Inside the Exclusion Zone: is it right to visit Chernobyl?

    10 February 2020

    Don’t even think about trying to book a ticket to watch Pripyat FC. They haven’t played a game in their home stadium since 1986 and never will again.

    Paint slowly flakes off the soft wooden bleachers that look out over a pitch that is now a wood filled with birch trees standing at least fifteen feet high. Beyond are skyscrapers standing sentry, ancient net curtains flapping in the soft breeze.

    When Reactor Number Four exploded a few miles away from Pripyat’s stadium in April 1986, it wasn’t until 36 hours later that local residents of the city, only founded 16 years earlier to house employees of the reactors and their families, were evacuated.

    abandoned house overgrown with wild plants that started yellow in the Chernobyl exclusion zone

    Abandoned flats overgrown with wild plants that started yellow in the Chernobyl exclusion zone

    Over three decades later and the Exclusion Zone is inhabited by an apparently thriving population of wolves, bison, lynx, bears and an ever growing visitor population – curious to explore a zone still too radioactive to live in but now safe enough to visit for an overnight or daytime tour.

    As far as macabre tourism goes, it’s hard to think of a more unlikely destination for a weekend min-break. Some would question whether visitors should be allowed into The Exclusion Zone at all.

    The city, slowly being reclaimed by nature, has a Lynchian beauty all of its own. Supermarkets, swimming pools, gymnasiums, schools; all the infrastructure of a Soviet ‘company’ town remain intact; all the way down to the hammer and sickle monument at the entrance to the town. The imagery of the Cold War, here at least, never quite went away.

    Carrying a Geiger counter, bleeping steadily as a human heartbeat as we walk through the deserted city, occasionally there is a berserk acceleration as the counter dial slams down to the far right hand side. This, as our guide explains, is what happens when we step near remnants of clothes, caps, machinery, tools and sundries used by workers during the clean-up operation and then discarded.

    Dilapidated passage in school of Pripyat. Chernobyl Disaster

    Dilapidated passage in school of Pripyat. Chernobyl Disaster

    “You’d be exposed to higher levels of radiation back in Kiev,” I’m told. “But these micro pockets of radiation here mean that nobody will be able to live here again for hundreds of years. It will be 20,000 years before the ruined reactor itself, recently covered by a new sarcophagus, will be safe to humans.

    But what visiting Pripyat and the rest of the exclusion zone does is, ironically, is cause your thoughts to settle on the stories beyond the gross incompetence and criminal neglect of the Soviet Union.

    Gorbachev himself once said that it was Chernobyl that started the fatal rot that would, barely five years later, cause the dissolution of the USSR as his glasnost manifested into a septic, corrupt decade of Friedman esque lunatic consumer capitalism.

    But amid the post-Cold War farrago of shifting Tectonic plates, there’s a human story that is far too often overwhelmed by the meta-narrative.

    Abandoned kindergarten in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

    Abandoned kindergarten in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

    Right now, as you’re reading this, there are tens of thousands of men and women, now mainly in their forties, fifties and sixties who, as children and young adults, were loaded onto buses and taken away from Pripyat, only able to return once to collect the bare bones of their belongings.

    Chernobyl isn’t a ‘Blade Runner’ esque broken dystopia. What we see in the exclusion zone is love, displayed almost defiantly to an audience of nobody.

    Whether it be the small mountain of miniature gas masks piled up on the floor of a school classroom, the fading photo album strewn on a dusty apartment floor or a baby’s buggy parked outside a supermarket whose shelves are now perhaps not much barer than they were during Soviet times, what we’re looking at is the residue of care, love, family and the intimate minutiae of humanity and friendship.

    And that’s why prurience and voyeurism are such misguided accusations when it comes to criticising those who choose to visit Chernobyl.

    That much photographed Ferris wheel in the centre of Pripyat is much more than a totem of decay and disaster. As long as there are people alive who lived in this corner of the Soviet Union and as long as there are people who want to learn from the mistakes of previous generations then that fairground attraction serves a purpose.

    Chernobyl isn’t a warning. It’s a memory, a proclamation and a testament to humanity’s wafer thin veneer. No visitor can leave without feeling as though the curtain has been lifted for a moment on life’s fragility.