Covidian Travelogues – Pripyat, Ukraine

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in what was then part of the USSR. The meltdown of nuclear power plants was a regular part of our cultural discourse at that point. It had started in the late 50s and early 60s as the core of an awful lot of science fiction and then zombie apocalypse films. The talk grew with weapons treaties (and failed weapons treaties) in the 70s and into the 80s. Then there was Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979. and while we will never really know just how bad that was it didn’t slow down the proliferation of the plants themselves. We talked about it an awful lot though and it was a big part of political discussions down in DC. There were rallies and protests. And then in 1986 there was Chernobyl, and that was bad. Again, we will never know the lasting impact but scientists agree that it left an “Exclusion Zone” as it’s called, uninhabitable for 20,000 years.

The irony is that at that point a lot of the discussion faded away. While it was widely agreed upon that Chernobyl could have been even much worse, leading to global crisis, it seemed to largely satisfy the fears of the general populace of the Earth. It was like… okay, that was bad, but the planet is still here so… Even Fukushima in 2011, which was really horrible (and remains horrible) didn’t generate the buzz that disasters that hadn’t yet happened did in the 1980s.

But there is still an exclusion zone in Ukraine, and as morbid and strange as this sounds, tourism has opened with many restrictions, and I want to go. I don’t know what the fascination is with these abandoned cities… these ghost towns, but I feel drawn there. It’s not likely to happen any time soon so like everything else in these Covidian timesl it has to be a virtual tour. Pripyat was a small city built in 1970 to house the workers and support the existence of the Chernobyl plant. It was part of the big Soviet scheme for The Future. There were dreams. There were collective Utopian visions. It was a young, vital city filled with families. The average age of the citizens of Pripyat, the Nuclear City, was 26 and they were mostly laborers and parents. There were schools and an amusement park.

And now it’s just a shell, evacuated three days after the meltdown. Most people left on buses with only the clothes on their backs. The photos of the amusement park are the most unsettling. I’ve mentioned before that there is little more eerie than an amusement park in the off-season. The park here is closed for a 20,000 year winter.

Chernobyl is a distant echo now for Americans. There was a time when it came up in conversation almost every day. Same for Three Mile Island. The half-life for Fukushima conversation was less than a year. You can still find current research and reporting on it in some scientific journals and the occasional article in Asian media, but it’s just an echo as well, for the most part.

Chernobyl still comes up in various art contexts. There are lower-budget films. The event still piques the interest and curiosity of artists and musicians. And of course there is enough interest in it that there is some tourist traffic in the Exclusion Zone. The ability to shut out existential threat comes a lot more easily than it used to. It took being told to stay home during this current pandemic that awakened people somewhat, but it wasn’t long before the Brunch Bunch was back to their cafe shanties. A half million dead Americans didn’t seem to quench the thirst for 8 dollar cocktails and 15 dollar omelets.

But who am I to talk? With all the luxurious places in the world to go, I’m drawn to a nuclear disaster site.

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