Visiting Chornobyl

Two quick notes before I discuss dark tourism and AllTheThings Chornobyl:

Spelling: As noted in my Kyiv post, I am using the Ukrainian government’s preferred transliterations of names into English. While both Ukrainian and Russian use the Cyrillic alphabet, the pronunciation of words can be different between the two languages. The commonly used English spelling for the nuclear plant in Northern Ukraine–Чорнобиль–is “Chernobyl”, the Russian translation of the word, rather than the Ukrainian “Chornobyl”. This transliteration was continuously used following the end of the Soviet occupation of Ukraine and even after Ukrainian became the country’s official language in 1991, overthrowing the Soviet-imposed Russian. The same can be said for the town of Прип’ять, as most English speakers use the Russian transliteration “Pripyat” over the Ukrainian “Prypiat”.
Here I am going to use the preferred Ukrainian transliterations of the words–Chornobyl and Prypiat–in my following posts as a way to decolonize language. I know this seems insignificant, but I do not want to use the language of the oppressors in these posts (even if it means unlearning literally twenty years of spelling). Changes such as these are small, take time and I’m obviously still learning and will make mistakes, but let’s put forth the effort to #decolonizelanguage. Any published works that use the Russian transliterations will remain unchanged in how I cite them here.
History: I am not going to outline the entire history and impact of the explosion of reactor four. I discuss a number of great sources that can go into detail far better than I could in a following post.

I’ve wanted to visit Ukraine since I was a kid, learning a bit of Russian through documentaries and watching the Olympics on TV. When we had the opportunity to travel to Kyiv last spring, I was ecstatic to start planning the few days we had in Ukraine.

Of course the question that popped up was should we visit Chornobyl?

Kopachi, Ukraine

I first read about the nuclear disaster as a freshman in a class at Kent State. One project included presenting to the class as the fictional head of a tourism office for your assigned country, encouraging would-be travelers to visit. Assigned with Belarus, I began researching the country and learned how their population was significantly impacted by the Chornobyl disaster, where 70% of the Ukrainian nuclear meltdown landed, contaminating 23% of the surface area of Belarus. Hundreds of thousands of Belorussians died from Chornobyl-related deaths and the country is still struggling to recover from the disaster. Over a million people remain in the exclusion zone, food is still grown and consumed on contaminated land, and the government has yet to disclose any information on the impact of the disaster:

“Belarus’s official policy on Chornobyl is aimed at persuading ordinary people to think about it as little as possible, and getting international organisations to allocate as much funding as possible to cleanup operations. Minsk spends billions on ‘making life safe’ in the contaminated zone, though independent experts believe that it would be cheaper and safer to simply resettle people.

Over 26bn Belarusian roubles (about US$1.3m), 25.5bn (US$1.26m) from public funds, have been allocated to the clean-up between now and 2020 – a considerable sum for Belarus, whose total annual budget is about US$9bn…

The Belarusian government is, however, determined to limit its costs associated with Chornobyl, and each year reduces the area of the zones defined as contaminated or dangerous, using as justification the natural decay of isotopes such as Caesium-137 and Strontium-90.”

Ivanova, Tatyana. 2016. “Belarus’s Chernobyl Taboo.” Open Democracy. Available here.

I was pissed off. In ClassicAshlyn fashion, rather than write a Why You Should Visit Belarus paper, I instead presented on governmental corruption, the impact of policies on the lives of citizens suffering from exposure to radiation, and the lack of medical treatment, safe housing, and employment.

I enrolled in more Political Science and History courses the following semester, declared my major in Poli Sci in 2009, focusing on Russian Studies and Geography. Nerdalert but I continued reading and researching the impacts of Chornobyl on the region.

Valissya, Ukraine

Back to 2019: we decided to book the tour.

