Petrified ruin: Chernobyl, Pripyat and the death of the city

Excerpt from Paul Dobraszczyk

On the 25th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, Chernobyl, the ongoing crisis of Fukushima’s reactor breakdown has raised questions worldwide about the desirability of nuclear power, those questions are already fading. At the same time it is apparent that the research into the impact of the social, biological and ecological dimensions of  ‘Chernobyl’ has not been searching enough and that we have not really grasped the full implications of what knowledge there is. When the supposed “process of modernisation” itself is what threatens to ruin our cities (and ecosystems) – what can dystopias (real or imagined) teach us about loss, rejuvenation and the possibilities for a better future?

View along a first-floor corridor in one of Pripyat's former schools. Source: Author.

View along a first-floor corridor in one of Pripyat's former schools. Source: Author.

The city has always been haunted by representations of its own ruin, whether brought about by external forces—earthquake, fire, war, disease—or by internal processes, such as moral corruption, overpopulation or social strife (Berman, 1996, 1). In the modern era—that of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation—such fears took on renewed force, when the modernising process itself threatened to turn the physical and social fabric of the city to ruins (2). Today, in the light of rampant growth, social segregation, environmental threats, and wars and terrorists that deliberately target urban areas, cities are increasingly viewed as sites of ruination, fear and decay, rather than progress and growth (Graham, 2004, 3). Coupled with a century or more of apocalyptic visions of ruined cities in literature and cinema and a recent emphasis on realistic visions of urban destruction in many post-apocalyptic films and computer games, the links between real and imagined ruination are becoming increasingly blurred (Davis, 2002, 4). On the one hand, the imagination of disaster offers an escape from confrontation with the ‘inconceivable terror’ of annihilation (Sontag, 1965, 5); on the other, it provides a means by which the incommensurable can be linked with the concrete—a way of coming to terms with overwhelming ruin, (6). If we are to imagine the death of our cities, how might their possible ruin be represented in a way that helps us adequately respond to that very possibility?

I explore this question through an experience of a particular place: the site of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, which I visited in October 2007 through a tourist agency in Kiev. The facts about Chernobyl are well known: early in the morning of 26 April 1986, a series of explosions destroyed the building and reactor number four of the Chernobyl nuclear station. The enormous quantities of radioactive material that were released contaminated vast geographical areas from Greece to Sweden.3 A 30-kilometre exclusion zone was set up around the site and the vast majority of inhabitants, including the 49,000 people that lived in the purpose-built town of Pripyat, were evacuated. Today, people are slowly returning to villages and farms in the zone, but Pripyat still stands empty.

My visit was a hybrid form of tourism: self-organised with a friend and employing, through a Kiev travel agency, a driver/guide who worked at the site. Consisting of both strict guidance—to the destroyed reactor—and free exploration—in the ruined town of Pripyat—the visit incorporated elements of both dark tourism and urban exploration. As one former visitor has argued, Chernobyl is not a right place for tourism because it is not yet a historical site, rather ‘a place of tragedy still’ (Wall, 2004, 7). My uncomfortable sense of being a voyeur onto an ongoing catastrophe led to a long period of reflection and research after the visit that would eventually result in this paper. Through descriptions of my own visit to the decaying buildings in Pripyat, I relate my experience to recent evaluations of the significance of industrial ruin and to the ‘voices’ of those who once lived there. Throughout, I use my own images—in this case, photographs—as a way of elucidating how I am representing the experience, and I relate these to wider representations of the site. Finally, I explore the place of Chernobyl and Pripyat in the context of wider representations of the ruined city, particularly those in film. Within the cinematic iconography of apocalypse, the ruined city is an enduring motif, whether pictured in an imagined future, distant past or apocalyptic present. I assess the nature of representations of urban apocalypse from the 19th century onwards, suggesting that they were, and still are, a means by which overwhelming ruin can be appropriated to a comprehensible human scale.

Reactor, model, sarcophagus

The model of the destroyed reactor being explained by Chernobyl's information officer. Source: Author.

