Letter from Chernobyl

By Joshua KuceraApril 1, 2019

Letter from Chernobyl
“YOU GUYS READY to get some radiation?!”

It’s 8:00 a.m., and we’re next to a McDonald’s in the center of Kyiv, huddled around a cluster of tour vans. “CHERNOBYL,” one reads, along with the yellow-and-black symbol for radiation. “Trips all your friends will be jealous of.”

Misha is our bro-ish, affable tour guide, wearing a T-shirt and track pants, and his jokes about radioactivity will become a common motif of the trip. “You guys all eat meat?” he asks, planning our lunch break. “Radioactive meat?”

We have each paid $299 for a two-day, all-inclusive tour of Chernobyl, the site of the worst nuclear accident in history. In 1986, a reactor at Chernobyl’s nuclear plant exploded, spewing radiation into the sky. The authorities tried to cover it up for several days until they were forced to admit there was a problem. They then hastily evacuated 200,000 people from the vicinity. A 30-kilometer area around the plant, known as the “exclusion zone,” remains off-limits to anyone without special permission. It probably will stay that way forever.

As we’re getting ready to set off, Misha gives us a little lecture about radiation. Chernobyl tourism has to walk a thin line on this question — while it’s the idea of radiation that gives the tour an enticing frisson of danger, a genuine threat of getting significantly irradiated would scare off tourists. So Misha pulls out a hand-held Geiger counter and checks the radiation in the air around our van. It’s 0.16 microsieverts per hour. “Anything up to 0.30 is absolutely safe,” he says. And indeed, for the vast majority of the time we are inside the exclusion zone, the counter stays under 0.30; often it is under the Kyiv level. Altogether, we’re assured, the radiation absorbed during a short visit is harmless: less than you get on a transatlantic flight.

And with that we hit the road into Kyiv’s morning rush hour, Misha behind the wheel. Our group is four guys: me; my old high school friend and regular travel buddy, Michael; B, a skinny twentysomething Australian hipster; and A, a sixtysomething Dutch aid worker. As an icebreaker, B asks everyone: “So, what other crazy places have you guys been?” Before we even get out of Kyiv, it’s established who had been to North Korea (B and A) and who hadn’t (Michael and I).

Chernobyl is becoming a fixture on the emerging global Grand Tour of crazy places, often grouped under rubrics like “dark tourism” or “disaster tourism.” Dark tourism, according to a recent academic volume on the subject, “has existed in practice, though not in name, for as long as people have travelled.” Historian Daniel Boorstin claimed that the first-ever guided tour in England, in 1838, was an organized train trip to see a public execution.

Nevertheless, dark tourism is having a bit of a moment. 2018 saw the release of the 768-page Palgrave Handbook of Dark Tourism Studies, the definitive reference text for this emerging academic field. And a newly released Netflix series, Dark Tourist, brings the phenomenon to armchair travelers. In the series’s introductory episode, the host defines dark tourism as “a global phenomenon where people avoid the ordinary and instead head for holidays in war zones, disaster sites, and other offbeat destinations.” It seems to be a good fit for these “everything is terrible” times.

Chernobyl, too, is getting a boost of renewed attention. In the past year, two books — Chernobyl, by historian Serhii Plokhy, and Midnight in Chernobyl, by magazine writer Adam Higginbotham — have been published, documenting the accident. An HBO miniseries dramatizing the event is slated to come out later this year.

I had some initial misgivings about the prospect of a Chernobyl tour, in part because it seemed tacky. That impression was only reinforced as I made the travel arrangements, perusing the websites of the various companies that offered tours. They tended toward a heavy-metal-music-video aesthetic, and their extensive use of all caps and exclamation points seemed a bit overexcited considering that they were describing the site of a massive and still-unfolding tragedy.

“You will see the fantastic Hollywood movie that became a reality for thousands of people,” one site advertises. “[M]ake impressive photos near abandoned playgrounds.”

In the process of my search, I also came across an article in The Independent, entitled “Dark Tourism: Why It’s Okay to Visit Disaster Zones on Holiday,” which reviewed the relative appropriateness of visiting sites like Hiroshima, New Orleans’s ninth ward, and Auschwitz. Chernobyl was deemed the most objectionable on the list: “The tenor of tours here doesn’t always come off respectful — Lupine Tours, for example, offers the chance to stay at a hotel in Chernobyl, especially constructed for tourists, so they can ‘gaze out at the deadness of the area.’” The article concluded that the answer to the question “Is it okay to visit Chernobyl?” was “Probably not.”

