Trip to Kiev and Chernobyl

It is a massive mistake to travel to a destination and expect your visit to give you a kind of transcendental ”understading” of what happened there. Doing so is like peeling an onion, and expecting there to be a definitive ”core” to it; in the end, you’ll just be left with the layers scattered across the table, with no core element in sight.  

The reality is that in the construction of meaning, it’s the layers that count: an event as massive as the  Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 left behind thousands of stories, and the incident means different things to different people. Not only were there thousands of survivors, all with their own tales, there are also millions of us around the world who are fascinated with the disaster, and we all have our own reasons for our fascination.

For me, the main point of reading and seeing documentaries about the accident of 1986 has been in trying to understand how an individual human heing comes to terms with a massive disaster with global implications. I’m also fascinated by how specific accidents and tragedies impact paradigms of thinking (another fascination of mine is the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and its effects on organized religion and atheism). The Chernobyl disaster was another blow to the argument that the Soviet Union was a perfectly oiled machine, a political structure serving the working man. In fact, Adam Higginbotham, author of Midnight in Chernobyl (2019), even goes so far as to claim that Chernobyl was the very event that ultimately crushed the Soviet system.

It also had some serious implications on our species’ never-ending arrogance in the face of nature and the laws of the universe: we are not in control of the Cosmos – ultimately, the Cosmos is in control of us.

I set off on a trip to Ukraine on 11th October 2019. My brother (his blog, in Finnish, is here) had arranged for all the practical necesseties, such as a place to stay, and he had negotiated a trip to the nuclear disaster zone with a company that provides such trips for a living. Our guide was a man named Taras, a historian and biologist with an extensive knowledge of the 1986 disaster as well as the surrounding cultural and historical circumstances.

All photos in this post were taken by me using an Honor 20 Pro smartphone. Some images were edited with Snapseed.

Step 1: Kiev

Kiev is an amazing, very European city with over 2 million inhabitants. Many Westerners still have negative stereotypes about countries in Eastern Europe, but they are mostly just that – stereotypes. The truth is, essentially anything you can ask for is available in a city like Kiev, from well-stocked luxury boutiques to excellent restaurants.

We arrived there in the afternoon of Friday the 11th of October 2019, and immediately set about exploring the town.

We first headed to the Holodomor memorial museum, a place dedicated to keeping alive the memory of the 1932-1933 famine, forced upon Ukraine by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Somewhere between 3-12 million people perished, most dying of hunger and diseases. It is, sadly, a largely forgotten tragedy.

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Statue outside the museum.
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Inside the museum. You can light up a candle and leave it burning at an altar of sorts.
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A multimedia presentation recounts the story of the tragedy.

If you’re going to visit the museum on your trip to Kiev, be sure to walk out of a doorway to the left of the main entrance – this doorway leads you outside, to the top of a long stairway, and gives you an amazing view of a part of the city.

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View from the top of the stairway leading to the Holodomor Museum.

Once we had explored the museum and lit up a candle in remembrance of the victims of Holodomor, we took an Uber (which are extremely cheap in Ukraine, by the way) to the Independence Square, or Maidan Nezalezhnosti. This is where the 2014 revolution took place.

After the Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich refused to fulfill the Ukrainian people’s wishes to be a part of Europe rather than a pawn in Russia’s imperialist games, the people took to the streets. The riots and demonstrations got violent, with the police and their tactical teams assaulting and brutalizing the people, but the demonstrators ultimately prevailed, forcing the President to leave the country. They had done it – they had overthrown the Ukrainian government.

The documentary Winter on Fire (2015) is an excellent telling of the story.

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Monument at the center of the Maidan Square

The only negative thing I would say about this spot is that, on the night of our visit, it was full of local “enterpreneurs” who had chained wild animals to themselves (owls, birds, even monkeys), and were using these poor animals as an attraction to get money from tourists. Absolutely tasteless and cruel.

Step 2: Chernobyl

On Saturday morning, a minibus came to fetch us from our apartment in downtown Kiev. We had paid for our Chernobyl exploration in advance, so all we had to do was show the tour guide our passports and tickets, and we were off.

The drive to the “zone” took around two hours, with our drive stopping for a quick bathroom and coffee break once along the way.

Entrance into the contamination zone is controlled through two checkpoints: the first one stands at the 30 kilometer mark from the reactor, the second around 10 kilometers from “ground zero”. Once you reach the first checkpoint, you have to get out of the bus with your passport and tickets you’ve bought with a Chernobyl tour company, and wait for the police to come check these documents.

There will most likely be other tour groups at the checkpoint with you, all accompanied by their tour guides, so it might take something like 10-20 minutes for the police to come to you. In the meantime, you can enjoy the bizarre, surreal atmosphere of the checkpoint: there are two little kiosks at the first checkpoint, selling all kinds of Chernobyl-related keepsakes, such as fridge magnets, postcards, t-shirts, hats – you name it. What adds to the bizarre atmosphere is that there is this old-time music playing from loudspeakers, as though at a mental asylum to calm the patients down, and you can see Jehovah’s Witnesses standing around, distributing leaflets about the coming apocalypse.

