For much of the 20th century, daily American life was shaped by two great fears: the fear of socialism and the fear of a nuclear apocalypse. The state’s propagandists spent decades trying to entwine these fears in the minds of people like you and me. Their efforts often betrayed the absurdity of their aims, producing such ludicrous inanities as the invasion-survival fantasy film Red Dawn and the “Kiddie Kokoon,” a prefabricated fallout shelter that may or may not have been able to survive a direct hit from a Communist pigeon’s turd.
But in the late 1980s, an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant gave the propagandists a coup beyond their wildest imaginations. The world had never seen such a severe nuclear meltdown—the International Nuclear Event Scale classified it as a Level 7 incident, its maximum threat level. It was the first time in history that a Level 7 incident had been recorded. Nobody knew exactly what that meant, but they knew it wasn’t good. “The Soviets owe the world an explanation,” said U.S. President Ronald Reagan in a radio address, criticizing their “secrecy and stubborn refusal to inform the international community of the common danger from this disaster.” Suddenly, all those state-stoked fears of hideous mutations and uninhabitable wastelands didn’t seem quite so ridiculous.
The consequences were both immediate and long lasting. The Chernobyl tragedy became a potent rallying cry for Ukrainian nationalists and was one of the main causes of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. Decades after the accident, Chernobyl-related costs continued to consume a substantial portion of the national budgets of many Eastern European nations, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Chernobyl became a place of infamy in our collective imagination. Part cautionary tale, part freak show, it both terrified and tantalized people across the globe. The Soviet-enforced secrecy only heightened its aura of mystery and danger. Today, Chernobyl is commonly regarded as an irrevocably contaminated wasteland, an undead museum of humanity’s post-apocalyptic future.
Spoiler alert: It’s not.
As I discovered during a recent visit, the eternally poisoned Chernobyl of our nightmares has little in common with the fast-healing Chernobyl that exists in reality. This is quite a hopeful and encouraging revelation. However, there’s also a darker side to this story, one that shows how our most “justifiable” fears can—and are—manipulated to cause immense human suffering.
Early in the morning on April 26th, 1986, a reactor exploded at a remote nuclear power plant in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. At first, local government officials tried to downplay the severity of the accident. But soon there were reports of abnormal radiation levels as far away as Sweden, and the name “Chernobyl” became notorious around the world.
Radioactive fallout spewed into the air for weeks, and a massive forced evacuation ensued. Almost 190 settlements were abandoned, and more than 350,000 people were eventually relocated. The cleanup efforts required over half a million soldiers, scientists, and laborers from all corners of the Soviet Union. Economic costs reached more than $18 billion U.S. dollars. Huge graveyards of planes, tanks, trucks, and trains were left to decay into rusty irradiated hulks, then buried in sand. Today, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is a closed military area covering over 1,000 square miles of contaminated territory.
You can learn these facts, and many more, at the Ukrainian National Chornobyl Museum in Kyiv, which my wife and I had visited the day before our excursion to the Exclusion Zone (this “unusual” spelling is actually the correct Ukrainian form, though most people are more familiar with the Russianized equivalent). The museum does an admirable job of conveying the shock and horror of the world’s most infamous nuclear accident. As you ascend the stairs to the main gallery, you’ll find ghastly black signs hanging from the ceiling, with the names of abandoned towns and villages crossed out by red lines. Eerie lights and haunted tree branches creep down from the walls. You’ll see the protective gear, thin and useless and heartbreaking, that was worn by the first “liquidators,” as the cleanup crews were called, and watch clips of them tossing chunks of radioactive waste off the roof of the blown-up reactor with their hands. There are frozen clocks and dead men’s wedding rings, pictures of ghosts in gas masks and a shaky handwritten letter from a prisoner dying in excruciating pain from radiation sickness. There’s even a glass box containing the grotesque mutated fetus of a pig.
The most shocking thing I saw at the museum, though, was a video of somber men in white lab coats, pushing buttons in a control room so outdated it looked like a Star Trek set. They wore pointy white hats and smoked cigarettes, their eyes darting in nervous zips away from the camera. According to the little sign next to the TV, they were gathered to commemorate the official, permanent shutdown of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, and they were doing this in 2000, nearly a decade and a half after the accident.
