Slovenia: Good dancing with cyborg electro violin, forgettable music.
France: Your wine-drinking aunty sings about devastated computer graphics from the 1990s, accompanied by naked Napoleonic drummers.
Israel: 90s rockabillies sing about cheating on their girlfriends (“pull me baby you’re my trigger, you know that my love is bigger”)
Eesti: Monochrome couple sing glum ballad about smiling to dogs and staring naked at phones.
UK: Caravan Palace knockoffs neon it up. At least it’s not a ballad.
Armenia: Purple witches’ coven sing incredibly overt genocide allegory. It is as happy as you would expect. Good lightwork though. (They could have replaced that with “Fuck you Turkey, even the Pope is on our side” and it would have been no less subtle.)
Lithuania: I like her dress, but that’s about it. It feels like they cut away from the double gay kiss pretty quickly to avoid annoying the Russians.
Serbia: Po-faced fat acceptance ballad explodes into a dubstep burlesque show. Just what Eurovision should be.
Norway: But what did he actually DO?
Sweden: Smug man in casual top and bondage trousers, accompanied by creepy marching Pinnochio legion, takes it way too seriously.
Cyprus: Sad hipster song which would be perfectly at home in a Starbucks but, as with every ballad, is a completely missed opportunity for a massive gay breakdance party.
Australia: Fantastically in the spirit of it, we should’ve invited these people sooner. What? It’s hardly worse than Israel!
Belgium: Minimalist creepy robot twinks want to rap-pa-bab tonight.
Austria: I think they’re pretty determined to avoid winning twice in a row. They did, however, set their piano on fire.
Greece: DRAMA DRAMA DRAMA BALLAD /wrists
Germany: Cell Block Tango with all the charm replaced by searchlights.
Poland: A forgettable ballad under the sakura. Impressed at the tailoring involved in making a dress which works with a wheelchair, though.
Latvia: Literally the only good part of this was the title.
Romania: I… actually sort of like this.
Spain: why did they subtitle “EEEieEEO” translated into “EEEieEEO”
Hungary: FUCK OFF/Wait, giant tree of guns, I’m happier now!/I take it back again, this is absolute shite, go away.
Georgia: AND YOU THOUGHT THE UNIRONIC GOTHIC POWER BALLAD WAS EXTINCT? HAHAHA, FOOLS [tears of molten lead drip down from massive kohl eyes]
Azerbaijan: total eclipse of the care. At least we have half-naked people gyrating in dry ice.
Russia: “don’t mention the war please don’t mention the war”
Albania: The best thing about that song was the flag.
Italy: Little quiffed fops singing far too dramatically in front of classical sculptures and somehow making it work. How very Italian.
(Click the images for higher resolution versions!)
Down by the water, a little café had an array of weird, wonderful stained glass windows. Whole sections of them had come down, lying smashed on the floor, and the kitchen was a burnt-out disaster area. Our guide told us about taking the Top Gear crew around for an episode filmed here: the final cut made it look like an escapade of devil-may-care banter, but offscreen they’d come with a motorcade of NBC-sealed caravans and a BBC health & safety man with a clipboard, and spent every second off-camera wearing breath masks they burned each night. A few irradiated wrecks sit in the shallows, and in asking after them we finally found out why the huge cranes we’d seen before were serving a lake: the entire inlet had once been part of the River Pripyat, but had been blocked off to avoid contaminating the river (which feeds into the Dniepr, and thus flows directly through Kiev.) Heading back up to the cafe, H.R. suddenly started shrieking in my jacket pocket. I remembered a story Nikolai had told us about a visitor who suddenly became so strongly radioactive that he went off the scale of the first three Geiger counters they used, and they had to bring in several more powerful counters just to isolate where on the increasingly upset man the problem was. It turned out to be a tiny fleck of graphite which had stuck to his boot. I was glad when I got past the hotspot and H.R. calmed down a bit.
Visiting one of the schools was a wonderful experience; a huge heap of children’s gas masks in the main hall distracted everyone who was only interested in getting the most ~poignant~ photo, leaving the rest of it free and full of interesting relics: textbooks full of poetry and puzzles, posters of Russian poets and maps of the Socialist Republics educating the children of Pripyat on topics that were once geography, politics and science but are all now merely history. Given free rein for an hour, Tom, Bill, Matt and I aimed for an interesting Art Deco-looking factory adjacent to the school and almost immediately got lost in the slightly radioactive undergrowth. We found it in the end, and got a thrill of genuine exploration, with no sign anyone had been there in a very long time: undisturbed little fried-egg stalagmites, an unbroken fluorescent tube that imploded like a rifle shot under someone’s boot and made us all jump, corridors so dark we needed phone lights to proceed. Exploring it felt a lot like videogame pathing, with passages blocked by fallen air ducts forcing us round more interesting routes, but we finally found the Thirties-style glazed section on the roof. Once we were done taking pictures with the wrecked neon signs that crowded the rooftop, the route back down was a very easy staircase of dusty luxcrete and leprous peeled paint.
