What You Need to Know about Chernobyl and Our Relationship to the Disaster
We find a strange comfort in the idea that this didn’t happen to us.
In the wake of the Soviet collapse in 1991, Western observers began to shift their focus from the Chernobyl accident itself to the health effects of the disaster. Western journalists started to visit the contaminated areas and to address the health effects that had been downplayed by the Soviet government. The view was reinforced that the Soviet Union was purposely trying to damage the lands of republics, particularly Ukraine and Belarus, as was as the narrative of Chernobyl as a crisis unique to the Soviet Union, due to their poor politics and inferior technology. The West framed Chernobyl as a disaster that cannot happen outside of the Soviet Union. It was a product of issues unique to the USSR, and therefore, Chernobyl became a paradoxically reassuring concept in the West as a symptom of a corrupt and inferior system.
Paired with the Western focal points of Soviet dysfunction and nuclear power was the perception of Chernobyl as the site of the apocalypse. This narrative has lingered since 1986 and has only become more popular over the years, especially with the opening of the Exclusion Zone in 2011. As a result, writers focus on the aesthetic idea of Chernobyl and what it portends for the future. Commentators on the subject focused on the environment and personal stories within their discussion of Chernobyl, as well as the seemingly exploitative nature of tourism within the Exclusion Zone.
Chernobyl, in the West, has come to represent a lot since the 1986 disaster. As Craig Mazin puts it, “The word Chernobyl means a million things to us in an instant, but right before it blew up, it meant nothing”.. Within years of the disaster, Chernobyl came both to symbolize a personal tragedy and to foreshadow a universal apocalypse.
A Biblical disaster
The elements of personal tragedy were brought to the fore by journalist and writer Svetlana Alexievich. In her 1996 work Voices from Chernobyl, Alexieviech quotes a resident of Khoyniki village in Belarus, Nadezhda Afanasyevna Burakova: “Chernobyl is a metaphor, a symbol. And its changed our everyday life, and our thinking”. Alexievich’s work compiles interviews and stories of those most affected by Chernobyl; she was struck by the lack of a consistent narrative amongst those living within Chernobyl and its contaminated regions. For many of those most affected, it has become an unclear metaphor, a product of a disaster many people do not understand. This sentiment is not isolated to those in close proximity to Chernobyl and its fallout, but has become influential in the West.
Even as Chernobyl emerged as a metaphor for personal tragedy, it also came to symbolize something more universal — apocalypse. Apocalyptic representations of Chernobyl evoked terror, but at the same time, paradoxically, they served to romanticize the disaster, as nature was portrayed as resurgent. The romanticization of Chernobyl’s apocalyptic quality is in direct tension with the more frightening aspect of the disaster. There is a tension in the representation of Chernobyl and its legacy; it is simultaneously terrifying and comforting. This dual tension is what Siobhan Lyons defines as Ruin Porn in her book, Ruin Porn and the Obsession with Decay. Ruin Porn is best described as finding pleasure through engaging with sites of destruction and decay. Chernobyl has come to represent this tension in media, taking on this paradoxical symbolism of the apocalypse as frightening but also as reassuring because it reveals that despite everything, nature can survive the apocalypse — it outlives us.
Chernobyl thus serves as a glimpse into a world without humanity, with nature reclaiming its space. These narratives are comforting, as they ignore Chernobyl’s darker aspects. Chernobyl thus stands as a symbol of the costs of progress, and as a symbol of nature’s resilience. Western writing, particularly journalistic writing, reinforces these twin narratives through unconsciously exploring the tension of Chernobyl’s legacy through how Chernobyl fits into environmental perceptions, disaster tourism concerns, and how it fits into personal narratives.