I eventually came around, however, because I figured that, in addition to being corny and in bad taste, the trip also would be fun. It was Michael who had suggested going to Chernobyl, and it seemed like a (slightly) grown-up version of one of our favorite pastimes from our horror-movie-and-Nine-Inch-Nails-loving youth: sneaking into and exploring an abandoned cement factory in Des Moines, our hometown.

And so we booked a tour. Tourists have to go with a licensed company. These are heavily regulated by the government. Misha, it turns out, is actually an employee of the Ukrainian Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources. The majority of tourists go on one-day tours, which cost a little more than $100; we decided to splurge for the two-day option, in order to see more and also for the novelty of staying overnight at the site. Perhaps, too, to gaze out at some deadness.

Once we’re on the highway, Misha puts on a video, The Battle of Chernobyl, a Discovery Channel documentary chronicling the tragic, heroic efforts of the “liquidators” — the Soviet soldiers, firefighters, and others who worked to contain the damage from the disaster, and as a result suffered grievously from radiation poisoning. “There were a lot of colors — they were really bright,” one of the reactor workers acknowledges in the film’s opening scenes. “It was beautiful.”

After a couple hours’ drive, we reach the exclusion zone. While the police guards check our paperwork, we peruse the gift shop, where you can get Chernobyl T-shirts, coffee mugs, and refrigerator magnets to remember the occasion.

The bureaucratic formalities completed, an officer lifts up the boom barrier and we are in the exclusion zone. There’s a lot to see in the 1,100-square-mile site (about the size of Rhode Island): dozens of villages, as well as the city of Pripyat, a model Soviet town of nearly 50,000 built to house reactor workers and their families. There are schools, theaters, hospitals, hotels, sports centers, 14-story apartment blocks, and an amusement park to explore. There’s an air defense radar site, which the Soviets placed near Chernobyl to take advantage of the plentiful power the plant provided. There’s also the reactor itself, now sheathed in a $1.8 billion sarcophagus designed to contain radiation for 100 years.

Our first stop, Zalissya, is a village just inside the gates. Most of the vans we saw in Kyiv have been following the same route, so there are a half-dozen groups like ours — and some much bigger, on the more popular one-day tours — all exploring the same little village.

It turns out that Chernobyl tourism is booming. In my research, I had read that 10,000 tourists visited the site every year. In 2016, Misha said, that number had jumped to 36,000, and they were expecting more than 50,000 in 2017.

Everyone piles out of their vehicles. The concentration of tattoos, piercings, and dyed hair is perhaps the greatest I’ve ever seen at a tourist site. Apparently expecting something a little more indie, we all nevertheless file gamely into Zalissya, touring its abandoned “Palace of Culture” and a little grocery shop with empty display cases. We try to get photos without any of our fellow tourists in the frame.

The promotional materials for the Chernobyl tours generally depict the site as a sort of Soviet Pompeii, preserved untouched since 1986, and thus offering a unique opportunity to see Soviet life as it really was. But if that was true in the early days of Chernobyl tourism, it is no longer the case.

An improbable number of limbless dolls are posed in suspiciously photogenic spots on windowsills, and Soviet plastic toys poignantly catch the light from broken windows. At a school in Pripyat, one room is filled with hundreds of gas masks, and the shell of an old TV set is positioned in front of them so as to ideally frame a pleasingly eerie screenful of doom.

“It kind of looks like it’s been staged,” B says. “Well, what do you expect,” A adds, even though the disappointment is obvious. We all line up to take our shots. I ask Misha who arranged things like this, and he says it was the waves of photographers who have come over the years.

Chernobyl tourism is inextricable from photography — and, correspondingly, social media. Our tour is oriented around particularly photogenic spots such as old Soviet murals, their bright visions of a socialist future rendered particularly ironic against the devastated surroundings. None of us complain about this: we have all come equipped with DSLR cameras and multiple lenses.

Eventually, though, the whole aesthetic comes to feel a bit over-the-top. “If I had a nickel for every broken piano…” Michael says. And taking your own photos is a bit redundant, anyway, because there’s a substantial Instagram community of Chernobyl accounts offering up daily doses of forlorn toys, overgrown ruins, and abandoned amusement park rides.

But Chernobyl’s signature feature — the radiation — is not amenable to photography. There are a variety of ways to get around this, one being to take a selfie with your Geiger counter at especially radioactive spots. Another is to photograph one of the many hot spots where radioactivity has collected in amounts exponentially greater than even a few inches away. These spots are marked with little signs to warn you against sitting on them, but they are also considered an attraction of sorts, and the guides lead tourists to them for photo ops.

