December 29, 2013

Badlands Revisited


Chernobyl is a city by technicality, but not, I think, in spirit. At its peak - April 1986 - the place supported a population of almost 15,000. Now, that number is 500. These are mostly all government employees; administrators stationed here on part-time contracts and tasked with the ongoing maintenance of the Chernobyl exclusion zone and the slow decommissioning of the nuclear power plant that festers at the zone's centre. This might be the emptiest city in the world.

It's a Friday night, but Chernobyl isn't really the kind of place where you celebrate a thing like Friday nights. It’s the Christmas season, though, and you can tell, because the decorations have all been raised: a few thin, luminescent rods suspended from a barren tree outside the staff canteen. Apart from that, everything's kind of what you'd expect from a Chernobyl winter: the sun sets in the afternoon, temperatures border on the sub-zero, hail and snow fall casually, and in this town and the surrounding forest and marsh, a dormant, invisible poison lingers in the earth and the blood.

“People ask: what do we have here?” a Chernobyl resident tells me, with the edgy weariness of a man whose life has been looked upon as a curiosity for far too long. “We have everything. It's easier to say what we don't have.” He proceeds to list everything they don't have, which includes schools, entertainment, nightlife, restaurants, and, it seems, anything or anybody younger than 20 years old. “Everything else, we have.”

At four o’clock, already dark outside, I’m sitting in the Chernobyl staff canteen, using a fork to scrape at our late lunch: a plate of sticky rice, vegetables and pieces of brown fish coerced into a lumpen nugget. This is the final stop on a day trip of the Chernobyl exclusion zone: of this city, of the abandoned city Pripyat, and of the power plant itself. The 19 members of my tour group are seated at tables of four and served by a small and sternly silent kitchen staff. We share the dining room with a separate, rival tour company, who sit at different tables and drink heartily from pint glasses filled with lager. We weren't allowed to drink. We had to promise, specifically, that we wouldn't drink or take drugs in the exclusion zone: it was part of the safety agreement we signed with the tour operator, some forms that were passed around our van on a clipboard, with a verbal advisory: “There is nothing secret. You can read if you want to.” These other guys had got a better deal.

Ralph, a bearded German in a motorcycle jacket, sits on my left. Since January, Ralph has been travelling the world by motorcycle. He began in Australia and has ridden through Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and most of Europe – and for the times when he’d had to cross an ocean, he booked passage on a container ship, and, I don’t know, maybe rode his bike around in circles in the hull of the boat, tooting his horn.

On my right is Alice, Swedish, here with her boyfriend. He asks us what we thought of the tour, and Alice is the first person to say it. “It was… it was fixed, right?” she says. “It was staged.” We think about it, in our small group, and we conclude: Yeah. It was. It must have been. Right?

Three cats purr as we walk the wooden stairs out of the canteen, back into the rain and the van. One of the workers, dressed in military camouflage, kneels for the biggest of the cats to lick the back of his hand.

The last stop on the tour is a return to the Dytyatky checkpoint, a little bit south of the city, and another 85 miles from Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. At the checkpoint, we have briefly to leave our tour van (an Italian thing from the ‘70s) and single file it through full-body radiation screening machines. Since the machines deem us free of contamination – which, thank Christ – we board the van again, which idles behind another car waiting at the checkpoint’s barrier. After this, it’s a non-stop, two-hour drive back to the capital. That car’s driver taps a gloved hand over the wheel, while the guard does whatever it is he does. I let my shoulders slouch and my head sink and fall against the weight of the chilled, fogged-up window. Looking out over the loose grid of checkpoint buildings, I see Ralph appear from the corner of the farthest one, walking casually back to our ready-to-depart van at a leisurely pace that he somehow considers appropriate. The guard waves the first driver through; we pull up to the barrier. “Um,” I said, “um.” I tap the window, motioning for Ralph to hurry. Perhaps he sees me, perhaps he doesn’t. Either way he strolls back to us slowly, as if here in Chernobyl he had not a care in the world.

* * *

Twenty-seven years ago, a botched safety test at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s Reactor Four triggered a series of explosions, literally blowing the roof off the reactor and spewing a deadly mass of radioactive material into the environment. The wind and the rain picked it up and spread it around Belarus and the north of Ukraine, killing some instantly and making sure many more would die years after. This radioactive cloud then blew west, all over Ukraine and Europe and as far as Scotland, at which point the Soviet Union belatedly realised we fucked up, this is a colossal fuck-up, and sent men to contain Chernobyl’s fires and radioactive contagion, men who could only work in shifts of 45 seconds before they’d die, not that they didn’t die anyway. At the same time, they realised that they probably should evacuate all the nearby cities, like Pripyat, since all that radiation could be dangerous, hopefully it wasn’t too late, but of course it was, and the years and years after this saw a dramatic spike in cases of thyroid cancer in the people who lived there, so pronounced that the surgery scars across their throats would be referred to as a “Chernobyl necklace.” The body count from all this will be disputed and relitigated and grudgingly expanded at the official level, and over the course of the next 25 years the radiation in the 30 kilometres surrounding the reactor will be downgraded from Deadly to Merely Unsafe, and in 2011, twenty five years later, the Ukrainian government will let tourists come to Chernobyl.

