IN DANTE’S ‘INFERNO,’ the 14th-century epic poem, the writer and protagonist journeys through hell, eventually reaching the final circle, the ninth, only to find a startling, anticlimactic conclusion: Satan, upside down and frozen in ice. Implying that personal agency is responsible for human evil, the sight is both a revelation and sort of a letdown.
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That’s sort of how I felt in Chernobyl when I saw the infamous Reactor 4, which created the closest thing to hell on earth when it exploded on April 26, 1986. Soviet leaders—initially in denial—went into scramble mode to try to save Central Europe and Scandinavia from devastation as invisible plumes of carcinogenic radiation swirled westward from Chernobyl, about 90 miles north of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. Fifty-four people died during and immediately after the disaster, according to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of the Atomic Radiation. Health officials continue to monitor illnesses attributed to radiation exposure.
“ ‘We passed abandoned factories, bus stations and villages.’ ”
Soviet authorities set up a 1,000-square-mile Exclusion Zone, which grew larger as time went on, permanently displacing tens of thousands of people from their ancestral lands. Today the reactor is covered up with a steel and concrete sarcophagus to prevent further damage. In 2019, HBO broadcast the five-part miniseries “Chernobyl,” sparking renewed interest in the site and drawing curious travelers to this swath of irradiated land.
The Exclusion Zone is a misnomer. People could always venture in, and lately, as the Ukrainian government has made it far easier to visit, several tour companies have reported an uptick in demand. Bookings of Intrepid Travel’s tours, for instance, have spiked 131%, since the HBO show debuted this past May. Exclusion Zone tours of various kinds can be booked through the company Chernobyl Tour. I hired a private guide via a Ukrainian government agency that oversees the area. How safe is the zone to visit? Tatiana Zotina, a senior researcher at the Laboratory of Radioecology at the Institute of Biophysics of Russian Academy of Sciences in Krasnoyarsk, said it is “probably not dangerous” to take an excursion or an official sightseeing tour since the guides avoid the areas with high radiation levels. Other experts agree that there’s little risk to tourists in terms of radiation exposure.
Oleksandr Syrota, a guide and driver, met me at the Exclusion Zone checkpoint where stalls sold “I Survived Chernobyl” shirts and other tasteless souvenirs. Most organized tours visit Reactor 4 or the abandoned town of Pripyat, but I was more curious about the 120 samosely, or “self-settlers,” who had refused to leave after the meltdown 33 years ago and still lived in the Exclusion Zone. I told Oleksandr that I wanted to meet at least one of them. A minute later, the barrier to the Exclusion Zone was being lifted for our SUV. Oleksandr pointed to a radiation monitor on the dashboard. It read 0.16. “If it goes above 1.30, we’re in trouble,” he said, as we cruised down the empty road, passing by abandoned factories and villages, all taken over by Mother Nature. About 30 minutes later, Maria Zaleska, 69 years old, was ushering us into her house deep inside the zone. “Please, have a seat,” she said. She spoke in a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian. Her 94-year-old mother sat quietly in the next room. Maria wanted to cook for me. With vegetables from her garden. “It’s fine, it’s fine,” she said. “Look at me! I’ve been eating this stuff since the meltdown and I’m OK.”Ê (Ms. Zotina said it is safe to eat food grown at Chernobyl, but in moderation. Other experts warned that mushrooms and fish should be avoided.) As Maria sautéed some cabbage she told me that she grew up in this house and moved away in her 20s, but came back with her husband a week after the meltdown to ensure her parents would be OK. “This is my home. I am this home,” she said, fanning her arm at the room, the walls of which were dotted with colorful imagery of Eastern Orthodox saints and black-and-white photos of family members. Maria’s mother cleared her throat: “I’ve lived through two world wars, invasions, communism and a nuclear meltdown,” she said. “It’s going to take a lot more to get me to leave my home.”
And with that we sat down to eat. Maria placed in front of me a bowl of sautéed cabbage, tomatoes, and potatoes and salo, a Ukrainian delicacy of pork lard. There were liberal amounts of vodka. “Let’s make a toast,” she said, holding up a shot of vodka. “We toast to seeing each other next year right here in Chernobyl.”
—Additional reporting by Valentina Ochirova
THE LOWDOWN// INSIDE CHERNOBYL’S EXCLUSION ZONE
Chernobyl sits about 90 miles north of the Ukranian capital of Kyiv. Visitors can arrange tours through chernobyl-tour.com including a meeting with Chernobyl residents, private tours, air tours and tours based on the HBO show “Chernobyl,” among other options. You can also book a visit via the State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management at dazv.gov.ua. Prices of tours vary based on amount of time and activity.
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