Saturday, September 11, 2010


The most famous town in Ukraine isn't the capital Kiev (or Kyiv according to the Ukrainian government), nor the town of Donetsk (whose football team Shakhtar won the UEFA Cup last year), or even Yalta where Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt met to bash out a new world order towards the end of World War II. No, the most famous town in Ukraine has a (permanent) population of 0 and is unfortunately synonymous with the worst nuclear accident in history - namely Chernobyl. As odd tourist destinations go they surely don't get much odder than visiting the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
So, this radiation thing, it's not dangerous, right? (Classic souvenir photo outside reactor no. 4).
On the 26th of April, 1986, reactor 4 of Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, sending radioactive particles over a lot of Europe and leading to widespread hysteria and panic about the possible effects of the fallout. The reasons for the blasts were a combination of poor reactor design coupled with a technical experiment gone wrong as well as a certain touch of bad luck. Most of the radiation spread westwards, which was lucky, as the immediate neighbourhood of the reactor on that side was mostly rural, whereas only a 100km to the south lies Kiev, a city of 5 million, that could easily have been consigned to history had the winds been less favourable. The actual effects of the accident are still a source of much controversy with wildly differing claims and counter-claims. There's no disputing the 31 people who died immediately following the accident due to acute radiation sickness. Trying to determine the effect of the fallout has proved much more difficult, as the main illness caused by radiation is cancer,which can also have many other causes (like simple background radiation or smoking). It's all about increased percentages and risks which is all very abstract. The estimates vary from 4000 to 60,000, and generally people choose depending on their personal political views of the accident and nuclear power in general (both reports are selective in the data they present). Perhaps just as big an effect was on the public perception of nuclear power, especially within Europe, where many people are now vehemently against it for mainly visceral reasons.
Getting to Chernobyl is relatively straightforward (considering) but not cheap - at $110 I severely overstepped my $15/day budget. You are only allowed there on an organised tour with one of several registered agencies and must be accompanied by a local guide throughout. The exclusion zone is a 30km ring around the power plant that has been evacuated, with a stricter 10km perimeter within it. This does not mean, however, that the place is totally abandoned. The power plant kept on humming for another 14 years after the accident, with the last reactor finally beginning the decommissioning process in 2000. The town of Chernobyl itself may not be a hive of metropolitan activity, but there are 2 shops, a post office and a restaurant servicing the 4000-odd people who work within the zone (most of them work at the power plant ensuring the decommissioning goes smoothly). The tour was quite a surreal experience with a photo-op within 200m of the famous sarcophagus covering the exploded reactor; hunting for "hot-spots" of radioactivity where the guide's Geiger counter would go from its relatively vocal beeping into an apoplectic fit; and a look at the giant catfish in the power plant's containment pool. The fish, measuring over 2m, are not giant due to freakish mutations, but more due to lack of predators. In fact there have been several studies suggesting that despite the high levels of radiation within the exclusion zone, it has become a wildlife haven because of the lack of human activity (in other words, humans are worse for animals than nuclear fallout). But the highlight was the visit to the town of Pripyat, only 3km from the power plant, which used to house the workers. It was hurriedly and stealthily evacuated the day after the accident and what is left is a ghost town, stuck in time, a strange Communist post-apocalypse (a few years later residents were allowed back to collect some limited possessions). Books lie strewn on the floor of the library; dodgems rust, unused, in the fairground; the swimming pool is empty; doors of apartments slam in the wind; and trees are slowly conquering the streets and squares. On thing that did surprise me about the Chernobyl tour though, given the Ukrainian fondness for selling souvenirs, was that nobody had yet cashed in on this golden marketing opportunity by selling postacrds, T-shirts and fridge magnets.
A music classroom in one of Pripyat's schools. Papers lie scattered on the floor, the piano is broken beyond repair, and a gas mark, in preparation for an American attack, hangs uselessly on its corner.
