Bjørn Harvig is this Danish guy who rides his bike everywhere. And by everywhere, we don't mean to visit his parents or to and from work. We're talking from Copenhagen to places like Iran, Mongolia, or Uzbekistan. He recently sent us this story from a trip he took to Chernobyl and the surrounding areas, where he found out some scary stuff about how radioactive furniture has been sold all over Ukraine and beyond, and the risks of a much greater, looming disaster that could spread 35 tons of radioactive dust across the world in no time.
Before I left Copenhagen I visited Viktoria and her husband. They're originally from Kiev, but came to Denmark in 1987. Viktoria told me she would never forget April 26th, 1986. She had been out with some friends and they were on their way home when a couple of military buses packed with people passed them on the road. At first she thought it was a bunch of people on their way to a party or a wedding, so she and her friends cheered and waved at them. But the buses kept coming. Hundreds passed. Thousands of people crammed together and coasting past them with empty faces. Viktoria was sure that a war had begun somewhere in the Soviet Union. It was the night Chernobyl's fourth reactor exploded, releasing into the air 90 times the amount of radioactive material caused by the Hiroshima bomb.
A common sign along the contaminated perimeter. This one is on the Belorussian side and says not to pick mushrooms or berries without the proper equipment, whatever that is.
Before I decided to visit the area surrounding the plant, a lot of Ukrainians asked me what I wanted to do there. Every Ukrainian has felt the consequences of the explosion in one way or another, and most would prefer to let sleeping dogs lie. Perhaps it's because the disaster hasn't affected my life, but I feel it's important not to forget. I felt going there would help me understand what actually happened that night in April--I wanted to understand an event that was fucked up beyond description. In Mads Eskesen's book, Chernobyl, 20 years--20 lives," he asks how long an explosion lasts. Is it over when the last blast wave dies out? When the last fires are put out? When the media can no longer be bothered to report on the extent of local devastation? I wanted to see for myself.
Two kids on roller skates who invited me in for a soda north of Kiev.
Travelling to Chernobyl, I rode through small villages with shabby and worn down shacks where old women tended kitchen gardens--the type of villages that seem to have only old people and small children living in them. Just beyond that rural bliss, five-story concrete expressions of provincial dread stood clawing at the skies. Occasional laundry hanging on a clothesline or some flowers on a balcony were the only indications that people were living behind the closed windows. Families in those small towns live there without warm water or central heating throughout the brutal Ukrainian winter.
I got a weird sensation in my stomach when I saw the first road sign for the city of Chernobyl. After reading so much about the area, it almost felt like Déjà vu. The closer I got, the more abandoned the villages. It was like approaching a warzone.
After the disaster it took the Soviet Government several days to inform the public--both local and international--that a catastrophe had occurred. A couple of Swedish scientists contacted the Swedish Government after registering an exceptional level of radioactivity in the air in northern Sweden. The government knew nothing about it, so they turned their attention towards their massive eastern neighbor. At this point, the spill at Chernobyl had generated a cloud that engulfed all of Europe. I read that the territories north of Chernobyl--today the Republic of Belarus--suffered from green rain in the days following the explosion. The Soviet Government, unbeknownst to the green rain sufferers, had released chemicals into the air to dissolve the highly radioactive clouds in an effort to keep them from spreading to larger Soviet cities.
I pitched my tent three miles outside of the prohibited area--a space roughly the size of Luxembourg. Approximately 300 inhabitants have returned home, despite discouragement from the government. Most of the people who have come back are elderly, have lived in the village their entire lives, and are unable to buy a new home.
The area is neatly barb-wired and military personnel check the papers of people coming and going. Opinions on the health hazards of visiting Chernobyl vary widely. Some think there is an increased risk of developing cancer, while others say there is no more radiation there than on a plane trip from New York to London. Maybe I was fooling myself, but to me the forest smelled strange and the soil around my camp was dead.
Along the bank of the Pripyat River where boats that used to bring materials and supplies to and from Chernobyl rust.
I woke up early, exited and a little nervous. Knowing that you are about to come face to face with something that caused such an unbelievable amount of destruction is unsettling.
You can't enter the area on your own as a tourist, so I parked my bike at the first military post and gave the senior officer a bottle of vodka for his assurance that he would "keep an eye on it." I then went to meet up with my guide, Dennis, and our driver, Boris.
A bird's eye view of the abandoned city of Pripyat, where 60,000 people used to live.
As soon as I climbed into the backseat, Boris asked me when we were going to drink vodka, a scene that pretty much sums up my travel companions. I explained to Dennis that I wasn't terribly interested in Chernobyl itself, and that I wanted to spend more time in the city of Pripyat. Pripyat is a few miles from the plant and was home to 60,000 people before the accident, most of whom worked at the plant.