The worst nuclear meltdown in history, the panic-inducing disaster that had required the evacuation of everyone within 1,000 square miles, apparently had not been severe enough to stop work from continuing in the same building where the meltdown had occurred… for fourteen fucking years.
The men in pointy white hats looked pensive, sad, even bored. But they did not look afraid.
Fear is not a useful emotion, despite its fine reputation among vicious goons such as Kevin D. Williamson. When people like him speak in praise of “wonderful, salubrious fear,” they purposely confuse a few occasional side effects of fear–heightened alertness, instinctive decision making–with the essence of fear itself, which is crippling anxiety. They also ignore the fact that fear makes humans tremendously bad at judging the appropriate response to a given threat, which is why we worry more about terrorist attacks than traffic accidents.
However, there are some fears that do seem reasonable even if they aren’t particularly useful, and the fear of accidental nuclear annihilation is one of them.
According to energy researcher Benjamin K. Sovacool, there have been 99 significant accidents at nuclear power plants since 1952. Today, there are 450 of these plants scattered around the world. Anton Chekhov once wrote, “If in the first act you hang a pistol on the wall, in the next act you must fire it.” For the last 70 years, humanity has been busy hanging hundreds of pistols on every wall on Earth, and the only miracle is that so few of them have been fired so far.
Nuclear annihilation is an especially potent fear because, as pop culture teaches us, it has many ways to strike you and each one of them is more horrifying than the last. First, there’s the possibility that you could be vaporized without warning, your time on earth permanently extinguished before you have time to clear your browser history. Or you might be just far enough outside the initial explosion that you’d have time to take one last look at a giant blossoming mushroom cloud before you’re engulfed by an onrushing wall of flames. Or maybe you’re so far away that you don’t even see or hear anything, but then you start vomiting and losing your hair, and the next day you’re dead from radiation poisoning? Or maybe you’re even further away but the cancer still seeps into your bones and organs and brain? Or, god forbid, what if you somehow survive it all, but everything you eat or drink or touch is contaminated, and your children are born as hideous mutants?
This fear feels so vivid that we can’t even bring ourselves to tell stories about it. We just don’t want to think about such things. With the exception of recent schlock-horror flop The Chernobyl Diaries, Hollywood has never made a feature film about the Chernobyl meltdown. People find this particular type of fear too feasible, like race wars or global starvation.
Ever since the atom was first split, humans have feared that our nuclear future was likely to be a nasty, brutish, and short one. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the U.S.’s efforts to develop nuclear technology, was worried enough to quote the Bhagavad Gita, saying, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” He would spend the rest of his life trying to stop nuclear proliferation around the world.
On the whole, this seems like a good idea. Humanity doesn’t need more nuclear anythings, be they bombs or power plants. Call it “Chekov’s gun control.” But in our (justifiable) panic to put the nuclear genie back in its bottle, we’ve also infected people with some dangerously misguided fears.
In the case of Chernobyl, these fears have proven far more harmful than the meltdown itself. 30 years after the accident, a World Psychiatric Association report stated that “from a public health perspective, the biggest impact of the Chernobyl disaster throughout the years has been on mental health, specifically major depression, anxiety disorders, post‐traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), stress‐related symptoms, and medically unexplained physical symptoms.”
Ukrainians have borne the brunt of this psychological anguish, but the consequences of Chernobyl stretched across national borders. After the accident, countries as far away as Greece and Denmark reported spikes in terminations of otherwise wanted pregnancies, due to fears of mutation or radiation poisoning. The International Atomic Energy Agency estimated that between 100,000-200,000 abortions were induced in Western Europe alone. You don’t need to be an anti-choice fanatic to acknowledge that hundreds of thousands of human babies whose mothers wanted to have them should have been born, but were not, because of baseless fear, and this is probably not a good thing.
