Our day trip included visiting the villages of Zalissya and Kopachi. Zalissya is the first stop after the checkpoint into the Exclusion Zone while Kopachi is farther north; visitors can see the Chornobyl plant from Kopachi’s road near the Red Forest.
Where are we?
Both villages were two of 186 communities (including over 100,000 people) evacuated after the 1986 Chornobyl disaster. Kopachi, highly contaminated even to this day, remains abandoned, while other villages have seen a number of their former inhabitants return. These “self-settlers” chose to live within the Exclusion Zone, despite the health risks. One woman, Rozaliya Ivanivna, returned to Zalissya and became the village’s only inhabitant until she passed away a few years ago.
Many chose to return because these are their homes, where they grew up, and where their families are buried. “I won’t go anywhere, even at gunpoint.” says one of the self-settlers in the documentary, Babushkas of Chernobyl. The women in the film, and many of the 1,200 people who chose to return to their homes (illegally) inside of the Exclusion Zone, survived Holodomor, the Soviet-induced famine that killed seven million Ukrainians, not to mention WWII, and the invasion of the Nazis. For many, the connection to home is greater than their fears of radiation poisoning.
For me, walking these villages was one of the most impactful aspects of the trip. So often the Chornobyl disaster is portrayed, or even just feels, like it was a long time ago. Seeing the homes of people forced to leave and the possessions they left behind is a reminder that this happened just thirty years ago.
Watching: The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)
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?
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.
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.
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.
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:
I hope you enjoy these posts as much as I loved our tour. It was truly such a unique and amazing opportunity to visit.
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)