One of the most ghoulish sites is the hospital in Pripyat, featuring a medieval-looking gynecologists’ exam chair rusting in the front yard — presumably put there because the light was more felicitous than inside. The hospital’s basement hides the clothing worn by some of the liquidators, and the levels of radiation there are over 1,000 microsieverts per hour — i.e., more than 3,000 times the safe level. But for tourists’ benefit, one scrap of clothing has been brought up to the first floor; it gave off a reading of close to 70, still 200 times more than the safe level. We take photos, careful not to get too close.

As we travel around the zone, we are checked for radiation a handful of times in Soviet-relic devices that work a bit like airport X-ray machines: when you pass through, they give you a reading of either ЧИСТО (CLEAN) or ГРЯЗНО (DIRTY). Misha estimates that he’s had 1,000 of these checks and was deemed “dirty” only three times, which necessitated a search for bits of radioactive dust that had gotten attached to his clothes or shoes, as well as a thorough cleansing.

At one point, we see a worker walking along the side of the road. “That guy was a tourist here last week, but he got radioactive and now he can’t leave,” Misha says, and we laugh.

As corny as much of the tour is, it is also beautiful. Just as European Romantics took inspiration from the ruins of the fallen civilizations of Greece and Rome, it is undeniably poignant to contemplate the collapse of the Soviet system in such an explicit form. The communist idealism that is inescapable in Chernobyl — the uplifting murals and cheery schools — offers a stark contrast to the inhumanity of how the disaster played out, with the Soviet authorities callously leaving people in the dangerously radioactive environment for several days because they didn’t want bad publicity.

And the overarching leitmotif of the tour — radiation — adds an otherwordly element. It’s stunning to consider that a manmade phenomenon — invisible, at that — has made this model city uninhabitable for millennia, if not forever. It’s difficult to imagine a greater monument to hubris.

What may have struck me most about Chernobyl is how quiet it can be. In Plokhy’s book, an engineer who helped build the plant in the 1970s described the setting as “an intoxicating atmosphere unmatched anywhere else […] [s]ilence and a sense of primeval creation.” That is once again an accurate description, as nature has retaken control to a remarkable degree. The city of Pripyat is now engulfed in forests so thick that you can be 10 yards from a huge building and not know it until you bushwhack through the overgrowth on a dirt path trod by previous tourists.

When he drops us off at the hotel that evening, Misha advises us to “get some dinner and drink three, four, maximum five vodkas.” Even if we had wanted to let loose, there is a limit: Misha tells us that the hotel bar was forced to cut back its hours because rowdy tourists had been getting too drunk — and then too hungover to continue their tours the next day. The bar now closes at 9:00 p.m.

Instead of vodka, we opt for a couple of beers and a conversation about how many countries we’d each been to. I am in last place, with 65. A had been to 128.

This is, indeed, an age of unprecedented mass tourism: in 2016, there were 1.235 billion tourist arrivals around the world, according to UN statistics, more than double the figure from 30 years ago. As more and more of these people cram into Venice and Istanbul, it’s unsurprising that travelers are looking for alternatives.

At breakfast the next morning, we sit next to a couple of camouflage-wearing Austrian tourists talking to their guide. I don’t pay much attention, but my ears do prick up when I overhear the words “Jews” and “Turks.” When the guide leaves, they start talking to us, and it turns out that they are repeat Chernobyl visitors, this time on a custom five-day tour. “We come here to relax,” one says. They are also, as it happens, repeat North Korea visitors.

This day’s first stop is the village of Paryshev and the home of one Ivan Ivanych, one of a small population of “resettlers,” former residents of the exclusion zone who have moved back. Most of them are elderly: radiation affects the old much less than the young, and in any case they are stubborn and attached to their homes.

The resettlers are regularly checked on by social workers and others working in the exclusion zone. A scene in the delightful documentary Babushkas of Chernobyl (2015) shows one resettler plying visiting scientists with homemade strawberry wine that is no doubt heavily contaminated, but deference to elders wins out over health concerns.

Ivan Ivanych is a widower who doesn’t offer us anything except a look inside his sad, cluttered home. He chats dutifully with us in the yard. Soon we leave him alone on his poisoned land with only his chickens and cats to keep him company. We all give him a few bills as we leave.

The doling out of cash is an awkward reminder of the power imbalance we enjoy as visitors from the wealthy West. There is an element of arrogance in Chernobyl tourism, the winners of the Cold War dancing on the grave of socialism.