The rest of the day passed far too quickly: the dry, graffiti-slathered swimming pool, where the peeling surfaces and missing ladder of the diving board didn’t dissuade damnfool Englishmen from climbing to the top; plastic circles from lane barriers were heaped up in the rotting changing rooms. The post office, with beautiful murals inside and out: an abstract wind goddess realised in ceramics on the exterior, and inside a painting of The Post through the ages, from Egyptian scribes right up to CCCP cosmonauts, who looked out across a mail room full of broken glass, empty phonebooths and telegram forms. The prison, hardly used in affluent, law-abiding Pripyat, but with big serious cells and hefty reinforced doors just in case. The fire station – tower, sadly, inaccessible – and motor pool, full of vehicles and engines that had been wrecked to stop looters, some dumped up on the roof with cranes that had themselves been smashed up. The overgrown athletics track, with its bleachers now thoroughly bleached and rotting, and a rickety floodlight structure I quickly gave up on climbing. It was another beautiful day, the vegetation bright and green, puffy white clouds against a clear blue sky, and it was a genuine shame to leave.
Back in the town of Chernobyl itself, a display of the robots and other machines used in the cleanup sit behind a fence and an array of radiation warning signs: part museum, part memorial. Nearby stands an actual memorial to the firefighters and cleanup workers, in a chunky, emotive style; Bill noted our guide, who had been completely cheerful and nonchalant throughout the tour, was actually visibly moved by this part (which didn’t stop half the group from striking poses in front of it). Another monument, glimpsed only from the bus, consists of a pair of origami cranes sat on stone plinths, and a spray of metal pipes that might be bamboo, might be control rods; a gift from the Japanese, who have their own relationship with the atom.
In the centre of town is a terrible angel made of black-painted rebar, blowing its trumpet above a long row of black and white signs. The signs are mostly adorned with flowers; the names are in Cyrillic, and look for a moment like the names of the dead, but there’s a concrete map of the whole Zone next to them, strewn with metal markers, and you realise that the signs are road signs; the monuments are not to people, but lost villages, dead and buried in the poisoned earth.
(Click the images for higher resolution versions!)
Breakfast at the hotel consisted of eggs, good black tea, and pancakes with cottage cheese and sultanas. The bus took us down a narrow concrete-block road through the woods, and we glimpsed a stag that stood in the open for a while before leaping off into the undergrowth. Radioactive contamination and weird rot patterns aside, the Zone is now one of the best nature reserves in Europe.
South of Pripyat, Duga stands in the forest like a god’s comb.
“In Soviet Union time, this place was marked as a non-operational summer camp for children.” Gates with big silver stars and buildings painted with heroic murals of lantern-jawed Ivans wrecking fascisti jarred slightly with the description, although it’s plausible a summer camp for children would have those too. The Duga base camp went on for a while, full of trees, dead offices and heavy machinery, until we came suddenly to the heel of the array itself.
Even by the standards of the Soviet Union, which are different to everyone else’s – even by the standards of the Soviet military, which are another order of stupidly huge – the Duga array is astonishingly big. It’s not associated directly with the ChNPP, although a quiet backwoods location with a massive local power supply surely figured into its placement. It was the receiver for one of the most powerful radar systems ever built, bouncing signals off the ionosphere to pick up the signatures of ballistic missiles launching from the continental USA. Intruding on civilian frequencies (although they denied it), for years it made a random knocking sound on civvie radio which people came to call the “Woodpecker”.* A selection of photos which better get across the scale can be found here; the transmitter station itself is miles away, outside the Zone.
Although it looks like one big grid,** Duga is best understood structurally as a long line of metal towers, about 160m high, mutually supporting and linked by the huge array of antennae and reflectors (most obviously, the club-shaped dipoles you could cage an elephant inside) they carry. On each tower, two-storey ladders link slim metal platforms; eleven ladders, twenty-two platforms, the gap between each platform about four times the height of a man. In England, if we’d ever dared to dream this big, health and safety types would wet themselves at even being in the same postcode as Duga, let alone wandering the sandy scrubland around its base, and certainly let alone attempting to climb it. But Ukrainians, it has been observed, really don’t give a shit about health and safety.
Each ladder is a crudely made rack of thin rebar steps about fifteen metres high; the steps are very far away from each other, so climbing involves serious stretching and hauling, and the welding was never much good even before forty years of rust and fierce winds. By the top of the first ladder, I was considerably more out of breath than I’d expected. At the top of the second, which is above the treeline and so has both clear views of the ChNPP and a very brisk wind, my fingers were getting raw and numb and I’d whacked my shins far too many times on the absurdly spaced ladder bars. I alone of the group made it to the top of the third ladder, by which time my fingers wanted to fall off and my arms were trying to leap out of their sockets; the cold wind was howling around me and I was getting a real (if nerves-exacerbated) sense of how wobbly a forty-year-old structure which was never really meant to be climbed in the first place could feel. There were eight more increasingly rickety, increasingly exposed ladders to go. While I consider my extremely underdeveloped sense of self-preservation a “spirit of adventure”, I conceded that this wouldn’t be the day, and started to descend – which was, if anything, much scarier. We walked the length of the array and came back along an absurdly long support building at its base, exploring what was probably the seventies equivalent of a server room and marvelling at the huge blocks of cooling apparatus and (proportionally) even huger circuit boards piled up hither and thither.
