Sunday, 4 November 2018

Chernobyl 1: Ukraine

Disaster Tourism
The disaster happened in the early hours of the morning, when the night shift was on duty and the local residents were asleep. One of the plant's storage tanks overheated. The seals burst and over forty tons of poison gas boiled off into the air. As the gas cooled it fell to earth, and within a few hours over three thousand people were killed by the toxic cloud. Over the following days and years thousands more joined them.

Bhopal is a state capital and manufacturing hub with a population of around two million people. It will forevermore be remembered for the gas leak of December 1984. The plant still exists but it was closed down years ago. Access is difficult for foreigners and there are no organised tours. I have no desire to visit. It would be the most awful holiday.

There's a famous academic paper by a chap called William Adams, published in 1986. It's called "Whose Lives Count?". Adams studied US news coverage of international disasters in the 1970s and early 1980s in order to find out how badly foreign people had to die before they mattered. He concluded that one dead Italian received over eight times the coverage of a dead Filipino, over eighty-four times a dead Chinese person. The further the disaster from the United States - not just geographically but also culturally - the less coverage an individual death received.

Adams pointed out that there was a complicating factor. China had much heavier state censorship than the United States or Europe. The same was true of the Soviet Union. In 1980 a Vostok rocket exploded on the pad at a spaceport near Archangel. Almost fifty people were killed but the disaster was not acknowledged by the Russian authorities until 1989. Relatives of the victims were told that there had been a plane crash. In 1979 an anthrax outbreak at what was then Sverdlovsk killed over sixty people, but although the deaths were reported - they were blamed on tainted meat from unscrupulous market traders - the fact that the anthrax came from a biological weapons plant was not revealed until 1992.

"But we're just as bad, if not worse", and perhaps a hundred years from now it will be revealed that the news media in Britain and the United States were just as guilty, and that literally every death in Britain during the 20th Century was the result of government action. Perhaps it will be revealed that human beings are in fact immortal, but corrupt governments have been hiding that fact from us. If you are reading this blog post in the year ten thousand, please don't think badly of us; we didn't know any better.

The Duga-3 over-the-horizon radar complex. Over-the-horizon radar requires a tonne of computing power, which explains the server racks. The Soviets built the complex near Chernobyl because it was out-of-the-way and no-one would notice the coming and going of military personnel.

There were limits to the power of Soviet censorship. During the Cold War the West generally believed that the Soviets were, if not actually evil, then at the very least inflexible and incompetent. Monolithic in their thought processes. Willing to believe in a fiction rather than admit error. Massively wasteful.

The shoot-down of Korean Air 007 in 1983 fed into this narrative. No-one denied that the pilots had strayed over Soviet territory, but the decision to blow the airliner out of the sky spoke of a system that didn't care about human life and wasn't capable of individual initiative. Soviet attempts to blame the disaster on the United States won no-one over, and in the end the lack of transparency made the Russians look even worse; there were persistent rumours that the bodies of the victims had been retrieved and destroyed, or that some of the passengers had been captured alive and tortured.

Perhaps the Soviet authorities believed that rigid control of the media made them look strong, but in reality it came across as petty. Our own media was in theory free, and despite Watergate newspapers generally weren't seen as a major threat to the stability of the nation, so what were the Russians scared of? A few words never toppled a government.

The censorship failed again in 1986. In October reactor number four at the nuclear power plant near Chernobyl exploded, sending a cloud of radioactive particles into the atmosphere. The cloud drifted west and north, and two days later it tripped radiation detectors at a nuclear power plant in Forsmark, Sweden. When it became apparent that there was nothing wrong with Sweden's reactor it was a simple matter to trace the prevailing winds back to the Soviet Union.

At first the Soviet authorities tried to downplay the incident, which again led to speculation that there had been a major disaster with thousands of deaths. Yet again it fed a suspicion that the USSR was a false front hiding a mass of crumbling infrastructure. Here in the UK Spitting Image made light of Russian censorship and the stereotype of Russian technology and unreliable junk persisted for years afterwards.