Dark Tourism, or visiting sites of historical tragedy, should include respect and intent by the traveler. Places like Hiroshima, Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, Pompeii, Chornobyl, and Auschwitz carry a great deal of weight and should be treated as such. That doesn’t mean visitors shouldn’t go, but the approach should certainly have a greater level of respect for what took place there. One of the ways travelers can be respectful to the sites–and people impacted by events that occurred there–is to inform yourself and act respectfully to the surroundings. This means read a book (my plea for 2020) and not take selfies in front of buildings where people were killed (the new “I was here” desecration) or steal things from the site.

Unfortunately, many visitors choose to tour these sites and act like absolute assholes, showing blatant disrespect for what occurred there. Last year, the Auschwitz Memorial took to Twitter to ask visitors to be more respectful and not take selfies in front of the camp or on the train tracks (I was horrified to find initials etched into the barracks of Auschwitz when I toured the death camp in 2017). Following the release of HBO’s Chernobyl, the increase in visitors to Prypiat included a number of people disrespecting the tragedy that took place there. The writer-creator of the show, Craig Mazin, also posted to Twitter after “sexy selfies” of visitors started surfacing.

I wanted to be as respectful and responsible to both the people and the place. Yes, I did take pictures, but tried to keep in mind the magnitude of what occurred there.

Prypiat, Ukraine

We visited before the HBO miniseries Chernobyl aired and even then I was shocked at the commercialization of the tour. Having visited both Auschwitz and Chornobyl, the level of kitsch in Ukraine was jarring to me. Stands selling candy and Chornobyl-branded condoms–“they glow in the dark!”–at the checkpoint before entering the exclusion zone felt extremely disrespectful. While the number of deaths attributed to the disaster are debatable, the fact that people died there, people were forced to evacuate their homes, and continued health and environmental concerns loom over not just Ukraine, but the surrounding areas, seemed to be forgotten in exchange for touristy trinkets.

“Human curiosity is inevitable, and denying the existence of this vast, charged space that is a crucial part of Soviet and global history would be impossible and pointless. But Chernobyl has yet to find an appropriate tone for its tourism. Potential danger is almost commodified as a feature of the visit. We wore the suits and waved the Geiger counters not because we needed to, but because those who brought us there sensed that we wanted to feel close to danger.

Unlike some other sites of tragedy that, despite mass attendance, are places of solemnity and reflection, this is a messy and morally queasy experience. That scoop of kitsch radioactive ice-cream may stick in your craw and, for the moment at least, it probably should.”

Nolan, Megan. 2019. “Chernobyl Welcomes the Tourists–‘A Messy and Morally Queasy Experience.” The Guardian UK. Available here.

I thought about the impacts of the disaster on the people who lived here over twenty years ago and what it meant to buy radiation branded sexual protection on the same road where they were forced to leave everything behind.

Debris at the Soviet Chornobyl Duga Base, Ukraine

I hope to be as respectful as possible in the following posts about our tour. I highly recommend visiting Chornobyl, but with well thought out intentions, not as a shithead tourist stealing toys from an abandoned kindergarten.

Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk.

I’ve broken down my Chornobyl posts into the following topics/stops:

Tips for Planning Your Trip to Chornobyl: I include everything you need to know for a day trip from Kyiv to Chornobyl including what to pack, best resources for being your best-most-informed-tourist-self, and how to survive your period in a nuclear exclusion zone.
The Villages of Zalissya & Kopachi: Two of the 188 villages evacuated. 
Chornobyl Power Plant & the City of Prypiat: Serving as the nuclear city to Chornobyl power plant, Prypiat was evacuated two days after the meltdown.
Chornobyl Duga Base: A key part of the Soviet missile defense early-warning radar system, the now abandoned “Russian Woodpecker” is 150 meters tall (almost 500 feet).

I hope you enjoy these posts as much as I loved our tour. It was truly such a unique and amazing opportunity to visit.

