Chernobyl: an epitaph to the Soviet system

On the night of April 26th 1986, reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in northern Ukraine exploded during a turbine test which went wrong. The results were devastating. A few statistics:

  • The radiation released was equivalent to 500 Hiroshima bombs
  • 5% Ukraine was contaminated by fallout affecting more than three million people
  • 23% Belarus (an area larger than Belgium) became uninhabitable due to contamination which affected 19% of its population
  • Estimates of deaths attributable to the accident (mostly related to cancer rates) vary between 5000 (World Health Organisation) and 90000 (Greenpeace)

Chernobyl entrance to the exclusion zone

With respect to the political impact of the accident, many historians view it as a major factor contributing to the downfall of the USSR for two main reasons. Firstly, the whole Chernobyl project, which included plans for up to six nuclear reactors, was planned and controlled by Moscow. The flawed reactor design, which was at the root of the accident, was a Soviet creation, and it was later revealed top nuclear scientists had warned of its instability.

Secondly, and even more importantly, following the accident, there was a systematic attempt to cover-up the truth about the scale of the accident and the health risks posed to the millions of people who might have been exposed to harmful radiation. For example, a change in wind direction on May 1st meant the city of Kiev came directly in the path of the radioactive clouds emanating from Chernobyl. However, President Gorbachev insisted the city’s May Day parades should proceed as normal.

In the clean-up operation, more than 600,000 ‘liquidators‘ were brought in to try and manage the aftermath of the accident. Although an impressive example of how the Soviet state was able to mobilise and co-ordinate a vast army of manpower at short notice, many thousands were exposed to deadly doses of radiation without being made aware of the risks involved.

The Chernobyl disaster led many Ukranians to question the Communist regime in Moscow and helped stimulate the rise in nationalism, contributing to the movement for independence achieved just five years later.

For a full account of the events, probably the best source is Sehii Ploky’s Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy from which the acclaimed 2019 TV mini-series was based. However, the latter misrepresented or oversimplified some of the key aspects of the story – see for example, The Real Chernobyl

Dark Tourism

A visit to Chernobyl is a good example of the growing phenomenon of ‘dark tourism’ – visiting places associated with death and suffering. The main fascination of entering the Chernobyl exclusion zones – a 30 km outer zone and 10 km inner zone, is to witness not only the reactor site itself, but to be able to wander around the nearby town of Prypiat built to house the Chernobyl workers, and home to 50,000 people at the time of the accident. Abandoned for over thirty years, it is a haunting time capsule (albeit very decayed and overrun by nature) of what once was a model Soviet city, complete with cultural centre, funfair, sports stadium, and the obligatory statue of Lenin.

On all tours you are issued with a geiger counter which enables you to monitor radiation levels during your visit. It was only when we sped past the ‘Red Forest’ (so-called because the trees turned red due to the extreme radiation) that our meters shot up to an unsafe level.

A raised but not dangerous reading

The first of many stops on the tour was to walk past some abandoned houses from one of the many villages in the exclusion zone. A couple of hundred (mostly) elderly villagers refused to leave the area and were allowed to stay but few are still alive today.

The last remaining Lenin statue in Ukraine?
Kindergarten school in Kopachi village
Reactors 5 and 6 abandoned during construction
Damaged reactor 4 covered by a new safe shelter since 2016
Reactor 3 which finally ceased operating in 2000

Prypiat’s residents were evacuated 36 hours after the accident. Until then, unaware of the seriousness of the situation, life continued as normal. A film shot by local film makers just before the evacuation show residents walking the streets, children playing football and a wedding taking place – just a normal Saturday. People were reassured they could return after three days, so only to take valuable personal possessions with them.

Prypiat city sign
Abandoned supermarket
City administration office
The recently completed funfair abandoned before opening
What might have been – 70 miles away in Kiev
The city sports stadium

Possibly the most haunting part of the visit was wandering round the high school with its abandoned desks, books and… oxygen masks.

High school no 2
Newspaper dated 27 November 1985
High school swimming pool
Chernobyl’s reactor 3 can just be seen in the distance
An apartment front door
So many books left behind

On the way out of the exclusion zone, it is possible to buy some ‘souvenirs’ from your visit.

There are ethical issues relating to ‘dark tourism’ such as tours of Chernobyl. Is it appropriate to profit from or ‘enjoy’ what is clearly the site of such death and destruction? Whilst most people on our tour acted respectfully, there was the occasional exception.

With the recent global success of the TV mini-series, the interest in visiting Chernobyl is likely to surge in the near future. It would be nice to think some of the profits from tour organisers might somehow be channeled towards the victims, but that is probably wishful thinking.