The universalizing narrative of Chernobyl as apocalyptic needs to be explained before delving into the Western fascination with personal narratives, the environment, and the concerns of tourism since each topic touches upon themes of the apocalyptic. Chernobyl’s initial depiction as apocalyptic came from within Ukraine and Belarus, particularly with the connection the word ‘Chernobyl’ has in Ukrainian to the plant wormwood. As Richard Mould explains in his book, Chernobyl Record:
After the accident, many people recalled the lines from the Bible in the Book of Revelations, chapter eight, verse 10–11, which says in the New King James Version: “Then the third angel sounded and a great star fell from heaven, burning like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became Wormwood, and many men died from the water because it was bitter.”
Mould is not the first to make the connection between the star Wormwood in the Bible or its symbolism as an apocalyptic sign. Chernobyl has gained this notoriety as the sign of the beginning of the end of humanity.
The environmental debate
Elaine Gan, in her chapter in the book, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, takes the idea further by moving away from the metaphorical and instead looks directly at the 2,600 square kilometres of abandoned space that makes up the Chernobyl exclusion zone. She does not touch upon the Biblical. Instead, she focuses on modernity and what abandoned spaces mean in our modern world. As she explains: “It is these shared spaces, or what we call haunted landscapes, that relentlessly trouble the narratives of Progress, and urge us to radically imagine worlds that are possible because they are already here”. Chernobyl serves as a reminder of the failures of Progress, its dangers, and the subsequent implications for humanity. According to this narrative, the abandoned landscape of Chernobyl is a warning for the rest of humanity; that what happened here could happen again.
Similarly, universalizing concerns from the West in the wake of Chernobyl were related to the environment and the natural impact of Chernobyl fallout. Since the initial explosion, the environmental aspect of Chernobyl has been of concern to Western journalists and academics, along with fear of total environmental destruction and inhospitality gaining traction in popular works. As Barry Commoner expresses in his 1987 article, “A Reporter At Large: The Environment”, the environmental impact of nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl is extreme and renders those environments uninhabitable. There is evidence of this, at least concerning the effects radiation has on wildlife, that “Chernobyl is far from a paradise, the contamination appears to have had an effect”, and an effect to the negative. However, as the years passed, a more comforting narrative surfaced in the West, one of environmental renewal in humans’ absence. The Chernobyl exclusion zone is often framed as a nature preserve, a place of environmental renewal. Adam Higginbotham addresses the rise of this narrative in the final chapters of his book, explaining that:
… a remarkable story had emerged from within the Exclusion Zone — a fairytale narrative of ecological rebirth and renewal […] The idea of the miracle of the Zone took hold through TV documentaries and books that told a story of how chronic exposure to the relatively low levels of radioactivity left in many areas was proving apparently harmless — or, in some cases, even beneficial — to animal populations.
Higginbotham recounts how such a narrative of radiation as either ineffective or even beneficial came to be, citing documentaries and books that ignored contradictory scientific evidence and instead relied on the thin evidence available to support this thesis.
One of the first works to downplay the severity of radiation’s effects on the environment, mainly flora and fauna, was Donald Grant in his 1990 Globe and Mail article, “Radiation: How Plants and Animals have Adapted”. Grant speaks with Guelph University biologist, Dr. Eugene K. Balon, on the impact Chernobyl radiation has had on the environment. There is a clear whitewashing of the environmental consequences within the article.
In the first two years after the nuclear disaster […] Soviet scientists noticed sudden, unusual growth spurts in plants, animals, birds, and fish. For instance, pine trees that survived, had needles that were two and three times their usual size. They are still on the branches, mixing with the ‘before and after’ needles of normal length […] the defects were so unusual that they were probably not caused by radiation, and, “in fact, appear often under normal circumstances but remain unnoticed or labelled as freaks of nature”.
This downplays the environmental consequences of the disaster. Outside of some mutations, there is an assertion that, overall, nature is thriving despite decontamination work and notable hot spots throughout the exclusion zone.