Back through the woods, to the Pripyat hospital, which is about as eerie as you’d expect an abandoned hospital to be: rusted bed frames, pictures of Lenin, abandoned sheets and surgical equipment, hypodermics and autoclaves, supply cupboards full of test tubes and little bottles and ampoules of coloured liquids marked in Cyrillic; a huge, sprawling, peeling building. In the lobby of the hospital, a single fireman’s glove rests on a table. I read an account from Grigori Khmel, one of the Chernobyl firefighters who were first on the scene. As he tells it, they had no training or equipment for nuclear material, no real knowledge of what they were dealing with, and he described curious men picking up bits of graphite control rod blown out of the reactor core. Some of them went up to the roof, and left bodies so radioactive they had to be buried in sealed metal coffins; some stayed on the ground, and a few of them are even still alive.*** Most of their clothes and equipment are in a basement room in the hospital we were straight up told not to look for, but that one glove, thirty years on, made H.R.’s indicator jump from the .23μSv of normal Zone background radiation to 5, to 50, to 144.
* A recording purporting to be of the noise can be found here. It sounds more like a helicopter than a woodpecker to me.
** Well, two big grids; there’s also a lesser array, about 90m high, which uses shorter wavelengths (and thus has better resolution.) But next to the really big one, who cares?
*** Only two people actually died on the night of the disaster; around thirty others, almost all firefighters and reactor workers, died in hospital over the next few months from burns or acute radiation sickness. Four were killed when a Mi-8 dropping materials onto the reactor clipped a cable and crashed. Hundreds of other workers, and tens of thousands of liquidators, received severe radiation doses during the cleanup operations; the effect this has actually had is strongly disputed.
(Click the images for higher resolution versions!)
The dead city of Pripyat is one of the purest articulations of Soviet planned city philosophy, built from the ground up in modular “Microdistricts” around a central hub of large public buildings. Each microdistrict has housing for workers and their families (in the communist high-rise-and-shared-courtyard style), and various public service buildings, all carefully planned so that no resident had to walk more than a few hundred metres to reach a school, nursery, café or grocery shop, and only a little further to get to the centre of town, with its department store, bus station and community centres. As new reactors were built and came online, and other interests like the Jupiter works were built in the area, new microdistricts were built to accommodate their personnel. Microdistricts 6 and 7, intended to house workers for the new reactors, were under construction at the time of the accident; they were caught directly in the fallout plume, and are no-go zones now.
All of this is rather academic knowledge, because the city is, as mentioned, dead, and so choked with plants and trees it’s very hard to see from one building to another, let alone get a feel for the wider layout. The road we entered the city by, once a four-lane thoroughfare, was a tree tunnel barely wide enough for the van, the buildings either side appear as ghosts seen among the leaves; it may only be a few more years until the whole place is impassable. At the centre, we climbed the Hotel Polissiya, famous from That Call Of Duty Scene, crunching through broken glass and random detritus to look out across the city.
The grand plaza at the heart of Pripyat is named Lenin Square; windswept-looking birch trees and random weeds are pushing up through cracks in the concrete and asphalt, but its scale and grandeur are evident still. Overlooking it is the “Energetik” Palace of Culture,* the centrepiece of the city, a sort of huge combined community centre/entertainment & leisure venue. Opposite us, across the grand plaza, two tall tower blocks bore hammer-and-sickle crests like giant cap badges on their roofs. A longer, lower building between them was topped by big metal letters spelling out the motto of the Soviet nuclear industry: LET ATOM BE WORKER, NOT SOLDIER.
The buildings are grey concrete, very square and blocky in that forceful Communist way; the sort of thing which looks great on an architectural model or concept art, grim to modern eyes but full of proud little architectural flourishes you don’t see in the even-more-lifeless British brutalism of the period. Now the windows are all broken, the stairs are crumbling and the lurid murals to socialist peace and love are chipped and fading; little stalactites dangle in rows from the ceiling beams.
We entered the Palace’s once-lovely multi-level foyer and crossed the wreckage of a parquet floor into a dark, empty theatre auditorium, backstage darkly cavernous and full of worryingly rotten floorboards and rusting set machinery. Other areas of the Palace had cinemas, lounges, an indoor sports pitch with its painted wooden floor still mostly intact. There was graffiti on most walls, broken glass on every floor, random wonderful curios here and there, like huge posters of Communist leaders’ faces. A skinny white-tailed fox poked its muzzle through a door, found us inside, and padded off disgruntled.
The Palace’s basement held a little swimming pool, where an entire windowpane had fallen into the pool somehow and smashed. The boxing ring, in an odd round annexe which reminded me of a cathedral chapterhouse,** had no floor, and was built on things which looked for all the world like flowerbeds; it turned out they were, and this structure had been a botanical garden before it was turned over to punching. Down some fire-escape steps, we moved through a little wood full of lilacs and birdsong – the birds sound the same as back home, and only the moss-verged asphalt underfoot gave the lie to the appearance of a perfect wilderness.