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Mannequin dressed with a “liquidator” outfit at the first checkpoint. Easily one of the most bizarre, eerie places I’ve visited in my life.
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Yes – you’re reading that right.

Once the police had checked our papers, we were allowed inside the area. We hopped back into our minibus, which took us to the Duga radar, a massive secret Soviet era device used to spy on the West. It was located near the Chernobyl power plant because it required so much energy to run.

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Photographs simply can’t convey the size of this thing.

Once this less-known aspect of the nuclear tragedy was relayed, we continued on to the site of the nuclear plant. This was, without question, the most anticipated part of our journey: I yearned the see “ground zero”, the actual reactor where the life-changing tragedy had taken place.

The sarcophagus (a protective structure built on top of the destroyed reactor) was visible from far away – it is that massive. As we entered the industrial area where ground zero was located, the minibus stopped, allowing us outside to photograph and marvel at this dangerous, terrifying structure. And there it was – reactor #4:

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The sarcophagus is on the right.

Standing next to the reactor, you feel like you’re standing in the middle of history. If you are interested in the Chernobyl disaster, have seen documentaries and read books about it, standing here, next to the reactor, is such an intense experience that it will most likely take you the rest of your trip (or your life) to fully digest the idea of where you’ve just stood.

On the night of the disaster, several residents stood at a bridge watching the colors in the sky caused by the explosion of the reactor. We drove over this bridge, and continued on to the town of Pripyat, another highlight of the Chernobyl tour.

Pripyat is a ghost town left behind by the people who manned the nuclear plant. Entire families were given just a few hours to evacuate the town, which meant that the infrastructure and the homes were left essentially intact. Entering the town is like walking into an elaborate studio lot, decorated for some post-apocalyptic cinematic nightmare, possibly directed by Andrei Tarkovski.

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The town cinema. It exclusively showed Soviet propaganda films.
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Behind those trees is the town hospital where the first responders (the “liquidators”) were treated. They were later sent to Moscow to a clinic that specialized in radiation-related illness.

If you follow the news and are interested in history even just a little bit, you are most likely familiar with a lot of the imagery related to Chernobyl. However, actually standing there surrounded by the physicality, the reality of it all gives you goosebumps, no matter how many documentaries or pictures you’ve seen. I would imagine that, for many people, the sense of displacement, of people having to leave their lives behind in a matter of seconds, would also increase their empathy towards groups such as refugees and homeless people; maybe it should be compulsory for politicians and other leaders to visit Pripyat before they can assume the duties of their office.

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A child’s bunny rabbit toy at an abandoned nursery.
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Doll at an abandoned nursery in the contamination zone.

One question you might be asking while reading this is “Isn’t it dangerous to be in the contamination zone?”

The answer is Yes and No.

Yes, in the sense that you do have to listen to your guide and keep up with his/her instructions as to how long you can spend in an individual spot; some places are more contaminated than others. You also can’t go flying solo – you will most likely get lost in the dense, forested area. Pripyat, the town housing the Chernobyl workers, is not a small one, and it’s an entirely possible scenario to get lost in the bizarre, dreamlike mixture of nature and concrete surrounding you in all directions. (Think of it as like getting lost in a nightmare going on inside David Lynch’s or Jorge Luis Borges’ head).

But no, ultimately it is not life-threatening, nor is it even dangerous for something like procreation: the radiation levels are down to a manageable degree now. You’ll be fine, just don’t go playing Indiana Jones and pretending like you’re going to be the one to “get to the bottom” of the mystery by negotiating the walls and entering Reactor 4 or something.

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Soda machine. In true communist Soviet spirit, there was just one glass for everyone to use – I’m not kidding.
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Looking at a river in Pripyat through a chain-link fence.
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Discarded political propaganda.
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Black Angel monument outside the seclusion zone. Photo taken by my brother Sami.

Conclusion (5 days later)

Visiting the area was intellectually and emotionally exhausting: you are surrounded by so much meaning that no matter how hard your brain works to make sense of it all, it will not succeed. This is, of course, a classic sign of a place worth visiting: you have to see it to believe it; no film or television show, no matter how well made, will quench your thirst to experience it first hand. Just don’t expect a “revelation” of any sort – be content with the chills and goosebumps it gives you; ultimately, that feeling is closer to truth than any written or pictorial account of a trip there.

One of the things that frustrates me about modern cinema and literature is that I feel that many otherwise great works are “over-written”, so I am going to live as I preach and keep this post to a moderate length.

I will upload more pictures for those of you interested to my Flickr account as the week progresses and my head slowly returns from Ukraine.

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