In a sharp article on the “marriage of trendy post-industrial ‘ruin porn’ with the on-going ‘othering’ of Russia and eastern Europe,” Jamie Rann wrote: “To western viewers, this constant wheeling out of the architectural corpses of communism is dangerous because they can be fed upon by whatever remains of neo-liberal discourses about capitalism’s righteous victory over communism.” Chernobyl tourism seems to be the apotheosis of this Orientalizing mockery of a perpetually screwed-up East. One travel piece in The Telegraph describes Chernobyl as “even now, […] on the edge of the known Europe.”

The focus on photography, too, makes the tour seem a bit of a patronizing disaster safari. “For more than a century, photographers have been hovering about the oppressed, in attendance at scenes of violence — with a spectacularly good conscience,” Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography (1977). “Social misery has inspired the comfortably-off with the urge to take pictures, the gentlest of predations, in order to document a hidden reality, that is, a reality hidden from them.”

That is part of the story of Chernobyl tourism, but not all of it. I came in with the assumption that this was mostly a Western phenomenon, a sort of “toxic Disneyland” — what British journalist Owen Hatherley, in his 2015 book Landscapes of Communism, calls “tourism of the counter-revolution,” where Europeans and Americans come to “half-ironically admire the edifices left by a civilization which it is hard to imagine died as recently as twenty-five years ago.” It is that, for sure, but we encounter a substantial number of Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian tourists among all the Westerners.

Misha tells us that these “locals” are even less reverent. “They don’t respect the place,” he says. “They think that, if they paid to get in, they can do whatever they want,” like climbing on a memorial to the liquidators. “If you tell them they can’t go somewhere, 200 percent they will go. Westerners follow the rules.”

Even more disdainful of the rules are the “Stalkers,” a Russophone subculture of extreme tourists who sneak into the exclusion zone and later post YouTube videos documenting their exploits, like chugging radiation-heavy water. The name comes from a popular Ukrainian-made first-person-shooter video game set in Chernobyl, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and that comes in turn from the 1979 film by Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky’s Stalker presciently portrayed a forbidden zone where invisible danger lurks and adventure-seeking tourists sneak about (one, a writer, explains to the guide that he’s come looking for inspiration, which he had lost). The degree to which the movie — filmed at an abandoned power plant in Estonia — presaged the Chernobyl ruin aesthetic of peeling walls, dripping ceilings, and lingering silence, is uncanny.

Stalkers aside, visiting Chernobyl is still a niche interest among locals. Misha says his friends in Kyiv think he’s crazy for working in the zone. “They say, ‘Let’s see you in 10 years, your hair is going to be falling out.’ I tell them they’re fucking idiots.” B tells us that a Ukrainian Tinder date he’d had in Kyiv a couple of days before our tour seemed ashamed that a tourist to her country was choosing to visit Chernobyl.

After leaving Ivan Ivanych, we explore the air-defense radar site, erected in the late Soviet period and state-of-the-art for its time. It now provides an explicitly Cold War aspect to the tour, as it was designed for early detection of missiles launched from the West. The control rooms feature charmingly faded posters detailing the organizational charts of the US military, and diagrams of transcontinental missile trajectories.

And then it’s time to head back to Kyiv. We stop for one last radiation check. At the gift shop at the entrance to the zone, I get myself a glow-in-the-dark refrigerator magnet.

Throughout the trip, I adopted an ironic distance, sneering at the bad taste involved in Chernobyl tourism (and dark tourism generally), but this was a largely defensive attitude. I am a journalist, working mostly in the former Soviet Union. There is much in this part of the world that is dark, and I write about it and get paid for that. (In fact, if you hadn’t already guessed, one of the things that attracted me to the Chernobyl tour was the prospect of writing an article about it.)

During the tour, I found myself thinking back to why I originally got interested in this part of the world. A study abroad semester in Budapest in 1993 piqued my interest in the post-communist world. Right after I graduated, a year teaching English at a high school in Bulgaria deepened my curiosity: why were these places so screwed up?

More than 20 years later, I have yet to answer that question, though it’s acquired some nuance along the way: What role did my government have in screwing them up? Are they actually any more screwed up than my country, or just screwed up in different ways?

But still: How different is my journalistic curiosity from the impulses of a dark tourist?

When I started my career as a foreign correspondent, in Belgrade, it was not uncommon for people to challenge my motives. “You journalists come here and profit from our misery,” they would say. This was particularly common from Serbs, who — not without reason — were fed up with Western journalists who came in and told the one-sided war narrative that readers back home expected.

One of my colleagues from those days subsequently started a travel company, Political Tours, which appears to be doing well. One current offering: A “Putin’s Russia” tour that takes in the major sights and offers meetings with government officials, think tank analysts, and local journalists. If I weren’t lucky enough to do this sort of thing for a living, and could afford the $5,000-plus for an eight-day tour, I think it’s the kind of thing I might enjoy.