Far too many photos have been taken of the empty amusement park, where the Ferris wheel, the dodgems and various other rides are succumbing picturesquely to rust and vegetation. Our guide indicated the many uncovered manholes, where an incautious step can lead to the stepper being dropped into a shitload of radioactive waste; even the covered ones had enough heat leaking through that we were advised not to sit down if we wanted children. The department store nearby was gutted and thoroughly eerie, a maze of rooms, empty of furniture but littered with huge piles of unrecognisable little metal stampings and broken fluoro light tubes which exploded underfoot. Empty safes stood against the walls with their doors rusted open, empty lift shafts with yawning doors promising excitement for the unwary ambler, rusting kitchen machinery filled dark, mildewy side rooms. In places, rain has broken down the materials enough to make lines of ugly little treacle-pudding stalagmites on the floor; the imitation marble cladding on the store’s main staircase is still there, but stained like the inside of an old teapot.
We took the bus to the northwest edge of town, huffed and puffed our way up the glass-strewn staircases of a 16-storey residential block, and enjoyed the perfect view. The landscape was nothing but sunlit forest from horizon to horizon, with only the roofs of Pripyat’s buildings peeking through, as though the whole city had been drowned in green; in the middle distance, the vastness of the NPP and NSC rose, geometric and implacable. On one horizon we made out the Duga-3 “Steel Yard” array, two rectangular grids of antennae almost a kilometre long between them; from our Pripyat crow’s nest, they looked almost small. Looking towards the river, our long lenses made out familiar sight to all CoP players, a pair of tall rusted dock cranes (redder than in the game); we tried to place them on our map, but the only plausible location was a small lake, and that just didn’t seem right. At the top of the lift shaft was a quiet, pitch-dark machinery room, with little Ukrainian health and safety posters from back when people gave a shit about that sort of thing; we balanced their uniqueness as souvenirs against the issues of moral sacrilege, potential for being caught, and isotope-themed fun, and decided to just take photos.
I could have spent hours up on that windswept asphalt roof, watching birches swishing in the dead city streets and sunlit stormclouds scudding across the horizon; but sunset was coming on, and nobody wanted to be caught out in the dark. So we drove back to the town of Chernobyl and found our rooms in the only tourist hotel in the Zone of Alienation. It turned out to be a surprisingly well-appointed timber lodge, where dinner came with excellent corrugated chips, the rooms were spacious and well-kept, and the wifi actually managed to stay up despite being blitzed by dozens of nerds uploading high-resolution photos.
There was only a single cloud to the general silver lining, which came when Bill kindly gave me a calabash gourd with yerba m8 and I needed to dispose of some calabash bits:
“The problem with this hotel is, there’s no bins.”
“Why don’t you just chuck it in the-” (I opened the drawer of the bedside table. There was a nappy inside, and the pungent stench that rolled out indicated that it is not fresh.)
“As you were saying, the problem with this hotel is, there’s no bins.”
“I’m slightly less impressed with this place now.”
* This is a very weak pun; Energetik means the same as in English, but also means power plant worker. Ho ho ho.
** Coventry Cathedral, specifically. This is Pripyat.
(Click the images for higher resolution versions!)
Up at the Kiev Ibis, packratting supplies and truffle tea from the all-you-can-eat buffet and piling onto the bus, almost getting killed by a man who felt reversing a 4×4 in a tight space was a great accompaniment to having a heated argument on his mobile. Ukraine, health and safety, etc. We were issued our little yellow Geiger counters (I immediately christened mine H.R.). It was a rainy morning, huge blocks of flats with great big multicoloured socialist-surrealist murals silhouetted against the aluminium-grey sky; most of the vegetation was overgrown, but nothing was particularly run down. The roads were broad but busy, and the drains were having trouble, with cars struggling through flooded areas or driving over verges to get around them. We forded an underpass which had easily eight inches of water gathered at the bottom.
A broad, well-made road out of Kiev – “it’s one of the best in the country, because it goes to Yanukovich’s old house”. Lots of villages, each with the same war memorial starring the same glum greatcoated soldier with a Mosin-Nagant on his shoulder, and curious signs above the shops – a girl tooth and a boy tooth holding hands. Thin iron grave markers with intricately wrought ornamentation in the churchyards. A very flat, very green landscape, with bigger individual fields than anywhere I’ve seen since Australia. Good tank country. Finally, we came to the 30km perimeter at the edge of the Zone of Alienation: a big well-manned checkpoint, where uniformed militsiya checked our passports and those of passengers from a couple of much larger coaches. There was already a curious stillness in the air.
