Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Happy trails, atomic style

(When I started this post, I was in Kyiv [Kiev], Ukraine, with my Hartwick colleague Prof. Amy Forster Rothbart, on the first leg of our January-term course on "Post-communist transition." Amy is a political scientist with Ukrainian experience, and I'm an economist with Czech experience, so we visited Ukraine and the Czech Republic to see two different ways of dealing with the legacy of a communist past. Things with the trip got rather busy, and my computer was ignoring all attempts to reach it by WiFi, so I wasn't able to finish the post until now.)

On Sunday, January 13th, we made the trip to Chernobyl. In one of our pre-departure meetings Amy had mentioned that visiting the "exclusion zone" might be a possibility, and it turned out that everyone wanted to go, so we made it a course event.

A monument to the disaster, and Reactor 4, in its crumbling sarcophagus (the yellow scaffolding was erected to shore up the end after cracks were discovered near the base of the wall)

When you make your reservation, you have to supply names, birthdates, and passport numbers for all people going on the tour. Amy did that and then tried to pay with a credit card, but the tour company's on-line payment system wasn't working, so they graciously allowed us to pay on the day of the tour. Before you get on the bus, they check your passport--you won't be able to get into the exclusion zone without it, so they don't want anyone on board who doesn't have their passport with them. And in our case, they then come on board to collect our payment. There was a ... small technical difficulty, in that the financial institution that issued our college credit cards doesn't sound like a bank, and the payment system had generated a confirmation code that included a "Z", and the guy taking the payment was using a telephone-style number pad, so he couldn't enter a "Z". About 30 minutes later they decided to let the bus proceed to a different part of Kyiv and pick up the other booked passengers. We got to Independence Square in downtown Kyiv, 8 more passengers boarded our bus, and the tour manager got back on to haggle some more about the validity of our credit card. But they did finally release the bus to proceed toward Chernobyl. We were out on the highway a little ways outside Kyiv when a car chased us down. The car and our bus stopped, the tour manager emerged from the car and reboarded our bus--the payment still wasn't going through. They resubmitted the order to get a new confirmation code, it worked, he gave Amy a receipt to sign, and we were on our way. (Many things have changed here since the end of communism, but some of the commercial infrastructure does not yet operate smoothly. And it turns out the payment had actually gone through the first time, so we got charged twice--still trying to resolve that.)

There had been a fair amount of snow over the previous couple of days, so as we got away from Kyiv we were driving through villages that looked like a classic Ukrainian/Russian winterscape: low houses with gently peaked roofs carrying a large amount of snow. Further on, we were driving through birch and pine woods, with the pine trees wearing their white mantle of new snow--it was impossible to avoid the term "winter wonderland."

The main street in Pripyat'--a winter idyll under snow ...

The roads, however, hadn't been well ploughed, or maybe hadn't been ploughed at all. The driver for his part ploughed ahead gamely, swerving only slightly on the rough, slippery surface, but it was a bumpy ride. (I later learned from the students sitting up front that the driver had been playing a video game as he drove; he had the device on the steering wheel, and he'd make a move, then look back up at the road.)

On the bus they show a documentary, "The battle of Chernobyl." At first the title struck me as classic Soviet bombast, but then I realized that it wasn't made by Soviets or even (judging by the names) Russians. Also, you learn in the film that 500,000 people--most of them military--were involved in putting out the fire, stabilizing the reactor, preventing a worse explosion, and cleaning up as much of the radiation as could reasonably be cleaned up. There's interview footage with Gorbachev, talking about how "We didn't let any rules or bureaucratic nonsense stand in the way--if we needed something, we took it." I came away thinking that "Battle of Chernobyl" was a fair description of what happened, even if the "enemy" wasn't a bunch of Germans in tanks.

There are two "exclusion zones" surrounding the former power plant, a 10-km zone and a 30-km zone. Neither one is at all like a circle around the plant, but instead stretches far to the west to cover the areas of most significant contamination by Cesium-137. When you reach the edge of the 30-km zone, there's a checkpoint. A policeman boards the bus and checks everyone's passport against the list. After he's done, the next people on the bus are a couple of (English-speaking) guides who work for the government agency that oversees the zone.

Your first stop inside the zone is in the town of Chernobyl. The guides live there, as do the people who work at the power plant. The plant hasn't produced any electricity since 2000, but 3,000 people are employed maintaining the non-functioning plant, and another 3,000 building the new shell which will replace the "sarcophagus" that encloses the destroyed reactor. All in all, the town has about one quarter the population it had in 1986--and people don't live there full time: our guides live 15 days in Chernobyl, 15 days outside the zone; their supervisors are on a 4+3 schedule; these schedules minimize people's exposure to radiation ...

In the town of Chernobyl you stop at the Wormwood Star Memorial Center where you can use the bathroom and also look at some rather spooky exhibits evoking the disaster. And you take your obligatory picture of the statue of the Archangel Gabriel, near the rows of crosses, one for each village left empty by the evacuation.

