Call Me Monsieur Curie

April 10, 2008

In my very first post I wrote about my fondness for “This American Life” contributor Sarah Vowell.  Her informative and hilarious book, “Assassination Vacation,” made me feel much better about my desires to someday visit Dealey Plaza and drive the John Wilkes Booth escape route.  Unfortunately, Vowell has yet to write about any trips to nuclear wastelands, so I guess my desire to visit Chernobyl will leave me an embarrassed party of one.

For those who don’t spend their sleepless nights reading about Soviet-era disasters, this month will see the 22nd anniversary of the worst nuclear power plant accident in history.  On April 26, 1986, reactor four at the Ukranian Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded.  Six-million people were exposed to fallout levels 30 to 40 times higher than the victims of Hiroshima.  Although Soviet officials refused to list “radiation” as a cause of death, it’s estimated 56 people died as a direct result of the explosion, 4,000 “extra” deaths can be expected among the 600,000 most exposed and 5,000 deaths among the entire six million.  Credit Wikipedia for those facts, which should be generally reliable given the topic.

Two decades on, the area is still not habitable, but with proper monitoring, can be visited for short periods of time.  Perhaps I misspoke earlier about being an embarrased party of one.  There is actually a rather unabashed Chernobyl tourism industry.  I remember wondering, when reading Anderson Cooper’s great book, in which he described his travels to various war-torn, disaster stricken parts of the world, why anyone would choose to visit such desolate, harrowing places?

Cooper engaged in “extreme tourism” as a way to escape the pain of his own childhood.  Really, though, a visit to Chernobyl isn’t that extreme.  Tourists aren’t in the area long enough for radiation to build up within the body and cause any major health issues.  Especially dangerous areas are forbidden.  Food and water are brought in from other places.  As someone who once called a pharmacist to make sure his Benadryl wouldn’t adversely mix with his Claritin and kill him in his sleep, I can say that even if Chernobyl were as risky as, say, a late-night drive though NE DC, that wouldn’t really be a motivating force in my wanting to visit.

Chernobyl presents an amazing opportunity to peek past (literally) shattered windows onto a world off-limits to Americans though decades of Cold Warfare.  There is no propaganda, no rhetoric, no public relations productions designed to promote communism or attack democracy.  Those who visit Chernobyl, not just the plant but also the abandoned ghost town of Pripyat, bring back amazing pictures of a place frozen forever as a museum to Soviet life in the empire’s last years.

The museums’ exhibits surely aren’t on the walls of Pripyat’s stripped and looted apartment buildings, but rather are the rusted out playgrounds abandoned by children who are now hopefully young adults, or the crumbling pool, brand-new in 1986, where parents planned to teach their children to swim on lazy Saturday mornings.  Those relics, along with the ruined bumper cars of an amusement park that never had a chance to open, or the panes only a twisted doll has peered through for the past twenty years all show the human side of a culture Americans weren’t previously supposed to appreciate or acknowledge.

I really encourage everyone to use the links in this post to explore the writings and photo albums of people who have made the trek.  There are many, many more and all of them make for fascinating reading/viewing.  In a time of hot rather than cold war, it’s humbling to see that, when everything else falls away, what’s left are human beings, leading lives not that unlike those we experience and recognize ourselves.  It might be helpful to think of “enemies” of the past when contemplating those we’re engaged with in the present.

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One Response to “Call Me Monsieur Curie”

  1. BeckBlogic said

    This is a moving, thought-provoking and vivid post. The accompanying pictures are just devastating–and tell their own story. Such a wealth of information and insight–thank you.

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