Leaving for Chernobyl, You Don’t Know What to Expect
Every time I visit somewhere heavy places kindly referred to as “dark tourism,” I never know how I will feel at the end of the day.
Auschwitz was draining and overwhelming but my eyes stayed dry, while I spent the last half of my visit to the Anne Frank House in tears. Chernobyl, where so many people perished, was more than just a disaster site.
It was also where people lived full, happy lives, and it was a place where Soviet life thrived. Spending a day wandering through its sites and learning about its people? I didn’t know where that would lead. But I knew I had to see it.
I had to experience what it is like to be in Chernobyl today because seeing the pictures of Chernobyl was intriguing but not enough. And I had to visit Chernobyl now before the buildings become completely unexplorable.
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The Air is Filled with Anticipation, Even Excitement
The Chernobyl and Pripyat tour bus was positively buzzing. Watching the documentary on the way up, everyone’s eyes were glued to the screen, trying to absorb as much information as possible. This is the kind of day trip you take after planning, your day bag carefully packed and your outfit was chosen with precision, making sure you follow Chernobyl’s strict regulations. While most days, I sleep past nine, or to be honest, wake up just north of noon, waking up to visit Chernobyl had been easy. I was bouncing, over-caffeinated, and spilling over with nervous energy that I had tried to stamp out with a couple of cigarettes before we left Maiden Square in Kiev.
But You Ask Yourself, is it Right to Enjoy the Day
While I was excited, I was also full of dread and embarrassment. Wasn’t this why I had wanted to visit Ukraine in the first place? Yet, driving up, I was overcome with a kind of panicked regret. What exactly were my intentions? In a world where Instagram is practically ruining places like Angkor, filling them full of maxi dresses and matching umbrellas, was I simply coming here to get beautiful pictures of a sad place? Was I rubbernecking at the site of a nuclear disaster? While I felt the answer was a strong no, that I was there to learn and to experience, I also know that there’s a fine line between learning and ogling. Luckily for Chernobyl, their strongly enforced dress code has eliminated the maxi dress problem, but I arrived on edge.
What Kind of Reverence is Owed and to Whom?
There’s an unspoken Chernobyl problem. The country that technically caused the disaster, the Soviet Union, no longer exists. This has made it so that Ukraine barely accepts blame for any part of the disaster, but Russia doesn’t really either. A manmade disaster with a mythical monster perpetrator? Everywhere you see victims, but where are the villains in this tale?
Who are Chernobyl’s Victims? And What are their Stories?
The disaster had many victims: the firefighters and other people on the ground, the people in the town, the unborn babies, the animals that had to be put down to avoid radiation contamination. How many people officially died because of Chernobyl is up for debate, and more people have a vested interest in keeping the numbers artificially low than making sure they are accurate. Thus it’s impossible to even identify all of its victims, let alone account for their stories. Yet it’s hard to see the memorials and the lists of evacuated towns and not conclude that the lost and displaced life is far greater than you understood before arriving.
You’ve Heard Rumors, But Which are True?
There is a whole cottage industry designed to make Chernobyl seem scarier today than it appears. There are mutants in the lakes, they say. Watch out for monsters in the woods, you hear. It’s not what you see when you walk through the empty villages, but they’ll tell you that just means you weren’t there at the right time. Always a skeptic, I believe none of these stories. But I still get asked, what did you see?
Life in Chernobyl Today has its Own Rules
Every day now, Chernobyl has its own routine. The checkpoints, the kitchen staff at the old hotel, the woman who works at the convenience store. They come in every day and do the same things. It’s monotonous, but it doesn’t mean that life in Chernobyl is normal.
And the People who Work at Chernobyl Now, What is Life Like for them?
My tour guide was relatively new and was bursting with love for the job. What is it like for a young Ukrainian, born in the shadow of the disaster, to wind up working there? What is it like for the guards? What kind of fear do they have? What kind of pride?
Chernobyl’s Animals have Come Back…and They Come up to Greet You
While I don’t believe that Chernobyl is full of monsters and mutants, I was surprised to see how friendly the foxes are. This one came right up to us and asked for a cherry tart. The wildlife has come back, so much so that wolves have been seen leaving the exclusion zone for the first time in thirty-two years.
Wandering through the Buildings, You Can Pull the Curtain Back Thirty Years
Walking through apartments, schools, grocery stores, gymnasiums, you can use your eyes, but you also need to use your head. The rubble you see in front of you is a lie. It’s the accumulation of thirty plus years of neglect. Close your eyes and try to picture what it was like before the disaster.
Pripyat was a Town of Hope
Pripyat was an Atomic Town, full of some of the Soviet Union’s best and brightest. If you’re looking for it, you can see the hope and pride in every corner.
And a Town of Success
Whatever failures the Soviet system had, and there were many, Pripyat before the disaster was a success. The purpose-built town held everything that young, bright scientists and their families needed. Life there was good. Walking through what it’s like today, you can see the town provided more than just an existence. There was genuine happiness there, once.
The town was one full of young families, and there’s evidence of young children everywhere. Exploring schools, daycares, and playgrounds, it’s hard not to think about the thirty-five or forty-year-old, living in Kiev, who has memories of happy times there.
The young families in Pripyat, they had plans for the future. They were living stable, successful lives in one of the best towns they knew. It’s hard to watch the video of the parades there and walk through their apartments, and not see why they had so much optimism.
Pripyat was a Place Where Soviet Life Thrived
The town was full of the newest technology, the best things, and the fanciest digs. Living there, residents couldn’t help but feel protected and supported.
Until One Day, It Didn’t
Of course, you and I know how this story ends. Not with generations of smiling children, but with death, flight, and abandonment. After the disaster, the town was evacuated.
