June 15, 2005

Chernobyl is Open

If you’re tired of unsatisfying vacations to cookie-cutter resorts in Cancun and Hawaii, you can always visit the end-of-the-world radiation blast zone around Chernobyl in Ukraine. It is now “safe” enough that it’s open for tourism.

A 19-mile radius around the infamous power plant, the zone has largely been closed to the world since Chernobyl's Reactor No. 4 exploded on April 26, 1986, sending people to flight and exposing the Communist Party as an institution wormy with hypocrisy and lies.

For nearly 20 years it has been a dark symbol of Soviet rule. Its name conjures memories of incompetence, horror, contamination, escape and sickness, as well as the party elite's disdain for Soviet citizens, who were called to parade in fallout on May Day while the leaders' families secretly fled.

Now it is a destination, luring people in. "It is amazing," said Ilkka Jahnukainen, 22, as he wandered the empty city here that housed the plant's workers and families, roughly 45,000 people in all. "So dreamlike and silent."
The New York Times piece is accompanied by a slide show of the eerily modern ruins, of entire cities emptied in an instant, like something out of The Stand.

Pripyat.JPG

I have to go there. I’m pretty certain I will go there at some point. Any editors out there want to send me on an assignment? I’m serious, and I can go any time.

There’s nothing quite like marveling in person at the epic-sized wreckage wrought by totalitarian goverments. Fortunately, for those of us deranged enough to be drawn to this sort of thing, these places are opening up all over. Uzbekistan, until recently one of the most closed societies on Earth, is also now open for tourism.

If you ever want to see the Aral Sea, once the fourth largest inland body of water in the world, you had better go now. It loses dozens of feet of shoreline each day due to disastrous Soviet irrigation policies that permanently and dramatically altered the climate. Fishing towns along the old coastline, like the industrial cities around Chernobyl, already are modern ghost towns. Ships lay on their sides in the desert.

Aral_Sea_Ship.jpg

The Chernobyl area will, eventually, recover completely. But in a few short years, the Aral Sea will vanish forever.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at June 15, 2005 02:54 PM
Comments

Martin Cruz Smith's latest novel (his most well-known is "Gorky Park") is set in the Chernobyl area and goes into a fair amount of detail about dosimeters, etc. Sometimes it reminded me of the Andrei Tarkovsky film "Stalker." Cruz Smith's novel is entitled "Wolves Eat Dogs." It's not bad.

Posted by: Todd Grimson at June 15, 2005 06:38 PM

"For nearly 20 years it has been a dark symbol of Soviet rule..."

Yes, Chernobyl is that, but about ten years earlier the US came within a hair of having its own "dark symbol of capitalist rule". Google "Three Mile Island" if you don't know what I'm talking about.

Posted by: VinoVeritas at June 15, 2005 08:08 PM

If you need a Russian speaker...

I know a guy who went swimming in the Aral Sea with some guys from MSF. He said his hair went white from the salt. Anyone interested in the Aral and Uzbekistan in general should check out Tom Bissell's Chasing The Sea. Best book about modern Uzbekistan IMO.

Posted by: Nathan at June 15, 2005 08:22 PM

Nathan,

I'm reading it now - on your recommendation from earlier - and it's great.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at June 15, 2005 08:28 PM

Vinoveritas: dark symbol of capitalist rule

Chernobyl is a dark symbol of the Soviet Union more for how the crisis has handled than how it got started. No way would the US, or any other democratic country, act similarly under those circumstances.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at June 15, 2005 08:30 PM

Yes, Chernobyl is that, but about ten years earlier the US came within a hair of having its own "dark symbol of capitalist rule".

Moral equivalency is so cutting edge "nuanced."

Posted by: spaniard at June 15, 2005 09:45 PM

Since we've been on the subject of Karimov it may make sense to mention that the reason the Aral Sea continues to disappear is because Uzbekistan has not stopped the disastrous irrigation policies of the Soviet era, but continues them. Subsidizing its own cotton production at the price of creating a wasteland in the middle of Central Asia.