This kind of narrative dominated environmental discussions of Chernobyl in the West. Articles such as “Growing up with Chernobyl” published in The American Scientist in 2006 and “Chernobyl — The Good News” published in The Irish Times that same year are two examples of just how influential these narratives have been in the West. They both serve to downplay the environmental effects, and by extension the health effects in the area, in an attempt to whitewash the disaster and nullify any popular concerns that could arise in the wake of renewed discussion 20 years after the initial crisis. It served to comfort Western audiences and reassure them that although scary and detrimental in large quantities, overall radiation is negligible or even beneficial to our natural world.
We see this narrative reinforced with photographs of the zone. An article in The Atlantic entitled “Still Cleaning Up: 30 Years After the Chernobyl Disaster” features a compilation of photographs taken of Chernobyl over the years. Many of these photos show an emphasis on the idea of natural revival and reclamation of the land. There are photos of Pripyat’s main square overgrown and numerous photos of animals roaming the exclusion zone with the caption: “Some species of mammals are found to be thriving without the effect of human contact in the area.”
Although this narrative has remained popular within journalistic work, it has been subject to strong academic pushback within the past few years. Kate Brown is highly critical not only of the downplaying of the effects of radiation on the environment but also of the designation ‘nature preserve’ on the Chernobyl exclusion zone. To establish the exclusion zone as a nature preserve paints the picture of radiation as something more benign than it is. It nullifies the fears of radioactive environments and, as Brown asserts, is inherently dangerous and misleading.
The exclusion zone was not nature as normal. This is demonstrated most clearly when Brown joins two scientists collecting samples from the infamous Red Forest. There is something wrong with the forest; the lifecycle is off, with no smell of decay and little to no insects. “In the Red Forest, most of the new growth was in the form of birch trees,” She begins,
…which grow better than pines because they secrete radioactivity annually when they shed leaves. The pines that did root were more like shrubs than the straight, tall trees normally grown for board lumber. The floor of the Red Forest had little vegetation. The forests did not smell like forests with the smell of decomposition. The ground was littered with pine needles and fallen leaves that had not decomposed because the microbes, fungi, and insects that drive the process of decay also suffered from contamination.
The effects of radiation from Chernobyl are long-lasting and widespread. The millions of curies of radioactive particles, especially Cesium and Strontium, which have long half-lives, pollute areas for centuries and render them uninhabitable. The fencing off of these dangerous areas and deeming them nature preserves works to soothe the fears associated with radiation and works to downplay the disaster.
Despite academic pushback against the representation of Chernobyl radiation as negligible and the Exclusion Zone as a nature preserve, the framing has remained a popular talking-point amongst journalists and ties into their representation of Chernobyl as apocalyptic. Mark O’Connell in his 2020 New York Times article, “Why would anyone want to visit Chernobyl”, is exemplary in this regard. The topic of O’Connell’s article is broad, but his discussion of the environment perpetuates the notion of nature thriving as a result of an apocalyptic disaster for humanity. “This is the colossal irony of Chernobyl”, he begins,
Because it is the site of an enormous ecological catastrophe, this region has been for decades now, basically void of human life; and because it is basically void of human life, it is effectively a vast nature preserve. To enter the Zone, in this sense, is to have one foot in a prelapsarian paradise and the other in a post-apocalyptic wasteland […] It was astonishing to behold how quickly we humans became irrelevant to the business of nature.
This epitomizes the Western romanticization of Chernobyl and the exclusion zone, particularly concerning its role as simultaneously a place of supposed natural revitalization and the loss of humanity. O’Connell seems to suggest that Chernobyl can be both a natural paradise and a site of the apocalypse.
Siobhan Lyons in her work, Ruin Porn and the Obsession with Decay, describes this duality as ruin porn. Lyons explains that ruin porn finds the beautiful and the sublime amongst decay. Within what she calls the realm of ‘ruin porn’ there is a wary acceptance of the ultimate fate humanity can expect to encounter.