Further Reading:

Chornobyl & Belarus:
Hjelmgaard, Kim. 2016. “In Secretive Belarus, Chernobyl’s Impact is Breathtakingly Grim.” USA Today. Available here.
Ivanova, Tatyana. 2016. “Belarus’s Chernobyl Taboo.” Open Democracy. Available here.
Kenigsber, Jacov E., Viktar F. Minenko, and Elena E. Buglova. 1996. “Radiation Effects on the Population of Belarus after the Chernobyl Accident and the Prediction of Stochastic Effects.” World Health Statistics Quarterly 49:1. 58-61. Available here.

Dark Tourism:
Gold, Hannah. 2019. “Please Stop Taking Selfies at Chernobyl, Requests Series Creator.” The Cut. Available here.
Nolan, Megan. 2019. “Chernobyl Welcomes the Tourists–‘A Messy and Morally Queasy Experience.” The Guardian UK. Available here.
Street, Francesca. 2019. “Chernobyl and the Dangerous Ground of ‘Dark Tourism’.” CNN Travel. Available here.
Sunkara, Lavanya. 2019. “From Auschwitz to Chernobyl: Tips on Respectfully Visiting Dark Tourism Sites.” Forbes. Available here.

 

 

Currently:
Listening: The United States of Anxiety (WNYC Studios)

2019 Year in Review: Favorite TV Shows

What a year for television shows! I’ve always struggled with committing to an entire season, but this year I was able to watch a ton of great shows, both new and returning.

It was also a great year for television actresses: Regina King, Catherine O’Hara, Zendaya, Toni Collette, Elisabeth Moss, and the cast of Big Little Lies.

My reaction seeing End of the F***ing World Season 2 in my Netflix queue.

This was a difficult list to narrow down, so I wanted to include a couple of of other shows I loved this year:

  • Mindhunter continues to be amazing; I’m glad the show introduced more people to the Atlanta child murders and the fact that the cases remain unsolved.
  • I finally got on board with Stranger Things and fully love the series, so much so that Chris and I dressed up as Steve and Robin for Halloween.
  • How can you not love the second season of Big Little Lies? So dramatic, so over the top, so much love for Meryl Streep’s fake teeth, and this iconic scene:
Image result for big little lies gif"
BIG MOOD.
  • Another year of The Handmaid’s Tale and another year of frustration. The show can be soooooo good and this season was full of amazing scenes and social commentary–the Natalie birth episode still keeping me up at night, why aren’t we talking more about this!?–but the show overall can be incredibly slow. I’m all for a plot that takes a while to get there, but most of the episodes I thought were way too much filler and not enough substance. Maybe this is anxiety from the last season of Game of Thrones?
  • Admittedly, Euphoria is A LOT. There’s a ton of things happening in this show, to the point where it can make the viewer feel overwhelmed with allthethings. I’d argue though, that’s kind of the point. At the center of the show is Rue (played to perfection by Zendaya), a high school student returning home from an overdose and stint in rehab. She still uses, struggling to overcome her father’s death, and striving to feel loved, which she believes she’s found in her new best friend, Jules (a trans woman wonderfully played by actual trans woman Hunter Shafer). A great cast, awesome makeup, killer soundtrack, and one of my favorite shows of the year.
We stan a queen.

Here are my favorite shows of 2019:

Comedies:

The Good Place (Season 4):

KRISTEN BELL.

Oh, The Good Place. TV’s most positive show just ended THIS WEEK and I’m still recovering from the finale. I binged all three seasons in time to watch the fourth in real-time. Shur’s take on morality and the qualifications to what make a “good” human (and therefore entry into “the good place”) got a little old throughout the seasons, but I did love how everything came together in the last episodes. Similar to Handmaid’s Tale, there’s only so many plot-twists that can happen when your main protagonists are limited on where they can go (and the storyline is rooted in the idea of “place”) but the last season beautifully wrapped everything up. Call it comforting or sentimental, but it’s nice to have a series about basic human morality show us the complicated story of what it means to be human.

Can we also just talk about how great Maya Rudolph is as the Judge? And how truly awesome Marc Evan Jackson is as Shawn?

