Where do I even begin? I've been avoiding this for almost a week now because the task seems too great for my abilities, the weight too overwhelming, the gravity too humbling.
I know that even if I had the ability, I don't have the right. I am an outsider, a visitor who will be there one day and gone the next, probably forever. I haven't shed the tears with my own eyes or felt the suffering in my own body. They have lived the tragedy; I have simply taken a fleeting glance at the shadows of tragedy. So who am I to reflect on the tides that have washed over humanity in that little corner of northern Ukraine, tides whose power and force I can never fully grasp?
And yet this forum remains an exercise in reflecting on my observations, perceptions, and feelings about the people and places I encounter along my journeys through the former Soviet empire. As such, I can promise nothing more than that. This is neither historical, political, nor social commentary about that event and the shock waves it sent through the Soviet Union and the entire world; others can and have met that challenge better equipped than I. All I will offer here are impressions, impressions of a place I never expected to see with my own eyes. They are the impressions of my visit to Chernobyl...
What I expected to find was a place of death. From the crumbling and decaying sarcophagus surrounding the still-deadly remains of reactor number four to the cities and towns abandoned in the days following the terrible accident, I was prepared to encounter a place permanently suspended in a deathly state. I pictured some sort of post-apocalyptic world where life had been scoured from all surfaces, rooted out from all nooks and crannies; I pictured a world that had faded and turned grayish brown, like a long-forgotten film that has been discovered after years collecting dust.
What I found, much to my surprise, was a place characterized by abundant life. The most startling aspect was the human life within the Chernobyl exclusion zone and at the nuclear power plant itself. In fact, 4,000 people are still employed by the power plant and work there on a regular basis. They are the workers who not only monitor reactor four and maintain the aging sarcophagus, but also those who are carrying out the closure of the remaining reactors, the last of which was finally shut off in 2000.
They work and even live inside the exclusion zone because this is their job. The guide at the power plant's visitor center tells us with a tinge of sadness in her voice that "back when the disaster first occurred people rushed here to help contain the situation because it was their duty - they were motivated by love of their country and they paid a high price. Now they come [to work on the Sarcophagus] because they need the work, they don't have a choice." We are told that the power plant takes the health of its workers very seriously - if anybody shows signs of radiation-related illness, they are immediately and permanently removed from the exclusion zone. Discovering the ironies that populate the darker corners of life, someone in our group asks, "doesn't that mean they lose their job, too?" The guide shrugs with a melancholy look of regret on her face and nods her head.
A much different vision of life can be found in Pripyat, the model Soviet city built in the 1970s to house the population that would be working at the Soviet Union's latest wonder-achievement, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Home to nearly 50,000 residents at the time of the accident in 1986, the city was evacuated three days after the explosion, never to be repopulated again. Because the residents were told that they would be able to return soon, they left most of their belongings behind. In fact, they left their lives behind to be re-created in the minds of visitors like myself 22 years later, picturing the daily experiences of an apartment's inhabitants as we carefully step over the broken glass and fallen radiator on the floor.
Contrary of the image in my mind of a barren, windswept cityscape permanently drained of life by the events of that day, in fact life is everywhere. 22 years without human interference has had a startling effect as the forest has gradually reclaimed the territory it was once forced to concede in the name of socialist progress. Houses have been engulfed by the forest, apartment buildings dwarfed by the trees, and streets and sidewalks obscured by moss until little trace of them remains. Nature has even found its way inside several buildings, with trees, shrubbery, and grass growing out the windows from within. We see the telltale evidence of wild boars that wander the city rooting up tasty morsels from her soft, mossy soil. We are told that herds of wild horses roam freely on the open plains, and that native zubry (European bison) will soon be re-introduced to the area.
It is, of course, a strange encounter with life that one has in Pripyat, for everywhere we see wild, natural life growing up through and around the remains of the human life that once occupied this place. We see the birch sapling growing upward next to the abandoned toys of children who have long since grown up and started new lives. We see the remnants of a long-forgotten basketball game - a shoe here and there - in the gym that overlooks the thick green forest threatening to swallow the city and the memories it holds. And we see the hopes and dreams of a country that no longer exists, colorfully emblazoned on the sides of buildings, obscured by the trees that were planted when those dreams were still vivid in the minds of their creators.
And so, while Chernobyl and Pripyat are no doubt "living" places, they are not fully alive nor are they fully dead. They are somewhere in between, poignant reminders of man's power over nature and ultimately, of nature's power over man.