Now, for comparison, here’s another number: two. That’s the number of people who were killed in the Chernobyl explosion. Their names were Valery Ilyich Khodemchuk and Vladimir Nikolayevich Shashenok. Another 47 people would later perish as a direct result of the meltdown. Many of them were first responders and firefighters who sacrificed their lives on suicide missions into the smoldering reactor core, suffering hideous pain to prevent the damage from spreading. Their names, too, deserve our grief and respect. Sadly, the list of deaths may grow longer still. In a 2005 report for the UN, an international team of more than 100 scientists suggested that an additional 4,000 people may eventually die of causes related to radiation exposure from Chernobyl.
This is a tragedy. Every single human being who died as a result of the Chernobyl meltdown was a person like you or me. They didn’t want to leave this world so soon. They had favorite foods, beloved pets, and dreams for their futures that almost certainly did not involve dying in nerve-wracking pain while being prodded by government doctors. They deserved a better fate than that.
Still, these two things are true: What happened at Chernobyl was tragic, and the worst nuclear meltdown in history was, by itself, much less impactful than conventional wisdom or “common sense” would lead you to believe. In the words of Dr. Burton Bennett, who led the UN’s research:
This was a very serious accident with major health consequences, especially for thousands of workers exposed in the early days who received very high radiation doses, and for the thousands more stricken with thyroid cancer. By and large, however, we have not found profound negative health impacts to the rest of the population in surrounding areas, nor have we found widespread contamination that would continue to pose a substantial threat to human health, within a few exceptional, restricted areas.
This is a useful message if your goal is to give people hope and strengthen their spirits. However, it’s much less useful if you’re trying to make them terrified, resentful, and susceptible to nationalist pandering–a favorite pastime of right-wing Ukrainian politicians like former president Viktor Yanukovych and their well-paid American consultants like Paul Manafort, who was paid over $60 million to brainwash Ukrainian workers who earn an average of $200 a month. There are fortunes to be made in keeping the old lies alive.
Little wonder, then, that the truth has been so effectively suppressed.
However, some would argue that the only “truth” being suppressed is the massive death toll and permanent environmental devastation caused by the meltdown. The latest—and most persuasive—of these skeptics is Kate Brown, an MIT historian whose recent book Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to Future argues that the true human and environmental costs of the accident were suppressed by the international community, especially the Western nuclear powers, to avoid popular outrage. According to Brown, the real death toll was 35,000-150,000 people, and many types of flora and fauna have never recovered, leaving the Exclusion Zone with toxic berries and a lack of fruit flies. She argues that the tragedy was effectively whitewashed as part of an effort to downplay the long-term consequences of nuclear arms testing (and the hundreds of less-infamous accidents at other nuclear power plants).
Brown is a talented and eloquent writer, and her book has received rave reviews from many prestigious outlets. Science Magazine called it “meticulously researched” and “a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the local and global effects of Chernobyl and its continuing impacts.” The Guardian said it was “exemplary… written with skill and passion,” and praised it for “[avoiding] the fallacy of a redemptive ending.” The reviewer for the New York Times praised Brown’s “scrupulous efforts to check and double-check her data, consult with scientists from many fields, and account for factors that might skew results,” but fretted that “she may be accused of alarmism nonetheless.”
Alarmism might not be the right word for it: sensationalism would be more accurate. Although Brown’s aims are certainly admirable—she calls for a reckoning with our nuclear past, and a blueprint for surviving our nuclear future—the arguments she uses to support them are not. To the lay audience they may sound convincing, but the world’s top radiation scientists are less impressed. In the words of Dr. Jim Smith, a professor of environmental science at the University of Portsmouth, “I think it indicates something about the poor quality of this book when I have to point out that Manual for Survival gives credence to three claims that break current Laws of Physics.”
Smith’s criticism could be dismissed as sour grapes: after all, he does make an unflattering appearance in Brown’s book (although some might wonder why she chose to portray him as a desk-bound physicist when he’s a specialist in contaminated environments with around 40 trips to Chernobyl under his belt). However, the flaws he exposes in Brown’s argument are harder to ignore.
Writing in the Journal of Radiological Protection, Smith lays out how the book is riddled with errors, omissions, and what could generously be described as alternative facts. For example, she falsely claims that radiation is the only known cause of myeloid leukemia (the American Cancer Society says otherwise), she didn’t bother interviewing Sergei Gaschak for the section on wildlife (which is odd, since the Ukrainian biologist and former liquidator is the world’s foremost expert on the topic), and her conception of what constitutes an acceptable sample size for a scientific study seems to depend on whether she supports its conclusion or not.
