Report from the Dead Zone

by Andreas Rosenfelder

I wanted to go to the dead zone. I wanted to see if the post-apocalyptic world would look how we imagine it in our most morbid dreams. Whether the ionic fires crackles in the contaminated woods. Whether the gamma rays twinkle over the graveyards of heavy machinery. Chernobyl, it seemed, had to be more than just an ineffable place that our science teachers would reference some 20 years ago.

In April 1986, we were not supposed to drink fresh milk or eat salad, they explained. They gave us youth literature by Gudrun Pausewang, in which schoolgirls fled from radioactive clouds through endless fields of canola (a boring film was produced 20 years later from the material). In class we learned to fear radiation. I drew the warning signs for radiation onto my satchel, a grinning skull completed my logo.
Now I am standing on the border of the forbidden zone of Chernobyl, in front of Reactor 4, which on April 26th at 1:23 pm was blown apart by an explosion during an experiment with oxyhydrogen. About 100 meters in front of me the sarcophagus’ blue-grey walls, which entomb Reactor 4, gleam in the sunlight.

The display of the Geiger-meter in my hand climbs to 600-mille roentgen per hour. The casket leaks through cracks and holes, bird’s nest in its innards. Inside the sarcophagus, 185 tons of nuclear fuel, frozen into lava, continue to radiate. Inside the tomb, the body of mechanic Waleri Chodentschuk’s, the first known victim of the accident, which couldn’t be rescued, lies still.
During the three week long aftermath, hundreds of thousands of Soviet conscripts worked on the roof of neighboring Reactor 3, gathering the heavy graphite blocs with their bare hands, trying to throw them into the reactor. German precision robots had failed in attempts to clean the roof covered in radioactive matter. They ventured too close to the edge and fell into the abyss. The radiation burned through their sturdy circuits, rewiring them for suicide. 

In 1986, Soviet soldiers had to chose between life and death: two years in Afghanistan or two minutes on the roof of aforementioned reactor. In the images taken by daredevil photographer Igor Kostin, you see the callous, almost mocking stares of the soldiers protected merely by thin Kevlar jackets from WWII. The mysterious calm of these liquidators, some say, is inherent in Eurasian culture. They accept their own fate.
The dead zone surrounding the reactor, which was drawn with compasses onto the map by the military, cast a magical spell on people, even those who met their death in the moments after the explosion. Fire brigades recalled cesium glinting in the sunshine like beautiful crystals. Farmer’s wives reported they’d plucked strontium from their beet plants as if they were rare black petals. Of course radiation itself is invisible. Only on the Super 8 footage of a wedding, shot one day later not far from the catastrophe, were peculiar white specks from the gamma rays interfering with the film distinguishable. Fishermen returned from the riverbanks with a deep tan, although summer was a long way off.

Myths began creeping around the zone like poison ivy only days after the incident. Wolves howled in despair, gathering on the concrete-covered mass graves for pets, which were executed by special military units in the aftermath. They must have felt the warmth of decay. Rumors spread about hedgehogs without spikes, three-headed birds and red rats, which at night gnawed drunken people to their bones. The more profound than the biological mutations was the aesthetic metamorphosis: the forbidden area instantly became a parallel world where everything looked familiar, but at the same time had mutated at the core.
A heavy blanket of snow covers the area. Our white VW bus stops at a junction overlooking oblong hills. A whole kolkhoz is buried under the hills: the houses, the machinery even the earth itself. On top of these grave-mounds the radiation comes up to 50.000 micro roentgen. “Snow swallows beta radiation,” Maxim, our guide from Interinform-Centre informs me, “but not the gamma rays.” Gamma rays eat their way through matter like little needles. If you stood on those graveyards, you would be riddled by an invisible blaze of gunfire.

After Chernobyl, Europe was charged with radiation phobia. Fear penetrated everything. But there is another opposing force, a peculiar kind of magnetism. Chernobyl’s remaining aesthetic radiation may be more dangerous and powerful than the actual radiation. Chernobyl projects, like no other place, a collective yearning for a parallel world, a desire only satisfied with the confines of a cinema, while watching films like Blade Runner.

As we pass the “Red Forest”, an evergreen wood that was colored red overnight by fallout, we reach the pinnacle of radiation, located right next to a flame cast in concrete: the logo of the power station. Outside of our car, Maxim declares proudly the radiation has now reached 3000 micro roentgens. Inside the car the dosimeter reads only 420. It seems as if we’re navigating microwaves in a spaceship. Out there, the air must burn like fire.

Some seared pine stems and young birches grow where the Red Forest used to be. Behind a wall of fog, I can vaguely make out the silhouette of the military camp “Chernobyl 2”: a 150m tall Radio antenna broadcasting out-of-control conspiracy theories. Rumor has it the Soviets used the antenna for mind-control tests on the reactor operators before the catastrophe and, by accident, altered their judgment.
Endless power lines slice the steppe of the death zone. A genuine eagle swoops across them. In this noble moment, Tarkowski should spring to mind. His elegiac 1979 movie Stalker is also set in a mysterious forbidden area.

The forbidden city Pripyat – wrapped in barbed wire and guarded by military since the incident – resonates a defining silence. The depopulated concrete desert, built in 1970 for and by young engineers and their families feels like a bizarre mix of Beirut, East-Berlin today. Anatoli Fradis, a Hollywood producer with Ukrainian roots shot the trailer to the zombie movie “Necropolis” here. And even if the film was a total disaster, it is hard to imagine a more appropriate setting for a zombie movie.
In 1986 Pripryat had 50.000 inhabitants; the average age was 26. You don’t need panels about rural exodus or studies about changing demographics to get a taste of our future. The amusement park in the center, scheduled for inauguration on May 1st 1986, is considered particularly contaminated. A helicopter crashed between the bumper carts and the ferris wheel in an attempt to put out the fire in the reactor with sand. Maxim strides through the territory with self-assured calm and finds fresh wolf traces in the snow. The plutonium isotopes will continue to radiate here for another 40.000 years.

I wanted to find out what radiation really is. I got a dosimeter with a digital display, nothing glittered. I felt a faint crackle in my throat and realized to my relief that I had had it in the morning when I left the hotel. Nevertheless all these ridiculous thoughts cross my mind the tales of mutations from comic books and movies. Will I turn into a green hulk? Or shrink like “Grant Williams in the 1957 movie “The Incredible Shrinking Man? Maxim leads me to a dosimeter in the information center. The machine looks like a cheap and stupid fortune-tellers apparatus on a provincial fair. When I put my hands onto the contact interface the display lights it’s green light. “This machine is very sensitive” Maxim smiles when he sees my face clouded in doubt. “It is 20 years old and works perfectly.” I was in the death zone. I am not contaminated.   ◊

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