seconds From Disaster on the National Geographic Channel in 2004.
For the attention of the residents of Pripyat! The City Council informs you that due to the accident at Chernobyl Power Station in the city of Pripyat the radioactive conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating. The Communist Party, its officials and the armed forces are taking necessary steps to combat this. Nevertheless, with the view to keep people as safe and healthy as possible, the children being top priority, we need to temporarily evacuate the citizens in the nearest towns of Kiev Oblast. For these reasons, starting from April 27, 1986 2pm each apartment block will be able to have a bus at its disposal, supervised by the police and the city officials.
It is highly advisable to take your documents, some vital personal belongings and a certain amount of food, just in case, with you. The senior executives of public and industrial facilities of the city has decided on the list of employees needed to stay in Pripyat to maintain these facilities in a good working order. All the houses will be guarded by the police during the evacuation period. Comrades, leaving your residences temporarily please make sure you have turned off the lights, electrical equipment and water off and shut the windows. Please keep calm and orderly in the process of this short-term evacuation.
—Evacuation announcement in Pripyat, 27 April 1986
It felt very strange, being in Slavutych, walking amongst the people that had had their lives torn away from them, they had left all their possessions and homes and had no where to live for weeks. A lovely family had given up their home for us to stay in for the trip, these families are very poor, they probably made more from us staying in their home 3 nights then a months wages, which is just so incredibly sad. We awoke bright and early at 6am to quickly get ready for our first trip to the zone, we meet with the others in a nearby restaurant for a typical Ukrainian breakfast,a combination of salted porridge with butter on top, frankfurter and salad. Soon we were boarding the train to Chernobyl, as there was 28 of us we spread ourselves out amongst the train, every person on the train was travelling to Chernobyl Power plant to work, with the new building of the Sarcophagus which will contain the radiation within Reactor 4 for another number of years. The original sarcophagus was built in 206 days it lock’s 200 tons of radioactive corium, 30 tons of highly contaminated dust and 16 tons of uranium and plutonium from the world. It was declared in 1996 that the sarcophagus needed to be replaced and work began in 1996 to build a new one.
It was strange seeing the power plant emerge from the trees for the first time, this is what I had travelled to see and I felt this overwhelming feeling, the thought that man had created such a disaster in such a huge area. The landscape was beautiful, trees water, I could already see nature claiming back what humans had taken away. The Exclusion Zone is 30km in radius and entering this felt very strange, like I was venturing somewhere I truly wasn’t meant to be.
Its very hard to put into words such an overwhelming experience as the one I had in my three days of being in the zone, I’ve never had such a huge mixture of emotions, it has opened my mind to the fragility of humanity and how the things humans create can cause so much damage to the world and the life that lives in it. I guess the most amazing thing I have learnt is that nature will return and claim it all back, that humans may only last a small fraction of the time the Earth will exist as a disaster caused by man or nature could easily wipe us out and yet nature will still claim back the Earth. It has also taught me to cherish life, when you feel bad things are happening, you only have to think of those that have given their lives in such tragedies or live with the pain caused by them. It has made me see how lucky I am, there is great tragedy all over the world unseen by many and I hope that through the pictures I have taken and will share that other may realise that life is fragile and we must cherish what we have and never take it for granted.
Azure Swimming Pool
A gigantic olympic sized swimming pool, with a diving board and sports hall next door. The town was a Soviet union pride and joy and health and fitness was incredibly important to them.
The Palace of Culture ‘Energetik’
Was a big centre for the people of the town, it had a cinema, dance studio, swimming pool, boxing ring, concert hall, gymnasium, music rooms and a diy place to fix tools. These centres were very popular within the Soviet Union, there were 137,00 by 1987, a symbol of health and vitality.
Also near the palace of culture is the Hotel Polesie, a tall building that we climbed to the top, as it is in the main square there are good views of this and of the amusement park, on the top floor there is tree growing through the floors, the walls have a plastic film used to trap the radiation particles as they used the hotel as a control centre to direct the helicopters during the clean up.