Chernobyl became one of those things that children of the 1980s remember vividly, even though details at the time were sketchy. Unlike Challenger or Lockerbie it didn't leave behind indelible images of exploding rockets or the broken wreckage of a Boeing 747. Instead it left behind mental images, of fire, of a building on fire, of melting flesh and a mushroom cloud.

A note about locations. Chernobyl town existed long before the reactor; in the 1970s it was greatly expanded to supply personnel for the Duga radar complex. A small town called Chernobyl-2 also grew around the Duga radar shortly afterwards.
In 1970 Pripyat was built to house workers for the nuclear power plant.
As of 2018 Pripyat and Chernobyl-2 are abandoned. The Chernobyl power plant is still operational and a small number of workers commute from Chernobyl, which is mostly abandoned. When I talk about "Chernobyl" I'm generally talking about the whole exclusion zone plus the 1986 disaster.

For the remainder of the Soviet Union's lifespan Chernobyl was a touchy subject and by the time the USSR collapsed it was old news. I was only ten years old when the disaster happened but the name stuck with me. As a teenager I didn't think about it. I must have assumed it had been cleaned up and dealt with, and it was, although not as I envisaged it. In the early 2000s Eastern Europe became a "thing" in the West - driven by computer games and appearances in spy films - and interest in Chernobyl grew.

I took most of these photos with the cameras above, an Olympus Pen F and a Pen FT. Mostly using Kodak Pro Photo and TMAX. The harsh colour photographs were taken with my mobile phone. The lead-lined pouch wasn't for the film, it was for my testicles. You can't be too careful.

Do I have any desire to visit the site of the Bhopal disaster? None whatsoever. I have no personal connection with Bhopal. The disused plant presumably resembles any other disused factory. It is one of many things in this world that I don't think about from day to day, from year to year, and I imagine the people of Bhopal probably don't care about me and are capable of surviving without my presence. I hate it when people pretend to care. It's fake and it fools nobody. Lefties tend to think of brown-skinned foreigners as if they were an undifferentiated mass of children; I don't. I think of them as people, like me, and I'm not going to trample over their graves to generate content for my blog.

Why did I decide to visit Chernobyl? Spectacle and novelty. I went to see the spectacle of a city of the past frozen in time. There are many other cities in the former Eastern Bloc that are similarly derelict, but short of learning the language and driving there myself I have no way to visit them. Chernobyl is within my grasp. It gives me something to talk about, generates some content for my blog, gives me a chance to wear my big coat and take some photographs. A brush with danger without any danger. If anybody asks I can say that only a few people died, and it was long ago.

I am however late to the party. You've probably been to Chernobyl already. You went in 2009 or 2011, back when the reactor didn't have a big cover on it. You took a lot of photographs and perhaps tried out your drone. Maybe the trip was given for free in exchange for a blog post. You can't get away with that now. Maybe you published a book about your adventures.

Can't get away with that either because publishers aren't interested in Chernobyl any more. That seam has been mined out. In fact it's fashionable to pooh-pooh Chernobyl nowadays. There's a little cottage industry of blog posts moaning that Chernobyl isn't like it was. It's like Everest, overrun by hordes of common people who do not understand things as deeply as you or I.

Chernobyl is one of those places that takes a little bit of work to visit but isn't particularly hard; it's easier than the big gas crater in Turkmenistan, a lot easier than exploring the Caspian Sea via cargo ship, but harder than Iceland or the Faroe Isles. The exclusion zone has a road network, a few shops, and a couple of hotels, but you still have to arrange admission via an agency, because it's an ecological disaster site.