The remnants of an amusement park in Pripyat.
The blue-collar city of Pripyat knocked the wind out of me and made me nauseous. It's fascinating to witness what a city morphs into when there are no longer any people in it. Pripyat was evacuated by the Soviet Government a couple of hours after Chernobyl blew, and people were told to pack only their most necessary belongings. They were promised they could return for the rest of their things at a later time, but the radiation was--and still is--so powerful that no one was allowed to come back.
A decrepit gymnasium in Pripyat.
In the days following the explosion people from Kiev drove to Pripyat, which was left unguarded, and looted all the homes. Isolation materials, toilet seats, light bulbs--anything of value was stolen and then sold at random Ukrainian markets, and the contaminated items spread like water ripples throughout the Soviet Union.
A main square in the city of Pripyat.
There are no cars in Pripyat. No noise. Only the sight of weeds scattered wherever the asphalt has cracked. There were trees shooting through a concrete staircase in the city's main square.
A nursery in Pripyat.
I went to a theater, a leisure center, a school, and abandoned apartments. In one apartment I saw a clock that had stopped at 1:23am, the exact time of the explosion. In nurseries I saw eerie dolls covered in dust left in rusty children's beds.
The Chernobyl plant in its crumbling concrete sarcophagus.
Chernobyl was massive and ugly. It's crazy to think that the plant wasn't closed down for good until 2001, or that the sarcophagus encapsulating it, built after the accident, started falling apart in 2004. A new one is being built however, because, as Dennis explains, "If it falls apart completely, the 35 tons of radioactive dust stored inside the reactor will spread across the world very quickly and we'll have ourselves a disaster even worse than the one in 1986." Dennis told me that 4,000 people are now employed at the plant, and since radiation is so harsh in certain areas, they work in 45-minute shifts.
When Chernobyl blew it only had four reactors, but numbers five and six were just weeks from completion, and plans to build four more were well underway. In its time, Chernobyl was one of the biggest nuclear plants in the Soviet Union, and, according to Dennis, there are still two operational plants in Russia today that are built from the same mould. One of these plants is only a few hours drive south of St. Petersburg.
A friendly grocer.
On my way back to Kiev I stopped at the grocer in Priborsk, 10 miles from Chernobyl. After a cup of coffee and several attempts at chatting with the locals, I found myself in the home of Tanya and her husband Mikhali. They live in a tanned brick house a bit off the main road and we had to walk across a big, sandy field before arriving at their front yard. A dog on a leash barked at me and a car radio blared Russian pop music. In one corner stood an outhouse with a small window carved into the door in the shape of a heart.
Me with Tanya and Mikhali in their living room.
I had to walk through a garden to get to the entrance of their house, and once I walked inside I found myself in a small kitchen, connected to the living room. The living room floor was covered in colorful carpets and curtains with floral patterns draped the windows. Tanya had a look in her eyes that conveyed a life hat had been lived. A look of dire grief and atrocious memories. Her husband, Mikhali, killed time by sucking on a bottle of booze.
I sat on their couch with my lap full of photo albums. There were loads of old pictures of two young boys in a country far from where we were, and it took me some time to figure out that they were Tanya and Mikhali's two sons. At that moment I understood where Tanya's telling gaze came from.
When Chernobyl blew, their eldest son, Sasha (Alexander), was one year-old and Tanya was already pregnant with Vasia (Vasily). To provide a better future for their children, both boys were sent to live with a foster family in Switzerland. A lot of so-called "Chernobyl children" were sent away in the years following the disaster. "We owe them our lives," Mikhali said when I asked him about the foster parents. As I understood it, they had not seen their children in 14 years and the pictures didn't provide much comfort. Sasha returned home a few years ago and now lives in Kiev, but they miss their children.
Tanya and Mikhali kept me up long into the night. We all sat on a bed in the guestroom listening to a boom box as they asked me to tell them about my bike ride. At some point the language barrier became non-existent even though I speak very little Russian and Ukrainian and they speak no English.
The next morning Mikhali offered to drive me back to Kiev, but I explained that I would rather ride my bike, out of principle. In reality, I think I felt they had already done too much. They had invited a stranger into their home and given me everything. I was overwhelmed and touched when I waved goodbye. I looked back over my shoulder a few times. They kept standing there, waving, until finally they were a pair of black dots and then they disappeared.
TEXT AND PHOTOS: BJORN HARVIG
TRANSLATION: HENRIK SALTZSTEIN
If you speak Danish, you can read more in Bjørn's book, Igors Æblehave.