"If architectural models normally present a building as constructed or imagined so, this model displays the very reverse: a constructive rendering of past destruction that is now, and will always be, hidden from view." The model of the destroyed reactor being explained by Chernobyl's information officer. Source: Author.

Detail of the model showing the destroyed reactor (b) and the improvised methods of salvage—wooden palettes holding up a ceiling (c). Source: Author.

Detail of the model showing the destroyed reactor (b) and the improvised methods of salvage—wooden palettes holding up a ceiling (c). Source: Author.

This model of ruin is also counterbalanced by the present status of the reactor as monument or sarcophagus, as it is commonly known. In order for the safe decay of the huge quantities of radioactive material inside the reactor, a protective structure will need to be in place for 10,000 years.

This sarcophagus currently consists of giant slabs of concrete mounted in haste by robots and helicopters in the months after the accident. Gaps have opened up in the walls and the roof is not fixed down, being simply laid on the top of the walls (Alexievich, 1999, 8). The danger of collapse has led to a new ‘final solution’ being put forward to house the sarcophagus, a 20,000-ton steel arch to be built over the existing structure (Riebeek, 2003, 9).

The reactor sarcophagus has become a primary symbol of the accident for those still living with its consequences. Given its name by the Soviet president Gorbachev and his government officials shortly after construction had began, the name resonated with the Soviet Union’s most famous precedent, the sarcophagus which houses the body of Lenin in the Moscow Kremlin. According to Adriana Petryna, this symbolic association was intended to incite, in the face of the Chernobyl disaster, ‘a sense of physical, moral, and spiritual rejuvenation within the Soviet population’ (1995, 10). However, the improvised and unsafe nature of the reactor sarcophagus undermined this lofty symbolism in that it failed to ‘fulfil its role as a foolproof container of that which is dead, ruined, and still dangerous’ (Phillips, 2004, 11). In fact, the literal meaning of the word sarcophagus in ancient Greek—a kind of stone that consumed the flesh of corpses laid in it—has come to be more directly associated with post-Chernobyl symbolism.

Heartbreaking accounts of dying workers involved in the construction of the sarcophagus and the suffering of the ‘children of Chernobyl’ were ways in which survivors articulated the incomprehensible effects of the accident (Phillips, 2004, pp. 167-169; Alexievich, 1999). For Chernobyl’s witnesses, the body sensed and directly experienced what the mind could not know; the sarcophagus was not a closed space as was supposed because it had already poisoned ‘everything within and without it’ (Alexievich, 1999, p. 20).

Pripyat

A broken strip light hangs from the ceiling in the first-floor level of a former supermarket in Pripyat. Source: Author.

A broken strip light hangs from the ceiling in the first-floor level of a former supermarket in Pripyat. Source: Author.

The strange mixing up of conventional notions of ruin and monument that emerge from experiencing the Chernobyl sarcophagus are further complicated by the ruined town of Pripyat, one kilometre north-west of the reactor. Founded in 1970 to house construction workers and staff of the Chernobyl power plant, it was known officially as ‘atomograd’, that is, the town of atomic scientists and workers. Pripyat was planned as an exemplary socialist town, based on the modernist blueprint of high-rise standardised blocks of apartments broken up by wide boulevards and vegetation, and uniformly angled streets to reduce traffic congestion (12). Pripyat represents the realisation of the utopian modernist city within a Soviet context: its population matched the communist ideal of 50,000 (Bater, 1989, 13) and it was equipped with model public facilities, including the luxury Polissya hotel, a palace of culture, theatre and cinema, 20 educational establishments, a state-of-the-art swimming pool and sports centre, two stadiums and an amusement park, due to open just days after the accident. Such was the model status of Pripyat that it became one of the most prosperous towns in the Ukraine and was frequently visited by Soviet town planners and government officials. Yet, as with the reactor nearby, Pripyat’s model status is now ironic: its crumbling buildings and empty streets are set against the now eternal reactor sarcophagus, seen from every rooftop of the town’s buildings (Figure).

Children's toys left on the chair of a rusting carousel in the amusement park in Pripyat, due to open just four days after the accident on 26 April 1986. Source: Author.

