Last year, nay 16 months ago Jan and I conceived an idea. Let’s go somewhere. Let’s go to Chernobyl. Jan’s always had a slight dark side. Anyone who met him before he met Jelena need only witness his black clothes and boots to understand.
Chernobyl is what they call ‘dark tourism’, a fascination with the morbid or underbelly of human existence. It can be found in post-colonialist institutions, the death camps of Auschwitz or Camp 22 in Cambodia or prisons such as Robben Island.
Visiting the power station itself was a bit of a non-event. The station is in the very slow process of decommissioning worked on by German and Turkish workers. The enormous sarcophagus covers the reactor surrounded by rusting pipes. On a cool, damp day it wasn’t much to see.
However that damp weather perfectly suited the town of abandoned town of Pripyat where the majority of workers at the plant worked. Built as an idealised version of the Soviet era, the preview videos from the 1970s showed the happy families playing on the fairground all bathed in glorious sunshine.
When the reactor overheated and began its meltdown, the workers and their families weren’t evacuated for a day. The fire raged out of control, nuclear materials spewed into the sky and the town of Pripyat emptied. Fewer died than you’d think but the effect was greater on the next generation with birth defects being common.
The town itself is still abandoned, overgrown and in great disrepair. Few windows remain, the contents of buildings are smashed and torn. A few cans of beer are strewn around the site indicating there clearly are some visitors other than tourists. Graffiti abounds but it is still a very eerie sight.
A 30km exclusion zone remains in force almost 30 years later but while radiation levels remain higher than normal, the woods and surrounding flora have recovered quickly. Indeed without human inhabitants, the boar population has soared.
The day out took 6/7 hours. After arriving back in Kiev we went for a beer and a lot of vodka. Curiously we barely spoke about what we’d seen. Pripyat itself leaves you feeling abandoned. It’s a cold, dehumanising experience. The ambivalence you feel is worrying and yet without a more personal connection or a more living museum, the whole experience is numbing without being particularly educational.