Pripyat HospitalOne morning we spent in the hospital, our guide let us go inside and we spent a while exploring on our own, there was a very strange atmosphere inside, there were hospital beds, all rusty frames and any mattresses or linen, were decayed and strewn across the rooms, documents, records, chairs, bathtubs, photos of staff. There were many some vials of medications, cabinets full of these, a room full of skeletal looking babies cribs, once a maternity ward and an operating theatre with the light still intact. This was where the people hurt by radiation first came. The lobby seemed a strange mix of eerie, sad and peacefulness, a large pot plant sat in the middle of the waiting room with no leaves, it had been there unwatered for years. In the basement was the 5 uniforms worn by the firefighters that had died, the radiation on these was incredibly high. They had stayed in the hospital for a day before being flown to Kiev hospital where they later died of radiation sickness. The hospital out of everywhere we visited felt the most sad, people had been rushed here after the accident and with this moment being the one that had frozen in time, it was one of pain and sadness, the atmosphere and lighting inside was chilling and cold.
Was a really exciting explore, it was a kindergarten before the accident, but was turned into a laboratory after to test samples and do experiments, we came across a whole room full of labelled soil samples, some dates were 1990, another room was completely full of bottle samples, some with vegetation, soil, liquids and even flesh.We took our highest Geiger counter reading in here, we walked across a room with bottles strewn across the floor, all contain different samples, on one of the bottles the geiger counter read 39 cps.
Kindergarten Cherabuska and Kindergarten Golden Key
These kindergartens had toys, beds, a piano, gas masks, books, lockers and desks, lying there contaminated with radiation, no child will ever play with them again, I realised that all the children that went to the kindergarten were now my age. When I walked into one room a blue tit was continuing slamming itself against a closed window, it had obviously been trying to find a way out for a long time, perhaps maybe even days, I immediately wanted to help it but as I approached it flew at great speed to the window and fell down dead, I stood in the room alone it was cold, gas mask lay on the floor, a doll on the windowsill. A tear trickled down my cheek, I felt the life pass away and into the silence a strong overwhelming feeling of death and destruction passed over me. It was another heartbreaking moment.
In the main postal room, there was a beautiful soviet mural, all about peace and exploration, featuring an astronaut and doves, all values of what the Soviet Union were trying to stand for, now the mural peeling and decaying. There were vast amounts of undelivered post strewn across the floor. I quick reminder at how everything still remained so frozen in time.
Pripyat Police Station
Walking inside the building the first thing that greased us was the holding cell and just round the corner a long corridor filled with cells. It was dark and cold and seeing the interrogation rooms sent shivers down my spine, the majority of crimes committed in Pripyat were of the drunken nature, but this was where prisoners had been kept and it had a really spooky feeling.
‘They stood in the black dust, talking, breathing, wondering at it. People came from all around in their cars and on their bikes to have a look. We didn’t know that death could look so beautiful.’ – Nadezhda Petrovna Vygovskaya, Evacuee from the town of Pripyat
Chernobyl was established in 1970 and was a Soviet dream, a symbol of technological superiority under Communism. The nearby town of Pripyat was subsequently created to house the workers of the nuclear plant and was a model Socialist town, full of schools and commodities, of state of the art cultural and recreational facilities. It too was intended to be a symbol of progress and the achievements made as Communism matured. As was typical in all Communist countries, the streets were named with pride after Soviet heroes. A mythology was conjured up around Chernobyl long before its name became synonymous with disaster. The nuclear power plant itself was seen to have many advantages over other installations. It was perceived to emit low levels of environmental pollution; it was seen to be reliable and efficient, and to generate electricity at a low price. It was the ninth settlement of its kind in the Soviet Union and portrayed as the paradigm of what the latest developments in nuclear physics could make possible. Chernobyl was designed for both military and civilian purposes. One eye-witness of the disaster, an environmental inspector, would later recall that such plants were described as being ‘magical factories’ making ‘energy out of nothing’.
