The government of Ukraine recently launched a slick tourism campaign under the slogan "Ukraine: All About U." The tourist agency's website features colorful photos of pretty Ukrainian girls, profiles of some main tourist attractions, and a catchy commercial complete with dancing maidens. What the site doesn't include, however, is information about the country's buzziest tourist attraction, the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Twenty-five years ago, the Chernobyl nuclear plant, located in what was then the Soviet Union, suffered a massive meltdown. The ensuing catastrophe was recognized - at least until the recent Fukushima disaster in Japan - as the worst nuclear accident on record. Despite the seriousness of the incident, the Soviet regime, in its desire to project itself as invulnerable, sought to play down the seriousness of the accident. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the world has come to understand the scope of the accident and the seriousness of its effects, although debate remains as to the full human toll taken by the radiation released into the atmosphere.
Today, Chernobyl and the surrounding countryside is largely abandoned. A government-run 30-kilometer exclusion zone - known as the "Zone of Alienation" - is dotted with forsaken villages that were once home to as many as 200,000 souls. The Zone can now be visited thanks to government-sanctioned tours that leave several times a week from Kiev's Independence Square, the site of the 2005 Orange Revolution.
I had long been interested in traveling to Kiev to visit the Zone of Alienation, but it was a "This American Life" podcast in April 2011 that inspired me to add Chernobyl as a stop on an impending trip to Europe. The broadcast featured selected readings from Svetlana Alexievich's haunting book "Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster." As I listened to the survivors' harrowing accounts of the nuclear meltdown and its aftermath, I was surprised at how little I knew about the disaster. I picked up a copy of the book and arranged a flight to Kiev.
Today, Chernobyl is the most striking tourist attraction in the Kiev region (that's a pretty bold statement considering that Kiev also features an arresting 62-meter tall titanium statue of a woman, called Mother Motherland, wielding a massive sword). The daylong tour consists of visits to several sights interspersed with multiple spot radiation checks. Much of the day is spent in the abandoned town of Pripyat, once home to approximately 50,000 people, which lies about 3 km from the nuclear plant. When Pripyat was abandoned, its citizens were given only a few hour's notice before they were compelled to leave. It has remained empty since that time and is now, in essence, a time capsule of Soviet life.
A visit to the Zone is not for the faint of heart. I say this not because there is any serious health risk - tour operators offer repeated assurances that an afternoon in the Zone exposes a visitor to less radiation than a transatlantic flight. Rather, a visit to the Zone brings with it a deep sense of foreboding. As you walk through abandoned apartments and classrooms, you can't help but feel like you're doing something forbidden or that you are trespassing on the graves of strangers' broken lives.
For me, the highlight of the trip was not any particular building, but rather the laisse-faire attitude with which the tour guide managed our group. After offering a few sage pieces of advice like "don't' touch the ground," we were pretty much left to our own devices and given free reign to explore abandoned buildings. The whole thing felt rather illicit.
A number of fellow travelers commented to me that they wanted to grab something, anything, from the abandoned possessions of Pripyat's former inhabitants to take home as a souvenir. I must admit that I thought of doing the same- perhaps a newspaper dated April, 26, 1986, the date of the disaster, or a discarded school text. Thanks to a bit of impulse control, I decided not to nick anything from the Zone. My decision was based on several factors. First, it didn't seem wise to try to smuggle radioactive material into the United States. Second, I wasn't prepared to accept the potential karmic implications of carrying around an object associated with a place damned by history. Third, the Zone owes much of its emotional impact to the fact that it has not been picked over by tourist groups. Finally, and most importantly, I couldn't get comfortable with the fundamental injustice that the owners of these items had suffered when they were forced to leave them behind forever. They were best left to be reclaimed by time and the elements.