The Nuclear Option | We Went to a Rave in the Ruins of Chernobyl
A group of Ukrainian artists are reclaiming the Exclusion Zone
“It is for your protection from I don’t know what” our guide says, handing out white hooded jumpsuits. We all scramble round the back of the bus, trying to pull our protective clothing on.
On every side of us, amidst the trees, are huge Soviet blocks. They’re empty, but full of the belongings the residents of the city left behind. This is Pripyat, once home to 50,000 people. Today, its population is zero.
"This is Pripyat, once home to 50,000 people. Today, its population is zero"
Emanating from the centre of the square of the abandoned city, coloured lights flash and writhe across the empty homes. In this setting, we’re about to rave.
The explosion of Reactor Number Four at 1.23am on 26th April 1986 fired approximately four hundred times more radioactive material into the atmosphere of Eastern Europe than the fallout from Nagasaki and Hiroshima combined.
Prior to that fateful day, Pripyat was seen as a model town and, for Soviet Citizens, was a desirable place to live. It was a new settlement - like Milton Keynes - specially designed for the workers of the nuclear power plant.
Chernobyl was considered a jewel in the crown of the USSR - a shining of the politburo’s commitment to clean, green, safe nuclear energy. The living quarters matched up; a supermarket stocked full of hard to find foods, an ice rink, a swimming pool, and a carnival fair for the workers’ children.
After the explosion, Moscow was silent. It was left to an operative at a nuclear power plant in Sweden - more than 1,000 miles away - to raise the alarm after their Geiger readings went haywire. The citizens of Pripyat were told there was nothing to worry about, and went about their lives as normal until, 36 hours later, the authorities decided to evacuate the town in just two hours. By the time they got out, Pripyat had already been soaked in the most harmful radioactive release in the history of humanity.
Whilst there’s no unifying data on exactly how much damage the explosion wrought, a recent World Health Organisation study concluded that the disaster may have led to upwards of 4,000 premature deaths, as well as widespread birth defects and disabilities.
As we walk towards Artefact, we come across the ghostly carnival. It was due to open four days after the explosion, but has instead stood frozen for more than 32 years.
The Ferris wheel looms into view. It has become something of a dystopian trope in popular culture. In any number of post-Apocalyptic films, an unlikely hero walks through a town that seems deserted but may actually still be peopled by the living dead. They always seem to linger by a Ferris wheel. Call of Duty built an entire game around it.
“I feel like I’m on a film set,” I say to one of my companions. “Yeah. But this is legit,” he says. “This is what it’s all based on.
Beyond the Ferris wheel stand frozen bumper cars and then a merry go round. A fellow visitor grips and pulls at the carousel. A rumbling, cranking noise is followed by a long metallic whine as the axis starts to slowly turn. The tiny seats, painted red, revolve in front of us. I thought I could see dust pluming up from the old mechanisms of the carousel, and I walk away.
Chernobyl has become something of a myth - a kind of nuclear bogeyman. Few people have visited, yet everyone knows of it, and is scared by it. There’s an element of Godwin’s Law to the name these days: Chernobyl is the man-made tragedy that hangs over every conversation about how we propose to provide for the ever increasing energy needs of six - soon to become seven - billion humans.
Fifty new nuclear reactors are currently being developed all over the world, including, in Murmansk, Russia, a plant floating in the ocean. They’re being built during an era of freak weather events and ever more frequent natural disasters. But while the do indeed provide clean, green energy, the prospect of “another Chernobyl” is enough to make every single one of these projects controversial.
It’s morning when we arrive in “The Zone”, following the Dnieper river from Kiev. As birch groves give way to pine forests heavy with snow, road signs warn of bears and wolves.
Finally, there’s a break in the trees. A wall curving away on either side of us is suddenly visible. Military men in full camo gear tell us to get off the bus and show our identification.
A church stands by the checkpoint, its entrance marked by a golden cross and the picture of a Madonna. I peak inside. The church is full of chopped logs. Light shines through a decorative window shaped like a sunset. In the weeks after the explosion, Biblical scholars pointed to The Book of Revelations, which prophecises that star will fall from the sky and poison the world below. The star is called Wormwood, which translates into Ukrainian as “Chornobyl”.
But the organisers of Artefact insist on the safety of The Zone. After the explosion, it took half a million workers, the so-called liquidators, more than six months to encase the reactor in a huge vault-like structure called The Sarcophagus. With help from The EU, the work on The Sarcophagus was deemed complete in May this year (although workers admit it will need to be replaced again in 100 years time).
At a press conference held in a square about a hundred meters from the reactor, Svitlana Korshunov, curator of Artefact, told us: “Welcome to the Exclusion Zone. For all people, the world knew this place for tragedy. But we have made Chernobyl less harmful for the environment. We are safe. We have come here to change the history of Chernobyl.”
Uppermost in Artefact’s organisers’ minds is the issue of Fake News - it’s the principle subject of their artwork / rave / happening - and not just because it’s one of 2018’s buzzwords.
“The Chernobyl catastrophe was not only a radiation catastrophe but an information catastrophe,” Valeriy Korshunov tells me. He points out that at least five more generations of Ukrainians will feel the consequences of the accident, according to scientists. “We hope that the activation of Artefact will be the first point to rethink the information tragedy of Chernobyl,” he says.
There’s little doubt that the Soviet reaction to Chernobyl was entirely cynical. There was radio-silence from Moscow until April 28th, when the politburo made a 15-second statement on the evening news: “There has been an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.” It noted that “assistance has been provided” to those affected and that “an investigative commission has been set up”.
A few days afterwards, Moscow News, an authorised publication of the politburo, ran a leader with the headline: “A Poisoned Cloud of Anti-Sovietism”. The article railed against “a premeditated and well-orchestrated campaign” that intended “to cover up criminal acts of militarism by the USA and NATO against peace and security.”
“One of the main goals of the activation of Artefact in Pripyat is to think about how information can be manipulated, hidden or distorted,” Korshunov says. “Because this can have the most terrible consequences.”
The activation itself is a sight to behold. A crowd dances to electro thumped out via speakers that have been wheeled into Pripyat’s main square. Lights dance off the concrete blocks of deserted homes. Two screens play visuals that referencing Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic Soviet film Stalker. Released in 1979, the film, set in a mysterious restricted area, seemed almost to foreshadow the disaster.
“I feel like I’m at Glastonbury and it’s 4am,” my friend says. “Apart from…” We look around. Beyond our cordoned-off area, the military huddle in the half-light. Some sway to the beat. A couple of locals head over and start to share a bottle of vodka, before receiving a very stern dressing down. The temperature drops - it’s now minus six degrees, but the music throbs and thuds through the square, the lights bouncing off kitchens and bedrooms and living rooms that will never be used again.
When I get back to my hotel, I wash my boots in the shower, and dream of a carnival full of children covered in dust, and the thud of electric beats.
Tom Seymour is a London based freelancer. Keep up with him on Twitter.