Dark Tourism has always fascinated me, and the prospect of visiting Chornobyl (Chornobyl is the Ukrainian word; Chernobyl is the Russian) was too enticing to pass up, so I signed up for a tour a month before. Most readers are familiar with this nuclear catastrophe from watching the acclaimed HBO series, which was based on the book Midnight in Chernobyl. When I told Ukrainians that I was taking the tour, they paled. Their memories of the disaster were such that it was the last place they’d want to visit.

The bus left from the main train station and I was one of the last to board. Finding the bus was a bit confusing. I sat next to a young German who worked for an NGO. His parents were seated in the seats across the aisle from us. The trip took about two hours on a two-lane highway and we passed through a few forest settlements on the way. I was struck by the ornate Orthodox churches looming above crude wooden houses.

We arrived at the military checkpoint at the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone, which was set up by the USSR in April 1986 and which encompasses a circular region of 30 km from the site of the Reactor 4 explosion. We were required to wear long pants and long shirts. Once we passed through the checkpoint, our first stop was at an uninhabited village about 20 km from the site. The majority of the visitors were Germans, and a couple of guys ventured a little beyond the approved path. Our guides were two Kyiv university students, Viktor and Olena. They issued FLIR radiation detectors which measured levels in millisieverts.

The photos below are from the first stop, the ghost town Kopachi.

The next stop was the immense Soviet Duga ICBM detection radar facility, which is 150 meters high and over 700 meters in length.

When we got to the main attraction, Viktor pointed out the enormous new steel dome funded by the EU and the USA to cover the Soviet-era concrete sarcophagus that had been formed by dropping immense amounts of concrete from Soviet military helicopters. Views of the new dome and the reactor, with the Soviet statue of Prometheus. The Soviets had a fascination with Greek mythology.

After passing the plant, we entered the abandoned city of Pripyat, which housed over 40,000 employees of the Chernobyl Atomic Power plant. By Soviet standards, this was a deluxe new city, with large flats, a well-stocked supermarket and theaters and parks. The famous amusement park and football field were scheduled to open on May Day 1986, a week after the disaster. It housed the Soviet elite-engineers, physicists and party luminaries. The forest has completely encroached on the city, and the football field is now a new growth forest. After Gorbachev declared the mandatory evacuation of Pripyat, 40,000 residents were commanded to pack for a weekend and boarded over 1,000 buses for Kyiv and Minsk. The evacuation was completed in under three hours.

We were warned to stay on the marked paths, since large areas of the city are still radioactive. The silence was eerie and everyone spoke in hushed tones.

Once the Soviet government acknowledged the scale of the disaster, they moved quickly to safeguard Ukraine and Belarus from the potential nightmare scenario, including the poisoning of the Dnipro, which provided water to millions of citizens. They mobilized 500,000 “liquidators”. The paths we traveled on were the result of the excavation of 3 meters of roadbed and its replacement with new soil and asphalt. The excavated dirt and all other contaminated items, including vehicles and all household furnishings and food, were buried in other areas of the exclusion zone. Red Army marksmen were assigned to exterminate all escaped pets and other wildlife. Ironically, during the initial failed offensive to take Kyiv in the opening weeks of the 2022 Russo-Ukrainian War, the Russian army sent armored units into the most highly contaminated sectors of the zone, including the notorious Red Forest, which led to the evacuation of hundreds of soldiers with radiation sickness. Russian denialism at its best.

As we left the city, we passed by the actual village of Chornobyl, which houses the employees involved in the decommissioning of the atomic power plant. We had to pass through a radiation detection device before boarding the bus for the journey home. I registered 3 millisieverts, about the radiation level incurred during a one-hour airplane trip.

We arrived at the Kyiv train station after a two-hour ride and I was able to hail a cab back to my hotel immediately. I ate dinner at a good Georgian restaurant around the corner from the hotel and was eager to sleep after such a sobering day.

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