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Exactly ten years ago, when I was living in Kyiv, I visited Chernobyl for the first time. Following the HBO TV series “Chernobyl”, I thought people might be interested to see what the real place looked like. Here are 25 of my pictures, with captions.
In 2009, 23 years after the catastrophe, the town of Chernobyl itself was still functioning – 4,000 people worked there. The nearby town of Pripyat, a place of 50,000 souls where workers and families were evacuated the day after the explosion, generated the spookiest “ghost town” images.
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In 2009 there was a small but thriving tourist business taking visitors to Chernobyl from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, around two hours’ drive away. To enter the area of Chernobyl and Pripyat you had to pass through a control point.
The sign at the entry to the town of Chernobyl still proudly displayed its nuclear status. It reminded me of the sign at the entry to Los Alamos, New Mexico, into which I hitch-hiked in 1979 (see my series “The Americans” – links in bold capitals are to other posts on this site) which proclaimed the city as “Birthplace of the Atom”.
In 2009 some vehicles which had been used in the 1986 clean-up operation were still parked in Chernobyl itself. They were marked with radioactivity warning signs. But tourists could no longer visit the main vehicle storage park, which had recently been declared too radioactive for safety (see below).
Our tour included “lunch in the Chernobyl canteen”: actually, pretty tasty but perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea.
The firefighters’ memorial in Chernobyl showed an evocative scene of terrified medics seeking to tend firefighters suffering radiation sickness. Fire crews suffered some of the highest casualties in the initial response to the explosion.
The giant catfish in the cooling ponds at Chernobyl came to the surface in their hundreds when we threw bread in the water. Our guide told us they were big not because of mutation, but because they could live their lives in peace with no-one catching them. Catfish can live 60 years.
In 2009 Chernobyl’s reactor No.4 looked like this – partially encased in a “sarcophagus” of concrete built after the 1986 accident. It has since been enclosed in an additional stainless steel dome, completed in 2019.
The sign at the entry to Pripyat is typical of those built outside Soviet cities of the period – a futuristic, concrete vibe.
The centre of Pripyat was slowly being taken over by nature. Otherwise, things were largely as they were when the city was evacuated on 27 April 1986. You can see the Soviet emblem on the top of the block of flats in this picture.
The interiors of many of the large buildings looked like scenes from a post-apocalyptic disaster movie. The murals next to the staircase are typical of Soviet public buildings.
Most of the damage in these scenes is the work of nature, time, or souvenir hunters (see below).
Trees taking over a gymnasium – note the wall bars.
Some plants can act as biomonitors for radioactivity. The uncertainty about where residual radioactivity might be concentrated is one of the unsettling factors in deciding to visit Chernobyl and Pripyat.
We were shown a store-room filled with old Soviet placards. It is sometimes difficult to know whether such scenes are real or have subsequently been staged to entertain or shock tourists. I would view with caution any pictures of Pripyat or Chernobyl which show dolls, toys or gas-masks – most are staged.
The fun-fair at Pripyat, due to open on 1 May five days after the accident, is one of the most famous sights of the city.
When our guide waved his radiation monitor over this patch of repaired ground near the fun-fair, the reading – audible to all of us – went through the roof. According to the guide, the repair pre-dated the accident. How did this patch become so radioactive – before 1986? Or was the reading somehow staged for our benefit?
I would be interested to see a contemporary picture of these rusty bumper-cars, if they are still there ten years later. I imagine their shock value will decrease as they become more overgrown and rusty. Could anyone be tempted to restore them a bit?
I’d be keen to see an update of this picture of a swimming pool, too. Once, it would have been a fine facility.
An abandoned room full of cots. Again, it is hard to know to what extent such pictures have been staged. The doll on one bed looks like a later addition.
This picture of an abandoned school library gives an impression of the chaos of Pripyat in 2009. The fact that the books are worthless and covered in potentially radioactive dust helps explain why no-one feels much like picking them up. But by then, souvenir hunters and scavengers had already been active across much of Pripyat, despite the risk of residual radiation.
An abandoned school room in Pripyat.
Civil defence posters at a school in Pripyat warn children of the dangers of different threats including air, radiation, and chemical threats and how to respond to warnings. Families are encouraged to teach their children how to put on gas masks.
An abandoned piano in Pripyat.
In this school poster a friendly dwarf is encouraging children to wash their hands, especially before eating.
This picture, taken from a helicopter when I visited the site two years later, in 2011, shows a park for abandoned vehicles. I would be interested to know if anyone has more recent pictures. According to some reports, the vehicles have since disappeared, but what happened to them is not clear.
I hope you enjoyed this post – if you did, please share. You may also like my piece The Russians – Vladivostok – set in 1994.
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So you want to write a brilliant blog or newspaper article? Help is at hand, in three easy stages.
First: decide your message, and make sure people want to read about it. Part 1 of this series, 7 tips for writing the perfect article, explores how to ensure your piece will land well (links in bold italics are to other posts on this web-site).
Next: structure your article. Part 2 of this series, Nut-grafs and Cosmic Kickers, sets out a simple 4-step template to write your piece – including how to get started.
What else? Practice makes perfect. Read pieces critically. Understanding how others use these techniques will help you do the same. Here, in Part 3 of the series, are two more worked examples. I hope you find them helpful. If you do, please feel free to re-post this series, or draw it to the attention of others.