The town of Chernobyl (not to be confused with the city of Pripyat, built in the 1970s for reactor workers), is ancient, dating to at least the 12th century. Nowadays it’s mostly abandoned, but parts live on to accommodate temporary cleanup workers (who obey very strict exposure rules). It’s an odd place: almost all the buildings are in ruins, with a handful – especially the fire station – in really good nick. All the plumbing is above-ground to avoid anything leaching in, and pairs of insulated pipes line every road and arch over every junction. Past the town, and down another long, straight road, a second checkpoint marked the 10km exclusion zone; a posse of military types with a huge vehicle-scanning Geiger counter, an AK-74 sitting on a table. We saw the roofs of wooden cottages sticking up from the earth; our guide told us how the contaminated soil had been dug up across the entire zone and used to bury the irradiated villages, creating a few extremely hot spots. H.R. chirruped as they went by.
The approach towards the NPP is breathtaking, as a vast complex of decayed or unfinished mega-architecture comes into view. Across an artificial cooling canal, perfectly straight and easily fifty metres wide between its concrete levees, stand two incomplete cooling towers built in the ribbed, truncated-cone Soviet style, one nearly finished, one just a stub.** Then the enormous incomplete Reactor V complex, a mix of rusty red and pale concrete; it’s possible, if you like, to read it as the carcass of some immense animal, being scavenged by the skeletal cranes that surround it (as if the carcass of a nuclear power plant wasn’t hellishly impressive enough). And finally, the main ChNPP, a monolithic concrete monster which fills the horizon, almost a kilometre of blocky grey with red-and-white-striped stacks at each end. The silver arch of the New Safe Confinement shone beyond the far end.
Seen up close, the main power plant offices could be anywhere in Ukraine (or even in England); just a car park and a busy Seventies office building, with people coming and going. We were security-checked by earnest, attentive Ukrainians, and taken to a changing room. Safety procedures were serious: lab coats and hats, shoe covers, a little shiny metal dosimeter like a dog-tag. Then it was across a skywalk, and into the plant itself. An immensely long corridor, lined with ribbed golden panelling, runs almost the entire length of the power plant, dotted everywhere with old-fashioned instruments and doors to other rooms, many of both still in use. It was only partially lit, and there were occasional drips from the ceiling; plant workers in the same coat-and-cap outfits as us came and went.
Banks upon banks of dead consoles lined the gloomy Reactor II control room, a couple of men in white working at a well-lit table against one wall. One of them obligingly explained what the displays actually meant: the huge round-edged grid, a recurring theme in the displays, turned out to be a sort of top-down map of the whole atomic pile, with a dial or button corresponding to each rod (colour coded for the type of rod) displaying the height, or temperature, or serving to lift or raise them. The console showing the power control for the turbines was similarly lucid; he explained the layout of the control room when the plant was working, with a couple of consoles to each controller. Now, he monitors things to help with the decommissioning of the rest of the plant, which he said would take until at least 2064.
Next, we were shown through an unlit pump hall the size of a cathedral, with rails on the floor leading away under heavy metal doors, and the immense yellow cylinders of the pump structures looming in the dark; we climbed sharp ladders and a precarious metal balcony, using phone lights to see. I lost all sense of direction as the tour wound through room after room, switching from dark and gloomy to daylit and shabby and back again. The floors were overlaid with thick translucent plastic sheeting, the walls whitewashed, the heavier bits of equipment – cranes, motors, pumps – hpainted bright primary colours. In the crook of one corridor was a monument to a reactor worker whose body was never found, with blue and yellow plastic flowers; the wall behind it separated us from Reactor IV, and set all our Geiger counters singing. Along the walls of another room, reactor schematics and horribly ironic health and safety posters were pinned up. Someone had scrawled “Putin is a cock” in Ukrainian on one of the signs. H.R. periodically went crazy as we walked through pockets of radiation.
In another building, separate from the plant, a fantastically made model opened up to show the design of the entire ruined Reactor IV assembly. A plant guide named Stanislaw explained the gigantic New Safe Confinement being built just outside: the sarcophagus (basically, an improvised structure of lead and concrete covering the entire reactor pile with its molten core and uranium fuel rods) is falling apart, and rather than attempt to fill in the cracks and shore up the half-collapsed, incredibly radioactive plant building, they decided to build the huge new containment structure nearby, slide it on rails over the whole Reactor IV unit, and seal it, preventing the escape of any more radioactive material. “As to the fuel rods, we will not speak of this. We have a hundred-year guarantee with the NSC. Hopefully the scientists will figure it out.”
The NSC is a hollow semicircular prism which weighs thirty thousand tonnes and cost a billion and a half euros. You can look up the dimensions, if “it’s big enough to hide a nuclear power plant in” will not suffice. It was still a way from completion when we visited: the corrugated silver outer skin was essentially complete, the inner skin nearly so, but the various climate-control and monitoring units were mostly yet to be fitted, as were the internal cranes to help remove debris and continue the cleanup of Reactor 4. Despite the apocalyptic surroundings, the construction site, complete with portakabins and shiny new mobile cranes, feels a lot like any other modern building site. We stood at the truss bridge that carries a railway across the cooling canal and threw bread to the giant black catfish writhing in the dark green water – “we feed them Russian tourists, that’s how they get so big” – then trooped back to the minibus, past a statue of Prometheus, and drove back along the cooling canal.
