Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Chornobyl Adventure, Part 1: "The Zone Wants to be Respected..."

"...otherwise it will punish." Like the Holodomor and many other tragedies before it, the Chornobyl [1] accident on April 26, 1986 and its aftermath has become a part of modern Ukrainian folklore. Not only have the real tragedies of the catastrophe scarred the landscape and people, but Chornobyl also infiltrates all areas of Ukraine's life.

Chornobyl means "wormwood" in Ukrainian. Wormwood is the name of an apocalyptic sign in the Book of Revelation, and years ago Erik read of Ukrainians who have made the link between the two. A major Ukrainian video game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., features action in the Zone with strange mutated creatures. This video game is connected to a classic Soviet-era film by the highly regarded avante-garde director Andrey Tarkovsky. In his movie, Stalker, the eponymous character, leads two men into the mysterious Zone, a wasteland where physical rules do not apply, to seek a room where dreams are made real. The title of this blog entry is a quote from the movie. Even though the movie long predated the disaster, it is connected in many ways.

Sergey, our main guide, has a long association with Chornobyl. A chemist by training, he was also skilled in radiological, bacteriological, and chemical warfare reconnaissance and was assigned to Chornobyl duty a few months after the disaster in 1986. He ran a brigade investigating hot spots. Sergey is incredibly knowledgeable about the region, with experience as a liquidator and as a scholar. But, his approach sometimes seemed a bit revisionist, labeling the disaster a "victory" and explaining that he believes that future interpretations will refer to "Chornobyl glory." Why does he have a positive spin on the catastrophe? In his view, Chornobyl was a key event leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moreover, it showcased the true heroism and altruism of humans, as well as the ability of the human organism and nature to recuperate.

Also joining us on the trip was Vasyl, a forestry expert.
He explained that a large forest fire today could approach the initial disaster in terms of radiation released. Many forestry workers are active in the Zone to reduce the likelihood of such a catastrophic conflagration.

Sasha was our third guide, a survivor of the disaster who now runs the NGO Pripyat.com. Ironically, his last name - Syrota - means "orphan" in Ukrainian. Much like the New Orleans diaspora attempted to retain community connections after Hurricane Katrina through websites and discussion groups, Pripyat.com is an NGO dedicated to preserving the traditions of the region. While we were exploring the town, Sasha visited the abandoned apartments of former residents who contacted him at the NGO to document their condition. This is one of the many services that the NGO provides to the Chornobyl diaspora population.

En route to Chornobyl, Sergey gave several warnings about the wild conditions in the Zone; the Zone is a place with different rules: we should not assume that floors will hold us, or that doors are attached to frames. The limited human prescence has barely mitigated nature's effects, and we were admonished to watch where we walk as open manholes, bare wires, broken glass, and other hazards litter the area.

Nature dominates in other ways as well. We saw a brood of massive wild boars, and we were warned about a wolf pack that had killed local dogs and was stalking the region. While there was no sign of Blinky, the three-eyed atomically enhanced fish from The Simpsons, the local bird populations have shown signs of mutation, with crossed beaks and other deformities. But, aside from some chickens raised by an old woman in a village, I saw and heard no birds.

What about radiation? While some areas are hotter than others, the group was not exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. Monitors are scattered about the Zone, and the data are reported in real time in many places. In addition, the group had detectors that reported elevated radiation areas, and we were tested before being released at the main checkpoint. Upon our departure from Chornobyl, Sergey checked his radiation level and found that it was equivalent to a transatlantic flight.

[1] Please note that I will use the Ukrainian spelling throughout. You may be more familiar with the Russian version of the name - Chernobyl.

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