Children's toys left on the chair of a rusting carousel in the amusement park in Pripyat, due to open just four days after the accident on 26 April 1986. Source: Author.

The recognition of human loss in the remains of Pripyat serves to highlight the problematic nature of representing ruins. Ever since John Ruskin attacked Victorian picturesque images of ruin as indulging a delight that suspended any human implications, images of ruins have run the risk of obscuring the human loss that is always part of their story (Ruskin, 1904, 14). In particular, photographs of ruin have played a significant role in the ideology of war and its resultant destruction: from the political use of photographs from both sides in the American Civil War in the 1860s, to images of ruined buildings in Berlin after the Second World War, which served as ‘perpetual warnings against militarism’ to its peacetime citizens (Roth, 1997, 15). By fixing ruins in photographic images, we might think that we are merely documenting or capturing forms in space, but photographs always, in some sense, frame and represent ruin in order to create a distance between viewers and the events to which the photographs bear witness (Merewether, 1997, 16).

Gynaecological chair and gas mask in the grounds of the former hospital in Pripyat. Source: Author.

Gynaecological chair and gas mask in the grounds of the former hospital in Pripyat. Source: Author.

As if speaking through the children’s toys left on Pripyat’s rusting carousel (above), a former resident, Nikolai Fomich Kalugin, stated that ‘[w]e had lost more than a city, we had lost an entire life’. After being evacuated from Pripyat and being forced to leave all belongings behind, he returned to his apartment two years later to retrieve the front door, which was, for him a ‘talisman’, ‘[a] family relic. My father was laid out on that door … Our whole life is written on that door. How could I leave it?’ He would later lay his own daughter on the same door, a victim of radiation sickness caused by the accident (Alexievich, 1999, pp. 32-33). For another former resident, who was born and grew up in Pripyat, the loss was incomprehensible: ‘[h]ow can you believe what you can’t understand? No matter how hard you try, you can’t understand it. I remember so well: we left, and the sky was so blue’ (Alexievich, 1999, p. 86). This account stresses the powerlessness of existing ways of thinking to comprehend and represent the effects of the disaster.

For Pripyat’s former residents, in response to their incomprehension, everyday objects and memories were invested with an almost cosmic significance around which the loss of an entire world could be articulated. In this context, the ruins of Pripyat became a testament not only to the violence of systematic looting which robbed these witnesses of precious sources of memory, but also to the collapse of shared values and the social cohesion they engendered. Before the accident, Pripyat’s residents were a collective community provided with model Soviet facilities; afterwards, they were re-housed in European-style suburbs, where ‘there was a new, unusual feeling, an awareness that each of us had his own individual life’ that generated an all-encompassing sense of confusion and loss (Alexievich, 1999, p. 131).

Ruined cities, dystopian representations

Soviet socialist paintings stored in a room in the former palace of culture in Pripyat. Source: Author.

Soviet socialist paintings stored in a room in the former palace of culture in Pripyat. Source: Author.

Photographs of Pripyat’s ruins can be framed within the wider context of a long history of dystopian and post-apocalyptic representations of civilisation and its cities. Since the rise of the modern industrial city in the 19th century, visions of its ruin have functioned as a counter-current to the dominant discourse of progress and improvement (Williams, 2008, 17). Originating in Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man (1826), the ruined city has become a standard trope within literary and particularly filmic post-apocalyptic visions. Cinematic imagery of future urban ruin was initially centred on critiques of social segregation, with Metropolis (1926) drawing heavily on 19th-century literary visions of violent class conflict overwhelming the industrial city. After the unprecedented urban destruction of the Second World War and the advent of the Cold War, this filmic apocalyptic imagery focused more on the threat of nuclear annihilation. As Mick Broderick has demonstrated, from the 1950s to the early 1990s, cinema has presented a rich variety of representations of urban ruin: semi-documentary films picturing preparation for nuclear war and its survival, such as The War Game (1965); actual experience of nuclear war in the city and its horrifying effects, such as Threads (1985); and post-apocalyptic visions of survival long after a nuclear war, such as Planet of the Apes (1968), The Road Warrior (1981) and Delicatessen (1990). Since Broderick’s survey, the Cold War has ended and the perceived nuclear threat receded; yet, contemporary warnings about catastrophic climate change and international terrorism have informed a raft of recent post-apocalyptic films that draw on sophisticated computer-generated special effects that blur the boundary between reality and fiction. The ‘real-time’ destruction by extraterrestrials and the earth’s natural forces seen in films like The War of the Worlds (2005) and 2012 (2009), respectively, mirrors that seen in everyday television images of ruins created by the technology of modern warfare and terrorism, with the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in 2001 offering a conflagration of spectacular imagery of ruin played to millions in ‘real time’ (Davis, 2002, pp. 4-6; Smith, 2006, 18).

