Chernobyl Tourism6 min read

 In Analysis, Culture, Eastern Europe

Another day, another army of tourist buses. Such is the new normal in the Zone: the 1000-square-mile exclusion zone in northern Ukraine, created by the Soviet authorities after the fatal explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. In April 1986, a design fault in one of the reactors combined with human error to cause the worst nuclear accident in global history, releasing vast amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere and rendering the surrounding area uninhabitable. Today, Chernobyl has become one of Ukraine’s top tourist attractions, receiving over 17,000 visitors in October 2019 alone. 

Since 2010, the level of radiation in the Zone has been deemed safe for tourists, although it is still at a considerably high level, with certain areas recording up to 1.2 millisieverts per hour – about half of the average radiation recorded in the UK over an entire year. Accordingly, access is restricted to those in the company of a specialist tour guide and all visitors are subject to radiation checks at the border of the exclusion zone. This has not deterred large numbers of tourists, many of whom carry their own Geiger counters and even eagerly compete to find the most radioactive ‘hotspots’. 

The emergence of this rather bizarre form of tourism has largely been courtesy of the popular HBO series Chernobyl, which dramatised in vivid detail the events leading up to the catastrophe and its post-apocalyptic aftermath. A cursory Google search reveals a whole host of companies inviting tourists to “take a trip to the other side of the TV screen”, promising a visceral experience that gives fans of the series the chance to “put themselves in the shoes” of the fated scientists Legasov and Scherbyna and “experience life as lived by the first liquidators of the power plant”. Tour companies have certainly capitalised on this new niche, with tourists happily forking out $20 for a drab lunch of watery borscht and grey potato salad in the old power plant canteen, all in the name of supposed authenticity. 

Needless to say, this is not a phenomenon that is unique to Chernobyl. The Columbian city of Medellin, for example, has been swamped by fans of the Netflix series Narcos, having become synonymous with its protagonist, the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar. Yet, while the Columbian authorities have resisted this kind of tourism – to the extent of ceremoniously demolishing Escobar’s former residence in Medellin last year – in the case of Chernobyl it has been actively encouraged.

In July 2019, the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky announced plans to develop the area for tourists, which would include the construction of walking trails, improvement of mobile phone reception and the lifting of restrictions on filming. Speaking at the inauguration ceremony for the new metal dome now encasing the destroyed reactor, Zelensky declared that Chernobyl was “a unique place on the planet where nature was reborn after a huge manmade disaster”, asserting that it was time for Ukraine to “show this place to the world: to scientists, ecologists, historians and tourists”. 

Visiting Chernobyl, it’s easy to see his point. Where human life was forced out, nature moved in, with all manner of flora and fauna flourishing amid the concrete ruins of a civilisation gone by. At the same time, the historical significance of the area is palpable. Walking through the abandoned city of Pripyat, you get a very real sense of a world frozen in time – supermarket trollies in the middle of aisles, schoolbooks open on desks, portraits of Brezhnev prepared for the upcoming May Day celebrations. 

As a model socialist city built in the 1970s, Pripyat also offers unique insight into the bullish optimism of late Soviet socialism. With hotels, a theme park, and even one of the Soviet Union’s first Western-style supermarkets, it was billed as a top destination for Soviet tourists at a time when the future of the Soviet system still seemed secure. No one could have predicted that just a few years later, the ensuing disaster at Chernobyl would expose the rotten core of this system, accelerating the process of liberalisation that would eventually sound the death knell for the seventy-year Soviet project.

Thirty years on and Pripyat has finally received the droves of tourists that it was built for. Only now, the attraction lies not in the promise of Soviet futurism but rather the aesthetic appeal of its concrete wreckage. There is something of a cruel irony as the once state-of-the-art facilities have become little more than a playground for SLR-wielding travel bloggers and Instagram influencers – perhaps not quite what the communist forefathers had hoped for. 

Of course, the dark side of all this is the human cost of the disaster. In the days and months after the accident, lies and deception characterised the response of a regime willing to sacrifice any number of lives in its desperation to save face. While Communist apparatchiks and their families quickly fled to safety, the ordinary residents of Chernobyl were urged to carry on as normal, even as radiation spewed out of the burning reactor core. 

Eventually, over 350,000 people from more than 200 villages were evacuated from the area, losing their homes and livelihoods overnight. Meanwhile, the 600,000 workers tasked with the clean-up operation were gravely exploited by the authorities, being ordered to shovel fatally radioactive graphite at huge cost to their personal health. This has had significant long-term consequences, with a sevenfold increase in DNA mutations having recently been identified in the children of the liquidators. 

Yet, the stories of these victims have not been central to the effort to attract tourists to Chernobyl.  Instead, Zelensky has been eager to project a positive image of Chernobyl centred on the regeneration and recovery of the surrounding natural area, while seemingly capitalising on the recent popularity of the TV series. Amid the ongoing secessionist conflict waging in the east of Ukraine, this comes at a time when the country is particularly keen to claim a positive and distinctive national brand for itself.  

Understandable though this is, selling Chernobyl for its contemporary attraction rather than its historical significance runs the risk of commodifying the former disaster zone to the point of triviality. The Paris-style love locks appearing on structures around the Zone certainly suggest it’s already heading in this direction, as do the shops selling nuclear-themed T-shirts and ‘radioactive’ ice cream. Gimmicks though they may be, they indicate that while good intentions may underlie government efforts to increase tourism to the area, Chernobyl may become shaped more by its TV recreation than its lived history.  

That said, there is still real potential for Chernobyl to become a powerful site of commemoration and education, of the likes of the Auschwitz memorial in Poland or the 9/11 museum in New York. For all the importance of tourism, the memory of Chernobyl should not be erased as Ukraine embraces its former black sheep. After all, even if it has HBO to thank for the influx of tourists to Chernobyl, Ukraine should be able to tell its own history.

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