At 8:30 AM that Friday, I meet my contact, a man named Igor, in Kiev's Maidan Nezalezhnosti - Independence Square. Igor works for the tour company I’ve booked with. He’ll check my information, collect the rest of the money I owe them, then set me and the rest of my tour up with our tour guide: a man we don’t yet know, a Chernobyl resident, and supplied by the government rather than this private operator. 

When I find Igor, I hand him my passport, photo page open. “Duncan Fyfe,” I say, introducing myself in the manner one does when one boards a van to Chernobyl.

“Five?” says Igor, holding up five fingers. “Five?”

“No, it’s just me.”

“Only you?”

“Yes.”

Igor peers over his clipboard. “MacLeod?” he says. “MacLeod?”

“No.” Trying to be clear. “No. Duncan Fyfe.”

Igor didn’t look persuaded. “MacLeod,” he repeats. “You are like MacLeod?”

I shrug. 

“You know MacLeod?” he says, pushing this. “From television? From soap opera?”

“Oh! The Highlander!” I nod enthusiastically. “Yes, I am the Highlander.”

Igor swings an imaginary katana over his head. I nod again: yes, that’s more or less right.

Igor gives me a Geiger counter for the trip. The device, cased in yellow plastic, approximately resembles a late ‘90s cellphone, and measures ionizing radiation in microsieverts per hour (µSv/h). Here in central Kiev, Igor demonstrates, the level of background radiation oscillates around 0.12 µSv/h. Anything above 0.30 µSv/h, according to Igor, is technically unsafe, and at those levels the Geiger counter will start to voice its alarm. 0.30 µSv/h is basically where the exclusion zone begins.

“It is safe,” Igor reassures me quickly.

“Cool.”

Our tour group will come to number 19. Ralph is there already, dragging on a cigarette against the wall of a pop-up food stall. Soon, the Swedish couple arrives, as does an American who has shifty eyes and alludes to having spent the last several days in a warehouse party somewhere in Warsaw. A delegation from Russia is the last to appear. Igor leaves the group at this juncture, delivering us unto the mercy of Sergei, our tour guide.

Sergei is Ukrainian, and resides within the exclusion zone: approximately the 30-kilometre radius surrounding the Chernobyl power plant. That area encompasses two smaller zones: an inner ring, radius 10 km, and an outer ring where the city of Chernobyl is. The radiation in the outer zone is not that egregious, it’s essentially fine to live in, if for some reason you’d want to. Sergei seems tempered by his environment. He looks like Tom Hardy, sort of, in some of Tom Hardy’s hardier roles: heavily-muscled, buzz cut, he walks with his head angled down, eyes slanted up, hands in the pockets of a grey hoodie, wearing a thin, contemptuous smile. He also speaks English like Chekhov, from Star Trek – ‘wessels’, ‘wehicles’, etc. – but like a Chekhov who walks about the Enterprise a calm, confident psychopath from a Stanley Kubrick film. Somewhere at the centre of these movie references lies the essence of Sergei, which is not his real name – and that speaks to the fear Sergei installs in his tour groups.

Our van, a bright fire truck-red, is big enough for the 20 of us (plus a driver, who never says a word) but without seats big enough for a regular human. Sergei, standing beside the driver, slides the door shut. The drive to Dytyatky – the checkpoint at the border of the exclusion zone – will take two hours, so we’ll get to watch a movie. It’s a documentary about the Chernobyl disaster and the Soviets’ response; specifically, the sacrifice of the first responders, firefighters et al, thrown en masse at a problem their superiors didn’t understand. The movie’s also about Pripyat, the model city built near the power plant in 1970, representing the very best of Soviet capital, largesse and city planning theory, and how the people who lived there stayed there as radiation coursed through their bodies, killing them, until, three days after the explosions, the city was evacuated. “It is a good documentary about Chernobyl,” Sergei says. “In my opinion, is best one.”

An LCD television is bolted to the ceiling above the driver. The screen is streaked and blurred, the colour washed out, as if there’s some kind of radio interference, or… “The TV is radiated,” Sergei explains. “This car has been to Chernobyl… one thousand times. Affects screen. And driver. And tour guide.” There is light chuckling. The van turns out of Kiev, moving north, the TV flickers into half-life, and the programming begins...

