I photograph the doll, its hair bleached grey, the rubbery plastic of its head weathered to a sort of sickly puce. Then one of the Germans steps in front of me, crouching down to get his own shot. ‘Come now,’ says the tour guide. ‘We will look at the school. It is very emotional to think of the little children.’
Disaster Tourism offers a unique experience for those who have exhausted the normal mundane package holiday. We guarantee your holiday will be a complete disaster and leave you wanting more . . . Have you just learnt of a disaster from the News and want to get out there and see it for yourself? Get in touch and we’ll make it happen. – Disaster Tourism travel agency website
Kiev is a recently reinvented place. Ten-year-old gold-domed churches dominate the skyline, exact replicas of those destroyed by Stalin in the thirties. Big black SUVs pull up outside private views at the art centre opened by Viktor Pinchuk, the billionaire steel magnate, who also owns four TV stations and is married to the ex-president’s daughter. At Murakami Sushi you can try ten kinds of Philadelphia roll, unless you’re across the street at Tarantino’s, eating pizza. You can shop at Dior or Zara, but GUM, the Soviet-era department store, has closed its doors.
In a few days there will be an election. The atmosphere is brittle, crackling with new money and potential violence. Black-clad ultra-nationalist Cossacks (riding boots, wool hats, facial hair, swords) are banging huge kettledrums at the base of an equestrian statue of their culture hero Bohdan Khmelnytsky, who led a seventeenth-century uprising against the Poles. Portraits of imprisoned ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko are fly-posted on the facades of the neoclassical buildings on Khreshatkyk Street, her distinctive peasant braid reproduced in graphic black and white. They last a few hours before they’re torn down.
‘I’m responsible for you to be safe and sound and not glow in the dark after your tour.’ The guide, a businesslike young woman with auburn-tinted hair, is giving her introduction. ‘I’m responsible for your protocols. Don’t touch anything. Don’t lie down or go off the path. Don’t eat. Don’t smoke . . .’ Then she distributes bright yellow Ukrainian-made dosimeters. When you sign up to go to Chernobyl, you have the option to rent one of these or buy a T-shirt. Some operators offer souvenir mugs and army-issue gas masks.
We sign waivers and are driven out of the city, twenty of us on a bus. The massive housing blocks at the periphery give way to fields of sugar beets and winter wheat. Informal roadside markets are selling fruit and vegetables and more than once we pass a farmer in a horse-drawn cart. It is early in the morning, and as I look out at the misty landscape, a video screen plays an English-language film about the disaster that has led to a thousand square miles of this fertile countryside turning into a radioactive wilderness.
At 1.23 a.m. on 26 April 1986, Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant experienced a sudden power surge during a routine systems test. A series of explosions ensued, rupturing the reactor vessel and starting a fire, which eventually destroyed most of the building, vaporizing tons of uranium fuel and sending a vast radioactive plume into the atmosphere. The Soviet authorities kept the event secret as fallout began to drift across Europe. Only when alarms were triggered at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden two days later did the USSR admit to the world that there had been an accident.
In 1986 I was a teenager at a school in suburban London. On 2 May, the plume began to drift over the UK. Upland areas, particularly in Wales, were contaminated with Caesium-137. Iodine-131 started to turn up in milk. We made jokes about radioactive sheep and not going out in the rain. To us, the disaster – and the sinister fog of secrecy which enveloped it – was both horribly glamorous and totally unsurprising. The Cold War seemed like a permanent and immutable condition, a dominating binary that had drilled down beyond politics into the very structure of thought. The latest generation of leaders – Reagan, Thatcher and their sclerotic Soviet counterparts – sounded hysterical, punchy. Sometimes it seemed as if they actively relished the prospect of nuclear attack. If we sixteen-year-olds wanted to know about our probable future, we had only to watch bleak docudramas like Threads and The Day After, screened to massive audiences on the BBC and ITV. Even if we made it to adulthood, chances were we’d find ourselves covered in sores, grubbing around for canned food in the ruins of our city.
Two hours out of Kiev, we arrive at the checkpoint that marks the border of the Zone of Alienation, the thirty-kilometre exclusion area around the power plant. It’s a sleepy place, a few administrative buildings, a foul-smelling long-drop toilet, dogs sleeping by the barrier that blocks the road. Four or five other minivans are stopped here, and tourists mill about as names and documents are given to the guards. I’m fooling around with my dosimeter, switching between display modes I don’t understand, when a young man walks past, dressed head to foot in Eastern Bloc army surplus. Dangling from his belt is a gas mask. Is this genuine preparation to enter the contaminated zone? He looks more as if he’s here to participate in a re-enactment, costumed as one of the ‘liquidators’ who cleaned up after the disaster. Not for the first time, I wonder what we’re all doing here. Tourism has – self-evidently – an element of pleasure to it. What pleasure do we expect to derive from visiting this tragic, threatening place?