Nut-grafs and cosmic kickers: two worked examples
The following article appeared in the Financial times of 22 October 2004. It includes all the four elements – Lede, Nut-graf, Body and Cosmic Kicker – set out in Part 2 of this series.
Where even experts fear to tread
The Valluga II cable car above St. Anton is one of those boxy, old-fashioned affairs that sways from one mountain peak to another across a gulf of nothingness. At the entrance is a sign showing a pair of skis, crossed out. Next to it, to avoid any confusion, the words: NO SKIS.
“What’s that?” I ask Willi, a fellow skier with whom I am about to enter the six-person cabin.
“It’s OK,” he says. “It means no skis unless you have a guide.”
For skiers who have mastered the basics, the benefits of skiing with a guide are not always clear-cut. Holidays are all about freedom to do what you want, when you want, and to escape the workplace hierarchy. So it seems perverse to yoke yourself to someone who’s going to tell you where to go and what to do when you get there, especially when you have to pay them handsomely for the privilege. But a good guide can raise the quality of a day’s skiing from enjoyable to sublime. That’s why, when I make my next annual pilgrimage to Lech, in the Arlberg region of western Austria, I’ll be joining Class 3A (or maybe 2B) for at least half my stay to be guided around a resort I already know intimately.
Looking up the hill after the passage of a 3A class in Lech, February 2019 (more…)
“As night falls on All Hallows, the Zentralfriedhof is transformed into an ethereal wonderland. It seems every visitor throughout the day has lit a candle at a headstone. Kneeling black-clad women rake frozen earth around graves. Candlelight shimmers on stone angels’ wings. Visitors move toward the cemetery gates, their breath forming clouds .”
A stone cherub lit by a candle on 1 November 1986
The central cemetery in Vienna is worth a visit at any time of year. The old Jewish cemetery, its overgrown state controversial, is symbolic and evocative (you may see deer there, or other wildlife). (more…)
I first came across the term “Overton Window” in a piece by John Lanchester in the London Review of Books in July 2016.
He described it as “a term… meaning the acceptable range of political thought in a culture at a given moment… [which] can be moved.”
Lanchester said that ideas can start far outside the political mainstream yet later come to seem acceptable. He cited Brexit as an example: considered eccentric in 1997, yet enjoying large-scale support in a referendum by 2016.
Lanchester’s article, by the way, like many LRB pieces, is improbably long: set aside a bit of time if you want to read it.
A recent piece at the splendid “Flip Chart Fairy Tales” blog (recommended: often a source of illuminating graphs, charts and views) entitled “Breaking the Overton Window“, also noted how opinions can change. The author argues that for politicians and commentators the Overton Window has moved over recent decades towards libertarian, right-wing policies which do not obviously overlap with established political parties. By contrast, the views of voters have moved in the opposite direction, towards more authoritarian and left-wing ideas – likewise not corresponding clearly to existing parties. This tendency, he argues, a) is a move away from traditional “left-wing” and “right-wing” categorisations; and b) should lead politicians to shift towards those authoritative and left wing policies if they are not to leave voters alienated from politics.
What has this got to do with social media? (more…)
‘I saw this terrible news today.’ My friend, a sensible person, is distressed. ‘A terrorist group is breeding babies to be brought up as fresh soldiers for their cause. How can we resist such fanaticism?’
‘Don’t worry,’ I say. ‘It’s probably a mix of propaganda and sensationalism.’
I’ve written before about how the Internet is filled with misleading nonsense (“a vortex of vacuity; a crisis of kaka; a whirlwind of piss-poor polarisation”) in one of my most popular blogs: The Internet. 7 reasons why it will destroy civilisation.
Lesotho: one of the most beautiful countries on earth has a dismal life expectancy – Photo RP
I’ve also written about the elegant Tuchman’s Law (hit the link for the full article), which says: “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold (more…)
What if the team supporting a political campaign had information about the opinions, preferences and voting intentions of every individual in a country, and could tailor their campaigning precisely to each voter?
They have it already.
The Vice News article “The Data That Turned the World Upside Down” is the second scariest thing I’ve seen for ages.
It analyses how the harmless-sounding British company Cambridge Analytica uses information gathered from social media – all your “likes”; which shows you watch on TV; every quiz you ever did on Facebook; what you click on; what you buy; what you drive – in fact the whole of so-called “big data” – to build up a picture on you more detailed than anything George Orwell could have imagined.
If the Thought Police in 1984 had had big data, they wouldn’t have needed Room 101. They would have known everything already.
As others have observed, Orwell got total surveillance right. What he didn’t anticipate was people voluntarily putting on line all the information about themselves a potential authoritarian state could ever need.
‘It’s relentless,’ the god-like figure says to me. ‘From 7 a.m. things are coming in. All day – even when I’m in meetings, mealtimes. Until late at night. It’s the 24-hour news cycle.’
I’m talking to a top figure in an elite organisation: someone I respect and trust.
In fact, this person is almost a household name. Most people would see him or her as someone who has risen to the top through an awesome combination of intellect, charm and hard work. Yet this person is struggling to cope with information coming in on one device – a Blackberry.
What chance do the rest of us have? You may be addicted to multiple devices.
When Blackberrys were first introduced, people called them Crackberrys. No wonder. Ten years later, our smartphones are one hundred times more addictive – an addiction as strong as alcohol or gambling, as the video below (watch it later!) points out.
What can you do? (more…)