…not with a documentary, but a music video – we open on a piercing-ravaged, butt rock vocalist in a black hoodie, strutting around the remains of Pripyat, and he yelps thusly, à la Creed:
Death crawls through the dark streets in silent flight
Unsuspected while the world sleeps on an April night
Like an unseen enemy reaching out for the kill
Once again writing history by our own free will
Like a virus in a dead land slowly eating away life
Chasing the vision of a blind man in a world without sight. 
Cut to the two guitarists in gas masks and leather jackets, from a low angle, just fucking shredding. And a costume change for the singer: now he’s in sunglasses and a tank top, his plentiful locks flowing free, and he purges the chorus:
WE’RE SLEEPING IN THE DIRT OF CHERNOBYL STILL TONIGHT
[chugging guitars]
FORGOTTEN WHERE WE’RE FROM
LOST IN WHERE WE’VE COME
BUT WE’RE SLEEPIN’ IN THE DIRT OF THE CHERNOBYL STILL TONIGHT!
DYING FROM INSIDE, POISONED BY OUR PRIDE 
This goes on for, I want to say twenty minutes, live performance interspersed with footage of Chernobyl at its most gothic. In an instrumental break, the singer looks plaintively towards the camera in an appeal for a saner world.

We watch the video in silence. Finally, it’s over, and then...

A lone rapper, spiked hair, perches on the stairs of an abandoned train car, and advises us, in heavy English accent, of the following:
First we made the wheel
Then we made the car
Then we made the bomb
Now it’s all gone wrong. 
Now, seated in a decrepit Chernobyl classroom, he breaks into verse:
Way back then there were few concerns
Find meat to eat, chop wood to burn
And learn to avoid the sabre-toothed tiger
Now our biggest enemy is laser-guided
Too much weight draped on our shoulders
The land that we knew stood firm to hold us
Colonisation is what they sold us
So someone decided we needed soldiers
Destructive forces is what they told us
Invent the engine, replace the horses
We stretched resources to drive our Porsches
And now it's all gone wrong. 
Sergei stares intently down the road. Our van speeds irrevocably forward into Chernobyl.

* * * 

Chernobyl is pretty much a wasteland, but it’s not lawless. Rules apply to tourists, for instance: “No weapons!” Sergei pauses to look down the van at us, like he needs to be reassured that we’re the kind of people who would find that requirement patently ridiculous; we are, and he is.

It goes on: the dress code for the exclusion zone is to cover as much of one’s body as possible – so, no shorts, skirts, or short-sleeved shirts. No eating or smoking or drinking outside of the van. Don’t touch anything, and certainly no soil or vegetation. No taking anything. Don’t disobey your tour guide, ever once, and when leaving the exclusion zone you must pass through radiation control, two times.

“Follow these rules,” says Sergei, “and I can guarantee 100% you pass radiation control. If not, your choice. If you don’t pass radiation control you will need to go through decontamination. That… don’t ask me what that means right now.”

Two hours, two music videos, and one documentary that did actually exist later, our driver pulls over at the Dytyatky checkpoint. The van slows to a stop alongside another van from another tour group, affiliated with another tour company. Their van is bigger. This second group stands outside, shivering in the rain while their guide discusses something with a uniformed officer. Sergei explains that here he’s got to get out and go over all the necessary paperwork with the guard. The guard will also need to see all of our passports and verify them against the details we originally sent to the tour company, so, Sergei says, it’s not good if anybody made a mistake. Sergei meets the guard in the centre of the road. The two tour groups huddle in packs, a length of road apart, silently observing each other.

There’s one more rule, Sergei had reminded us, and it’s very important: no photos, not here. No photos of the checkpoint, no photos of the gate, no photos of the buildings and definitely definitely no photos of the military guards, which of course is like the first thing that somebody does. While the guard is engaged with Sergei, one of the Russians in our group snaps a couple of shots of the two of them in conversation. Nobody really picks up on this except for the tour guide of the rival company, who tells the Russian, in accented English and discreetly enough for neither the guard nor Sergei to overhear: “Um, actually you cannot take photos of the guards here, because they recognise it as an act of terrorism, so…” He looks down at her blankly, still holding his camera high, so she repeats and rephrases it a couple times, increasingly loud and conspicuous. The Russian just stares, like he doesn’t understand what a woman is doing speaking to him.

Once the guard has cleared us, Sergei says that this is a good time to use the toilet, if we want to: it’s the only one we’ll be seeing for six hours. The bathroom door is locked so we are guided to an outhouse. We were never told whether it was an act of terrorism or not to take photographs of the outhouse, but nobody did, and so this word picture will need to suffice: it’s garbage. The outhouse is garbage. The stench is vile, understandably, and the wood is damp and rotting. The men just pee with the door open. The women, once inside, groan and/or shriek as it dawns that they are gonna have to drop trou and squat over a black Soviet hole. Alice’s boyfriend chivalrously holds shut the non-locking door. Alice groans again. “Drop a shit already,” the Russians heckle from outside.