If you do go to Chernobyl you should first see a Russian film called "Stalker" by Andrei Tarkovsky. It was made in the 1970s and is not about Chernobyl or nuclear power. But it is about the wreckage men make in their lives - and the story of 3 men wandering through the "Zone", a dead environment, emptied of people through some mysterious calamity, is eerily prescient.

Posted by: Vanya at June 16, 2005 06:22 AM

I'll never forget knowing about the Chernobyl disastor form Radio Free Europe, while the Czechoslovak press was silent for days on the subject. Despite the obvious dangers, no warning was issued and MayDay parades were held as if nothing had happened. Even when the Soviets were forced to tell the world, we were told not to worry, the problem was contained and we had nothing to worry about.
In the last few years, cancer rates have dramatically increased in my region(North Moravia, Silesia) of the the Czech Republic. Researchers are starting to believe this is directly related to Chernoby.
Frydek-Mistek

Posted by: Frydek-Mistek at June 16, 2005 06:53 AM

Three Mile Island was never anywhere near that close to being another Chernobyl.

Posted by: exhelodrvr at June 16, 2005 07:20 AM

Any discussion of visiting Chernobyl should include
a link to this site.

Posted by: Eric E. Coe at June 16, 2005 07:22 AM

Ya, Michael, I mention that book so much I lose track. Bissell should pay me :)

Posted by: Nathan at June 16, 2005 07:35 AM

Tim Donnehy wrote a fantastic song "Farewell to Pripchat" which was about one of the small towns near Chernobyl.

I found a copy of the lyrics at http://www.all-good-lyrics.com/l-john_mcdermott-85627.html .

It's a nice bit of poetry

Posted by: Ratatosk, Squirrel of Discord at June 16, 2005 07:49 AM

Geez, it's like the ultimate Theme Park of Communism.

Posted by: Patricia at June 16, 2005 09:42 AM

Eric Coe,

The NYTimes article says that Web site has been exposed as a hoax.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at June 16, 2005 10:09 AM

I'd really think it over before I went to Chernobyl, particularly if I planned getting children in the future.

Don't go.

Posted by: Tatterdemalion at June 16, 2005 10:25 AM

A while back I ran across this fascinating set of photos taken by a woman who took a motorcycle trip through Chernobyl.

http://www.angelfire.com/extreme4/kiddofspeed/chapter1.html

Posted by: dt at June 16, 2005 01:24 PM

Sorry, my link was already posted, and debunked. I should read more carefully.

Posted by: dt at June 16, 2005 01:27 PM

Michael, I love your blog, but I think you're nuts for being willing to go anywhere near Chernobyl.

http://www.truthout.org/docs_2005/042805E.shtml

Nasty little secret about Soviet-era reactors (many of which are still in use in the former USSR): their design causes the lid to slip open occasionally, allowing nuclear crap to spew out. And as the temperature outside the reactor drops, the temperature/reaction inside increases. And that was the safe design of Chernobyl. The other design was even worse.

Michael, I don't blame you for wanting to go, but I think Ukraine is extremely irresponsible for allowing people anywhere near Reactor No. 4.

Posted by: The Gringo at June 16, 2005 02:03 PM

Huh, the "motorcycle ride" was debunked - she actually rode in a tour bus like everyone else. Well, isn't that a shame. And it made such a nice story.

On the other hand, the state of the Chernoybl area shows that even in the case of nuclear disaster, life goes on. It's not anything like "On the Beach", eh? It gives a better context to the danger of nuclear power plants than the usual leftist alarmism.

And that was with a very dangerous obsolete graphite-based design, incompentently run, with no containment structure.

Posted by: Eric E. Coe at June 16, 2005 02:16 PM

Is this book of photographs something you might enjoy?

Robert Polidori: Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl

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Posted by: SEO博客 at November 12, 2007 10:00 PM
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