Succession (Season 2):

SUCCESSION. Do yourself a favor and binge this show if you haven’t seen it yet. The writing is so smart, the characters incredibly witty, and the plot just cruises (pun intended) through the season’s ten episodes of who may succeed patriarch Logan Roy. The finale, This is Not for Tears, is one of the most brilliant episodes of television I watched this year. A show about terrible people being awful, this final episode was less about who would inherit the big job and more on who would become the family’s sacrificial lamb.

All the performances are clutch and wonderfully acted but for me, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), Roman (Kieran Cuilkin), and Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) are my absolute favorites. I almost fell over when Tom stole chicken from Roy’s plate to prove he couldn’t be pushed around any longer.

The Righteous Gemstones (HBO)

HBO’s other family-centric comedy this year, The Righteous Gemstones, written by and starring Danny McBride, was also one of my favorite shows of this year. Less clever than Succession, Gemstones has a slow couple of first episodes, but the last few of the season were great. I’ve missed Danny McBride’s writing and acting so I’m maybe being a little sentimental here, but there’s just something about watching an outrageously ridiculous comedy each week.

It’s hard to pick favorites, but for me, the scenes with Judy (Edi Patterson) and Baby Billy (Walton Goggins) absolutely MADE this show.

The End of the F***ing World (Season 2):

The End of the F***ing World‘s season one finale was pretty perfect. As great as that ending was, I really loved season two. Yes, there’s a lot of redundancy in terms of rehashing what happened to Alyssa and James, but I felt that the creators did a good job of bringing the characters beyond the Romeo and Juliet-esque ending of season one. Instead, Alyssa and James are figuring out how to move forward from trauma and abuse, admittedly less dramatic but I’d argue, more human: “It was a fitting end,” James says in a voiceover, “A doomed love story. A perfect tragedy. And then I didn’t die.”

An arguable (very) dark comedy, the story of James, Alyssa, and now Bonnie, a new character linked to the couple, was one of my favorite shows of the year. The awkward and endearing couple show that you can work through trauma in whatever way you have to in order to move past it.

Schitt’s Creek (Season 5):

Schitt’s Creek is IT. There isn’t enough space or time to talk about how great this show is: the writing, the acting, the comedic timing etc. etc. The sheer joy of Schitt’s Creek draws you in and unlike other shows tied to place (I’m looking at you Handmaid’s Tale), does a good job of building around that common theme by giving space for the characters to either grow–David and Alexis–or not (MOIRA)–in a genuine way.

This cast is amazing. Dan Levy (David) and Annie Murphy (Alexis) are perfect. But the relationship between Eugene Levy (Johnny) and Catherine O’Hara (Moira) is my favorite part of the show. As always, Eugene Levy is endearing in a way only he can be while O’Hara proves she has always been the queen in how she portrays the eccentric Moira (and her wigs).

Can we just talk about Stevie’s performance (played by Emily Hampshire) and how this scene is absolute perfection? Maybe of any show of all time?!

Dramas:

Years and Years

Years and Years is criminally underrated. Emma Thompson, as always, is incredible as politician Vivienne Rock and Jessica Hynes, a favorite from her days on Spaced (1999!), has one of the best performances of the year in her role as a political activist.

The BBC show tells the story of one Manchester family over the fifteen years following an event in 2019. Immigration, technology, and love are just a few of the overarching themes of a show that follows the story of each character as Britain experiences both political and economic instability. Muriel, the matriarch of the family says: “It’s all your fault… Every single thing that’s gone wrong, it’s your fault. Every single one of us.” Hynes’s performance in the final episode is heartbreaking and overall I loved this six episode show.

Watchmen:

REGINA KING ❤ ❤

Based off of Alan Moore’s graphic novel, the HBO adaption Watchmen was one of the most bizarre, intense, and interesting shows of 2019. Starring Regina King–who is absolutely perfect as a daytime baker and vigilante by night–the story centers around Tulsa, Oklahoma and how the 1921 terrorism of “Black Wall Street” resonates in modern relationships and policing. As in the early 1900s, modern intersections of race and power drive the narrative of the show’s packed nine episodes. The storytelling of the show is amazing–episodes are jumping between time periods, places, and perspectives, but somehow manages to tie everything together in a satisfying, albeit for me, heartbreaking way.

