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 I googled Chernobyl tours, and discovered we were about to participate in Extreme Tourism.
Why are we interested in sites of horrific events?
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 death, sacrifice 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 are curious. Think of the visitors to Auschwitz, Ground Zero and the site of the Bali bombing in Kuta.
Where were you when disaster erupted?
When the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine was deliberately pushed to its limits with devastating consequences, I was in Hobart, over 15,000 kms away. Probably one of the safest places on earth on 26 April 1986 and the days and weeks after.
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.
Sunbaking on a roof in Belarus
The explosion released a silent, deadly cloud of radiation that floated to the north-east over Minsk, capital of Belarus. My Scottish cousin was reading a Geoffrey Archer novel on top of a building there, basking in glorious sunshine, and being doused in radioactive dust. She was 400 km from Chernobyl.
My 16-year-old sister, Joanna, was also in the cloud’s path, hiking on a glacier in Lapland. She was 2,300 km from the nuclear power plant. I remember my parents being so worried because they couldn’t contact her. She was staying with friends of the family in Switzerland. They’d taken her camping in Finland, in what was considered pristine wilderness. We were all relieved to hear from her when she called home.
Then we heard from family in Scotland that our cousin, Catriona, 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, being hosted in universities around the Soviet Union.
Stooges of the West
Some of the students heard about the explosion via the BBC on short wave radio and alerted the others. They were helped to leave by their lecturers and fellow students, although many of the Russians believed the Brits were stooges in a melodramatic act of propaganda by the West.
The students left without their belongings, even the clothes they were wearing. They were given British Airways tracksuits and flew back to Britain for a flurry of media appearances and medical tests.
Our Ukrainian connection
A few years ago, my husband r, Chris, e-connected with his Father’s family in Ukraine and we visited them in Lviv in 2016. His cousin Victor, then 25, acted as our guide. We immediately felt at home with him and the rest of Chris’s family and had many laughs and a few tears.
When we (me, my husband and step-son, Josef) visited Ukraine again in 2018, Victor had moved to Kiev to be with his fiance Mariya. We were lucky to have them as our local guides and translators.
How dangerous is Chernobyl?
In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, exposure to massive doses of radiation killed about 30 people. Since then, there have been many many deaths and chronic illnesses as a result of longer-term exposure to lower rates of radiation.
It is hard to find actual numbers and estimates vary depending on what story or report you read. This event happened deep inside the Soviet Union, which was not known for its transparency or rigorous analysis.
We read that the radiation in the parts of Exclusion Zone 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, or from an X-ray. The tour guide said the same thing. We’d just flown in from Aus, but chose not to ask about the risk of doing two of those things in quick succession!
Precautions: Second hand clothes and a Geiger counter
We’d brought old summer clothes and shoes from home that we could throw away after the visit. But when the temperature dropped to 13 we made a quick trip to buy warmer clothes at a 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 filled in gaps with their excellent translations.
Three Aussies and 12 Ukrainians wait 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. We were heading to a cafe to wait for all the paperwork to be ready for us to go through the first checkpoint at the thirty-kilometre perimetre.
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 expression “tough crowd”.
The cafe was called the Wog Café. If your Australian this is funny. So, yes, we took the photos and laughed. We had a few other laughs when Victor accused us of being “from village” because one Australian couldn’t work the cash machine (it was in Ukrainian), and a Ukrainian claimed to be a “warm lover”, meaning they dislike being cold.
At the 30Km perimeter we waited again. The soldiers were very handsome and the female tour guides greeted them like long lost friends. The soldier checked our passports, gave us that strict unsmiling stare that’s common to security guards all over the world, and waved us round the checkpoint.
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 didn’t spot a moose or bear or wild horse.
It’s the Russians fault
After 20 minutes 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 one, was in charge when the disaster happened.
We were told not to take pictures of one of the buildings thought to be the offices of the Soviet security agency, the KGB. The building was unremarkable and the request didn’t make sense. Ukraine is now an independent country. But, I grew up in the Cold War era and am not prepared to tangle with Soviet or Ukrainian security.
At the same place there is a memorial to all the villages that were (eventually) 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 charming.
Chernobyl’s power used for top secret missile detection
Most people I have talked to about Chernobyl assume that all the power was use in Ukrainian towns and cities. But, it was also 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