We went inside one of the abandoned cooling towers. It was ridiculous, simply too big to be real; hawks were circling inside the tower, far above the unfinished cooling mechanism that was itself like a whole abandoned multi-storey building site. There was a ring of scaffolding at the inside lip of the tower, and an entire segment had come down and lay in pieces on the half-flooded floor of the tower. Rusty old bolts were strewn everywhere, and I couldn’t resist acting out the Stalker’s safety test.
There is a fish farm/maritime research station where the cooling canal reaches the lake, using the warm water for studies that would otherwise be difficult in northern Ukraine; the building, which was abandoned quite a while after the disaster, had some authentic-looking charts up but was mostly full of stupid tacky shit clearly deliberately planted to mock gullible tourists – a child’s gas mask, a creepy operating light. Much more interesting was the metal nursery pontoon, now half sunk in the lake, and some enormous fish corpses, curiously well-preserved and not as stinky as you’d expect.
We drove back past the NPP, past huge mobile-containment-unit-looking things on overgrown rails and a vast forest of pylons, transformers and other substation chicanery. The road turned to the northwest; low pine trees crowded behind radiation trefoil signs, and every Geiger counter in the bus started warbling excitedly at once. “This is the only road in Ukraine where it’s recommended you speed,” our guide observed drily. This was once the Wormwood Forest, which took the very worst of the contamination after the accident: the radiation killed the trees, killed the microbes that should have broken them down, and left a tract of discoloured corpses that gave the place its new name, the Red Forest. During the cleanup, liquidators bulldozed the forest, cut up the trees and buried them under tonnes of sand before planting new pines there; many of the new trees displayed weird gigantism or grew up stunted and bushlike. Contaminants have leached into the groundwater, poisoning it, and decades later the leaves there still rot more slowly than they should. But without the signs and the Geiger counters, there would be no way to tell; the trees now are green and alive, not visibly deformed, and the name is an artefact of history. I wonder if it will always be the Red Forest. Memory decays, too; slower than leaves, but faster than corium.
Soon we were out of the woods, and reached the big white concrete sign that welcomes travellers to the ghost town of Pripyat.
** The ChNPP originally had four reactors, cooled with water from the nearby Pripyat River that then flowed into a huge artificial cooling pond. The planned expansion to six reactors would exceed the pond’s capacity, requiring cooling towers to be built. At the time of the disaster, the Reactor V complex and its turbine assembly was half built, as were the towers.
My phone being smashed, I couldn’t take blog notes on it, so used a PEN, like some sort of backwards savage, first on a receipt and then on a little WHSmith notebook provided by Tom.
We stuffed ourselves at the Ibis then headed for the Kiev Metro, buying batches of shockingly cheap green plastic Metro tokens. The station design resembles Moscow’s, with each stations a fixed unit of two platforms flanking a central space, escalators at each end, and a staircase in the middle leading to another unit if two lines are connecting. The trains do, too, though they’re painted a merry Ukrainian blue and yellow. It was a bright morning, and our group leader tried to wangle our way into the Olympic Stadium for the photography nerds in the group – but there was some sort of sporting event on, so back on the Metro.
Maidan Nezalezhnosti – Independence Square – previously known as the Square of the October Revolution, Kalinin Square (twice), Soviet Square, Khreshchatyk Square, and Parliament Square (also twice). People just call it Maidan (“Square”), and who can blame them? It’s a huge cartouche-shaped plaza, bisected by the Khreschatyk, Kiev’s main thoroughfare; the upper half features a stone column topped by a bronze statue of Berehynia* waving a golden branch, and beyond it a huge hotel; the lower half of the square is full of dry, broken fountains and glass domes which illuminate the shopping centre underneath.
The rioters and barricades are gone from Maidan, but have left their mark: graffiti, scorch marks, stone slabs chipped, scarred and smashed. In some places the cobbles have been torn up for missiles; in others, they’re neatly piled, ready to be put back into the ground; along one road they had been carefully stacked into little shrines holding framed photos of the dead. People had formed the shape of a vast Ukrainian trident from lines of little coloured glass lanterns, and I suspected messing with it would get you beaten up by literally everyone. Flower and lamp offerings were scattered everywhere, memorial stuff of all sorts surrounded the column, and there was a haphazard display of photographs of the riots, surrounding events and fighting in Crimea and Donetsk. One photo showed Mother Motherland with the Ukrainian trident projected over her shield, obscuring the hammer and sickle. The burned building which had held Yanukovych’s snipers was covered with an immense stylised Ukrainian flag – bright yellow cornfield below endless blue sky – emblazoned with “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” in huge blue letters.
There were all sorts of characters feeding off the tourists to the square – we were variously accosted by:
– a pigeon-thruster (one of many) who went straight for Bill and put stylish-looking doves on him until we made it clear we weren’t taking any pictures;
– a twink in short shorts who wheedled about taking donations for the soldiers fighting in Donetsk, in quite good English;
– a pair of old ladies with tins who didn’t even try speaking, just gesturing;
– an older, worn-down bloke in legit-looking camo who didn’t push it and may just have been genuine. Or may have been a beggar – there were plenty about.