Later, the van stops beside the large entrance sign to the city of Chernobyl proper. Sergei says we can take pictures if we so desire. As it turns out, many of us do desire that. He also warns us about crossing the road: “Drivers don’t expect to see tourists on the road. Speed limit in Chernobyl is 40… but nobody here does 40.” Here, at the edges of the Zone, the radiation ticks up to about a steady 0.20 µSv/h.

Sergei knows what’s up when it comes to taking pictures. Ask him whether he minds taking a single photo of you standing before the Chernobyl sign, for instance, and he’ll fire off two quick shots portrait, two quick shots landscape. The Russians discuss some matter amongst themselves, and then ask Sergei in English if he will take such a photo of them. “Of course,” he says coolly. Then adds: “I heard what you were saying. I understand your language.”

Sergei watches with considerable dispassion while other members of our tour group take exclusion zone selfies. He lights a cigarette, despite the explicit prohibition on such. Ralph asks if he can do the same. Sergei shrugs and basically says that it’s Ralph’s call. Ralph goes for it.

“Here, it is fine, because radiation is not that extreme,” Sergei says by way of explanation. “In ten kilometre zone, where radiation is high… it is not a good idea.”

“I heard,” Ralph says, “the radiation you are exposed to on this trip is about the same as on a twelve hour plane ride.”

“Twelve? I would say more like three. But yes. The difference is, on plane you cannot see the radiation, you cannot touch the radiation. That is the danger here.” Sergei drops his cigarette on the rain-slick road. We return to the relative warmth of the van, tracking in irradiated mud on the soles of our shoes. Sergei takes a quick headcount – 19, all is well, nobody has run away in search of adventures – before closing the door.

The next stop is within the city itself. Sergei, hoodie up, strides out to a point atop a flat memorial. The memorial is two elevated concrete platforms, each dotted with empty candleholders. Viewed from above, this approximates a map of the exclusion zone. At the foot of this map looms a statue of a herald blowing a trumpet, its figure knotted together with lengths of aged cable and steel.

In this place, which is what passes for the city’s centre, nondescript administrative buildings are placed too far apart for the population that uses them. Occasionally, a beaten-down van or a military vehicle passes through. Back before 1986, when this really was a city, 14,000 people lived here, in the small, rural, Chernobyl Pastoral houses that stretch deep into the forest behind Sergei. These houses are all long abandoned, Sergei tells us, evacuated after the disaster in ’86 and since reclaimed by nature, where ‘reclaimed’ is a poetic way of saying that they’ve mostly all fallen in on themselves and tree trunks have punctured their walls. A message is scrawled across one of the houses in large Cyrillic lettering: translated, we’re told, it says “Forgive and goodbye my home.”

“Any questions?” Sergei asks. “No questions.”

“I have one question.” Ralph steps forward. “You said that these houses are all abandoned, but there’s a person putting their washing on a clothesline in that house over there.”

Sergei’s face darkens. “Resettlers.”

We wait for elaboration.

“After evacuation of Chernobyl, some returned to live in their homes. Today, these people are…”

“Mutants?”

“No, just old people.”

Sergei goes on to explain how these “resettlers” were eventually granted special dispensation from the Soviet Union to remain, semi-legally, in the derelict neighbourhood where they once lived. “Most are dead now,” he adds. “Not from radiation. From being old. They don’t like tourists. There are… there are sometimes journalists, and people from television, who intrude.”

At some point during this conversation, the Russians drifted off from the pack, and now Sergei spots them peeking into some military building across the way. “You know, I can stop tour at any time,” he tells us suddenly, while watching them, and now he’s not so friendly anymore. “Go back to Kiev. For me, it is nothing. I get half day off. You have to stay together as group. If you want to go off and explore, always best to ask me first.”

Sergei seethes through his teeth. "What a hell," he mutters, and takes off after the wayward Russians.

Our final stop before leaving the city and entering the considerably more radioactive ‘10-kilometre zone’ – which is demarcated by another security checkpoint – is the general store. Staffed by two middle-aged Ukrainian women watching a black and white television, this store offers everything: meats, water, bread, hairdryers, toilet paper, condoms, beer, chocolate – basically anything that you’d think to send in a gift package to somebody in prison. Half of us wait in line to buy energy drinks, the others hang around in the parking lot, looking down the long, empty stretches of road that remind one that this really is once a city where everybody just packed up and left one day.

The parking lot connects the store to the Chernobyl fire station and an open-air museum of hero robots who assisted in the post-disaster clean up. As we wait, a car swerves violently into the parking lot, without fanfare, and our tourist bystanders jump back. Its driver and passenger exit the vehicle and head into the store without even seeming to notice us. Sergei returns from the store, with a bag of mini croissants purchased for his personal use, and we drive away.