Since there wasn't much in the way of accommodation options in Chernobyl I decided to stay in Kiev (which not only does have accommodation, but also shops, public transport, things to see and people). Like every self-respecting ex-Soviet capital Kiev has a giant statue of a woman symbolising the motherland. She's called Rodina Mat, is 62m tall and wields a 9 tonne sword and a 13m shield - obviously not someone you want to mess with. At her feet lie strewn the remains of tanks and artillery, exhibits from the museum of the Great Patriotic War (the Soviet name for World War II which starts in 1941 when the Nazis attacked the USSR and conveniently glosses over the partitioning of eastern Europe between the two powers) that hasn't changed since Soviet times, accompanied by an epic sculptural diorama in archetypal socialist realist style (more on that in my next post). A more modern museum lies up the road from Rodina Mat which is radically different from the Soviet one. This one commemorates the Holdomor, the Great Famine of 1932-33 when between 3 and 10 million Ukrainians died. The Soviet authorities had imposed ridiculously high quotas on farmers and when they weren't able to fulfil them all of their food was confiscated. Starving people weren't even allowed to leave their villages in search of food and gleaning (picking up grains that have fallen following the harvest and would otherwise go to waste) was punishable by death. The Ukrainians see it as a targetted genocide perpetrated by the Stalinist regime, though the Russians would beg to disagree (although there is no firm consensus, from what I have read I would tend to agree with the Ukrainians). Either way it is a saddening that we hear so little of this immeasurable tragedy, so if you want to read a little more you can either check out the Wikipedia article here, or the official Ukrainian take on the events here (admittedly slightly biased).
The main attractions in Kiev, however, are the Saint Sophia cathedral and Kiev Pechersk Lavra. Both religious edifices date from the days of the Kyivan Rus, which 1000 years ago was one of the largest and most powerful empires in Europe until the Mongols came sweeping through in 1240. Saint Sophia, like its namesake in Istanbul on which it was modelled, is more of a museum now than a church, showing off 1000 year-old mosaics and frescoes, but the lavra (a sort of uber-monastery) is still very much the beating heart of the Orthodox church in Ukraine. (As a slight aside, the political intrigues of the Orthodox church in Ukraine since independence read like a soap opera, with part of the church deciding to split from the Moscow-led church after its leader disagreed with the choice of new patriarch, leading to the Moscow patriarch to excommunicate him.) Like many ex-Communist countries religion has swept back in to fill the ideological void, and nowhere is this more vividly portrayed than the lavra. The lavra is famous for its network of tunnels that form a network under the monastery and in which are preserved the bodies of particularly holy ex-monks. The stable conditions of the tunnels is said to preserve the bodies but I couldn't tell as they are covered in thick shrouds and locked up in glass caskets. Nevertheless the bodies are the most important pilgrimage site in the country, and devout worshippers flock to the dark, narrow tunnels, candles in hand, to kiss each casket in turn before crossing themselves and moving onto the next one. And although I'm not religious at all I did enjoy sitting in (figuratively speaking, as, opposed to Western churches, there are no seats in Orthodox churches) on a mass at the monastery (it was raining outside) where a choir of young priests chanted away incomprehensibly, but in an enchanting, mellow tone. The whole service was baffling to me as the other lay-people present would come and go throughout and cross themselves at random, with no apparent rhyme or reason. But I just soaked it all in, along with the incense, glad I wasn't being soaked outside.
Kyiv's Saint Sophia cathedral is over 1000 years old with exquisite mosaics and murals inside.


Val said...

Erik you described everythin right with no imagination - that is your talent:)

John Morley said...

Hey Erik, keep the posts coming. Sounds like you're having a good time.

Anonymous said...

A friend living in my building was in a youthcamp 30 km from Cernobil when the tragedy occured. She returned from Ukraine completely bald (her hair started groing back one year later, got skin cancer and became unable to have children). Tragic experience for a bunch of kids who were only taking their nice holiday in Ukraine.

Also, sadly, my grandfather died one year later because of an unexplained cancer, like many other people around Urkaine during the era. It has been suggested that all those deaths (several years after, statistically more frequent after Cernobyl) are linked to the powerplant explosion.