24 years after Chernobly

August 28, 2010

(To Increase the font in this essay – hold down the Ctrl key and keep pressing +) In the infamous “Red Forest” just 30 km away from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor nothing ever survives for long not even in spring. There are no roses or sunflowers; there are no geraniums or wild mushrooms. Only an endless stretch of sickly yellowed canopy. The locals in Prypyat call the red forest – the Sakura of Russia, here everything grows at double or triple the rate – from one day to the next, the once empty fields fills up – they blossom. Then, just as quickly, they die. It’s an apt description of life in the dead zone.

Biking through the red forest to the South towards “atomic city,” the once prosperous model Soviet city of almost 60,000, is a mere 15km away. We needn’t have bothered with maps the Geiger counter is already generating disconcerting crackling noises. It reads nearly 1470 micro-roentgens. A few kilometers deeper into “the zone of death” and the counter, begins to whirl off the scale. We have to proceed by foot from here, vehicles are strictly prohibited.

In the distance lies the silhouette of atomic city beyond it across a barren plain the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear stack. There entombed within an enormous steel and concrete sarcophagus lies the number 4 reactor. Twenty odd years ago on April 26, 1986, the reactor core exploded. The complex simmered for fourteen days, contaminating tens of thousands of square miles in northern Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia’s Bryansk region. It was the worst nuclear accident the world has ever seen.

The fallout, 400 times more radioactivity than was released at Hiroshima, drove a third of a million people from their homes and triggered an epidemic of thyroid cancer in children. Over the years, the economic losses—health and cleanup costs, compensation, lost productivity—have mounted into the hundreds of billions of dollars

As we arrived at the edge of Prypyat a tall barbed wired fence cordoned off the city area. It too had seen better days like rows of rusting soviet vehicles which stood frozen leaning against each other like drunkards splayed out. We slipped through the fence. Curiously radiation levels here were lower than the red forest, but as soon as we climbed a platform, itchernobyl2.jpg stirred up the dust and the counter began whirling again.

‘Better get down from there,’

said Atomic Monkey. He should know, he was the science officer on this exploratory mission. I complied. We stood in a row embalmed in the eerie silence clicking away on our cameras. Like a tour through a gigantic cemetery, it’s a trip that provokes the question, “is this the end of the world?” The mood that Chernobyl imposes on the visitor is almost climatic, oppressive even. Here and there strewn all around us, remnants of the past – a ragged doll, decaying bumper cars in an abandoned carnival, a skeletal Ferris wheel squeaking against the wind – not a sign of life except for a few stray dogs. We might as well have been on the surface of Mars.

In and around atomic city, creepers grow in profusion. They grow in the ruinschernobyl3.jpg of an old hospital and outside it stacks of medicine boxes appear to be haphazardly stacked some with even decomposing trailers of parachutes. They grow along the dilapidated town hall, beside the remains of the barracks, around the hollow shell of what used to be a nursery. They grow inside the partition of apartment blocks, built in the days when the city still believed it would continue to grow on the dream of the nuclear promised and abandoned when it became clear that the great experiment had turned into a nightmare. In the distance as the sun began to dip the clouds looked dark. The day was ending and with it the wolfs howled.

“Kakh vamn nravitsa Prypyat ?” asked the guard: “How do you like our little Prypyat?” It is hard to imagine the contemporary inhabitants of the dead zone asking visitors to share their civic pride, but those who once called this wasteland home do expect praise even if they it’s a sprawling cemetery which once boasted the best facilities in the whole of the Soviet Union.chernobyl4.jpg

For Prypyat was more than just an embodiment of a nations hopes, it was the short lived realization that Soviet man had managed to successfully conquer, tame and harness nature to produce in vast quantities a cheap source of energy. The Soviet authorities fashioned Prypyat as the model city where the forces of nuclear energy could subsist along side modernity, it was a sort of show case with its modern apartments which boasted even lifts, malls, swimming pools and schools: those who once lived, worked and played here were the brightest in the Soviet Union, they came from all over Russia, united in their goal to see the dream through – well-paid, praised, flattered and fêted these Soviet heroes of labor, patriots represented the hopes of the entire communist party and beyond that cradled the great hope to the masses throughout the Comecon (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance.)

Walking around ghost city, around the cemeteries, around the ruined theatre, a once proud structured, complete with Corinthian columns, Leninist portico and red emblazoned star – one cant help but feel the cost of the dream finally proved astronomically high; its enough to make one stop and ask the question;

“Where did it all go so wrong?”