When I first went up on the roof, I was struck by the mystical feeling up there. It was like another world. – Igor Kostin
It was no longer a hurricane, and the alliteration of ‘Superstorm Sandy’ tripped off the tongue, so that’s what the broadcast media had taken to calling it by the time it hit New York on Monday, 29 October 2012. A storm surge of fourteen feet of water entered the city, destroying houses in Staten Island and the Rockaways, inundating Red Hook, and cutting off Lower Manhattan, which became briefly known as the ‘Powerless Zone’. The next morning Nana Gouvêa, a thirty-year-old Brazilian soap actress and model, went out with her husband, who photographed her striking dramatic poses among the wreckage. Pouting at the camera, dressed in a tight black minidress, she can be seen striding around in front of downed trees, mounting the bumper of a crushed car, her arms stretched wide in a kind of winged swoop. In that shot another figure appears to the left of the frame, an unglamorous person in jeans and a white cycle helmet, crouching down to take her own picture, which may or may not include Gouvêa.
That same day, I cycled round my Brooklyn neighbourhood, which, being far from the water, had got away relatively unscathed. I also took some pictures of wreckage. In almost every one, I had to crop other photographers – sometimes five or more – out of the frame. After a while I gave up.
Gouvêa gave the photos to a Brazilian news site called Ego, which ran them alongside an interview in which she confided that she ‘adored’ hurricanes and had spent most of the storm in bed with her husband, only leaving to take pictures and go to the gym. The crassness of her response to an event that had killed hundreds of people turned her into a meme, a global laughing stock. A blog was launched devoted to photoshopped pictures of Gouvêa posing in front of famous images of devastation – the sinking Titanic, the little napalm-burned girl fleeing down a road in Vietnam. In one, she is on the roof of Reactor 4 at Chernobyl, as soldiers in heavy lead suits scramble to clear wreckage.
The original photograph is by Igor Kostin, a photojournalist who had previously covered the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Nine days after the explosion, he climbed onto the roof of the damaged reactor with a group of liquidators, who had been told to clear it of debris. The radiation level was so high that the soldiers, working in eight-man teams, could spend no longer than forty seconds on the roof at a time. Many of these ‘biorobots’ (their own bleak slang) were exposed to lethal doses. The ‘invisible’ danger which Kostin braved to make the image has inscribed itself visually: a pattern of overexposed white bands rises up from the bottom, the result of radiation damage to the film.
Here at last Gouvêa is where – perhaps without knowing it – she aspired to be, in a high place where others could not go, triumphantly human amid the faceless biorobots, glamorous in the Zone.
What was it? A meteorite, or a visitation from outer space? Whatever it was, in our small land appeared a miracle of miracles: the Zone. We sent in troops. None returned. Then we surrounded the Zone with police cordons . . . – Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker
There it is, Reactor 4, just like in the pictures: the striped chimney, the concrete buttresses of the sarcophagus. My dosimeter is beeping, but the radiation level near the plant is much lower than in many other parts of the Zone. For about ten days after the explosion, radionuclides were released into the atmosphere, carried up and then deposited unevenly by wind or rain. Some of these substances had short half-lives, and decayed in hours or days. Others continue to work their way through the entire ecosystem of the Zone, through the soil and water, saturating the mosses and fungi on the forest floor, carried up into leaves and bark and berries and through the bodies of birds and deer, just as they worked through the bodies of the liquidators, the Ukrainian and Belarusian peasants who stubbornly harvested their radioactive crops, the Kiev citizens who weren’t told of the risk and went out to join their May Day parade, smiling and waving in the fallout. A mutagenic legacy of cancers and birth defects has been passed on to their children, and other children across Europe and as far away as Japan.
Despite the severity of the accident, the authorities kept the other three Chernobyl reactors running. The last one wasn’t shut down until December 2000. Surrounded by former agricultural land that is steadily reverting to wilderness, the area around Reactor 4 is a workplace, with well-maintained roads and newly mown grass verges. Nearby, workers (two weeks on, two weeks off, so their exposure is restricted) are building a vast structure known as the New Safe Confinement, to replace the sarcophagus, which has begun to degrade. Other workers are involved in decommissioning the reactors, a process which will take many years.