In this sense, ruin porn becomes a useful method to approach the finality of humanity by removing death somewhat from the imaginary terrain and forcing it into reality. No longer is the apocalypse reserved for the future, but it becomes part of the here and now.
Chernobyl forces us to encounter the inevitable. Popular Western perceptions of the environment in Chernobyl serve to soothe concerns of humanity’s disappearance with the revival of nature. The encounter with the post-apocalyptic does not, however, operate solely as an abstract idea, as is evident with the rise in tourism in the exclusion zone by Western tourists.
Aesthetics and disaster tourism
Disaster tourism has been a sticking point for many writers on the topic of Chernobyl, particularly in confronting their discomfort in visiting sites of disasters and tragedies and commodifying it. O’Connell tackles the topic directly in his article, particularly recounting his own experience visiting the Zone. He is fascinated with the pornographic symbolism applied to Chernobyl as the apocalypse site, but is also uncomfortable with that designation. He roots his discomfort in what he describes as the Western commodification of Chernobyl, citing music videos and reality TV shows and films that root themselves in the disaster and glamourize its aftereffects.
I was being confronted, I realized, with an exaggerated manifestation of my own disquiet about making this trip in the first place; these unseemly, even pornographic, depictions of the Zone were on a continuum with my own reasons for making this trip. My anxieties about the future […] had for some time been channeled into an obsession with the idea of ‘the apocalypse’, with the various ways people envisioned, and prepared for, civilizational collapse.
Chernobyl came to represent our broader concerns about the fragility of humanity and our relationship to these zones of tragedy. However, through Chernobyl’s framing as a universalizing apocalyptic site of humanity’s future, it becomes romanticized, and the human tragedy gets subordinated to the aesthetic perceptions of what Chernobyl can represent. It becomes a sanitized representation of the apocalypse without the personal tragedy.
Serhii Plokhy also comments on this kind of separation of the tragedy from its popular Western representation. In the preface of his book, he explains that on a trip to Chernobyl he encountered three British men and an Irish woman who all chose to visit the Zone not out of an interest in the disaster or its impact, but instead because of Chernobyl’s role in two video games the group were fans of: STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Chernobyl in these games is nothing more than an aesthetic background, easily identifiable, and perpetuates a romanticized vision of the abandoned town of Pripyat and the disaster.
Disaster tourism and its pornographic relationship with disaster and the apocalypse is an outcome of the Western framing of Chernobyl as a post-apocalyptic future. There is a gap between the tragedy of Chernobyl and the tourists visiting the site, which is a product of the universal aesthetic framing of the Chernobyl disaster. Chernobyl, in many ways, comes to represent the failures of modern Progress, and serves as a warning primarily when personal narratives and environmental concerns are addressed. However, the tourism aspect of Chernobyl, the fascination with ruin and the abandoned site’s glamorization, creates a notable gap between Western perceptions and the experiences of those who live close to and have been most affected by Chernobyl.
One aspect of the Chernobyl disaster which tries to combat the aestheticized nature of Chernobyl has been the publication and dissemination of personal narratives related to the disaster. There have been works that confront the lives of those most affected by Chernobyl and those who live within contaminated areas, particularly in memoirs and interviews. There are only a handful of these personal works, however, and as a result, the relatively small amount of writing on the subject have kept the lived experiences of those in the area out of the limelight. The personal narratives that Western audiences and writers are fascinated with and concerned about center on a sense of warning of what could very much become a universal reality — a world devoid of humanity. With the publication of Soviet books in the West, such as Alexievich’s Voices of Chernobyl in 2005 and Yuriy Shcherbak’s Chernobyl: A Documentary Story in 1989, there has been a limited fascination with the personal tragedy of the disaster. Personal narratives are different for each person interviewed in the respective books. Indeed, there is no consensus on how Chernobyl was perceived, beyond a post-apocalyptic sentiment, which causes it to have a lingering fascination for those in the West.