And also a functioning nuclear power plant. The plant now belongs to Ukraine rather than the Soviet Union, but even the pro-Western government of Ukraine isn't keen on people nosing around a nuclear power plant. Do you remember when Ukraine was a major nuclear weapons power? After the Soviet Union collapsed and withdrew from Ukraine the bombers and missiles were left behind. Ukraine gave them back to the Russians. I wonder if they regret that.

The reactor was built near Chernobyl because it was out of the way, and also because there was plenty of water. Nuclear reactors need a lot of water to keep them cool.

You have to get to Kyiv first, because the tours start from Kyiv. Do you have to go on a tour? That depends. Are you conversant in Ukrainian or Russian, but preferably Ukrainian? Are you prepared to walk twenty miles from the nearest functioning train station - which is over the border in Belarus - without being spotted or shot?

Bear in mind that Belarus was hit harder by the disaster than Ukraine on account of the prevailing winds. If you're going to make the crossing on foot it'll be a lot slower than driving, so you'll be exposed to a lot more radiation. If you're eager to go by yourself I'm not going to rat you out, but bear in mind that Chernobyl is in the middle of nowhere. It was deliberately built in the middle of nowhere so that if something went wrong no-one in Moscow would be hurt. That's why we put Dounreay up in Scotland, so that if something went wrong no-one in London would be hurt. There's ample woodland but even if you hide under tree cover you'll stand out a mile on thermal.

I'll tell you how I did it the easy way. I flew from Gatwick with Ukraine International to Boryspil Airport, Kyiv. After arrival I withdrew a few hundred hryvnia from an ATM in the airport and took the bus to Kyiv city centre. The bus is outside the airport building, to the right. From what I remember the stop says "City Bus", but the coach itself has SKY BUS written on the side in purple.

All you have to do is take a seat and wait for the driver to collect the money; he walks up and down the bus. He has change. It costs 100h to get to the main station, 60h for a Metro station south-east of the city centre. Ukrainian money is mostly notes and the ATM will probably give you a 100h note. Make sure to end your turn under full cover with overwatch enabled and don't discount the value of flashbang grenades. They have a huge radius and really work. You can afford to dash during the first turn.

The bus deposited me outside Kyiv's central train station, which has several different names. There is a large and very popular KFC just outside the train station that is open 24 hours a day. Don't feel bad about eating Western takeaway food in Ukraine. KFC has self-service screens but they aren't in English. There are two nearby McDonalds that do have English menus. One day all of it will be in English.

The hotel has a fantastic field of fire.

Next you need the Metro. The Metro entrance is on the other side of the station from from the bus stop. You can either walk through the station, dodging past soldiers and masses of people getting on with their lives, or use the underpass, which is off to one side and hard to spot unless you've scouted the area beforehand with Google Street View.

Thirty years of radioactive poison has taken its toll on Kyiv. The people have built a large underground transport network in order to escape from the surface. As I sat on the Kyiv metro at six o'clock on the morning the other passengers looked tired and drawn. Ukrainian women appear to weigh no more than eleven or twelve stone, versus a far more more normal fifteen or sixteen stone here in Britain. Such is the pervasive air of fear in the atmosphere that at certain times in the day the roads in central Kyiv become packed with cars, packed with people trying to escape.

Ukraine in general and Kyiv in particular is in a state of flux, at least as far as British tourism is concerned. On the positive side everything is cheap in Kyiv if you are British. As of 2018 a McDonalds meal is around 89h, which is £2.15, versus £5.49 or so for the same thing in the UK. Before you complain that I travelled to a foreign country but ignored the local cuisine in favour of American food I would like to make it clear that every single day I ate the most adventurous dishes in Kyiv's top restaurants, where I know all of the chefs personally. On Wednesday I visited Kyiv's top chef at his country home where we drank the finest wines and I made love to his daughter. I only mention McDonalds because some readers of this blog might be pressed for time.