Neither the furries, nor the girls dressed as sexy Minnie Mouse, tried it on. They must have been boiling.
There was an undercroft full of shops below the main road, with florists who were clearly doing a booming business and Perspex-box stalls flogging tourist tat, Ukrainian flags, bogroll printed with Putin and Yanukovych’s faces. Past it and down some escalators, under the glass domes is a glossy modern shopping arcade which would have been at home in any soulless out-of-town centre in the West.
We walked to European Square (which has previously been named after Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, the Third International and Tsar Alexander – the name “European Square” actually dates to 1851 rather than the modern desperate desire to be part of the EU) and enjoyed the awful sound of six lanes of fast traffic driving over fist-sized cobblestones. Uphill, in a park where the unmown grass was almost overwhelmed by the dandelions, a stall sold us more cheap microwaved pastries, and, having not learned my lesson from Funny Drink in Budapest, I tried a carton of something called “Rich Kids”, which tasted like the crotch of an additive refinery.
The funicular to St Michael’s is a legitimate form of transport, rather than a tourist attraction, but is of course made in the glorious Soviet metro style – gorgeous stations with brassy luminaires and fluted gold-effect panelling. We went up and down once, its cars packed with commuters going both ways. Oddly, it had only a single track, with a passing point in the middle. At the top were little homemade bird-feeders cut from plastic bottles; a pigeon with no tail feathers fluttered around a bit. Half the group bought espressos from a pink coffee snail.
The Monastery of St Michael boasts many golden cupolas and curiously massive flying buttresses; trying to climb the bell tower, we found ourselves in a museum, with a huge gold Archangel Michael, little models and photos of the monastery through the ages, and a mural of Jesus poking someone in the eye. The bell tower itself contained a vast nest of bells, with a sort of bell keyboard in the middle. Walking southwest down Volodymyrskyi Passage, there were soldier types everywhere, a rogue’s gallery of recent Eastern Bloc camouflage; in the chequerboard square itself stood a huge statue of Bohdan the Zaphorozian Cossack, waving a mace. St Sophia’s bell tower was twice the size of St Michael’s, and contained a few bells and a curiously vast emptiness in its four walls it. Many, many stairs later, we could look down on all Kiev, and take ironic selfies.
The group stopped for fancy tea and coffee, from a menu with weird names like “Uncle’s Whim”, “Preserved Verginity” and “Breath of Hell” – I had a “Blonda Coffee” (it came with jelly beans) and a salmon pie with sour cream and pickled tomatoes. Then we continued north, to a long line of souvenir stalls hawking every kind of tat – clocks out of MiG-29s, cookbooks, space helmets, lapel pins, diving helmets, carved wooden plates – where it started to drizzle.
Above a long flight of rain-slick iron steps, beneath a lovely teal and gold roof, the Church of St Andrew was utterly gorgeous and utterly bizarre: a sort of Orthodox rococo, halfway between a basically Slavic configuration and an aesthetic that belonged in a French palace. The roof gold, the altar screen was a huge five-storey red-and-gold structure; there was a pulpit, amazingly, and gold curlicues and cherubs on everything. The altarcloth showed a Ukrainian trident (with an Orthodox cross as its central prong, banners behind the bar with a black X symbol), and there were double-headed eagles everywhere.
Descending, we watched a great twenty-metre string of ants crawling along a roadside wall, and took a detour up a set of metal stairs with distressing wobbles and hilariously wrecked handrails – Ukrainians don’t give a shit about health and safety. Then, further down a steep, winding cobbled lane lined with street art and crumbling buildings, we stopped under the parasols of a cafe to get out of the rain. Tea came in big cups with giant open-ended tea-scrotums suspended on lollipop sticks, accompanied by white Jaffa cakes full of strawberry jelly. The pancakes we ordered were, curiously, green (“from leprechauns”, the English-speaking waitress unhelpfully commented) but satisfyingly full of cheese and sour cream. The radio played lounge versions of Tainted Love and Gangnam Style, marijuana smoke drifted over from a nearby table, and the rain beat down hard on the parasols for a while.
Further down the hill, around the entrance to Kontraktova Ploshcha station was a run-down markety bit with shops and kebab stalls in square glass cabins – flower sellers under awnings, the sound of an unseen violinist. We boarded, changed to the red line after two stations, came to Arsenalna, the deepest station in the world, and realised that we’d lost Tom. So we rode up to look for him (the escalator didn’t look much longer than the one at Angel, then we got to the vestibule at the top and I realised that there were two of them), went all the way up to the top, still unable to find him (“dammit, Tom, this is just like Left 4 Dead”), and all the way back down – to, eventually and inevitably, find him right back at the bottom, grinning and saying “what took you guys so long?”.
* A folk goddess recently invented for the purposes of Ukrainian nationalism, about as legitimate as any other neo-pagan nonsense. The statue was built in 2001.
(Click the images for higher resolution versions!)