In the first days after the accident, the forest absorbed huge quantities of radiation, its canopy turning a vivid red as it died. 135,000 people were evacuated, as liquidators struggled to contain the damaged reactor before a two-ton blob of radioactive lava nicknamed the ‘elephant’s foot’ melted its way through the base of the building into the earth. Once the immediate danger was averted, at terrible cost to the liquidators, helicopters sprayed polymer film across the land to capture radioactive particles, then crews scooped up the topsoil. Pits were dug. The red forest was bulldozed into them. They buried the topsoil. They buried the most contaminated villages. An estimated 600,000 people, mostly soldiers, were involved in the clean-up operation. Right by Reactor 4 is a memorial to the liquidators, in the form of a pair of enveloping hands, protecting the power plant as an alarm bell sounds in the heavens. We stand beside it to take photographs, with the reactor in the background. A girl clasps her boyfriend, kicking out a coquettish leg. The two Swedish hipsters take it in turns to hold up their dosimeter, like a talisman.
‘Now,’ says the tour guide, ‘we will have lunch.’ And so we pass through radiation detectors into a canteen, where beefy ladies serve us a meal of cheese pastries and boiled vegetables. In answer to the unspoken question, she reassures us that all the ingredients have been brought in from outside.
Above ground, Paris, like most of the world, was uninhabitable, riddled with radioactivity. The victims stood guard over an empire of rats. – Chris Marker, La Jetée
A few miles further into the Zone, we stop at a ruined village. A main street; a post office; empty vodka bottles lying on the floor of what was probably a shop. The forest is beginning to encroach on the local palace of culture, its facade choked by young birch trees. The vestibule is decorated with reliefs of idealized couples whose geometrically decorated bodies suggest both peasant fabrics and industrial structures, men and women made of the same substance as the power plant where they worked. We pick our way across broken floorboards into a hall, with a stage at the far end. Above it, a permanent surtitle for weddings and concerts, is the slogan Long Live Communism – Radiant Future of Mankind.
If the Zone abounds in ironies, it is because it offers the spectacle of a vanished political order, organized around a vanished vision of the future. All that was solid about the civic life of this community has melted into air; all that was holy has been profaned, and the tourist can tell himself that – at least for as long as the tour lasts – he is facing with sober senses his real conditions of life and relations with his kind. He is an ideological survivor.
On the outskirts of Pripyat, a concrete sign in a distinctive Soviet space-age font gives the name and the date of its foundation – 1970. Fifty thousand people used to live in this town built to house Chernobyl workers. It was abandoned in the space of a couple of hours, the residents forbidden to take their possessions, which lie mouldering in their empty apartments.
Lenin Boulevard, once a broad avenue flanked by high-rise housing, is now almost blocked by trees. Only a narrow path, just wide enough for a vehicle, remains passable. The town centre is an open square, with all the facilities necessary for life under Communism – a supermarket, a restaurant, government offices, the ‘Energetik’ cultural centre. The town plan (based on Le Corbusier’s notion of the ‘ville radieuse’) is yet another Zone irony, its high modernist rationality a relic of an era when the idea of top-down central planning appeared optimistic, liberating.
Strange conjunctions in the wreckage: a sewing machine, a hatstand and a record player; a high board poised over an empty swimming pool. Walter Benjamin: ‘Allegories are, in the realm of thought, what ruins are in the realm of things.’ A ruin always tells some story about impermanence and decay, but Pripyat is also where Soviet futurism came to die. Its modernity is our antiquity: the unachieved future of the perfect worker citizen coexists with the ghost of a greater disaster, the virtual future in which the containment efforts were unsuccessful, and a huge area of Europe was rendered uninhabitable for thousands of years.
As the guide walks us to the amusement park, a minivan drives up and disgorges a group of tourists, who are sporting a motley collection of protective gear – builders’ dust masks, disposable suits, gaiters, goggles, overshoes made of plastic bags. We walk into the funfair together. They pose for each other in front of the rusting dodgem cars against the backdrop of the rusty big wheel. Like us they are quiet. The silence is only broken by the relentless beeping of dosimeters.
I watch two guys in white, with decorators’ dust masks and plastic bags tied round their shoes. They take pictures, exploring the alien planet with their technological devices, detecting, bravely enduring an environment hostile to human life. Yet the planet looks exactly like this planet. It looks like a town, with a supermarket and an amusement park and a sports centre and a high school. It looks like this planet, but it isn’t.