It has to be said that Ukraine is not famous for its cuisine, which is made from cabbage and beetroot, but on the other hand British food is even worse - we have Fray Bentos pies that aren't even pies, and sausages made out of pig's blood - so I feel I can look the nation of Ukraine in the eye.

Prices. Hotel prices in Kyiv are also modest. You can go up a tier. I travel light and cheap, but this time I had a kettle and a fridge and a dedicated shower and a washing machine. Ukraine doesn't have a prohibition on alcohol and no-one minds if you wear shorts. No-one speaks English. As a British person I don't find that a problem because I usually don't interact with the locals anyway. It can only be a matter of time before British people shun Poland and decide to go on rave-ups in Ukraine instead, at which point the people of Ukraine will learn English and all their street signs will be in English and we will have ruined another country once again.

Ukraine is non-standard. It's East. Not hardcore East like Khazakstan but still East. It's more East than I have ever been. The furthest East I have been is Budapest, which is technically East but felt West because Hungary uses the same alphabet and is only a short train journey from Austria.

Ukraine on the other hand has an alien aspect. It has a completely different alphabet and all the traits of former components of the Eastern Bloc. Solid but crumbling buildings, a well-educated population, very few fat people, apparently masses of corruption although I didn't see any myself. I expected to see gangs of teenagers dressed in Adidas, squatting while drinking vodka and glaring at passers-by, but in the end the people looked mostly normal. My only other knowledge of Eastern Europe comes from dashcam videos of car accidents, but I didn't see any car accidents. If you're reading this in Ukraine, I want to reassure you that in my opinion you're all right. You can sleep happy tonight.

Kyiv is in pretty good shape, surprisingly so given the bad hurting currently going on in part of the country, and the bad hurting that took place in the main square just a few years ago. There was however still something jarring about Kyiv. It was the Metro.

The Metro was built many years ago, when Kyiv had fewer people. Fewer, smaller people. The platforms are generally very deep and it would cost a fortune to enlarge anything, so the Metro is constantly crowded, but the thing that struck me most was the adverts.

You can learn a lot about a place by studying the adverts; by studying adverts you are reverse-engineering the thought processes of the marketing people who bought the advertising space. Here in the UK advertising is ubiquitous. London in particular is covered with adverts for expensive car brands and Hollywood films, because marketing people are confident that Londoners have money. London feels real and substantial because it has the best adverts.

In Kyiv the adverts were for power tool companies and local nightclubs. Cheap adverts for small businesses. It made the Metro feel cheap and small. I have to assume that luxury car manufacturers and makers of expensive watches and jewellery do not feel that the people of Kyiv are their target market.

One day the entire world will be covered in adverts for BMW and Bulgari, but until then there are colourless pockets of grim poverty where people simply live their lives without dreaming about Omega or Desigual, and Kyiv is one of those pockets. I pity those people.

Using the Kyiv Metro is relatively simple. I asked one of the staff for a contactless Metro card - I said "contactless?" and pointed. She understood me. We didn't build HMS Dreadnought for nothing, you know. The contactless Metro card is a green plastic card that you preload with Metro journeys using vending machines in the stations. For all its faults the Metro is really cheap.

Technically I should have given the card back, but I might go again. Living in Ukraine for six months is probably a lot cheaper than living in Britain. Perhaps I might move there.
A bohemian subculture will grow around me, and then house prices in Kyiv will skyrocket because of gentrification, and it will be all my fault, but I'll still moan about it. Middle class people are poison.

How would I solve the problems of Kyiv? Firstly I would demand a fee of £15m for my services, payable to my company, of which I am the only employee. Secondly I would advise that the Metro increases its prices tenfold. That would cut down on overcrowding.