The journey to Chernobyl did not begin well. I tripped and broke my phone within two seconds of getting off my bus on Tuesday night; the following morning, in dawn light so clear and crisp it made even the plate-glass trashitecture around Uxbridge station look attractive, we missed the first A10 (brrrtttt) bus to Heathrow; Tom’s phone boarding pass wouldn’t scan and he got spot-checked twice by security (male, 18-25 age range, travelling east to unstable warzone with no hold baggage and a beard), before we found each other again past the lines; I got gouged 99p for a slice of toast at the ‘spoons; and our plane turned out to be broken.
The crew consulted an engineer and then shifted us over to a spare BA plane, which didn’t bother me as I gained an emergency-exit seat and its associated legroom, and we were collectively thankful that if there is anywhere in the world BA will have a spare A320 just lying around, it’s Heathrow. It was a good day to fly, with a layer of serene white cloud-puffs giving that curious feeling that you could reach out and grasp one in one hand until you look a little further down and see its shadow eclipsing an entire town. That pattern remained oddly uniform for all the 2000 or so kilometres of our trip; if you could jump from one cloud to another you could have made it to the Ukrainian border. Names familiar as ghastly Eastern Front bloodbaths popped up in the map display, the middle horizon was hazed with that lovely atmospheric lensing effect, and I could see clearly all the way up to heaven and down to Poland. At Kiev Borispol, there were warplanes and gunships lined up near the runway, but we swept past too quickly to be able to work out if they were for pleasure or business.
We met our guide, Nikolai, jumped in a white minibus with AC and low, tinted windows, and drove through Kiev to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, the Ukrainian version of Park Pobedy. There, the immense shining statue of Mother Motherland, stubby sword raised high,* gazes with stainless-steel eyes over monuments to all her martyred children. An artificial tunnel was lined lined with enormous bronzes of heroic Soviet figures of all ages and genders fighting with the iconic Mosin-Nagant, PPSh-41 and SVT-40 – the same attention to the details of the weapons as I’d seen in Russia. Around the (unlit) Eternal Flame, even I could make out the word SLAVA. Monuments to each of the Hero Cities stand by a little artificial lake. Below the Rodina statue, there’s a hall of Heroes of the Soviet Union, the names of every wartime award there in gold against white marble, Zhukov alone under the heading of four-time winners. The viewing platform at her feet was accessed by a little three-man lift and a nested staircase with head-banging hazards that would make a risk assessor squeal, lined with stuff which was almost certainly asbestos – Ukrainians simply don’t give a shit about health and safety. From there, we could see all around: the golden cupolas of the monastery district just up the hill, the great bridges spanning the Dnieper, the huge tower blocks of postwar Kiev, and endless flat plains in the distance.
Under the statue was a museum much like the one in Moscow, with dioramas of offensives, amazing collections of kit and relics, haunting war memorials and so on. But in the entrance hall, there was also a modern-day exhibit of photos and artefacts from the fighting going on in Donetsk and Luhansk. For Ukraine, war is very much a going concern. There is a very definite sense of dissonance here – how to reconcile all these monuments to the greatest victory in human history, won in no small part with Ukrainian blood and iron, with symbolism which overwhelmingly belongs to the Russians, ancestral oppressors and current-day bitter enemies. Nikolai explained that the Poroshenko government had ordered all hammer and sickle iconography removed from buildings and statues, leaving the enormous stainless-steel shield of Mother Motherland in doubt.
There was another section with a huge collection of assorted olive-drab armour, artillery and aircraft, including one tank painted blue and yellow in Ukrainian colours. Further up the hill – I could tell from the shape of the ground that there used to be a star fort here – three badly damaged pieces of modern kit (a Grad, BMP and BTR) stood, with signs in English and Ukrainian explaining the identifiers used to determine that these were modern Russian kit that Russia was using to kill Ukrainians and take Ukrainian land. We bought tea from a nearby stall, Nikolai explaining to the seller that we were English, so took it with milk.
In the monastery district we got wodges of hryvnia from an ATM, exchanging some of it for very cheap microwaved hot dogs at a roadside stall, and were suddenly accosted by a very enthusiastic man with respectable clothes, a big bushy beard and sunglasses. He insisted that his tour round the monastery was top-notch, and the group agreed to hand over the tiny amount he was asking, so he – his name was Igor – took us around the wonderful old monastery area, full of buildings and bits of buildings dating from the Kievan Rus’, the grave of the founder of Muscovy, and so on, and so forth. The history actually correlated very well with what I knew, and he clearly had a great love both for Kiev and the Orthodox faith – he was great fun, although I think I got more out of him than the rest of the group.
The minibus picked us up, we had some drinks at a sort of diner/pub thing in downtown Kiev, then visited a supermarket to load up on bottled water and other supplies for Chernobyl before hitting the Ibis Hotel. Which ended the day as it had begun by having had its digital booking system completely implode, and causing Ben no end of trouble and hassle sorting it all out. Dinner was at the hotel, which was not cheap but not too dear, and its slightly-Engrishy menu had lots of appetising choices – but in the end, I really had no option but to choose the chicken Kiev.
* The sword should be longer, but was cut down for being higher than the cross on the Pechersk Lavra monastery.