Clearing the second checkpoint puts us 10 kilometres from the power plant, a distance we are rapidly closing. Sergei goes over what it is we’re about to see and what it is we need to do, and his explanation is interrupted by an insistent electronic beeping, coming from one person’s pocket at first, and then from everybody’s, our Geiger counters blinking into existence like fireflies. With the power plant nearing, our driver pulls the van over and Sergei leads us out onto the road – where we see the power plant over the stark blue horizon, across a bright artificial lake. It’s a panorama, Sergei explains, and we stopped here because it’s very beautiful. Even the rain has stopped, and the sun lights up the yellow fields. Then we drive into the power plant, dull and grey, and finally we come to Reactor Four, park the car, walk across the lot until we can’t go any further and then we look at it, the reactor old and sad in in its decaying patchwork sarcophagus. We take a couple of quick photos, then the rain kicks in again, we climb back in the van, and we never see it again.

* * *

It’s a weird thing to have been in Chernobyl and the only way life is different now is that I have more photographs. I met Chernobyl on its turf – fuckin’ Chernobyl, one of the 20th century’s worst things, whose name is synonymous with horror. It isn’t fulfilling to journey into the heart of darkness just so you can snap a pic of your arm around Colonel Kurtz’s shoulder, post it on Twitter and then move on.

Which, I mean, is what we all did. All 19 of us, we were all about taking photos, whether we came with just a cellphone or professional equipment. It kind of seemed to be the whole point.

“We stop here for five minutes,” Sergei would say, “for us to look around, take pictures.” Every stop on the tour was for us to take pictures. We’d swarm around the most obvious landmark and take photos of each other and ourselves or ask Sergei to pitch in, which of course he was always willing to do. We were like looters with this shit, taking whatever we could as fast as we could, before we got caught, or before the radiation killed us, which I guess is fair.

The photography rules were expressed plainly at each stop, and at the power plant itself, for instance, there was to be no photos whatsoever but of Reactor Four and the structure-in-progress called New Safe Confinement. New Safe Confinement is the 93 metre-high metal shell two years in the making and with another two to come, which will replace the reactor’s current sarcophagus that hits the end of its lifespan in 2016. The New Safe Confinement is built on rails and is meant to slide on over and cover the reactor, from which it will protect the world for the next hundred years.

Taking photos of anything else in the power plant complex is strictly forbidden. “If you want to have a longer stay in Chernobyl,” Sergei joke-warns, “then go ahead, take photos, you try it.” But Sergei does point out that Chernobyl is one of the only power plants in the world where a tourist is allowed to take any photos at all. A concession, made for people like us.

Our first stop in the 10-kilometre zone wasn’t the power plant, but a kindergarten. The radiation there was already clearing 2.00 µSv/h, easily, and there Sergei explained to us the concept of “hotspots.” Those are very precise areas in the landscape where the level of radiation spikes dramatically; perhaps, Sergei suggested, because of a piece of a radioactive pyrite buried in the soil or some such. Sergei demonstrated at the base of a tree trunk near the van. Everyone huddled around, tensing up against the chill, and watched Sergei’s Geiger counter climb to 3.00 µSv/h, then 4, our counters all harmonising at increasingly panicked pitch.

But the hotspots weren’t the main attraction there. Sergei invited us to explore this derelict kindergarten, standing alone on the outskirts of the city, surrounded for miles by woodland. That it was standing at all is surprising, given we’d just seen the street of wooden houses in Chernobyl all collapsed in on themselves. The path into the schoolhouse had a kind of symmetrical look, framed by tall trees and fallen fences. “This is one of creepiest places that you will ever see,” Sergei promised, and permitted us 15 minutes to run wild, with the usual stipulations on wildness applying, i.e., don’t touch anything. Photography, however, was certainly permitted.

And the first opportunity for photography came only a few steps up the path to the kindergarten, where a child’s doll lay discarded in a pile of leaves. Stripped to the white ceramic bone, separated from most of its limbs. Just a little bleached fake baby torso with charred black eyes and one leg, left abandoned for 27 years by the young child who cared for it. Literally everybody in our tour group stopped when they saw this and reached for their cameras; maybe not knowing exactly what the image of a disembodied doll left behind in Chernobyl means, but knowing that it means a capital-s Something.

Inside the single-story kindergarten are more dolls, and other artifacts denoting this place as a kindergarten, specifically: kids’ books, copious animal and alphabet posters and reams of sheet music, plastic blocks, drawings of Russian stacking dolls and time-ravaged teddy bears strewn over the floor or propped up on window sills. A newspaper – from 1982, somehow? – rested on a desk, front page up and legible. These things are all like jigsaw pieces – you can imagine how they would be reassembled to form a picture of what this kindergarten was, what life here was, before the catastrophe. Which makes Sergei’s “no touching” rule all the more important. It’s not because this stuff is radioactive and will kill you, but for the same reason that you can’t touch anything in a museum or on a theme park ride. It belongs there. For the experience.

