My husband’s young Ukrainian cousin, Victor, suggested we visit Chernobyl on our visit to Kiev and we immediately agreed. Once the tickets were paid for in pricey American dollars I googled to find out more. Seems we were about to participate in Extreme Tourism.
Maybe we shouldn’t go?
That got me thinking. What makes us interested in places of violence and horror and man-made catastrophe? Why do we spend money visiting sites where the actions of people have resulted in adversity, death and long-term suffering?
Some people claim it is our moral obligation to remember our mistakes and misdeeds, others have a personal connection to a tragedy or outrage and others just want to know what happened and maybe why. Think of the visitors to Auschwitz, Ground Zero and Kuta, the site of the Bali bombing.
Where were you when Chernobyl happened?
I was in Hobart, over 15,000 kms away and probably one of the safest places on earth on 26 April 1986. That’s when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine was deliberately pushed to its limits with terrible consequences.
A series of misjudged tests, design flaws, unexpected events and all too human stuff-ups resulted in water flashing into steam so violently it blew the 1,000 tonne lid of the reactor. My sister was hiking over a glacier in Lapland. She was 2,300 kms away.
When the silent, deadly cloud of radiation was released and floated over the north-west my Scottish cousin was reading a Geoffrey Archer novel on top of a building in Minsk, Belarus, in glorious sunshine. She was 100 kilometeres from Chernobyl.
I am connected to the disaster by my sister and cousin and by vivid memories of the disaster unfolding. My parents were anxious for my sister and then we heard from family in Scotland that our cousin had spent four days in Minsk, an area exposed to 60 – 70 per cent of the radiation, before being evacuated. She was part of a group of British language students, hosted in universities around the Soviet Union, who were able to leave with help from lecturers and fellow students, many of whom thought their departure was an attempt at melodramatic propaganda by the western world.
And, there is one more connection. A few years ago, my husband re-established contact his Father’s family in Ukraine and we visited them in 2016. Cousin Victor acted as our guide on that first trip, and on this one he and his fiance Mariya joined us on the tour to Chernobyl. They wanted to see for themselves what had happened in their homeland.
How dangerous is it to visit Chernobyl?
The initial accident killed about 30 people and there have been many many deaths and chronic illnesses since then as a result of exposure to radiation. It is hard to find an actual number and it varies from story to story. This event happened deep inside the Soviet Union, which was never known for its transparency or rigorous analysis if the truth is contrary to the picture its citizens or the world needed to see.
We were told by the tour Guide and had read that the radiation in the parts of Chernobyl that we would be visiting is the equivalent of what you would experience in Kiev or receive from the gamma rays on a flight from Australia. We didn’t ask about the exposure if you do all three of those things in quick succession.
Precautions and preparation
We brought old clothes and shoes that we could throw away after the visit. We were expecting temperatures in the mid-twenties but in unusual weather for Kiev, the temperature dropped to 13. We bought warm clothes at the second-hand store.
It was raining which was meant to be good because it settles any radioactive dust, and Victor had organised for us to have a Geiger counter.
We got on our small, rickety tour bus and sat up the back – Three Tasmanians and 12 Ukrainians. Our guide checked all our passports – the first of three times we’d have them checked that day. She spoke first in Russian (most Kievians speak Russian as their first language. Victor is from the Trans-Carpathian region, so speaks Ukrainian as his first) and then in English. Mariya and Victor kindly filled in any gaps with their excellent translations.
Three Aussies and 12 Ukrainians at the Wog Cafe
Chernobyl is two-hours drive from Kiev and the scenery changes from huge apartment blocks to villages and open countryside, then to forests of silver birches and pines.
Our guide, Leisa, was doing her fourth day in a row of translating into two languages and apparently no one was laughing at her jokes. The Ukrainians were quiet. I taught Mariya the meaning of “tough crowd”.
Our first stop was the Wog Café – yes, we took the photos and laughed. Language and cultural differences are always a cause of much hilarity, for example when Victor accused one of us of “from village” because one of us couldn’t work the cash machine and one of us claimed to be a warm lover, when describing their dislike of being cold (no names). The stop gave time for all the paperwork to be ready for us to go through the first checkpoint at the thirty-kilometre perimetre.
At the 30Km perimeter we waited again. The soldiers were very handsome and the female tour guides greeted them like long lost friends. We got off the bus and the soldier checked our passports, gave us that strict unsmiling stare that’s common to security guards everywhere and waved us round the checkpoint to our bus that had driven through earlier.
Back on the bus we drove through the exclusion zone. It’s all luscious green east European forest intersected only by the occasional path or dirt road. I kept my eyes open for the fabled Chernobyl wildlife, but there was not a moose or bear or wild horse to be seen.
It’s the Russians fault
After a 20 minute drive we arrived at the last statue of Lenin in Ukraine. It’s still there, when all other symbols of the USSR have been removed because the exclusion zone is treated like a museum. It’s also a good reminder to all visitors that another regime, not a Ukrainian government, was in charge when the disaster happened.
We were told not to take pictures of one of the buildings that to be the offices of the Soviet security agency, the KGB. The building is unremarkable and the request doesn’t make sense. Ukraine is now an independent country. But, I grew up in the Cold War era and through knowing the history, novels and popular culture of the time, I’m not the person to challenge anything to do with Soviet security.
At the same place there is a memorial to all the villages that were evacuated – a long row of sign posts, each town and village named and surrounded by healthy, flourishing apple trees.
It’s there we first saw the dogs that live in the zone. “Do not kiss them,” says the guide. No need to tell me – I painstakingly kept my hands to myself, even though the dogs were adorable, not at all wild or over-exuberant.
Chernobyl’s power not for domestic or industrial use
Most people I have talked to about our visit to Chernobyl assume that the power was use in people’s homes or in factories. But, no it was used to power a top secret Soviet missile detection system, that never worked.
There is more about the failed missile detection system and dogs of Chernobyl in part 2: Chernobyl – complex and contradictory