But there would soon be another mythology of Chernobyl. As a direct consequence of Cold War isolation, the lack of a safety culture, of flawed reactor design and human error on 26 April 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine caused the largest uncontrolled nuclear release of radioactive material of any civilian operation. The cost of trying to contain the radiation from affecting the rest of the world was well over 18 billion roubles. There seems little doubt that the catastrophe at Chernobyl was one of the most significant factors that hastened the demise of the Soviet Union five years later in 1991; for it proved, despite all the talk of glasnost that Mikhail Gorbachev’s accession to power generated, that the Soviet regime was not prepared to be unconditionally candid. Not even to the people living in the Ukraine and Belarus.
But the impact was not just felt in the Soviet Union. It can also be said that the arms race was halted as a result of the huge cost of the disaster. In fact, for many it opened the eyes to just how dangerous the development of nuclear power was, more forcefully than Hiroshima or Nagasaki had done forty years earlier; for if a nuclear bomb were to explode, it would be like a hundred Chernobyls. The horror unfolded gradually, not so much in the thirty direct deaths caused by the accident, but in the lingering illnesses and deaths that followed, in hypotheses and speculation about the future effects to come on all living things. Psychological health problems and childhood thyroid cancers are the predominant health battles and concerns of the former residents of Ukraine and Belarus at the present time. However, increased death rates in newborn babies, birth defects, chronic disease in children and subsequently increased child morbidity were, and continue to be, prevalent in the region. Thus, the horror of the disaster was not just in the lives lost trying to control the radiation leak, but the years of illness that have blighted lives after the disaster.
Now, twenty-seven years after the event, it is newspaper cuttings, the Internet and academic papers that narrate a technical story of Chernobyl. Nevertheless, none of these sources tell the tale as well as the testimonies and photographs of those who lived in Pripyat, or those who have visited what is left of this once-model community. It is important to capture the memories of the souls who once resided in Pripyat, and who had their lives torn apart in the blink of an eye, before they are lost. To record the decay that is left. The scattered toys of the children that once played in the town, left damaged on the floor of the formerly bustling kindergartens, a reminder of how innocent lives were damaged in a moment. The uniforms of the firefighters, who sacrificed their lives to save Europe, all left to decay in the basement of the Pripyat hospital. These and other photographic images capture and immortalize the coldness one feels walking around the crumbling ruins of what had once been a thriving community, but is now a ghost town.
However, the beauty of this photographic work creates an uneasy paradox. How can the world’s biggest nuclear disaster be visually pleasing? The paradox makes us question the relationship between aesthetics and the creation of documentary photography, for all photography is created not simply taken. The photography of Chernobyl is not just about documenting the disaster but also giving voice to the forsaken, unseen victims. The people of Pripyat have been split in two. One half inhabits the memories frozen as ghosts in a town where the objects, so symbolic of the lives that were lived there, can never leave. The schizophrenic other half now lives forever removed, a society of lost souls scattered in the evacuation to new lands, unable to return home to a place where nature has begun to resume control; free once more from ruinous human control.
The objects that defined the people before the disaster are now forever exhibited in the world’s biggest mausoleum. The displays contain the items of lives recently lived, yet simultaneously, also antiquities of a forgotten society. The loved toys that defined them as children, the music and literature that epitomised their youthful exuberance, and the keepsakes that defined their lives, caught now in the limbo between death and life. Is it ethically correct to beautify the metaphors of the death, pain and misery of the Pripyat people? Does the beauty in the imagery cause the spectator to reassess their preconceived ideas of Chernobyl? Or is it this paradox that invites a deeper and more complex reading of the photographs? People have always visited the sites of death and tragedy, be it Auschwitz or Ground Zero. This is not a new phenomenon, although it has increasingly attracted academic research in the subject area referred to recently as Thanatourism or ‘Dark Tourism’.
‘They call it an accident, a catastrophe. But it was a war. The Chernobyl monuments look like war monuments’ Sergei Sobolev, Executive Committee of the Shield of Chernobyl Association.
The images here are so much more than the snapshots of a ‘dark tourist’. They are a tender and sensitive commemoration of what befell the ordinary people who once lived, worked and played in this place, full of nuance and emotion, and a persuasive call for us never to forget what happened here. To never forget the people who lived here and never forget what it is that makes us human.