This, of course, is the premise of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Made in 1979, seven years before the explosion at Reactor 4, it is an adaptation of Roadside Picnic, a novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The novel describes the aftermath of an event in which unknown and unseen alien visitors left behind them areas of contamination, where bizarre phenomena occur and artefacts can be found. Tarkovsky strips this story down to a metaphysical minimum, a tale of three men, Stalker, Writer and Professor, who trespass into a Zone, in search of a room where wishes will be granted. The black and white of an industrial town gives way, in a moment of incredible beauty, to the colour of the Zone, a pastoral landscape through which the Stalker leads his clients. In the Zone the danger is invisible, inaudible; it has no taste or scent.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is a first-person shooter game published by a Ukrainian company in 2007. It has a storyline in which the player assumes the identity of an amnesiac stalker, scavenging and trafficking in artefacts in a near-future version of the Zone. There’s a lot of shooting at boxes to find guns, a lot of running around killing mutants. Drinking a bottle of vodka wards off radiation sickness. It’s a ‘sandbox’ game – you have a great deal of freedom to roam as you wish, instead of being funnelled through a predefined maze. Pripyat town, the reactor complex and other features of the real-world Zone of Alienation are faithfully reproduced.
The game is a weird collision between Tarkovsky and zombie culture. In the grand teenage-boy tradition of angst-ridden psychopaths trudging through a post-apocalyptic landscape with only their enormous weapons for company, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. stands for ‘Scavengers, Trespassers, Adventurers, Loners, Killers, Explorers, Robbers’. Trailers cut archive film of Soviet-era plant operators against a truck full of mutant corpses blowing up. The game was enough of a success for the company to release two sequels, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat. Online, fans are posting screenshots, Chernobyl-related art and photos taken in the real Zone. They also post pictures of themselves cosplaying in gas masks and quasi-military ‘stalker gear’. At the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. shop, the ‘long-awaited’ women’s stalker pants have now sold out. A Russian-language book series now runs to over fifty titles, racking up sales of five million copies. On the official web page you can see a photo of the game designers, in khaki overalls and face masks, outside Reactor 4.
A recent American horror film, Chernobyl Diaries, also mines the Zone for thrills, bolting radiation-mutation onto that other genre staple, ‘college students on a road trip’. After some faux home-movie larking about in front of bits of old Europe, its squad of young Americans abroad wind up in Kiev, where (what could go wrong?) they decide to take a trip to the Zone in a camo-painted minibus driven by a man in a tracksuit. One by one they are picked off by packs of wild dogs and zombies or driven mad by the ghost of a little girl, before the last survivor is incarcerated by government scientists, part of a sinister cover-up.
One of the striking things about places heavily contaminated by radioactive nuclides is the richness of their wildlife . . . The preference of wildlife for nuclear-waste sites suggests that the best sites for its disposal are the tropical forests and other habitats in need of a reliable guardian against their destruction by hungry farmers and developers. – James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia
Some people detect a terrible purification in what has happened here. Pharmakon, both poison and cure. Against James Lovelock, whose intellectual project is founded on the claim that the world self-heals or self-corrects, other biologists argue that the wolves and boar and birds that have begun to populate the new wilderness of the Zone are lured into this accidental sanctuary as if into a radioactive trap. Is the Zone healing itself? What would it mean if it is? What if it can’t? Or could this wound on the earth have meaning in another way, as the herald of some future state of grace?
We are pointing our cameras up at a twenty-foot-high metal statue of an angel blowing a trumpet, the focal point of the government-run Wormwood Star Memorial Complex, which opened inside the Zone in 2011. President Yanukovych of Ukraine took President Medvedev of Russia to cut the ribbon. The angel stands in what was once a cinema parking lot and is now a grassy field, with a conceptual display combining an abstract mural with an avenue of signs bearing the names of vanished villages and a couple of rather forlorn racks of empty postboxes, each about the size of a filing cabinet and wrapped in a yellow ribbon. The complex, the work of a ‘People’s Artist of Ukraine and laureate of the T. Shevchenko State Prize’, seems typical of a local taste for heavy symbolism. The Chernobyl Museum in Kiev has displays of winter trees growing up through broken cradles, soft toys in an ark and radiation-control equipment wrapped in the national flag. A new monument to the victims of Stalin’s man-made famine in the thirties takes the form of a hundred-foot candle surrounded by crosses; the day I visited, speakers were playing Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor on a continuous loop.