Probably not what Cole Porter had in mind.

Your next stop is at the memorial to the firefighters, 28 men from the town of Pripyat who went in to fight the fire, not knowing quite what it was, nor wearing any special protective equipment, but all knowing that something very serious was happening. The monument is an interesting mix: the sculptures of the firefighters evoke Soviet aesthetics, but the monument as a whole is topped by a cross.

Despite the snow, they're heading for hell on Earth.
The inscription on the monument reads, "To those who saved the world." If the documentary from the bus is right, the firefighters cooled off the reactor enough to prevent a chain reaction which would have destroyed Minsk and Kyiv and rendered Europe uninhabitable, so the inscription can't really be accused of overstatement. Within weeks, all 28 firefighters were dead of extreme radiation exposure.

From there you proceed to the checkpoint at the edge of the 10-km zone--fortunately for the sake of time, there was no passport check there, though we'd been warned it was a possibility. The 10-km exclusion zone was the first area evacuated, though it took a few days after the explosion before the authorities got around to doing it. Soon after, the 30-km zone was evacuated as well. Later, some people who had lived in the area wanted to go back: they'd resettled in other communities, but there was nothing for them there, they wanted to live in their old cottages, on their familiar land. If they didn't have any children, they were allowed to move back, but only to within the 30-km zone; the 10-km zone is also called the "zone of mandatory evacuation." The returnees tend their gardens, raise a few animals--they're not allowed to bring food they grow out of the zone. Given the situation, it was only older people who actually returned. If I remember right from the guides' remarks, something over 1,000 people came back; of those, about 80 are still alive. It's not the radiation killing them, just old age.

Your first stop inside the zone is a former nursery school. At a tree outside the school, the guides make a dramatic demonstration of the "hotspot" nature of the radiation. Standing on the path, the guide's Geiger counter is registering an inoccuous 0.2 (I can't remember the units). She takes one step, reaches out, and holds her device just above the snow, and it starts emiting frantic beeps as the level rises to something like 3.0. Not extremely high, we're told, but better to stay away from.

Outside the nursery school there's a classic small-scale Soviet monument to World War II soldiers, "Eternal remembrance of those who saved the country from fascism."

Inside the school, evocative disarray is the rule. Children's cots with the mattresses missing.

 Scattered slippers. Issues of "Nurse" magazine on one of the cots, on the floor.

Cards with pairs of Cyrillic letters scattered haphazardly across the floor, like some sort of weird precursor of refrigerator-magnet poetry.

Broken glass. Dust everywhere.

Book from a time-warp

Back on the bus, and the next stop is just along the road where you have a panoramic view of the whole plant. To the left, the sarcophagus covering the destroyed 4th reactor. Right of that, sharing the same building, Reactor 3. Further right, two black cubes of Reactors 2 and 1, the first units, which came on-line in the late 1970s. A considerable distance further to the right Reactors 5 and 6 which were under construction in 1986 and were never finished. The construction cranes have been standing there silently for almost 27 years now, accompanied by two unfinished cooling towers.

You drive around the back side of the plant and make your closest approach to Reactor 4. It is made quite clear that you are not to point your camera in any direction other than at the sarcophagus, for security reasons. The guide takes a Geiger reading in the open air, then moves the device to the shadow of the monument there, to show how much concrete shields you from radiation (it's a lot). You can also see the shell being built nearby to replace the sarcophagus, looking like a giant-sized retractable roof for a stadium. And in fact the plan is to build it away from the reactor, then slide it into place, rather than building it directly in place, in order to minimize the radiation exposure of the construction workers. The original sarcophagus was necessarily built in a hurry, and seems to have been something of a triumph of brilliantly improvisational engineering under extreme pressure for speed. But it was only estimated to last 30 years. Those 30 years are almost up, and it's already been necessary to shore up the structure after some cracks appeared at the base of one of the massive walls. Once the new shell is done, the old sarcophagus will have to be carefully removed. It can't be left in place to fall apart, because if it were to collapse onto the ruins of the reactor, it would cause a new release of radiation.

After pointing your camera only in the allowed direction, you reboard the bus and go to Pripyat, about 3 km away. This was a town of 47,000, built specifically to house the workers who ran the plant. It obviously included a high proportion of educated people, and the state wanted to keep them happy, so material conditions there were very good by Soviet standards. It was said that Chanel No 5 was available only in Moscow and in Pripyat.

It's now a ghost town, well inside the 10-km zone. You're not allowed to go inside any of the buildings, since there's no way the authorities can vouch for their structural safety after 27 years of abandonment. You see the iconic ferris wheel that never carried a single passenger--it was supposed to be inaugurated as part of the May Day celebrations, but the town was evacuated a couple days before that, and nobody ever returned.

