Half-Life of Memory
About Andrej Krementschouk’s photoghraphs of „Chernobyl Zone II“The half-life of our memory of catastrophes like Chernobyl
is only a fraction of the half-life of the radioactive isotopes
released in the reactor explosion on 26 April 1986.*
Ever since photography began shaping our conception of the world around us, some images have now and again attained iconic status. Snapshots in which the quintessence of an entire historical era seems to flash before our eyes can act as a sort of emissary conveying a message to posterity – such as Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier”, or Yevgeny Khaldei’s stunned passerby on a Moscow street on the day of the German invasion in 1941, or Willy Brandt famously falling on his knees in 1970 before the memorial to the Warsaw ghetto.
A motif from the Ukrainian town of Pripyat can also be counted among these “world images” of the 20th century: a young birch tree growing up between smashed floor tiles in the middle of a barren room that no longer has any windowpanes. The scene is a multistory building evidently not ruined by any violent event, but rather abandoned in a headlong rush by its residents. They didn’t even bother to straighten the footstools and chairs. An infernal slumber has gone on for so long here that the trees have taken back the highrises. A disturbing scene: the planet after we are no longer there.
Brave New World
“The region on the border between Ukraine and Belarus is among the most beautiful in Europe. In the vast stretches of land along the banks of the meandering Pripyat River grow huge forests, in some places interspersed with hidden swamps. The mild climate and untouched nature have made this spot a popular recreation area for the inhabitants of the city of Kiev, located about one hundred kilometers further south. The Pripyat River boasts abundant fish, and in some places even beaches with fine white sand – a paradise for sun-seekers and anglers.”
In 1970 the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was set down in the midst of this bucolic landscape, and the employees were presented with their own town right nearby. Apartments for nearly 50,000 people were built, with plans to extend this number to 80,000 over time. Pripyat, which was originally to have been named Atomograd, was in many respects head-and-shoulders above the average newly built Soviet industrial town. True, the standard features of modernist urban development were everywhere to be seen: the residential areas were bisected by broad boulevards, the apartments were distributed amongst five- and eight-story concrete-slab buildings arranged in neat rows, and on important intersections solitary highrises towered up. But even today, when surveying the panorama of ruins, one can sense the care that was given to planning these urban spaces. People came from far and wide to shop at Pripyat’s well-stocked stores. Cultural and leisure-time offerings were likewise exemplary, in keeping with the high level of education of the nuclear technicians. The mostly young residents (the average age was 26) had at their disposal an “Art Palace,” a theater, a cinema, twenty school complexes and institutes for higher education, and on top of it all the quite attractive “Polissya” hotel, a swimming pool and sports center, two stadiums. All that was missing was an amusement park – its opening was planned to coincide with the celebrations on 1 May 1986. Disaster struck four days before. Now, a forlorn Ferris wheel stands there rotting, never able to fulfill its intended purpose, instead having become the macabre landmark of this accursed place.
And yet – former Pripyatnitzi are remarkably reserved today when it comes to cursing their fate. When they speak to strangers, or preferably amongst themselves, of how it was back then, they tend to rhapsodize about the abundance of flowers everywhere in town. The people talk of hardly anything else. Well-tended flowerbeds once lined the streets and squares – the embodiment of the orderliness they miss today. One should refer to the residents of Pripyat as modern people, or better yet: as people who have arrived in the modern era. Their unquestioning acceptance of nuclear power as their occupational focus, indeed as their life’s work, was in keeping with the prevailing zeitgeist: standing at the service of the radiant energy, they were the privileged ones, on the cutting edge of the future. The clear-cut lines of their masterplanned city fit well into this picture.
