Half-Life of Memory

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 …

* Walter Fust, Director of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. www.chernobyl.info