The tour part of our trip effectively concluded when we arrive for lunch at the Chernobyl staff canteen. The driver parked and Sergei turned around in his seat. “There is one more hotspot here.” Pause, grin. “A Wi-Fi hotspot!” Over lunch, Alice asked: “It was fixed, right?” Citing the doll in the leaves specifically: a little too cute. “It was staged.” And thinking about it, it did make a certain kind of sense to us. How had nobody looted that place, or swiped something as a souvenir? Yeah, we agreed, tentatively: It was. It must have been. Right?

Pripyat was different. There’s nothing in that abandoned city (population on April 26, 1986: 49,400; population on May 1, 1986: 0) that hasn’t been looted or vandalised, nothing that could be picked up that hasn’t been. Only the structures remain, excavated and condemned, and never repurposed. The city was built a couple of kilometres northwest of the nuclear power plant in the 1970s, and it was designed to be a kind of exemplar: the best modern city Soviet planning and engineering could achieve.

Pripyat followed the power plant as the last major attraction on our tour. There’s nothing much to see there except decay and photo opportunities. Sergei talked to us about the history of the place, including a crash course in Soviet-style city planning, while the Russians as usual wandered off and did their own thing. Others went around looking for hotspots. My hands became so numb from the cold that I physically couldn’t take photos anymore – like, if there was one thing that could stop us taking photographs, that was it.

This is a winter in Pripyat. The city was frozen in 1986, the image of it degrading ever since. The blocky, Communist-grey complexes are purged and overgrown with plant life. Ceilings, staircases and manhole covers are disintegrated right through, leaving abscesses and debris in their wake. What was built to be the best of the best is now the worst of the worst; a picture of death and destruction. Everything here on this land is totally useless, except as historical artefact. It’s odd that Ukraine has done nothing with it except to charge tourists admission, allow private operators to sell Chernobyl fridge magnets in the market stalls of Kiev, and write the area off more generally. Sergei led us out of the city centre, past aged Soviet propaganda posters, to the amusement plaza, which is home to a decommissioned Ferris wheel and other, less visually iconic diversions. The Ferris wheel, its cars a stark yellow, makes for a beautiful and surreal contrast against the wilderness and the ruins. And in this washed out and bizarre landscape, there is one thing in particular that catches my eye: a little speck of bright blue in the distance. As I get closer, it takes shape: it’s plastic, a new and spotless thing – it’s a recycling bin, about the size of what you’d find in an office building. “Please keep the town clean!” the bin entreats, via computer-printed sticker, and gives a URL. 

Pripyat, today, is so far from what it was meant to be: the pinnacle of Soviet ingenuity, the ultimate expression of Soviet potential – the power plant, too – and not only did it all fail in spectacular fashion, but it doesn’t even belong to the Soviets anymore. The whole area belongs to Ukraine, still, sure. But what it is now – what Chernobyl is, what Pripyat is – is an example of Soviet failure opened up to those tourists willing to pay for it, and products for multiple different companies to compete over and capitalise on. Chernobyl in 2013 is a thing for Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Flickr: a Cold War disaster appropriated by 21st century culture. After 15 minutes in Pripyat, Sergei loaded us back into the van, while across the road another car full of tourists waited for their moment. Do I understand Chernobyl better now? Not really. All I understand is that Chernobyl is a place you can visit, but never stay.

* * * 

Tour’s done. All that remains is the drive back to Kiev: two hours, in the dark. Ralph is in the seat behind me, searching through his digital camera roll. I don’t think my meek “um”s and window-tap gesturing had anything to do with it, but Sergei did spot Ralph thanks to a fortuitous glance out his window, and stopped the driver before the van peeled out of Dytyatky. Ralph boarded the van without explanation or any expression of concern. Sergei was pissed. Ralph withered under a Ukrainian stink-eye as he inched down the aisle. Sergei I think realised that this was the one time he neglected to do the count – if he’d lost Ralph, it would have been on him. Fortunately, the two of them never do seem to stay apart for very long.

Nobody expresses a wish to rewatch the documentary or either of those two music videos, so we ride back to Kiev in cold silence and, pretty quickly, in pitch black. Outside the Zone, Sergei’s rules about what we are and are not allowed to do and touch fade away. All that’s keeping the construct of the tour group together is the faith we’ve placed in Sergei – and this driver who has still never said a word to us – to bring us back to Kiev.

An hour or so into the drive back, I drift off. When we’re deep into the country, and still the only vehicle on the road, one of the Russians leans over Sergei’s shoulder and whispers something tersely. Sergei nods confidentially and signals to the driver. Slowly the driver pulls over onto the side of the road, the gravel crunching under the old tires. He kills the engine. The Russian stands up, is let out of the van by Sergei, and takes only a few steps outside before unleashing a gush of piss into the woods, throwing his head back in reverie. We watch this, for some fucking reason.