The rapid ascendancy of the region and its precipitous damnation was destined to become the writing on the wall for mankind’s enthusiastic faith in progress. Those driven forcefully from this faith fell headlong into an abyss. “We don’t know what to think of all this horror,” said one witness to the events, “Chernobyl cannot be measured either with our human experience or with our human sense of time …” And the oh-so-perfectly appointed world was just as much at a loss: it lapsed into a nightmarish torpor. “A city in the aftermath of an earthquake looks more devastated than the ruins of Pripyat, which still seem habitable from outside, their decay taking place in slow motion.” Yuri Shcherbak, one of the first and most important chroniclers of the catastrophe, does not shy away from using a Biblical metaphor: “Hell must look like the zone. Not really a horrific world, but rather a paradise like the Pripyat plain whose beauty can no longer be enjoyed by any human being unless he wants to pay for the pleasure with his life. Its beauty is now untouchable; man has driven himself out of this oasis.” Shcherbak accompanied the city’s chief architect Maria Prozenko on a visit to her former domain: “Maria, who had put a great deal of energy and talent into the design of her hometown, then had to map with her own hand a plan for the barbed-wire fences blocking it off.”
Memories. Adventure Land
According to the internet encyclopedia Wikipedia, Pripyat has its own postal code, its own area code, even its own mayor (who lives and works in Kiev); only, the population is given as zero. This grotesque profile does not describe the whole truth, though. For even after evacuation of every single resident, the city continues to exist in its own eerie way.
First of all, notwithstanding all the checkpoints, an astounding number of people are under way on the cracked concrete streets, at least in the city center. One meets up with scientists, filmmakers, security staff, and, recently, more and more tourist groups who pay high prices for a short excursion to what is actually a prohibited area. Unlike the case beyond the border, in southern Belarus, many people in Ukraine are making good money today marketing the “zone.” What used to be a whispered insider tip for adventure-seekers can now be booked on the internet as all-inclusive tour. In Kiev people speak bluntly of Chernobyl tourism as a burgeoning economic factor.
And Pripyat also exists as a virtual community. On the internet portal www.pripyat.com those who are merely curious meet up with profiteers and genuine or self-styled experts. Taking the place of the defunct local paper, the site provides a forum for exchanging the latest news, posting comments on international expert opinions, or recommending current books on Chernobyl-related themes. One learns that yet another foreign television team has arrived to shoot a report. Anyone who is interested can take part in surveys. Former residents stay in “electronic” contact with the people who were once their neighbors, friends, and colleagues. They upload old photos, or simply recount anecdotes: Remember when …
The trail of those whose lives were ruined forever by the disaster must be sought elsewhere. The ones who only now have been diagnosed with cancer, the mothers of children with congenital deformities, liquidators who have had to take early retirement due to poor health, or the survivors of all the radiation victims, who were never officially counted, even those who “only” lost their homes and properties – they have buried themselves in grief, despair, and resignation and avoid the internet. That’s why, on the chatty forum full of private gossip and business offers, the horror that the rest of the world associates with this place has already faded. Sickness, radioactivity, danger, and death? Even in cloudy weather, the “sarcophagus” of the baneful reactor can be clearly discerned out of the higher windows of most Pripyat homes, but it seems to have been banned from the monologues of the community of survivors, today scattered to the four corners of the earth.
Others in turn are apparently magically attracted by the danger and death that lurk so invisibly in the forbidden zone. They have been making their way through the area for years on their own initiative, tough guys clad in rough-and-ready gear who have an enormous stock of knowledge under their belts, always carry a Geiger counter, and know how to appease the local militia. They record their expeditions in logbooks and photos, which they post on the internet upon their return. The undeniable risk of what they’re doing is something they treat with a mixture of curiosity and playfulness: “After about five kilometers we pass the village of Mali Klishi. There is already a checkpoint there. We submit to all the necessary ‘procedures.’ The policeman advises us to be careful when using fire and opens the barrier. Now we are in the restricted area. The gamma radiation here is around 60 to 90 microroentgen per hour. […] On an enchantingly lovely forest path with a completely destroyed asphalt surface we get as far as Shishelivka. Absolute silence reigns there. The evening sun floods the small village with warm yellow light. It feels as though the light is streaming down the overgrown street and out the empty windows of the abandoned houses. The gamma radiation here is around 70 to 100 microroentgen per hour.”