Some people might find it hard to use the Metro because of the price increase; they can either stay at home or use alternative transport. Thirdly I would implement a congestion charge whereby cars passing through Kyiv have to pay a fee. I would spin it as an environmental measure. Fourthly I would raise the salaries of Kyiv's executive body and also cut a deal with local businesspeople to relax whatever planning laws Kyiv has. The congestion charge might push some locals into desperation and poverty, but I have long believed that a thing does not exist unless it can be observed - quantum postmodernism, I call it - and as long as Kyiv's media keeps its mouth shut about the homeless all will be well in the garden. Besides which the poor shouldn't expect to live in the nation's capital city. That's just selfish. They should live in little slums around the edge.

That is my model for Kyiv and for the whole world.

What else? Most of Kyiv's signs are written in the Ukrainian and Latin alphabets, but almost none of them have English translations. One exception is the Metro, which has an English voiceover, specifically an irritated-sounding American English voiceover. The central train station has several names. The entire station complex is called Kiev-Pasazhyrskyi ("passengers"). The southern part of the station, where the Sky Bus drops you off, is Kiev-Pivdennyi ("southern"). The Metro stop - which isn't directly connected to the station, but has a building just outside - is Vokzal'na, roughly "in the station", apparently derived from the English word Vauxhall.

The biggest problem with Kyiv as a tourist destination is that there isn't all that much to see, and the city is a nine-hour train journey from the rest of Ukraine, which doesn't have much to see either. Odessa has some famous steps, but at the base of the steps is a bunch of bars and a ferry terminal, and at the top is a statue and nothing. Ukraine in general is enormous but only has a handful of tourist destinations. As I write these words the most popular activities listed on TripAdvisor for all of Ukraine are Chernobyl and a gun range where you can shoot Kalashnikovs, which is something I'd love to do but I'd never admit it in public. Ukraine is one of those strange, isolated places where people get on with things without debasing themselves to bring in tourist dollars.

I realise that I'm dismissing an entire country. In my defence, most stuff on the internet is written by Americans, generally upper-middle-class Americans who earn a lot of money and live in relative luxury. They write about the world from a position of superiority. When they criticise foreign lands they are essentially kicking something that, to them, is small and weak, for the amusement of their peers. I am not American. I'm British, and Britain does not have a position of superiority over anything, and neither do I.

In the 1970s the Eastern Bloc had the Trabant and concrete tower blocks, but we weren't any better. We also had concrete tower blocks, and they were just as badly made. We had the Morris Marina, one of the most depressing cars ever to sell more than a million units. It was made with bits of other cars. The two-door coupe version had the same doors as the four-door, so it looked as if the doors were too small. There was absolutely nothing special or different about the Morris Marina.

We had the three-day week, there were only three television channels, men were ugly, most women were ugly, television was brown and there were "dolly birds", life was horrible, there was the Yorkshire Ripper etc. When the Sex Pistols sang about digging under the Berlin Wall in order to escape to the Eastern Bloc they were only half-joking. A lot of people who came of age in Britain in the 1960s grew up with an outside toilet. London still had bomb damage into the 1980s. The thought of living in the Eastern Bloc only sounded bad because it was full of foreigners, not because the standard of living was worse. If I disrespect Ukraine it's not because I look down on the place, it just doesn't stand out to me.

See, some places attract tourists because they're good-looking. The Bahamas for example. Nothing of note ever happened in The Bahamas and there are no museums, but people go there because the beaches are nice. Other places compensate for their lack of physical beauty by reminding us of things we saw on television when we were young. The remains of the Berlin Wall aren't much to look at but they mean something to me because I remember watching the wall come down on television.

Unfortunately for Ukraine the countryside is mostly flat, its cities are no more or less attractive than those elsewhere, and apart from Chernobyl I know nothing about the place. I don't know much about it and I'm not minded to find out because I hate learning; learning is difficult and depressing, because every time I learn something I realise how ignorant I used to be. Learning doesn't make me happy.

From now on Elon Musk will always be Knob Mack to me.