In his introduction to Shcherbak’s book, David Marples states that “to the Western mind, the word Chernobyl brings to mind specifically the week or several weeks that followed the nuclear accident of April 26, 1986”. Marple’s statement implies that Shcherbak’s work attempts to expand the definition of the disaster beyond the immediate explosion and its impact. It was an attempt to provide insight into the Soviet Union’s perspectives for a Western audience. The personal narratives discussed by Shcherbak and Alexievich work as a juxtaposition to the impersonal, universalizing narrative of the apocalypse propagated by the West. The presence of people and their stories of tragedy following Chernobyl serves as evidence that in the wake of disasters, life does not stop. Documentaries such as The Babushkas of Chernobyl disrupt the idea that the exclusion zone is devoid of life. The Babushkas of Chernobyl reveals that there is human life within the exclusion zone. There is even an Easter church service held within the Zone for these people, revealing that this is not a world alienated from humanity.
The problem of universalization arises, however, because none of these people living in the exclusion zone are officially acknowledged as such. The official narrative is that the exclusion zone is abandoned and no one lives there. As a result, “a lack of broader and more adequate opportunities for articulation encourages laypeople to rely on administrative discourse”. Personal narratives are easy to dismiss as anecdotal, especially in the face of official information. The West has an interest in these narratives but they are subsumed under these official reports and overwhelmed by this narrative of an apocalyptic future devoid of humanity.
That is not to say, however, that some of these anecdotal works do not also provide a universal perspective. Alexievich’s work expands the narrative beyond solely the failures of the Soviet Union and nuclear power to provide a personal recollection of events and tragedies. The stories in her book are raw, painful and tragic. As Keith Gessen explains in his translator’s note for the book, Chernobyl was a disaster that created more survivors than victims, and this book was a tribute to the survivors. The personal stories vary dramatically from person to person, with every person recounting their understanding or lack of understanding of the tragedy that has befallen them.
In many ways, this book serves to bear witness to their suffering. Alexievich makes a point, however, in her epilogue that “these people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future”. These personal narratives serve to personalize the tragedy and move it out of the abstract concept of the disaster to grounding it in very personal tragedies. Whether through Lyudmilla Ignatenko’s story of her husband’s slow death due to radiation poisoning, with which the book opens, or the numerous stories of children dying of childhood cancers due to exposure, they serve to force the reader to confront the reality of such a disaster beyond the abstract concept of apocalypse. In Alexievich’s work, similar to Gan’s argument, Chernobyl has become a monolithic warning of what can happen when Progress fails. Alexievich’s work is a testament to the personal impact these failures have. Beyond solely failures of Soviet governance or nuclear production, there is a sublime connotation of what the world can become when our understanding of Progress fails.
As Robert P. Crease explains in his 2019 New York Times article, “Chernobyl Reconsidered”, “The Chernobyl story is indeed as little about nuclear power as the Bhopal catastrophe is about the pesticide industry”. There are greater implications for sites like Chernobyl, as Crease explains in his article; these large industrial disasters point more to structural problems whether politically or within corporations than solely the flaws of nuclear power. It just so happened that the 1986 nuclear disaster thrust upon the world and its people an experience foreign to them. As Sergei Belyakov explains in his memoir:
The station did not scare me anymore; at some elusive moment it became a part of me, and in a beholden trade I was somehow, slowly, becoming a part of it, just like hundreds of thousands of others, dragging by the edgy hands of the ‘four’ reactor operators into something the planet had not yet experienced.
Chernobyl had thrust humanity into an apocalyptic future, simultaneously providing a warning against, and insight into, living with Chernobyl to those in the West. Chernobyl is not solely an event isolated to the communities of North Ukraine, Western Russia, and Southern Belarus, but is a global catastrophe with implications that reached far beyond the borders of the USSR.