On the other side of the barriers there is evidently a fascinating territory waiting to be discovered, where – as if to punish a civilization gone astray – nature is reclaiming what was once hers. This also means that mystical rules prevail in this realm: “As is customary in the zone, we will be returning a different way than we came.” Behind the activities of these semi-legal scouts, it is quite easy to discern a literary model – “Roadside Picnic,” probably the most widely read Soviet-era science fiction novel, which attained worldwide fame in Andrei Tarkovsky’s filmed adaptation “Stalker”. The film takes place in an enigmatic wilderness and is dominated from the first moment to the last by a nameless, mortal menace. Its haunting, suggestive tone can be so seamlessly applied to the evacuated radius around Chernobyl that the self-anointed “zone explorers” evidently deem themselves “manly” for exposing themselves to the real radiation risk there.
And then there’s the bizarre group that maintains a purely fictional relationship with the site of the disaster. These are the devotees of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Call of Pripyat, a computer game with a graphic design based on photos taken in 2004 in the deserted, savaged city. Against this backdrop, which exudes a “convincingly grim atmosphere” for which the game has won international awards, the players fight against zombies and other monsters to make their way to the center of the zone, where either the fatal game-over or triumph awaits them. The striking buildings of Pripyat function on their own here as an adequate stage setting for horror. Why the city was abandoned does not matter for the purposes of the game – “the post-apocalyptic scenery becomes instead a playground for escapist dreaming.” When a new version of the game came onto the market in 2009, a release party was held on the Maidan, the main square of Kiev: “There was a Gamezone with several computers, an armored vehicle, empty barrels, a wrecked car. Stuntmen staged pretend shootouts and fights, there was a Breakdance Battle accompanied by DJs, and even a Stalker comic contest.” Hundreds had gathered beneath the gigantic stage, dressed in camouflage uniforms and hung with protective tarps. Happily they agreed to put on gas masks for group photos.
Search for Homeland
“Memory is the only paradise from which we cannot be driven.” In the documentary film Lost Paradise, a woman who grew up in Pripyat and now lives in Kiev with her Brazilian husband takes part in a tourist excursion through the zone. All of sudden the two find themselves standing before a playground now gone to seed, where Olga used to collect her little sister each day after school. She jolts herself out of her reverie and tugs her husband toward the ghostly eight-story building in the background: “Come! Let’s go home.”
Because the evacuation took place in such a terrible rush and only small pieces of hand luggage were permitted on the buses, an incredible amount of things were left behind – furniture, household goods, items of every kind. These remains, especially all the unremarkable objects not even the plunderers wanted, form an incisive snapshot of that time, which with its abundance of details and its intimate character gets under the skin of every observer today. An overwhelming richness of symbols can be found here: The patterned wallpaper. The slogans on the walls. The spartanic plainness of the furnishings. Labels on cans and jars for nearly forgotten brands. Window screens, park benches, playground equipment all made of the same reinforcement steel. Peasant folklore as architectural decoration. Bizarre collages made up of ballot boxes, posters for the 1st of May, and a Fasching throne. The Soviet Union in the 1980s.
Every conceivable book has already been written about this place, as they say. There are documentaries, films. There are museums devoted to the disaster, in Kiev and on the Belarus side in Gomel. Anyone still looking for secrets here is too late.
Naturally Krementschouk, like all the others, was unable to resist the birch tree growing up through the highrise, the ultimate icon. But as a visitor from today, he had to find his own access to the trauma of this place. Aiding the photographer, born in 1973, was the courage to make an awkward confession. When he talks about the zone, two words soon insert themselves into the conversation: childhood and home. “One meets up there with a part of the past when one was happy.”
What he opens up for himself (and for us) is the hidden door to the world before the catastrophe. By going through that door, he places himself shoulder to shoulder with those who are unable to find words for their mourning. And the photographs he takes there are thus pervaded by an irrevocably different way of seeing, behind the city as picture: the city as emotion.
* Walter Fust, Director of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. www.chernobyl.info
Published in: Andrej Krementschouk: Chernobyl Zone (II). Heidelberg (Kehrer Verlag) 2011