Poster for the film (2005).

Poster for the film (2005).

Until recently, the ruins of Pripyat have remained off-limits for filmmakers due to their contamination, and remain so for films that require extensive time spent on site. Yet, only two days were required in 2004 for the shooting of Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis (2005), a film universally derided on its release, that features a colony of zombies introduced into Chernobyl’s zone, battled by human visitors (Macnab, 2004, 19, 20). More celebrated uses of Pripyat’s spaces are seen in recent award-winning computer games: both S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl (2007) and its sequels Clear Sky (2008) and Call of Pripyat (2009) are set in Chernobyl’s zone in 2011, merging Tarkovsky’s science fiction with authentic photographs of Pripyat to create a landscape of ‘wonder and death’ in which the game player battles with mutant zombies and other monsters before a final confrontation with something more fatal and threatening at the centre of the zone (21).

Even more so than films, computer games demonstrate the blurring of the actual and the virtual (Graham, 2004, p. 190). In these games the spaces of Pripyat, although constructed from real photographs, function as a kind of stage set, subjugated to an atmosphere of eerie mystery and constant danger. With their origins in cyberpunk in 1980s America, these games attach zero value to the human consequences of Pripyat’s ruin; instead, post-apocalyptic ruin becomes a playground for dreams of escape (Sponsler, 1993, 22).

The reactor sarcophagus as seen from the roof terrace of the Polyssia hotel in Pripyat. Source: Author.

The reactor sarcophagus as seen from the roof terrace of the Polyssia hotel in Pripyat. Source: Author.

Pripyat has been dubbed by one commentator the ‘modern Pompeii’ (Todkill, 2001, 23) and the sense of it being frozen in time suggests an uncanny effect similar to that described by Freud and realised in post-apocalyptic cinema. As Dylan Trigg has argued, the uncanny sense of emptiness that results from contemplating modern industrial ruins like Pripyat is quite different from the feelings generated by ruins that are deliberately preserved for posterity: rather the very formlessness of industrial ruins overpowers the onlooker’s ability to make sense of them, creating instead a sensation of ‘vertiginousness’ (Trigg, 2006, 24). Experiencing at first hand the ruined spaces of Pripyat is at once both familiar and alienating: on the ground one is drawn into the familiar—the supermarket, the apartment, the hotel, the hospital, the school—but disorientated by the unfamiliar, oppressive emptiness. With its insistent visual reminders of human loss, the direct experience of Pripyat impedes the observer’s ability to obtain the distance necessary for aesthetic appreciation, therefore limiting the power of photography or other means of representation. Rather, the ruined city becomes part of the observer, continually frustrating and overwhelming any attempts to resolve or understand its spaces. Pripyat is uncanny because it is a familiar place in which one feels homeless—helpless in the face of forces beyond one’s understanding. It is this sense of helplessness that links the experience of Pripyat with our present-day concerns about the possible future ruin of our cities, whether forced upon us by climate change or other hostile forces. Experiencing a petrified city like Pripyat challenges any attempt to create a safe distance from the incomprehension that goes with this experience, the resultant sense of helplessness mirroring current anxieties about the uncertain future of our own cities. In this context, helplessness may then be conceived as a positive, life-enhancing response to the inevitable and even, according to Richard Sennett, a quality of being that stimulates an enhanced awareness of others (1994, 25). If the voices of Chernobyl and Pripyat are to speak to us clearly, they must do so through the ruin that bears witness to them, and through the pain that defines their own continuing helplessness and the solidarity created when that pain is acknowledged and shared—’our only capital’ according to one witness (Alexievich, 1999, p. 111). In this sense, ruins become the foundation on which to build the future.