Rather than a perverse aberration, it might be more accurate to see dark tourism as on a spectrum with political tourism — or, for that matter, being a foreign correspondent. These positions are distinguished from one another mainly by their degrees of relative tastefulness.

The global itinerary of Dark Tourist, the Netflix series, includes nuclear disaster sites such as Fukushima and a Soviet bomb-testing area in Kazakhstan (though not Chernobyl), as well as entire countries that are relatively hard to get into, such as Myanmar and Turkmenistan. The show also visits a poor township in South Africa and follows a tour meant to simulate an illegal crossing of the US-Mexico border.

One could argue that an itinerary like this is far more rewarding and worthwhile than the standard tourist spots, the Waikikis and Pragues and Niagara Falls of the world. I myself prefer off-the-beaten-path destinations, spots with political resonance where I can learn about big events in recent history or current affairs. If I went to South Africa, I’d want to go to a township.

But it’s all in the approach. On the one hand, there are travelers like Anthony Bourdain — honest, open, curious to explore lesser-known parts of the world — and on the other hand, there is dark tourism. As Dark Tourist’s juxtaposition of “war zones” and “offbeat” suggests, dark tourism frequently flirts with — when it is not passionately embracing — poor taste.

To take but one example: During a tour of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s mansion in Colombia, the host, David Farrier, challenges the guide, Popeye (one of Escobar’s former top hit-men), on his violent past. “You won’t understand, because we’re from two very different worlds,” Popeye says. “I am the product of violence, of blood, and of prison. This is what has power: my gun.” It’s a profound, if self-serving, point about poverty and structural violence.

But dark tourism cannot linger too long on an idea like this. Farrier — a New Zealander with a wide array of bewildered-and-appalled facial expressions — swiftly returns to the glib humor with which this enterprise is far more comfortable. “Have you ever been to a psychologist, or something? Like, talked about it?” he asks Popeye. “I see a psychologist sometimes. So, I can give you their number, maybe.”

Other self-identified dark tourists, meanwhile, are trying to rescue the practice from its more tasteless extremes. One website that exhaustively chronicles more than 900 “dark tourism” spots around the globe has promulgated a manifesto:

PLEASE NOTE from the start: dark tourism, as understood on this site, does NOT include anything voyeuristic (like “slum tourism”), NOR does it include “war tourism” (travel to current war zones) or other “danger tourism,” NOR “ghost hunts” or anything “paranormal,” NOR battle re-enactments …

It further distances itself from disrespectful tourist “bahaviour” [sic], such as selfie-taking at sites of tragedy.

What the site does endorse is respectful and enlightened touristic engagement with contemporary history, along with its dark sites/sides, in a sober, educational, and non-sensationalist manner. Yet it also endorses Chernobyl as “without any doubt one of the top dark-tourism destinations on the planet.”

A couple of days after getting back from Chernobyl, I visit the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum in Kyiv, where the vibe is very different. There is no ruin porn here, and the tone is elegiac: the lights are dim, and voices instinctively hush. With its models, maps, and photos of the fallen, it strongly resembles the ubiquitous World War II museums around the former Soviet Union. (I also find out that the radiation detectors that checked us in the exclusion zone are the exact same models used for workers when the plant was operating, which are presented here as museum pieces.)

Ukraine has been going through some difficult times, and the Chernobyl museum reflects that. There is a heavy use of religious and nationalist imagery: one display combines a Ukrainian Catholic altarpiece with radiation signs and protective jumpsuits. Chernobyl is presented as part of a series of tragedies inflicted upon Ukraine from the outside — in particular, by Russia — like the massive famine of the 1930s caused by agricultural collectivization.

Chatting with one of the museum attendants, I mention that I had just been to Chernobyl itself and that the atmosphere is very different at the museum. “Yes,” she said, “it’s like a business there.”

A few months later, I visit Michael in Berlin, where he now lives. It turns out that there are dozens of abandoned Soviet military bases in the former East Germany, and it’s become a niche hobby for many Berliners, including Michael, to visit them. They’re not strictly legal to visit, but they’re also not fenced off. We spend two days tromping around a couple of the bases. We take photos of murals. I put them on Instagram.


More photos of Chernobyl can be found here. All images are courtesy of Joshua Kucera.


Joshua Kucera is a journalist based in Istanbul and the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet. His pieces also have been published in Slate, The New York Times, and Al Jazeera America.

LARB Contributor

Joshua Kucera is a journalist based in Istanbul and the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet. His pieces also have been published in Slate, The New York Times, and Al Jazeera America.


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