When People Left, they Thought they Would Come Back
Like most disasters, whether natural or man-made, people thought they would return. When they left, they anticipated coming back to their homes when they were safe again.
But they Never Did
Thirty-two years later, and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone still excludes. While tourists and workers can come in for the day, no one is allowed to live there. The abandoned homes were never again full of young, boisterous Soviet families working to power their nation.
Well, Some Have Come Back
You may have heard about the Babushkas of Chernobyl, over two hundred older women (and a few men) who have returned to retire in the villages they once called home. This is less a phenomenon at Pripyat, which was new, but more about the tiny villages all over the exclusion zone where Ukrainians had lived for centuries. The Babushkas are taking their ancestral homes back to live the rest of their lives where they were happiest.
But the Abandoned Towns have been Left to the Elements
While there are Babushkas in hiding, most of the buildings are abandoned. Everywhere you look you see the evidence: paint peeling, upended floorboards, abandoned mattresses waterlogged with thirty years of winter snow. Life here was uprooted, and the residents had to rebuild elsewhere. And these buildings that tourists are climbing through daily, how much longer will they be standing without some kind of structural intervention?
Planning to visit Chernobyl? Double check that your up to date on your travel insurance and your tetanus shots before you go!
And Tourists at Chernobyl Come to See What is Left
Tourists who come do so for many reasons, but I suspect that the main one is curiosity. Beyond the disaster, you confront your own preconceived notions about Soviet life, about life in a place when men are gone, and what nuclear radiation, that twentieth-century boogeyman, really does. Tourists come in not-knowing, and we leave a little more educated. My heart says that must be a good thing, but it is complicated.
But they also Come to Make Their Own Reality
As much as tourists come in wanting to learn, they also destroy, bit-by-bit. They shuffle, move, reorganize. While they don’t take (taking is against the rules at Chernobyl), they change. Everywhere I went, I could see it. Items arranged carefully to make the most interesting photos. No matter the pattern, these arrangements were a lie.
Everywhere, The Leftover Fragments of Life are Arranged
Everywhere you walk, you try to see the life at Chernobyl before the disaster or see what it was like to leave home so suddenly. However, there’s a layer of artistry in between, making it more difficult. Years of photographers coming through, arranging the leftover fragments into compositions, obstructs the view of the past. All of a sudden, you’re more aware of the voyeurism on display, of the people who came before you to gawk and compose. You’re not seeing how it was left, instead, you’re seeing another tourist’s vision of what it could have been if the people had been thoughtful enough to leave their belongings behind forever in a perfectly Instagrammable way. Although juxtaposing the shallowness of our current era against the life-and-death struggles of another generation is its own kind of macabre dance.
In Ways to Scare You
Some arrangments were beautiful, but some were obviously designed to haunt. And while I also snapped these photos, I have to wonder what participating in this kind of storytelling about Chernobyl says about me and about the site’s other visitors.
And in Ways to Tell a Story
The last meal at home. The last day at the lake. The last trip to the store. Chernobyl is not a museum so there are no pictures of the people that live there. Instead, you construct their stories from the things they couldn’t take with them.
But are these the Right Stories?
You can’t know if you get it right. You can’t know if the doll was precious to a little girl. You won’t hear about how the stove pulled out from the wall was where someone’s mother made the perfect borsht or where the little boy burned his finger when he was playing instead of studying. You guess. You see other people’s interpretations. But you can never know.
What Does a Leftover Textbook Really Say about a School?
It does seem a bit like you’re trying too hard. What would someone understand about your life if they walked into your elementary school thirty years later and picked up something off the floor? If no one had been there since the last time you were there, and they looked at a random object, could they know you? Understand even one thing about what your life was like? It’s a hard thing to ask an abandoned object to do.
Is an Abandoned Car in Chernobyl different than one Anywhere Else in the World?
Any meaning these things have, a little bit of it must come because we imbibe it with that meaning. We want the abandoned car to be more poignant. Doesn’t it know that it is the abandoned car that everyone will see when they come? But is an abandoned car in Chernobyl really different from the one in a junkyard in Kansas City or the one up on cinder blocks outside of Toronto? Aren’t we, the observer, just asking too much? Aren’t we lying to ourselves just a little bit?
Chernobyl Fascinates, But Does it Let You In?
I learned so much from my visit, and I found the day highly rewarding. But it would be wrong to think that I learned all of Chernobyl’s secrets. There are so many more ghosts, ghost stories, tales of woe, and tales of love there than I will ever have the privilege of knowing. It seems like the kind of place that tricks you into thinking you understand more than you can. Maybe I could get deeper on another trip, or maybe I will never be allowed to know her mysteries.
Visiting Chernobyl Now, You hear Distant Voices from the Past, but only If You Try Hard Enough to Listen
Even if you can’t know everything, it’s still better to go and learn something. But it doesn’t come easy. There are distractions everywhere. Some photographs are lies. You have to pay attention to what Chernobyl was like, before the peeled paint and the opened container of gas maks. But it is there if you want to see what life was like in the happy part of the world in the time before the disaster.
Essential Information for Visiting Chernobyl
I cover this in-depth in this article about touring Chernobyl, but here are the basics:
- You must travel with an organized tour, which you must book at least ten business days in advance. I recommend this one-day Chernobyl and Pripyat tour which covers the itinerary I went on.
- The dress code and rules are strict and must be followed. More on this in the Dress Code and Packing list sections here.
- Safety: have an up-to-date travel insurance policy (I pay for and recommend World Nomads). It also wouldn’t hurt to be up to date on your tetanus shot.
- Make sure you have your passport with you!
Learn More about Traveling to Chernobyl and Kiev
- Chernobyl Tours: 10 Things to Know Before You Tour Pripyat and Chernobyl
- What to Pack for Ukraine
- What Happened at Chernobyl?
- The History of Kiev