(CNN July 11, 2019) — Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster which resulted in thousands of deaths, is to become an official tourist attraction, Ukraine’s president has announced.
Once at the centre of a 1,000-square-mile exclusion zone, Chernobyl has seen a sharp rise in visitors since an HBO mini-series about the tragedy aired earlier this year. And according to President Volodymyr Zelensky, it is now time for a different narrative surrounding the site. “We must give this territory of Ukraine a new life,” Zelensky said as he signed a decree on Wednesday. “Until now, Chernobyl was a negative part of Ukraine’s brand. It’s time to change it.”
(Reuters June 4, 2019) – The success of a U.S. television miniseries examining the world’s worst nuclear accident at Chernobyl has driven up the number of tourists wanting to see the plant and the ghostly abandoned town that neighbors it for themselves.
One Chernobyl tour agency reported a 40% rise in trip bookings since the series, made by HBO, began in May and which has attracted outstanding reviews. English-language tours usually cost around $100 per person.
Is it possible for a cursed place to become a tourist attraction? If we believe the information in the media (and there is no reason not to), it appears so. According to Reuters, the percentage of people visiting the place of the terrible explosion that took place 33 years ago has significantly increased. Actor Volodymyr Zelensky, elected president of Ukraine in April, also felt he should strike while the iron is hot and stated that the negative brand associated to the devastated area must disappear and that this territory deserves “a new life”.
The remarkable thing about the story is that the interest of tourists who now choose to see Chernobyl with their own eyes has been stirred by a TV series, and not by a documentary describing facts exactly as they happened, nor by scientific reports. It isn’t even based on the hundreds of disturbing testimonies gathered by Belarussian journalist and Nobel prize winner Svetlana Alexievich. Her book, “Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster”, was first published in 1997 and is the result of a research process which started immediately after the catastrophe, in 1986. Those who’ve read it already know that the accounts of each of the persons who lived through Chernobyl is as brutal as a punch in the gut. Its pages hold so much pain and revolt that such a disaster was possible that it makes readers feel ashamed to belong to the human species.
Only wars and genocides cause this feeling that people are capable of the direst horrors. Even though Chernobyl was not a premeditated murder, it was still a war in the end. A war against an invisible enemy, which the victims had to face not knowing what to expect.
Some people knew how serious the consequences of the explosion were and still didn’t move one finger to limit the effects or caution the victims. Most never suspected that the air they breathed would kill them. After all, they grew up thinking that USSR nuclear plants were so safe they could be built in the Red Square. Svetlana Alexievich’s book leaves an after taste of outrage which stems from our need to understand. You understand that the “liquidators”, the people sent to clean the area, faced death either unknowingly, or out of sacrifice. Nevertheless, you wonder how it was possible for the authorities to manage a tragedy so irrationally that it reached huge proportions. The HBO mini-series about the Chernobyl explosion is an attempt to answer this question. In the book, the predominant standpoint belongs to those who weren’t aware of the disaster’s proportions but became its victims; the film turns the lights on decision-makers and the events that led to the tragedy.
“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, we no longer recognize the truth at all. What can we do then? What else is left to abandon even the hope of truth and content ourselves instead with stories? In these stories, it doesn’t matter who the heroes are. All we want to know is: ‘Who is to blame?’” These words mark the (circular) beginning and end of the mini-series and are spoken by scientist Valery Legasov, who tapes them a few minutes before committing suicide. This happens in Moscow on 26 April 1988, when the clock shows exactly two years from the explosion. From this point on, the five episodes in the mini-series recreate the nightmare of the biggest civil catastrophe in the history of mankind. Although it came at terrible costs, the explosion contributed to the collapse of the USSR, precisely because it revealed its weak points. The communist giant was resting on a seemingly indestructible soil, but Chernobyl discharged the harmful substances that led to its decline.
The series was created by Craig Mazin. In parallel with the TV production, he also launched a podcast presenting behind-the-scenes details and explaining some differences between reality and fiction. Many have criticised him saying he drifted away from the historical truth to paint a Hollywood-style picture, with good characters on the one hand and evil forces on the other. Others frowned at the film characters speaking English and not Russian, as it would’ve been normal. As a parenthesis, Craig Mazin did intend for this, but quickly gave up, because of the actors’ accent. Besides, in the case of radio shows, TV news, or evacuation calls for the population, he used the original Russian recordings from archives. The harshest critiques came from the press loyal to Vladimir Putin. In fact, the Russians showed that the Western perspective on the explosion bothered them in such a way that they are to prepare their own version on the events. Should this surprise us? Not really. Just like we aren’t surprised by the huge popularity of the HBO series. It became the highest-rated series in history, perhaps because everybody could find at least one element to admire in the story.
First of all, we must appreciate the success of the script and the scenography. The narrative is smartly built and unfolds accurately. Interior and exterior sets were reconstructed faithfully and realistically, while costumes were carefully recreated. Even the sound of bees buzzing in a highly charged moment (when contaminated animals are shot) has the gift of highlighting the artistry of employing all the possible means to catch the spectators’ attention. But above all, the film speaks to our feelings. Many scenes have an emotional impact. I will only mention two of the moments whose tension brought my heart to my throat, so readers (who haven’t seen the series yet) can see for themselves the many other overwhelming scenes: the one when concrete is poured over zinc coffins containing the radioactive bodies of fire fighters who tried to put out the Chernobyl fire and the moment when soldiers clean radioactive graphite on the plant roof.
The actors are another reason why the series is a pleasure to watch (to the extent to which one can associate pleasure with such a terrifying topic). The main roles are played by Stellan Skarsgård (as Boris Shcherbina, vice-chairman of the Council of Ministers, responsible for managing the crisis generated by the explosion of Chernobyl reactor 4) and Jared Harris (starring as Valery Legasov, the physicist appointed in the investigating commission, the man who tried to limit the effects of the explosion). Besides the two, we follow Emily Watson (playing the part of a fictitious character, Ulana Khomyuk, whose role was created as an homage to all the scientists who contributed to finding the truth about Chernobyl) and many other very well interpreted secondary characters: the chief of the miners called to dig a tunnel under the reactor, the wife of fireman Vasily Ignatenko, who died after the explosion, or Anatoly Dyatlov, the plant chief-engineer and the main culprit for the disaster.
The main culprit, but not the only one responsible for it. As elegant as a detective, Craig Mazin shows that in “Chernobyl” the tragedy was caused not by one person, but by the entire communist system, built on lies and denial of the truth. I don’t remember what the grow- ups in my family discussed those days in 1986, but I do know that when news about the explosion reached us (through Radio Free Europe, rather than the newspaper Scînteia), we weren’t allowed to play outside for a while and at school we were given iodine pills. We understood there was a danger looming, even though it wasn’t given a clear name.
For us, the people who lived through communism, Chernobyl does not feel like a dystopia at all. We perfectly understand “the cost of lies” referred to in the show. Perhaps Western tourists feel the need to see it with their own eyes to be convinced that such a place haunted by the ghost of death is real. There, even now, 33 years after the explosion, the water you drink, the food you eat, the air you breathe can kill you. In Pripyat, the ghost town lying 3 kilometres away from Chernobyl, you are not allowed to drink, eat or smoke. Security rules don’t even allow people to step on the grass. Why would you choose such a restrictive holiday destination? Maybe because you want to travel to a time which, so far, has only been accessible through stories. After experiencing it, you will be able to shout that it exists, like in Arghezi’s works.