In post-Soviet Ukraine, the state and the omnipresent Orthodox Church are taking control of the memory of the disaster, turning the Zone into a site of millennial prophecy. Chernobyl, says the tour guide, means ‘wormwood’, and references the Bible. Later, when I look up Revelations 8:10–11, the connection becomes clearer: And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; / And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.
With the fall of the wormwood star, the boundary between heaven and earth has been breached. The land has been contaminated by the profane splitting of the atom, but the people are being taught not to dwell on past mistakes. Instead they will prepare for the second coming.
The explosion at Reactor 4 was indeed a millennial event, but only in that it meant the loss of a nomos, an ordering of experience. Some old people were unable to adapt away from their land, and found their way back; others moved to escape the law, or civilization. Around four hundred people are estimated to be leading isolated, semi-clandestine lives inside the Zone. Over the years, others have come in to loot. I ask the tour guide about it. ‘Yes,’ she says, ‘we have many stalkers.’
Please be reminded that the 9/11 Memorial is a place of remembrance and quiet reflection. We ask that all visitors respect this place made sacred through tragic loss. – 911memorial.org
From the earliest days after the attacks, the rubble of the World Trade Center was a tourist destination. A reading brought me to New York City in early November 2001; the night I arrived, I walked downtown from my hotel to stand on a corner and stare at a broken section of the latticed facade of the North Tower, visible over the fence that had been erected around the site. From the other side came the rumble of heavy machinery. Under floodlights, work was proceeding round the clock. I wasn’t the only one who’d come to see. I remember maybe half a dozen other people, each one alone, several smoking cigarettes, everyone making sure to give each other a lot of space. A block away, a Chinese vendor stood next to a tarp, selling plastic flags and a pile of FDNY T-shirts.
Ten years on, you can go online and buy a We Did Not Forget Thermos® Bottle to drink from while you wear your Let’s Roll Apron and hang your seasonal Tribute to 9/11 Ceramic Christmas Ornaments on your tree. Thousands of people come to the World Trade Center site every day to point their cellphones into the two large pits which now mark the footprints of the towers. Water gushes over sheer black walls, drawing the eye downwards. Though the souvenirs are tacky, the memorial is dignified, the negative space standing in for the absent dead. The people read the leaflets provided; they pose for pictures. As I watch them, I try to remember what it was like that night in 2001, as I got colder and colder, but couldn’t tear myself away. The dust that floated in the air, the sharp burned chemical smell.
Huge landmark buildings are destroyed, creating a sudden unforeseen gap in the fabric of a city. What will take their place? Just for a moment, there is the possibility that anything could take their place. This is why all disaster areas are utopian. For the new, the absolutely radically new to happen, the old must be destroyed.
The Zone is different from the 9/11 site, from any memorial. It is not simply that the ruins are still there to be seen: the disaster is still taking place. By going there, the visitor is exposed to it, albeit in diluted form. It is a kind of crossing-over, an entry into a utopian space where the past is over and the future has yet to begin. In a certain sense the Zone is heaven, a purified abandoned earth that only the dead can inhabit.
Autumn leaves lie thick on the ground; wild flowers grow up through the rotting floorboards of an abandoned cottage. The nursery has a row of day rooms and dormitories filled with child-sized metal bedsteads. Everything is covered by a thick layer of dust. On the floor, in a litter of finger-paintings and alphabet cards, is a little slipper.
Outside, our dosimeters chirrup like a nest of tiny birds. Here in the nursery they are silent.
Writer: How do we get back?
Stalker: Here, nobody returns.
In the Pripyat school, I walk down dusty corridors, peer into classrooms. Slews of paper waste surround upturned desks. Images of Lenin in open textbooks, a cut paper dove. In the canteen, a cash register sits incongruously on a floor strewn with hundreds of respirators. According to the guide, they were standard school equipment, for use in case of nuclear attack. I remember my own conviction at sixteen that I would die before I was able to fall in love or drive a car or play in a band. This is the archaeological record of that fear, the point of connection I have been looking for.
In a hotel room in Kiev, my wife is waiting for me. She is five months pregnant. Before I go in, I take off my shoes and leave them outside the door. Before we hug, I take a shower and change clothes. I have been through two sets of radiation detectors on my way out of the Zone, but whatever the machines may tell me, I’m still afraid of contaminating her.
Photograph by Ben Adlard