Smith isn’t the only prominent scientist to take issue with Manual for Survival. Dr. Geraldine Thomas, professor of pathology at Imperial College and founder of the Chernobyl Tissue Bank, also has a bone to pick with Brown. In an interview with Michael Shellenberger of Forbes—whose review of the book also features a conversation with Brown that doesn’t do her argument any favors—Thomas said, “It is just not true that the scientists try to minimize the effects of radiation. It would actually be against their own best interests to do so. They are mostly academics and are required to produce large amounts of money and papers for their institutes. You would be expecting them to argue for larger effects of radiation as the more serious the health consequences the more the money flows.”
It’s not hard to understand why a book like Brown’s gets published (or praised): it has a noble cause, a compelling narrative, and a hook with massive global implications. That still doesn’t mean it’s true.
People visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone for many reasons. The abandoned buildings and haunted landscapes have attracted photographers, scientists, urban explorers, Soviet nostalgics, “experience” junkies, and hack writers ever since the Exclusion Zone was opened to the public in 2011. Last year almost 50,000 tourists came, mostly foreigners, many of them as repeat visitors.
As we drove through the flat and featureless Ukrainian plans, our guide Marek told us about an amateur historian from Germany who’d just made his 29th trip to Chernobyl. I thought he sounded like a tedious crackpot. But after spending a while in the Exclusion Zone myself, his infatuation is a bit easier to understand.
If you’re invigorated by traveling in places that inspire weird and uncomfortable ideas, Chernobyl is your Shangri-La. This is a place that gives you a clear understanding of how much senseless suffering results when our actions are guided by fear. Especially, and this is an important point to make, when those fears are inflamed and inflated by authority figures. The Exclusion Zone’s physical environment offers so many touchable manifestations of nationalist paranoia, bad science, and militant patriotism that you can’t help but recognize how harmful they are to human happiness.
Yet in many ways Chernobyl is also a hopeful place. Birds, fish, and wildlife are thriving there once again, and small groups of samosely, or “self-settlers,” have defied government orders and returned to their old homes (by all accounts, they’re doing just fine). Forests have regrown. Flowers have rebloomed. The goddamn mosquitoes never left. The land is resilient, and its people are, too.
To enter the Exclusion Zone, you must go through a military checkpoint. Special permits are required, along with special medical insurance and many other special and mysterious things that must be processed by a visibly hungover Ukrainian army guard before the boom gate is lifted and your vehicle is allowed to pass. As you might imagine, this is not a swift process. Brows must be wrinkled. Phone calls must be made. Forms must be signed. National security is at stake.
At last, our permits were approved and the guards waved us through the gate. As our van set off down the cracked asphalt road, my wife and I pressed our faces to the windows. The landscape was indistinguishable from our native Minnesota. Thick green forests stretched out in every direction, sprinkled every so often with tall fields of golden grass. Overhead was a pale blue sky streaked with whisps of white, a perfectly nice and unremarkable bit of terrain. I dozed off after the first few kilometers.
I was jolted awake when our driver spotted a herd of wild horses and slammed on the brakes. “Come on,” said Marek, beckoning us out of the van. The horses were grazing in a meadow across the road, a bit too far away to get a decent picture, so we just stood and stared at them for a few minutes. They didn’t even bother to look at us. “This is good place to be animal,” Marek said, “because here are no hunters. I think if I am horse, Exclusion Zone is heaven.” When we got back to the van, the driver informed us that he’d just seen a moose.
Our next destination was an abandoned summer camp for children. There we followed Marek into the woods, swatting at the bugs that buzzed around our ears. A patch of moss covered part of the trail. He warned us not to step on it, because these days the moss is the most radioactive thing in the woods. The German historian had learned this the hard way. “He step on too many mosses, so his boots was contaminate,“ said Marek. My wife asked what fate had befallen the poor fellow. “Eh, guards say his boots must stay in Exclusion Zone.”
