Chornobyl means "wormwood" in English, which may be why so many religious people are convinced we are into the Apocalypse now. Add that to the fact that it blew up on Earth Day, and you start to wonder how much of what happens in this world is random and coincidental.
Anyhow, we visited old Wormwood, which just happens to be next to what historically was some of the most magical and wonderful woods in all of Europe, with the charming Prypiat River running through them. This large chunk of beauty is now abandoned and dead. The entire town of Prypiat, built in 1970, stands empty and vandalized. 16-story residential blocks line the streets, with unusually spacious apartments (4-5 as opposed to 2-3 rooms, since Chornobyl workers were considered "elite" -- and the state was covering their risk not with insurance and caution but with material perks), huge sunny windows and balconies galore. Next to a cultural center called "Energetic," a yellow ferris wheel stands in the same position as it found itself on April 28, 1986, when the residents finally began to be evacuated. Weeds have penetrated the concrete walks and roadways and the straggly grass is about 30 cm high among the young chestnut trees in full bloom.
But it doesn't "feel" like 14 years until you enter an apartment. Doors ajar and occasionally splitting apart, you see the bits of abandoned furniture (most of it was buried or carted off long ago), busted up stoves, moulding walls, peeling wallpaper and paint, broken windows and knocked down tiles. In one apartment we find the little red passbook of a woman who worked for the Civil Defence, dated 1983. One of the Ukrainians actually knows her! In another apartment, an old tear-off desk calendar leaning on a shelf has the 27 in big letters and enough dust to look authentic. I wander into a third apartment and find a dirt-grey but otherwise intact and obviously nearly new Ukraina piano. Hesitant to touch the ivories, I hide my fingers in my navy blue sleeve before playing a couple of octaves. It’s almost in tune. On the kids' bedroom wall, a huge, gaudy portrait of the smallest dwarf, Dopey, has the word PARDON written into a banner flowing from his open hand. In the hallway on a windowsill, a pointy lady's pump, also heaped with dust and partnerless. Nadia, the woman who gave us our uniforms, says, "It took me two years to get used to my new apartment. I still miss Prypiat. I see my old apartment every day on my way to work." She worked on the 4th block for 6 years prior to the accident and was 30 when it blew. She could hear the mess going on, she explains, and closed her windows, but her 9-year-old daughter was still outside playing in the sand. "When it was time to go to work, I stayed home because I knew there was nothing for me to do anymore."
For weeks after the accident, the streets were riddled with the bodies of domestic animals, some dead from exposure to radiation and the elements, some shot by the militia. Today there's not a dog or cat anywhere, just an old man sitting in a dirty office off one tower, with lights on, saying "I'm responsible for Prypiat." He's perhaps the only human who feels that way.
A couple of kilometers beyond Prypiat, a cemetery of vehicles ranging from helicopters and tanks to trucks, buses and cars, waits in tidy rows, like so many well-behaved children, for owners who will never reclaim them, slowly stripped of spare parts and engines, although their paint jobs are standing up well and no one seems to be touching the tires or the windows. The value of this field of dead equipment alone must be millions of dollars.
At the Shelter Implementation Project building, the flags of more than two dozen nations line the walls above pictures of the melted down interior and the various costly efforts being made to control it all for posterity. Visibly missing among the donor nations is the flag of Russia. We trail out onto a rail bridge over a cooling pond. The brownish water below is alive with carp spawning, females with fluorescent red pouches of roe on their left sides, swimming almost in place facing our direction. Some, like hapless Pacific salmon, already show the damage of mating frenzy, their sides battered and torn. Among them drifts the occasional 2-meter long som with the flat mouth and whiskers of a bottom-feeder. The bottom, alas, is where all the danger lies in this water.
The explosion of Chornobyl was an experiment gone terribly wrong. Moscow wanted to see how low the Nº4 Reactor could go before it stopped working altogether. But in order to get it so low the workers had to turn off all the safety and alarm systems and eventually turned off the power that enabled water to flow through the cooling system. Unfortunately, the core went so low that it became unstable and began heating up instead. With the safety systems off, the alarms weren't there to warn anyone. And by the time workers realized what was happening, there was no power with which to start pumping water through to curb the build-up of steam. In other words, this was no accident, nor was it the result of any inherent "flaws" in the type of reactor. It was the result of deliberate human folly -- initiated and controlled, once again, by Moscow.
"But why do these people come back and work at Chornobyl? Why would they want to be here in this awful place?" asks one young woman. "Why do battered wives return to their husbands? Because this is the only thing they know, this is where they feel secure. Plus they think it will never happen again. Think of the Chornobyl workers -- think of the entire Ukrainian nation, as a nation of battered women," I reply. "I actually heard that Chornobyl workers were not well received when the government transplanted them to other communities," says another woman. "Apparently they had a hard time adjusting to new places." "That, too, is not unlike battered women. If they leave their husbands, their material status is often severely reduced, especially if they have children. On the other hand, much as some people might feel sorry for them initially and help them, after a while most people feel distinctly uncomfortable around victims. First of all, they want to get on with their own lives and that makes them feel guilty. Secondly, most people don't want to feel responsible for taking care of a victim. And these emotions are not good ones for building an integrated life in a different community. For Chornobyl workers, the situation was the same: their apartments are suddenly half the size, they don't have such prestigious work, the pay is much worse, if they get paid at all. Plus other communities resent them usurping accommodations, jobs and so on. So once the benefits dry up, it's tempting to look for a job back at the old AES as soon as the opportunity presents itself." •
Copyright ©2000 L.A. Wolanskyj