Chernobyl has, in many ways, become a metaphor for the apocalyptic; a possible glimpse at a possible future where humanity ceases to be and nature is allowed to take over. As Brown suggests in her writing, these narratives serve to nullify and comfort. Chernobyl presents a glimpse of what an apocalypse could look like with the reassurance that it had not occurred on a large scale. It is reassuring and a representation that serves to conceal more than reveal the true nature of the disaster. Chernobyl has become apocalyptic in the aesthetic sense, and although personal narratives are present and popular, they are overwhelmed by these reports of environmental resurgence and pornographic obsession with decay and ruin.
 Mazin, Craig, and Peter Sagal. Chernobyl Podcast Part One. HBO, May 6, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUeHPCYtWYQ
 Alexievich, Svetlana, and Keith Gessen. Voices from Chernobyl, 2005. http://search.proquest.com/docview/36789437/., 199
 Ibid., 239–240
 Lyons, Siobhan. Ruin Porn and the Obsession with Decay. 1st ed. 2018. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018.
 Mould, Richard F. (Richard Francis). Chernobyl Record: the Definitive History of the Chernobyl Catastrophe Bristol, UK ;: Institute of Physics Publishing, 2000.
 Ibid., 307–8
 Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet : Ghosts of the Anthropocene Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, n.d.
 Ibid., G12
 Remnick, David. “Fear, Illness, Death: Fallout of Chernobyl.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 25, 1989. ; Commoner, Barry. “A Reporter At Large: The Environment.” The New Yorker, June 15, 1987.
 Commoner, A Reporter at Large, 53–4
 Anon. “Did Chernobyl Leave an Eden for Wildlife.” The New York Times, August 28, 2007.
 Higginbotham, Midnight in Chernobyl, 354–5
 Ibid., 355
 Grant, Donald. “Radiation: How Plants and Animals Have Adapted.” The Globe and Mail, August 18, 1990.
 Chesser, Ronald. “Growing Up With Chernobyl.” The American Scientist, November 1, 2006.
 Anon. “Chernobyl — The Good News.” The Irish Times, January 19, 2006.
 Taylor, Alan. “Still Cleaning Up: 30 Years After the Chernobyl Disaster.” The Atlantic, April 4, 2016.
 Gallup, Sean. Pripyat Ukraine Before and After. Photograph. Pripyat, Ukraine, September 29, 2015.
 Gaschak, Sergiy. Chernobyl Nature. Photograph. Ukraine, April 2012. ; Gaschak, Sergiy. Animals Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Photograph. Ukraine, December 2012.
 Adam Higginbotham explains that in 1989 the term nature preserve came into use when describing the Exclusion Zone, particularly because in 1989 on the Belarussian side of the Exclusion Zone a nature preserve was established predominantly to study the effects radiation has had on the environment. It came out of observations of genetic abnormalities on the flora and fauna of the area (Midnight in Chernobyl, 330–331).
 Brown, Manual for Survival, 128
 Ibid., 10
 O’Connell, Mark. “Why Would Anyone Want to Visit Chernobyl.” The New York Times, March 24, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/03/24/magazine/chernobyl-tourism.html?searchResultPosition=1.
 Ibid., 2
 Ibid., 4
 O’Connell, Why Would Anyone Want to visit Chernobyl?
 Plokhy, Chernobyl, vii
 Lyons, Ruin Porn, 190–8
 Shcherbak, Iurii. Chernobyl: a Documentary Story Edmonton: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta, 1989
 Ibid., viii
 The Babushkas of Chernobyl. Chicken And Egg Pictures, 2015.
 Kuchinskaya, Olga. The Politics of Invisibility: Public Knowledge About Radiation Health Effects after Chernobyl Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2014., 37
 Alexievich, Voices From Chernobyl, vii
 Ibid., 240
 Ibid., 5–23
 Ibid., 126–133
 Crease, Robert P. “Chernobyl Reconsidered.” The New York Times, April 7, 2019.
 Belyakov, Sergei. Liquidator: the Chernobyl Story New Jersey: World Scientific, 2019.
 Ibid., 89