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In the years since the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster spewed radiation around the globe and smudged the map of the then- Soviet Union with heavy contamination, the very word “Chernobyl” has become a synonym for “horrific disaster,” conjuring the frightful radioactive deserts that landscape Atomic Age science fiction and resonate deeply in modern imaginations haunted by the specter of nuclear war.
Surely, whenever I thought about the irradiated lands 50 miles north of Kiev, it was like contemplating a black hole. All I could picture was a dead zone, like a giant parking lot paved with asphalt or a barren desert of dust and ash where nothing could grow and nothing living could survive without protective gear. Only gloomy shades of black and gray colored my mental images.
But when I first visited the Chernobyl region, 10 years after the disaster, I was surprised to find that the dominant color was green. My notes from that trip are filled with emphatically underlined and circled comments like “feral fields,” “forests,” and “wildlife?!” Contrary to the myths and imagery, Chernobyl’s land had become a unique, new ecosystem. Defying the gloomiest predictions, it had come back to life as Europe’s largest nature sanctuary, teeming with wildlife. Like the forests, fields, and swamps of their unexpectedly inviting habitat, the animals are all radioactive. To the astonishment of just about everyone, they are also thriving.
But to appreciate the land’s extraordinary resurrection, you first have to understand its demise.
A perplexed Rimma Kyselytsia led our little group of explorers outside into a small square surrounded by empty apartment buildings. She studied the number painted on the side of the building and shook her blond curls in confusion. “It’s the right address. So, where is it?” Since Rimma was the guide, my other companion—a botanist named Svitlana Bidna—and I shrugged helplessly.
My dosimeter beeped slowly. The radiation monitor’s liquid crystal screen displayed 80 microroentgens an hour. That was several times normal background levels, which range from 15 to 25 in most places. Decontamination, rain, and time have long since washed off much of the radioactive grime that coated the town after Chernobyl’s fourth reactor exploded in the wee hours of April 26, 1986. Pripyat was the plant’s bedroom community. Heralded as the world’s youngest city when it opened its doors in the mid-1970s, Pripyat also turned out to be its shortest lived.
A short flight of concrete stairs sprouting saplings and moss led to the back of the building where Rimma explored a row of what seemed to have once been stores and offices. The glass storefronts were all shattered, exposing the bare rooms to the elements, and she quickly spied a faded red carpet runner, lying dirty and twisted with shards of glass, plaster, and deep piles of yellowed paper.
“This is it!” she exclaimed, vindicated in her guiding skill. Rimma was a Tatar with aquarium eyes and a matter-of-fact but realistic attitude towards her radioactive workplace.
The red carpet runner once led couples to secular Soviet marriage in the Pripyat Registry of Citizens’ Civil Status. Known by its Ukrainian acronym as a ZAHS (ZAGS in Russian), the office was not merely a marriage registry. ZAHSs documented the legal passages in Soviet citizens’ personal lives from cradle to grave, issuing birth certificates and death certificates and everything in between.
The deep piles of brittle paper on the floor were ZAHS forms and applications. Ivory cards informing brides and grooms of their wedding dates were mixed up with spilled stacks of divorce applications and forms to apply for “compensation in the form of gold wedding rings.” Hanging lopsided on the back wall, a red-lettered cardboard sign exhorted newlyweds: “Stand on the threshold of your introduction to the deep familial and social traditions of the Soviet people.”
In the neighboring room, two tall bookshelves had toppled over, spilling dozens of pulp folders containing the ZAHS archives into a moldy pile. Although the 1986 archives were missing, the records went back to the early 1970s, when the town first opened its doors. Judging by one fat folder, many couples applied to cut to the front of the wedding queue because they had already had a child together.
Sixteen marriage ceremonies took place on the last full day of human life in Pripyat. The only public record of those nuptials, tinged in hindsight with so much sadness, can be viewed in a five-minute film at Kiev’s Chernobyl museum. The split-second scene of the bride and groom leaving the storefront wedding registry is too fleeting to see their expressions, but the point of the wedding in the silent and grainy film was to show that April 26, 1986, was an ordinary, if unusually warm, Saturday afternoon in Pripyat. Oblivious to the radioactive cloud invisibly blanketing them, couples wheeled infants in strollers. Toddlers in shorts kicked a ball around a dirt playground. Women in sleeveless summer dresses gathered outdoors under a vendor’s umbrella, in the large groups that always signified something (anything) being sold in the shortage-ridden Soviet Union.
But the anonymous KGB cameraman knew that something was wrong. Gamma rays left flashes of light on the scene he filmed of two men in camouflage and gas masks nodding to an unprotected and obviously surprised civilian. Armored personnel carriers drove down Pripyat’s boulevards, while uniformed officers checked radiation on a truck’s tires. Water trucks washed the streets with foamy detergent, leaving puddles in which sparrows splashed. From the roof of a Pripyat high-rise, the cameraman filmed the Chernobyl plant, shrouded in such a thick cloud of smoke and haze that only its dim outline was visible.
What did not get recorded on film was the nighttime explosion that ripped through the Number 4 reactor complex, spewing flames, sparks, and chunks of burning radioactive material into the air and, subsequently, around the northern hemisphere. Red-hot pieces of nuclear fuel and graphite fell on the roof, starting 30 fires and causing the roof to collapse into the reactor hall. By dawn the roof fires had been put out by 37 fire crews working without protection or dosimeters. Many became ill with acute radiation sickness. Thirty-one died, but at that point no one knew that the explosion had completely exposed the reactor core. The government commission from Moscow didn’t arrive until Saturday night, and it wasn’t until Sunday morning that its members could helicopter over the cavernous hulk to see that the explosion had ignited an extremely intense graphite fire. The graphite fire was releasing millions of curies of radioactivity that lit the air above the ruined reactor with an eerie glow. The crisis was actually an unprecedented disaster and it was far from over.
That morning, in his apartment not far from the ZAHS office, Volodymyr Pasichnyk had been watching his teenaged son playing with the dial on the TV set when the receiver suddenly tuned in on an odd frequency. “There was no picture, just talk, probably by walkie-talkie,” he recalled when I talked with him 15 years later. “They were talking about ‘people in hospitals’ and ‘hundreds of buses to Pripyat’.” Like most people in Pripyat—all of whose lives were somehow connected with the plant—he had heard rumors about something bad at the fourth reactor block. At that moment he understood the enormity of what had happened. The town was being evacuated.
The official announcement came on Pripyat radios at 10 o’clock Sunday morning. In only four hours, beginning at 2:00 p.m., 1,100 empty buses drove into Pripyat and drove out with nearly all of the town’s 45,000 residents in a convoy that was more than 10 miles long. It was, the authorities said, only meant to be for three days. Perhaps they really meant it. But that was before anyone knew that the graphite fire would melt the fuel and belch the daily equivalent of several Hiroshima bombs for 10 full days, altogether releasing five times as much radioactivity as the initial explosion.
Pripyat could never be inhabited again. The ritual human cycles of birth and marriage, divorce and death, recorded by ZAHS scribes in the thick pulpy ledgers of Soviet bureaucracy, ended on April 26, 1986. And the stacks of cards for secular baptisms, with spaces for the names of new Soviet citizens, will never be filled in.