Visiting in winter has its drawbacks: the radiation readings are lower, making for less dramatic demonstrations, because the biggest problem is the dust, and the snow makes sure there's none of that floating around. (After the guides board the bus, they read you the code of conduct which you then have to sign; among the things you won't do: sit on the ground, put your backpack on the ground, drink from open water sources in the zone, eat or drink outside the bus or the canteen building where you'll be having lunch. For many of us, that reading was the point when we were really struck by the reality of heading into the site of a nuclear disaster.)

But a winter visit has its pluses as well. Without humans and domestic animals going through the woods, the undergrowth and the branches have become quite dense, making it hard to see the buildings; in winter, their ghostly forms emerge a little more.

Oh, and of course there's that other advantage of a winter visit, which is that the radiation readings are lower.

Nature has its way eventually
Pripyat also helps explain a portion of the enthusiasm our students had for the outing. Amy had been puzzled in the fall when she'd mentioned Pripyat and a bunch of students knew exactly what it was. It turns out there's a level in "Call of Duty" where some Russian bad guy is supposed to be meeting up with some Arab bad guy, and they've chosen Pripyat as the perfect place to meet, because there's nobody there. (Well, nobody except a few busloads of disaster tourists every day, but I'm guessing we don't appear in the video game.) Your job is to make your way around the abandoned town and find a way to assassinate the bad guys. So of course Pripyat was a popular destination for our students.

A Soviet flag "still" flies over the main square of Pripyat'. This one is tattered, but it doesn't look like it's been there for 27 years. Who puts up the new ones?

The next stop is lunch, at the canteen that serves the workers doing maintenance and construction (you don't get there until around 3:00, so you're not interfering with anyone else's meal). Back on the bus, then you head home.

Well, first you go through two dosimeters, devices that measure radiation. At the 10-km checkpoint and again at the 30-km checkpoint, everyone gets off the bus and files through a building where there are a few dosimeters. One by one you go through, standing with your hands at head level pressed against the sides of the machine. After several seconds the "Chisto" light comes on ("Clean"), the gate opens, and you're free to proceed. At least, that's how it worked for everyone on our bus. I'm not sure what happens if you get the "Dirty" light instead of the "Chisto."

Between the two checkpoints, you pass the sign announcing your arrival in the town of Chernobyl. It's a big cement thing with the name of the town--that is, when you're on your way in. As you leave, you see the back side of the structure, which reads "Shchaslyvoyi dorogy"--roughly, "Bon voyage". Indeed. Yet another site of compulsory picture taking--everyone wants their picture in front of the sign with the text "Chornobyl".

Mike runs back to the group after his turn. Note the happy little yellow atom atop the sign, staying cool under its blanket of snow.

Which raises the issue of what Amy calls "zone tourism." What is it we're seeing there? What is it we're experiencing? What draws us to go see this place? (Other than the "cool" factor of being at the site of a beloved video game, of course.) And what, after all, is real?

What are we seeing when we walk through that nursery school? If everyone left in the middle of the day, that doesn't quite explain why furniture is overturned, scattered around the room. The doll on the floor to your right just as you enter the building--her placement is almost too perfect, too appropriate an evocation of lives interrupted in medias res. If you were trying to evoke the desolation of a place that people loved and that they'd had to leave in a hurry, not knowing they'd never be back--you'd probably put a doll right there, wouldn't you. And you'd probably scatter some slippers around the floor with the cots.

And then there are the tourists--us. Two or three buses a day, stopping here to see the tangible signs of other people's devastation. (The helpful folks at Chernobyl-Tour ask if you'd like to travel to the zone inexpensively: "Gather your own group!" they offer.) Have none of us moved items around?
On the other hand, it's not clear why a tourist or a stage-set designer would ornament a cot with back issues of "Medical nurse" magazine. And as one of the tour guides said, when the "liquidators" cam in to clean up the radiation, they washed everything, and in the process, they moved everything around, and since nobody was coming back, there wasn't much point in putting everything back in order. (Of course, if stereotypes are to be believed, a German or Swiss liquidation team would have put everything back in order, even though nobody would ever be coming back ...)

And then again, this beer bottle has almost certainly not been sitting in the nursery school since 1986, not merely because of the relative lack of dust on it, but because, as Amy observed, its label has a soccer ball to commemorate Ukraine's co-hosting of the European soccer cup--in 2012.

I wrote most of this post two weeks ago, a day or two after the trip, and then ran out of time, and also felt like I didn't know how to answer the questions I threw in at the end. Now I've had time to finish it up and put in the pictures, but I still don't feel like I have the least clue about the questions. You spend a total of 5 hours on a bus, weaving along a snowy Ukrainian road with a driver playing a video game, to spend 3 hours hopping on and off a bus to witness ... the emptiness that's left behind when our modern genius goes awry? Or what? Anyone feel like throwing me a bone in the comments?

Anyway, I was struck by that sign that you pass on your way out of town: On the front, welcome to Chernobyl; On the back, as you leave behind the scene of the near-apocalypse, Shchaslyvoyi dorogy -- Happy trails!

There's our bus heading out of the zone. As the sign says, Shchaslyvoyi dorogy.

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