Marek led us deeper into the forest, winding through a narrow tunnel of shrubs and trees. At last we came upon a clearing. “Here is where children sleep,” he said, pointing to some thin-walled plywood cabins covered with peeling, slightly ominous paintings of strange cartoon characters: ducks who were not quite Donald, mice who weren’t quite Mickey. A rusty seesaw, overgrown by weeds, groaned in the wind.
As a Westerner raised on a diet of James Bond thrillers and Tom Clancy spy novels, I felt a bit confused by what I was seeing. Surely this “summer camp” must have been some kind of front—a secluded brainwashing facility, or perhaps a Party-financed indoctrination center for the little comrades. But Marek said that he’d attended similar camps as a child, and mostly they just played football and roasted hot dogs. I was embarrassed to realize how, even as an avowed socialist, I’d unconsciously swallowed the Red Menace fear-pills that have been fed to me since birth.
The Duga radar station, on the other hand, seemed much more on-brand for the Soviets. After trekking through dense forest for over an hour, we reached the main control center of this massive and menacing installation. A huge skeletal grid of metal bars and tubes, it stood nearly 500 feet high and stretched almost 2,500 feet long, looming over the trees like a monstrous Connect Four set.
Once, the Duga had been the crown jewel of the Soviet anti-ballistic missile early warning system. It emitted a rapid, high-pitched tapping noise that could be heard on radio frequencies all over the world, earning it the nickname “the Russian Woodpecker.” Many defense experts in the West worried that it was some kind of Soviet mind control device, a fear that was spread by newsmen like Walter Cronkite on their nightly broadcasts.
The sound was so annoying that it could, in theory, drive you insane if you listened for too long, but that was pretty much the only threat the Duga posed to anyone. Despite a price tag of well over $7 billion U.S. dollars, the station was utterly useless, as detailed in the fascinating documentary The Russian Woodpecker, which makes an at-times convincing case that the Chernobyl reactor was sabotaged by a high-ranking bureaucrat who’d authorized the Duga’s construction in order to avoid being humiliated during a routine inspection.
Stumbling through the looted innards of the control center, it was easy to see why the Duga had never worked. The maps on the walls looked like they’d been drawn by amateurs with more enthusiasm than skill, and the scale model dioramas exhibited the kind of craftsmanship you’d usually find at a middle school science fair. The total lack of technological sophistication was almost charming. This had been the pride of the Communist war machine, the terror of Western airwaves, and it was about as dangerous as your grandmother’s toaster. Looking at the Duga, it was clear that in the Cold War arms race, the U.S. was Usain Bolt and the Soviets were two guys in a potato sack.
When I asked Marek how to climb to the top, he shook his head. “Some weeks ago, Ukraine government remove ladder. There was ‘stalker’, one of guys who make illegal visit to Exclusion Zone,” he said, wiping the sweat from the back of his neck. “He climb to top when drunk. Then he fall. Very far to ground. He dead, of course. So now you can’t go up.” He squinted up at the sun. “But, ah, if I don’t see…”
A few minutes later I’d shimmied my way halfway up the tower. The breeze, which had been so gentle and soothing back on the ground, had become much fiercer. The straps of my backpack whipped against my face, and the higher I climbed, the more I questioned my judgment. When I reached the top, though, I forgot my fear and just marveled at the view.
The vast Ukrainian plains spread out beneath me, a sea of greens and browns and yellows. I could see a small silver dome far in the distance, the site of the explosion, with its reactor now entombed in a radiation-proof sarcophagus. It seemed like such a tiny thing, an insignificant man-made dot amid the endless expanse of nature. It didn’t make sense that this little metal box had changed the course of millions of lives.
Chernobyl may be the world’s most famous ghost town, but the reputation is not quite deserved. For one thing, the town of Chernobyl itself is still inhabited—it has a general store, multiple hotels, at least one bar, even a post office. Workers from the power plant live there in rotating shifts for a few weeks at a time. They get bonus hazard pay and free military surplus clothing, which almost makes up for having to spend half their lives in a “town” with a few drab little pre-fabricated buildings and a 10:00pm curfew. Everything is isolated, colorless, sad, alive only in the most technical sense. In the early evenings you can see small groups of camo-clad men standing in the empty streets, drinking beer, and staring at their phones.