See full article here.
Paul Dobraszczyk is a postdoctoral research fellow undertaking the AHRC-funded project ‘Designing Information for Everyday Life, 1815-1914′. He is in the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, University of Reading, 2 Earley Gate, Whiteknights, Reading RG6 6AU, UK.

Notes

  1. Berman, M. Crow, D. (ed) (1996) Falling towers: city life after urbicide. Geography and Identity: Exploring and Living Geopolitics of Identity pp. 172-192. Maisonneuve Press , Washington, DC
  2. The notion of urban modernisation as ruinous was given its most powerful expression in Walter Benjamin’s unfinished study The Arcades Project, assembled from 1927 to 1940 and translated into English in 1999 by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
  3. Graham, S. (2004) Postmortem city: towards an urban geopolitics. City 8: (2) , pp. 165-196.
  4. Davis, M. (2002) Dead Cities and other Tales The New Press , New York
  5. Sontag, S. (1965) The imagination of disaster. Against Interpretation Vintage , London
  6. Adrian Atkinson has explored the possible ruin of metropolitan life in some detail in City in his trilogy of articles ‘Cities after Oil’ (11(2), 11(3) and 12(1)). Like Atkinson I ask how we might ‘face the truth’ of what to many is still an unacceptable prospect (Atkinson, 2007, p. 294)
  7. Wall, I. (2004) Postcard from hell. The Guardian
  8. Alexievich, S. Bouis, A. (ed) (1999) Voices from Chernobyl: Chronicle of the Future Aurum Press , London
  9. Riebeek, H. (2003) A new coffin for Chernobyl. Spectrum, IEEE 40: (3) , pp. 30-31.
  10. Petryna, A. (1995) Sarcophagus: Chernobyl in historical light. Cultural Anthropology 10: (2) , pp. 196-220.
  11. Phillips, S. (2004) Chernobyl’s sixth sense: the symbolism of an ever-present awareness. Anthropology and Humanism 29, pp. 159-185.
  12. See http://pripyat.com/en/city/visiting-card/2005/07/28/230.html for a history and description of the town based on architectural studies of Pripyat, published in 1984-85, and unpublished materials from the files of Nikolai Leontiev, a city planning engineer and former resident of Pripyat
  13. Bater, J. (1989) The Soviet Scene: A Geographical Perspective Edward Arnold , London
  14. Ruskin, J. (1904) Modern Painters , Volume IV, George Allen, London
  15. Roth, M. Roth, M. , Lyons, C. and Merewether, C. (eds) (1997) Irresistible decay: ruins reclaimed. Irresistible Decay: Ruins Reclaimed pp. 1-23. Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities , Los Angeles
  16. Merewether, C. Roth, M. , Lyons, C. and Merewether, C. (eds) (1997) Traces of loss. Irresistible Decay: Ruins Reclaimed pp. 25-40. Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities , Los Angeles
  17. Williams, R. (2008) Notes on the Underground: An Essay on Technology, Society, and the Imagination MIT Press , Cambridge, MA
  18. Smith, T. (2006) The Architecture of Aftermath University of Chicago Press , Chicago
  19. Macnab, G. (2004) Hollywood zombies hit Chernobyl. The Guardian
  20. See http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0411805/ for a full synopsis of the film.
  21. Freud, S. (1956) Delusion and Dream, and other Essays Beacon Press , Boston
  22. Sponsler, C. (1993) Beyond the ruins: the geopolitics of urban decay and cybernetic play. Science-Fiction Studies 20 , pp. 251-265.
  23. Todkill, A. (2001) Overexposure: the Chernobyl photographs of David McMillan. CMAJ 164: (11) , pp. 1604-1605.
  24. Trigg, D. (2006) The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia, and the Absence of Reason Peter Lang , New York
  25. Sennett, R. (1994) Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization Faber , London and Boston

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