The Chernobyl Local

by Tim McGlone (Australia)

Making a local connection Ukraine


It’s disconcertingly quiet. Although it might not be winter, those famously cold Eastern winds are blowing and it feels like it is. We walk right down the middle of the road we’re on; there’s no need to worry about traffic in Pripyat. It is an unusual group of eight that are visiting; three Australians, two Poles, a middle-aged Ukrainian couple, plus our Ukrainian tour leader Natalia. In the days following April 26, 1986, some 120,000 people were evacuated from towns surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in northern Ukraine, with Pripyat the largest of these. Experts believe the catastrophic nuclear disaster that occurred has rendered the town uninhabitable for at least 200 years. Tours now run through the Chernobyl ‘exclusion zone’, an area extending 30km in every direction from the site of the nuclear reactor. On the two-hour bus drive from Kiev I attempt light conversation with the Ukrainian husband and wife but receive only gruff grunts in response. Each to their own, I suppose. At the entry to the zone, we are handed Geiger counters to measure radioactivity, a somewhat ominous gesture that I pretend not to be concerned at. The tour follows the very long, very wide gravel road which is the town’s main artery, but Natalia stops us routinely. She leads us off the bus into what always appears to be total jungle, only for an abandoned kindergarten or town hall to suddenly emerge from obscurity. Soviet propaganda adorns the walls of the town hall and a statue of Lenin remains, a step back in time to the world’s biggest social experiment. A Ferris wheel sits eerily at a theme park that was scheduled to open a week after the disaster, a joy-ride never ridden. A darkly ironic twist can be found at the primary school, where piles and piles of unused gas masks (to be used in the event of a nuclear disaster) are found. All through the tour the Ukrainian husband is clearly impatient, bickering with Natalia and wanting to get on with things. I wonder why he would spend the money on a tour if he couldn’t be bothered looking around? He is solidly built, and somewhat thuggish looking, like a member of an Eastern European mafia. I’m told his name is Oleksiy. We stand on the terraces of Avanhard Stadium, where the local football team was once cheered on. We walk past abandoned cars, shops and homes. Some houses are a wild jungle, some are decaying but still distinguishable as places where human beings once lived. The domed roof of the doomed nuclear reactor Number Four looms ominously on the horizon all throughout. When we eventually reach it, Oleksiy seems even grumpier than before, and decides to stay on the bus. As the sun sets we arrive at the final stop, a former hotel with a rooftop area that overlooks Pripyat. The hotel is central and as a result, you can see everything that is (or, was once) a part of the town. But this is not what catches my eye. The thing that I notice is Oleksiy, looking out over the overgrown forest that now strangles the town, tears streaming down his face. His wife, who is consoling him, looks at me solemnly and I suddenly understand. Oleksiy has been here before. He is from here. This is likely the first time he has returned since he was evacuated, presumably as a boy. This is confirmed by Natalia. We know no more, nor do we press the issue. A pat on the back is all we can offer. I feel guilty at my original misconceptions. When we arrive back in Kiev, I thank Natalia for her tour and begin to look for a drink. Just as I am about to leave, I feel a hand on my arm. It’s Oleksiy. “Thank-you, thank-you,” he is saying, shaking hands with everyone. The dramatic transformation from rough, impatient thug to warm-hearted Eastern European is complete. “You come to Ukraine anytime.” It seems I have made a local connection, even if he is local to a ghost town.