Not that anyone else readily admits that this is what happened either. “There will always be hope,” one of the former residents of Prypyat told me a few days later. Hundreds have since returned to ghost city around the periphery of the “dead zone,” reclaiming their former life’s in the contaminated region outside and even within the zone.

chernobyl5.jpgI soon realized the irony of it all: If your whole life has been associated with a place, it is hard to admit that the place never existed. Even if that place is widely famed for being the most radioactive spot in the world and a monument to Soviet stupidity, mismanagement and inefficient, it makes little of no difference, not to those who once called this ghost city the star of the East – it’s even harder to admit that it ought to be shut down good.

“This is our home!” 67 year old Yuri banged his fist, a touch over-dramatically, on the table. Then he proceeded to share his radioactive vodka with us and even offered a slice of radioactive wild boar meat that he hunts regularly in the red forest, to explain why recently pensioners and old couples have begun the pilgrimage back to ghost city. It offers one way of closing the chapter of sorrow in their glorious past – it helps them to move on, to even make peace with their broken dreams – as Yuri shared with us a sepia print of a young man who once lived and died here during the first few days of the Chernobyl meltdown – his only son – Vladimir an engineer, the pride in the fleet, who once worked in the fame star of the East, Chernobyl.

“They will come back someday,” the old man insisted banging the table again.

“They always come back. I see them sometimes, I do. There is nothing out there in the world. Nothing! Here is where it all began the dream and we will live it through again with or without the damned government.”

In between swigs of vodka and sliced ham, Yuri punctuates his sentences with the words, “Etuh bolshayar problyemah?” (It’s a small problem isn’t it?) His wife Olga nods silently in one corner her eyes wide with excitement or radiation sickness we’re not sure whenever her husband talks of the glorious days. When Brezhnev and before him Stalin visited Prypyat with foreign dignitaries. He was young and strong then one of the elite who were considered the classic candidate for resettlement in atomic city. Looking out of the window I couldn’t help but feel a sense of passing of a great era – sort of lingering death. A pack of wolfs howl in the distance it cuts through the conversation. We fall all silent.

As the night seeps deeper into the darkness, it begins to rain. Stepping out into the verandah I looked out across the horizon towards, the great soviet star that once showed the way for all to follow. It was so very dark. In the foreground Yuri prepared to cut his quota of radioactive firewood, his wife says – it’s a form of therapy. He has been suffering from depression lately.

Turning towards us, the once proud soviet man smiled weakly. I couldn’t tell if his face was wet with rain or tears. That I am certain was how he wanted it.

Annex:

According to our guide the radiation dose you get from a day at Chernobyl is less than the dose an cosmonaut gets in orbit for 3 days. It’s very safe though certain places require a face mask – just keep your hands in your pocket and don’t lick anything.

Two types of tours are currently conducted in Chernobyl – tourist and scientific – they have been going since December 2000. They cost between US$140 per pax which includes two non radioactive meals transport and a complimentary guide book. Please note photography and filming is strictly prohibited by order of the ministry of information.

Scientific tours are free but booking ahead is a must; the KGB need time to vet you. Scientific tours are preferred as one can explore the ghost city – but bring along a Geiger counter and some Yeo Hiap Seng tin curry.

The Chernobyl mission was conducted recently by a four men scientific team from the 130th and funded by the Interspacing Guild – its mission objective being to document first hand the aftermath of a radioactive fall out and its effects on the environment – the information will be used for a book which darkness is currently working on.

This exclusive travelogue has been brought to you exclusively by the Intelligent Singaporean and the Brotherhood Press.

(By Nacramanga, Trajan, KOHO, Atomic Monkey – Exclusive Travelogue Special Series – Chernobyl Revisited – EP 9902382 – 2007 – Republished again by The Brotherhood Press 2010)

Brotherhood Liaison to the Balkan Trade Route, Singaporedaddy: “Come this way quickly my Children…quick I say, dayai-wah!…dayai-wah!…leave that child…hold my hand…and follow me. All of you….follow me!”

Dimitri “Sergei Singaporedaddy is it true  what they say…evil comes this way?”

Singaporedaddy: “Yes child, it will be like those Волки в Чернобыльской зоне, now do you understand children? All of you must get up to the top of the hill…or I shall change my mind and leave all of you here…please…we have send space ships to take you away from this evil place….now please hurry.”

The Specter – The Age of the Typewriter – The Book of Ages, Page 2,048 – The Chronicler – The Brotherhood Press 2010.

 

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