What did I see in Kyiv? I contemplated an overnight train journey to Odessa to see the steps, but there wasn't time. I visited the main square, which was the site of an apocalyptic protest in 2014 that left several people dead. I learn from The Guardian's Comment is Free section that the protesters were stooges of the CIA who were each paid $25 to turn up and throw petrol bombs, and that the killings - which didn't happen - were false flag operations orchestrated by CIA-backed neo-Nazis and that Ukraine was stupid to turn its back on Russia in favour of the European Union and NATO. Ukraine is apparently the most corrupt nation in Europe.

I love The Guardian. It's a rich source of comedy in a bleak world. Maidan Square is dominated by a large ugly hotel which sits on top of a hill. It's an obvious sniper spot, an awesome one. You would have the most incredible kill-streak if you could get up there with a rifle. In computer games it's easy to run uphill, in real life it's not.

The former Kiev Arsenal camera factory.

I visited the Kiev Arsenal camera factory. I have a Kiev 4 rangefinder camera. It was made in Kyiv, in a factory just outside the Arsenal metro station. Sadly the factory closed a long time ago, and although it was briefly taken over by a camera shop that sold medium format gear, that has gone as well. I didn't have time to explore camera shops in Ukraine.

I went to Kyiv's war museum complex. This was built during the Soviet era to commemorate the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945, but it also has a collection of Cold War tanks and aircraft, including a Hind helicopter gunship that you can sit in. The museum is topped by a statue of a huge woman holding a sword, which must have struck fear into the hearts of the German army.

The complex is built on a hill. It seems to be a popular location for wedding photographs. The first couple of rooms in the museum have coverage of the recent unpleasantness in the Donbass, including some uncannily lifelike models of infantrymen who have participated in the conflict; they all have nicknames like Hawk or Trapper or The Bohemian etc. The rest of the museum has two long chains of rooms that progress through Ukraine's involvement in the Second World War.

Visiting military museums in the former Eastern Bloc is an odd experience because they were the bad guys. What do they have to be proud about?

I've visited a military museum in Dresden, which was in the former East Germany. The people of Dresden were the bad guys during the Second World War, and when the war was over they continued to be the bad guys, although they weren't quite as bad. Dresden's museum has a difficult job to do. It has to document Germany's unambiguously villainous involvement in the Second World War; then document and mildly celebrate the armed forces of the GDR; then it has to celebrate Germany's post-unification armed forces but without giving the impression that war is good, because modern-day Germans are a bunch of wimpy peaceniks.

My recollection of the museum is that Nazi propaganda posters gave the impression that their war was a pan-European crusade against Soviet Russia, whereas the Cold War exhibits suggested that the East German army spent most of its time shaking hands with Angolans.

Ukraine's Second World War museum felt a lot simpler, albeit that I don't know a word of Ukranian so there may be subtleties that passed me by. No, tell a lie. I know one word of Ukranian. Om-sheer-brow, which is "the doors are closing".

Unlike some other European nations Ukraine didn't throw its lot in with the Nazis, it was invaded and occupied in 1941 and liberated a few years later by the Soviet war machine, at which point Ukraine's armed forces enthusiastically joined in the final battle against Germany. Almost seven million Ukranians died during the conflict, most of whom were civilians put to death for no reason whatsoever by the Nazi regime. Human beings aren't rational. You can't understand them if you only think rationally. You have to embrace chaos to understand human beings.

The issue of Ukranian participation in the Holocaust is a thorny one. The Soviets weren't interested in digging up that part of the past and I have the impression that no-one in modern Ukraine is particularly minded to do so either. As a British person it's great not having to deal with that kind of historical problem. From my point of view World War Two was Dunkirk, the Blitz, the Battle of Britain, and then D-Day and victory! Also the Japanese beat us, but we don't talk about that. It's great to live in splendid isolation on an island that doesn't have any hostile borders. It simplifies things immensely.

Alas, in the age of the jet bomber and the nuclear missile we aren't far enough away from Europe to turn our back on it entirely, but I'm digressing here, next chapter.