After this, and once we’re moving again, I fall asleep, my head bumping against the window. Leaving a tour, all guided and prescribed, like this one, feels like a kind of release, from all the restrictions and requirements one is constantly required to observe on photography, clothing, food and drink, touching things, and radiation control. It also feels like leaving behind the obligation to photograph, to document. Chernobyl is the kind of exceptional circumstance where you feel like you’ve got to say something about it – how do you not come back from Chernobyl with stories and photos? It’s too incredible a place not to. So leaving Chernobyl for your normal life feels almost like an opportunity, to return to a life that is just for living, a life that you don’t have to document, photograph, record and publicise at every moment. A life that you don’t live for the purpose of telling stories about it. That could be my life. I mean, you know… if you call that living.

November 21, 2013

A Golden King

Twenty three, she told him: I'm twenty three.

"Twenty three's a very spiritual number," he said sagely. "I've just come to know that. It's because it is a prime number, it doesn't divide into other numbers. And there's another reason as well, but I can't remember."

She nodded. He had brought her to one of those big chain pubs, this one on the top floor of a mall. The neck of a 2012 Sauvignon Blanc chilled against the rim of a steel bucket. From their table you could look outside - still daylight - and watch the pedestrians run out against the traffic.

"I'm 28," he added. "And I'm 29 on my next birthday."

And he was 100 per cent shoulder muscle. Huge arms, really just ridiculous, he was all about those arms, which pushed out of a skimpy white t-shirt like elephant legs. Tanned, too, he'd put a lot of time into that tan which still didn't quite cover all the acne scars. When he spoke, which was often, it was in a soft English lisp, the kind of voice you can't imagine could ever be raised.

"You speak English very well," he noted suddenly. "You just need to expand your vocabulary. Your pronunciation, though, is quite good. It is American, but it's quite understandable. It's not a fault."

She said thanks, in the English that he had now sanctioned, and then pointed out all the jewellery his was wearing: the copious rings, bracelets, necklaces and chains.

"Yes, this is my gold," he confirmed. "Not all of it. And some of this is platinum, but mostly this is gold. Sometimes gold and platinum go together well." He sighed. "It's not good to wear too much gold."

She asked why.

"Well, you know," he said. "People get jealous."

Later, she told him about home, about Taiwan. He wondered aloud, was Taiwan a very interesting place? and she began a story about the deadly tsunami nine years ago that had torn through Southeast Asia.

"I'm sorry," he interrupted, "I was just thinking about gold. I was just thinking I want to get my nephew something gold, maybe a gold belt. Sorry, what was the question? Please continue."

From where she sat, she could see, over his shoulder, the exit to the bar and the escalators that ran back down to the street. Instead, she stayed.

November 7, 2013

Vengeance is Mine; I Will Repay


This is the true story of John Swartwout, a man whom history remembers not for who he was or what he did, but because he hung around with someone actually famous.

John Swartwout's claim to notability is that he knew Aaron Burr, the third vice president of the United States. Swartwout, along with his brothers (the Sensational Swartwout Brothers) was a long-time member of Burr's entourage. His duties as an entourage member included 1) offering counsel and 2) not known.

Aaron Burr was roundly disliked in his time. He was considered ruthlessly ambitious, and the archetypal career politician. The aspersions cast on Burr were vicious and correct. For example, on the moment of Burr's greatest political victory, winning the vice presidency, he immediately looked into forcing out the president-elect, Thomas Jefferson, and claiming the presidency for himself.

But once, Aaron Burr stepped up in a time of public crisis. Yellow fever had broken out in Lower Manhattan, thought to be the result of a contaminated and sub-par water supply system. "I will do something about this," Aaron Burr announced. "I will make a water company, and provide clean, safe water to the people of Manhattan."

Even Burr's political enemies were like: "Yes. We like this. We love this idea, and we will do whatever it takes to make it happen, Aaron Burr." With broad support and political goodwill, a bill setting up Burr's water company and assigning it responsibility for servicing Manhattan was swiftly signed into law by the governor of New York.

"Thank you," said Aaron Burr, "thank you for your faith in me. One thing, though, one thing and it's almost not even worth mentioning, I changed the legislation you signed at the last second so that I don't have to do any of that water supply stuff, and instead I can run my new company as a bank. And I can use the capital we raise to fund my presidential campaign. I think I'm probably going to do that. The yellow fever thing... yeah, that's tough. Yeah, I don't know the answer to that one."

Burr's plan had worked, and everybody was mad at him again. With his newfound largesse, Burr ran a strong campaign, barely losing the presidential race to Thomas Jefferson. He became Jefferson's vice president in a show of unity. Things were good for John Swartwout, too. Burr had set him up with a job as associate director of the fake water company/secret bank, drawing upon Swartwout's skills and experience in 1) not known.