Regina King (Angela) as the ass kicking superhero and police officer, struggling throughout the series to understand the truth of her family’s past. King notes that “so much of this country was built by black people, but yet in a lot of regards, we’re orphans because we don’t know where we’ve come from. There’s a metaphor in there for the history of the real America.”

Unbelievable:

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of Unbelievable is that the true-crime series is actually true. The story of Marie, a young woman who recants her account of rape after pressure from police, is at the center of the show and gives light on the struggles women face when reporting abuse. After a series of rapes occur in their town, detectives Grace Rasmussen and Karen Duvall (Toni Collette and Merritt Wever, who are great in these roles) begin connecting the pieces showing that a serial rapist has been committing these crimes, including Marie’s assault.

At the heart of Unbelievable is the question of who actually gets to be believed. Marie, a low-income young orphan, does everything right when she reports her rape: she consents to medical exams, explains the event multiple times to a number of people, and submits to questioning, and yet is made to believe that she invented the account and is even hit with a false reporting charge. Marie isn’t taken seriously but that part isn’t unbelievable, right? Here the show demonstrates the inherent problems within an unjust system–who gets to be believed and who is worthy of our time and empathy isn’t equal.

Chernobyl:

Chernobyl is easily one of the best five episodes of television this year. From the beginning the series draws you in as the horrifying tale of the Soviet nuclear disaster slowly unfolds. Jared Harris (Valery Legasov) is haunting, wonderful, and is the perfect protagonist to show the costs of attempting to save the world from nuclear ruin–the lives lost, the environment destroyed, and combating a regime intent on keeping such a disaster a secret.

We toured Chernobyl a week before the show premiered on HBO and all I can say is, holy shit.

The show is beautifully shot with such an attention to detail that viewers can forget that this isn’t REALLY 1986 Ukraine. I highly recommend listening to the Chernobyl Podcast with show creator Craig Mazin (can we also talk about how Craig Mazin, who is known for The Hangover Part II and III, created Chernobyl?) and NPR’s Peter Sagal as they discuss decisions made for the show. Emily Watson, as scientist Ulana Khomyuk, is one of the characters created for the show; she’s a combination of a number of scientists that worked to clean up the damage. Her interviews with the first victims of the explosion are absolutely heartbreaking. Much of the show, including the story-line of Vasily and Lyudmilla Ignatenko, was based on the incredible book, Voices of Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich, who has endorsed the show.

When They See Us:

Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us is one the best shows of all time. While the miniseries was snubbed by the Golden Globes–many of arguments blame how difficult the show is to watch– the fact is that her portrayal of the Central Park Five IS hard to watch, mostly because the story of these teenagers sent to prison for a crime they didn’t commit not only happened, but is demonstrating how institutional racism is still happening in America today.

A legal system that allows for the arrest, interrogation, and eventual sentencing of children for a crime they did not commit is unjust. And yet, the power and outrage of When They See Us is not only showing the viewer that these things happened, but continue to happen. Disenfranchisement is seen throughout the show: a lack of money means inadequate legal representation, inability for families to see their children, and the sheer racism of a prosecutor to refuse to believe anyone other than these children of color could commit this crime. The lack of empathy throughout is heartbreaking and shows what happens when those in power see others as less than; Linda Fairstein refers to the kids as “thugs” and “animals” rather than the eighth graders they are.

All four episodes are powerfully written and acted, but the 90 minute finale centering on Korey, who is sentenced to adult prison as a minor, is absolutely brutal. Viewers might not be able to finish watching a show so outrageously unjust and unbelievable, but the point of When They See Is, is that it is.

Currently:
Listening: The Racist Sandwich (Soleil Ho and Zahir Janmohamed)