Vitali Vitaliev, who spent his childhood in Ukraine, shares his first-hand impressions of post-disaster Chernobyl.
I visited the site of the Chernobyl tragedy several years ago with a Channel 4 TV crew while making a documentary about Ukraine. The fact that my father, a nuclear physicist, died prematurely in 1982 of the long-term effects of radiation, added a special personal significance to that trip.
Sasha, a young local dosimetrist assigned to our film crew, was making a point of ignoring radiation and, with considerable bravado, refusing to wear a protective mask. With his every step forward, towards the grey bulk of the leaking reactor, his antediluvian Geiger counter showed great jumps in the level of background radiation. At times it was four to five thousand times higher than the accepted 'norm' of five micro-roentgens per hour.
I couldn't tear my eyes from the faded slogan crowning the building next to reactor number four: 'The victory of communism will come!' They had tried to paint over this tragically ironic slogan several times, but the stubborn white letters were still clearly visible through layers of paint. 'The victory of communism will come!' they were screaming.
Down below, shift workers fished patiently in the reactor's cooling pond. Even the normally unperturbed Sasha couldn't refrain from commenting acerbically: "They must be mad! Eat that fish and you'll lose all your hair within hours."
Channel 4 bosses were unable to insure our small crew of three (director, cameraman and writer/presenter, i.e., me) for that particular day of the shoot: no insurance company was prepared to give us cover for filming in one of the world's most dangerous places.
On arrival, we had to cough up $800 for the 'tour' plus a further $100 for each hour of filming. In addition to lunch and an English-speaking guide, the 'package' included a chauffeured Chaika limo. Usually reserved for top government apparatchiks, this particular vehicle was abandoned in the contaminated zone by some visiting dignitary: it was too "dirty" (read: irradiated) to be taken back to the outside world. As I discovered, the Chernobyl tour was open to any reckless foreigner with a half-decent excuse for being interested. And with plenty of dollars of course.
We were granted a brief interview with an official from the Ministry of Chernobyl (there is such a Ministry in Ukraine), who told us, among other things, that the Chernobyl Museum had just opened in Kiev to publicise 'achievements' made in tackling the catastrophe.
At the entrance to the 10km interior (heavily contaminated) zone, we were offered sets of baggy 'protective' clothing, which were merely pre-used battle fatigues. We were given face masks called lepestok (petal) to protect our lungs against radiation. The guide cheerfully informed us that within the 10km exclusion zone the level of radiation was on average a thousand times higher than the accepted maximum, which made me think that the only outfit that could provide proper protection was probably a complete set of medieval knight's armour, lined with lead. We exchanged black jokes and nervous cackles, made even more uneasy by the knowledge that an even bigger radioactive leak than usual had been reported the day before our visit.
Chernobyl, we were told, leaked all the time.
Standing there, in front of the reactor, in my ridiculous khaki outfit and with a flimsy white mask over my mouth, I was confronted again with the frightening melodrama of the situation.
"If there's another explosion here, it would mean ultimate disaster, not only for Ukraine but for the whole of Europe," the guide announced in a tone of unmistakable pride.
Earlier, at the entrance to the outer 30km zone, we had seen a busload of workers returning from their 15-day shift at the reactor. The workers were getting off the 'dirty' zone bus and boarding a 'clean', decontaminated one to take them to the neighbouring town of Slavutich for a fortnight's rest. They literally fell out of the bus, drunk out of their minds.
Many reactor workers, it seemed, started working in a state of mild inebriation and continued drinking throughout their shift in the mistaken but officially encouraged belief that alcohol could fend off radiation. The realisation that Europe's future was in the unsteady hands of these drunken men and women sent shivers down my spine.
There was another old slogan in Pripyat, the nearest town to Chernobyl, half a kilometre away: 'Let us translate the historic decisions of the 27th Soviet Communist Party Congress into life!'
The 'historic decisions' had indeed been translated. Pripyat once had a population of 50,000, but it was dead and empty now. The explosion of reactor number four, which had affected 55 million people worldwide, was in some ways the last nail in the coffin of Soviet-style communism. The whole of Pripyat was evacuated in one day, 36-hours after the April 1986 explosion, though for most of the evacuees it was already too late.
As it has been revealed by the protocols of the Politburo's secret meetings, Kremlin bosses, instructed by Gorbachev, fell over themselves to keep quiet about what had happened. Ukrainian Communist Party leaders promptly reassured the population there was no danger, while hastily (and secretly) evacuating their own families from the Kyiv area. Had it not been for the Swedes, who noticed a sharp rise in radiation levels in their country and raised the alarm, the truth about the explosion might have been concealed for much, much longer, and many more people would have been lethally contaminated.
Pripyat was eerie.
The motor of our camera whirred on in utter silence.
Flowerbeds had vanished beneath thick vegetation.
In the town funfair, nestling between abandoned high-rise apartment blocks, the wind slowly propelled a rusty merry-go-round and leafed through the pages of the March 1986 issue of the children's magazine Vesyoliye kartinki ('Merry Pictures'), discarded beneath a park bench.
Here, was an overturned go-cart; there, a broken LP of 1980s Soviet musical hits trampled in the ground.
'Long live the First of May!' proclaimed the faded signs in dusty shop windows. The disaster happened on 26 April, 1986. They had no time to celebrate 1 May in Pripyat, and they never will. Walking around this dead town, I could almost feel the radiation in the stale mosquito-ridden air.
I entered an empty pillaged flat on the second floor of one of the defunct apartment blocks, and froze. Its layout was a standard pre-fab Soviet type - exactly the same as my last flat in Kharkiv, another Ukrainian city where I lived as a child. The same corridor with door-less closets in the wall; the same crudely tiled bathroom; the same tiny kitchen with broken gas-stove and heaps of rubbish on the scratched wooden floor. It felt like trudging through the ruins of my childhood.
Flowers of hope
Leaving the 30km zone, we passed through several villages, now populated by samosyoli ('self-settlers'), the people who had flouted every ban to return, by choice, to their contaminated dwellings.
In the village of Opachichi, an old wrinkled man offered me a glass of water from his well. Overwhelmed with gruesome impressions of the day, I stupidly drank it without thinking, and only then the realisation struck: what am I doing? I am in Chernobyl!
The old man spotted the fear on my face. "Don't worry about the radiation, son," he said, reassuringly. "They have pumped it all out."
Two weeks before, he told me, there had been a wedding in Opachichi - the first one inside the exclusion zone.
I looked up at the straw roof of his house, where a stork had built a nest - a symbol of procreation, an omen of life. The people who had withstood history's worst nuclear disaster, the people who chose to live and marry in the contaminated zone, the people who sincerely believed that radiation could be 'pumped out', deserved such an omen more than anyone else.
Through the murky window of the ruined house of my childhood, I could see timid flowers of hope and life stubbornly breaking through radioactive rubble.