But the enemies of Burr had not forgotten. In 1802, a year and a half into Burr's vice presidency, they struck. A gang of New York politicians, led by senator and rising star DeWitt Clinton, forced a takeover of Burr's company and ousted the vice president from his position as director. Swartwout was thrown out as well.

Swartwout wasn't happy. He complained that DeWitt Clinton was a big bully and had only gone after them for personal reasons. And whether or not he meant for this to happen, word of his complaints reached Senator Clinton, who responded publicly by branding John Swartwout "a liar, a scoundrel, and a villain."

Swartwout was shocked. "You're calling me names!" he said. "You're saying that I'm a liar and a scoundrel and a villain and that's not true. That's not fair." Such an affront, Swartwout figured, demanded a public apology. He drafted a letter for Clinton to sign, in which a remorseful, pathetic Clinton threw himself upon the mercy of a righteous Swartwout and begged him to accept his profuse apology. Clinton told him to fuck off.

Now Swartwout was furious. "You have offended me, DeWitt Clinton," he said, "and I must have satisfaction. I want to fight you. I want to fight you in a duel. I challenge you to face me in a duel, and if you have any honor at all, you must accept."

"Whatever," said Clinton. Clinton was in!

In the honor duels of the 18th and 19th centuries, killing your opponent was not the point. The rules of duelling, in fact, made that extremely unlikely. The flintlock pistols typically used in duelling often misfired, and duellists had no more than three seconds to take aim. It was not common at all for participants to be killed or even shot.

The purpose of duelling to settle scores was to prove that both parties had the courage of their convictions. The wronged man could face his aggressor, fire a pistol at him, then - as was his right - declare honor satisfied and call off the duel. The two men would live, look each other in the eye and shake hands, secure in the knowledge that they were cool, sexual guys.

There was still the problem of duelling being illegal. So to do it you had to get up very early in the morning, before anyone else was awake.

John Swartwout and Senator DeWitt Clinton met at the duelling grounds in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 30, 1802. They were joined by their 'seconds', William Stephens Smith and Richard Riker. The seconds were responsible for negotiating on behalf of the 'principals' - Swartwout and Clinton - and officially calling the duel to an end once shots were fired and honor was satisfied. The principals were not able to do this because they were required to glower at one another in anger.

Clinton and Swartwout stood ten yards apart. When ordered to fire, they were to raise their flintlock pistols and, within three seconds, shoot at the other.

Swartwout sized up the senator from New York.

"Fire!"

Both men took aim, quickly, and fired.

They missed.

"Well," said William Stephens Smith, Swartwout's second. "Is honor satisfied?"

"What?" Swartwout blinked. "No! That was very disappointing for me!"

The seconds conferred. "We're going again," Smith called out.

Swartwout and Clinton reloaded their pistols, took aim, and fired at each other.

Again, they missed.

"Is honor satisfied?" Smith asked Swartwout.

"No!" Swartwout said. "He called me a liar!"

Clinton shrugged, and they prepared to go again.

"Fire!"

Clinton and Swartwout fired again. And missed each other again.

"Is honor satisfied?" Smith asked.

"No, it's not."

The men reloaded and waited for their instruction.

"Fire!"

Swartwout missed. Clinton's bullet ripped through Swartwout's leg, tearing into the flesh below the knee. But Swartwout stayed standing.

"Oh shit," said Smith, looking at the wound. "Okay, this is definitely over. We have to get you to the hospital or something."

"No," said Swartwout. "Honor is not satisfied."

The code of duelling dictated that only Swartwout could declare an end to the duel, and so, the principals reloaded to shoot guns at each other again.

"Fire!"

On their fifth exchange, Swartwout missed and Clinton hit Swartwout in the same leg, above the knee. Still, Swartwout remained standing.

"I want to go again," Swartwout said.

"No, this is really stupid," Clinton interrupted. "This is really dumb. I'm not doing this anymore. I'm going home."

"What! You can't do that!"

"I don't want to kill this fool," Clinton said. "Maybe if the real principal was here, maybe if I was up against Burr, rather than this child... but no. Forget this. I'm going home in my boat."

Clinton left with his second, and Swartwout, bleeding from two holes in his leg, turned to Smith helplessly.

"I don't know what to do."

Smith took Swartwout back to, of all places, Aaron Burr's house. Swartwout was carried inside and set down on the carpet.

"What the fuck?" Aaron Burr would probably have said. "What the fuck is this?"

"I did it for you!" said the bleeding John Swartwout. "I did this for you."

Swartwout survived his injuries, and slandered DeWitt Clinton as a coward. Clinton didn't even respond. And from there, John Swartwout served out the rest of his natural life in a manner that history has declared not important.