Most of them work at the nuclear power plant. Although it’s been decommissioned for years now, a lot of work still remains to be done. There are containment structures to maintain and radioactive waste to inspect, windows to wash and doors to guard. At mid-day, the workers pause their tasks and climb into vans, which drive them to lunch at a large cafeteria in a blocky gray building a few kilometers away from the plant. They pass through scanners that measure the radiation levels of their clothes and bodies, before heading upstairs to eat chicken, mashed potatoes, and dark purple borscht brought daily from Kyiv. Then it’s back to the plant, then back to their bleak little shared rooms, then back to drinking in the dimly lit streets, then back to bed, until it’s time to repeat the process again in the morning. Marek has friends among the workers, and he says they’re all half-mad with boredom.
Before the meltdown, the people who worked at the power plant lived much different lives. They didn’t live in the town of Chernobyl, first of all, but rather in a much larger and prettier settlement called Pripyat. Located about two kilometers away from the plant, Pripyat had been built in the 1970s as a model city for the bright young scientists and engineers who came to work there. Nearly 50,000 people once lived in its gleaming apartment towers and residence halls. Their average age was 26. It was a highly coveted honor to live in Pripyat, with its riverside cafés, pristine boulevards, and ambience of bucolic tranquility. When its inhabitants were forced to evacuate after the meltdown, many of them wept for days, because they knew they would never again live in a place of such peace and beauty.
Pripyat is where you’ll find the Exclusion Zone’s most dramatic images of ruin and decay. Lonely streetlights stand in the middle of the forest, and sunken boats can be seen from the riverside café. A broken grand piano sits on stage of the run-down theater, while puddles of foul water slosh at the bottom of a huge empty diving pool in the nearby sports center. Dirty pillars of concrete jut upwards from the slowly encroaching tides of vines and roots, relics of an already-vanishing civilization.
It’s also in Pripyat that you’ll be most sensitive to the kenopsia, “the eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that’s usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet…. an emotional afterimage that makes it seem not just empty but hyper-empty, with a total population in the negative, who are so conspicuously absent they glow like neon signs,” to quote the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Pripyat is a glimpse of a world where humans disappeared and life just went on without much fuss, where George Carlin’s famous words ring true: The planet was fine, it was the people who were fucked.
This was where we spent our final hours in the Exclusion Zone. Marek led us through the crumbling supermarket and the weed-choked soccer field, past the sinister yellow Ferris wheel and the broken-down bumper cars. He took us to one of the twenty local schools, where some morbid photographer had collected a pile of children’s gas masks that lay rotting on the cracked tile, and then to the hospital, where more grisly stagings awaited us (a psychologist could write a dozen books about the barely-suppressed death wish of a certain type of Exclusion Zone tourist). We climbed the stairs of a 16-story apartment building, stopping every few floors to poke our heads into one of the desolate two-bedroom units where young families used to live, gawking at their toilets and stepping over piles of broken glass in their bedrooms.
From the roof, we could see the grand central plaza of Lenin Square peeking out from a sea of green. A long grey building was topped with red Cyrillic letters that proclaimed: Let the atom be a worker, not a soldier. Marek chuckled when he translated the words for us. Those quaint, disingenuous Reds knew how to lay it on thick.
The sky began to turn the color of fire. As I stood at the roof’s edge, fidgeting with my camera settings, I glanced down at the bones of the city and spotted another tour group wandering through the weed-choked streets. For a second, I could almost imagine what Pripyat had been like before the meltdown, before Cold War fears had frozen the city in time.
I could picture people walking their dogs and going out for ice cream. I could hear friends chatting in restaurants and couples laughing in the park. I could feel the human energy of postal workers, fire fighters, bus drivers, math teachers, doctors, dentists, gardeners, janitors, managers, secretaries, and retirees all going about their days. They were buying bread, washing their cars, playing a game of tennis. They brushed their teeth, they ironed their shirts. They gossiped with their neighbors. They made love and celebrated their birthdays.
It seemed like they’d been happy.
This article was originally published in the November-December 2018 issue of Current Affairs.
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