Negotiating Disaster and Apprehension: Representing Chernobyl

The one-time Palace of Culture lords over the remains of Pripyat (image courtesy Timm Suess).

Few disasters have more persistently tugged at our collective imagination than the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident.  In the subsequent quarter-century, a flood of statistical analysis has dissected the concrete effects of the accident on regional mortality, radiation levels, and the Ukranian and regional economies, and other scholars have assessed the quantifiable impacts on mental health.  Yet little of this scholarship has painted a particularly satisfying picture of what in many ways is a socially imagined disaster as well as a real, measurable catastrophe that cannot be completely rationalized through scientific analysis.  Mario Petrucci has argued that “the quantification of Chernobyl and its after-effects, crucial as it is, can never become our sole aim. Chernobyl stands to remind us that knowledge is as much qualitative as quantitative.”  The thousands of people neighboring Chernobyl and in the shadow of the vast radiation cloud are joined by countless more people well outside the Ukraine in their common apprehension of the specter of unseen radiation, a widespread wariness of a state or states that intentionally misrepresented the crisis, and a fascination with the psychological, bodily, and material effects of disaster.

The mountains of discarded gas masks at Chernobyl now seem ridiculously ironic (image courtesy murderdoll17).

In the wake of the disaster, a 30 kilometer “exclusion zone” was created around Chernobyl expelling all residents and leaving behind an abandonment space that often has been symbolically cast as a testament to the resilience of nature, the fatal flaws of the Soviet state, the fallibility of expert knowledge, and the aesthetics of loss, fear, and suffering.  Much of the exclusion zone is occupied by the former “nuclear city” of Pripyat, which was settled in 1970 to house Chernobyl laborers before its roughly 49,000 residents were removed in two days following the 1986 disaster.  The slowly eroding city has been a magnet for a variety of observers aspiring to make sense of the Chernobyl disaster, with some former residents hoping to turn it into a protected living museum revealing technological catastrophe; other artists document Pripyat aesthetically by assessing post-abandonment graffiti and even placing a mural of The Simpsons in the heart of the exclusion zone; some observers monitor nature’s rebound in the exclusion zone; Timm Suess’ wonderful page on Chernobyl includes sounds, videos, and many images; and many more chronicle their trips into the exclusion zone, which tours enter on a regular basis (though there are some moves to restrict such tours).  Today a wealth of photographers have descended on the abandoned city and remaining exclusion zone, capturing our fascination with the ruins of a disaster that has seized many peoples’ imaginations.

The Pripyat ferris wheel looms over the landscape of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (image courtesy hiroshiman)

Some imaginations of the Chernobyl exclusion zone paint it as a dead space populated by barren Soviet-era concrete structures.  For instance, Pripyat has appeared in the games S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, in which a variety of mutants and mercenaries aspire to kill players as they move through the post-apocalyptic landscape, and the visually memorable Pripyat ferris wheel occupies the game’s landscape (one tour company even offered S.T.A.L.K.E.R. tours of Pripyat and the exclusion zone).   Pripyat also appears in several versions of the video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.  Some artists take their visual cues from such post-apocalyptic video art conventions, which pose a bleak landscape of mutants and dystopian creatures—these creatures essentially represent radiation, which is an otherwise difficult entity to represent artistically and materially—and places them in confrontation with powerful human agents.

The Pripyat ferris wheel rusts in the background as flowers push through the surface (image courtesy ssmarta)

Much of this art from video games to photography aspires to imagine an effective human presence where it otherwise does not exist today.  Artists’ conceptualizations of the space illuminate the most powerful evocative dimensions of the abandoned landscape—mountains of gas masks, empty nursery cribs, Soviet ideological symbols, the empty Pripyat amusement park—to underscore the absence of people while lamenting the lost social life in an empty traumascape.  Artists sometimes risk inflating the scarred and barren exclusion zone left in the wake of the radiation cloud, but overdone depictions of the post-apocalyptic exclusion zone are simply aspiring to evoke the distinctive ruins of instant abandonment in the face of human and state failures.

The Hotel Polissya in Pripyat (image courtesy Timm Suess).

In reality, security around the zone is relatively lax, wildlife has thrived in what Mary Mycio describes as Europe’s largest wildlife sanctuary (compare the Wired piece on wildlife in the exclusion zone); organized tours have been visiting the zone for at least a decade; and some squatters have moved into the area or are among the 3500 people living in Chernobyl working for the state managing the disaster site.  Nevertheless, Chernobyl and Pripyat are clearly declining in the absence of maintenance and under the persistent threat of thieves pilfering anything that can be sold.  Urban explorers often point to Chernobyl as one of the world’s most compelling sites, representing what Bradley Garrett refers to as a “post-human imaginary”; that is, the most alluring ruins are those that are intersections of history and a “post-human future imagination” that envisions a world without us.  Paul Dobraszczyk paints Chernobyl as an “umediated experience on the ruin of the city” where we can confront “inconceivable terror.”  The explorer UrbanX, for instance, has documented a series of visits into the exclusion zone with exceptional rigor.  These explorers’ forays into the exclusion zone reveal our somewhat dystopian anxieties about our contemporary loss of place.  Photographer Timm Suess argues that Chernobyl provides a “post-mortem” picture, echoing a common characterization of  abandonment photographers as chroniclers of architectural “death,” but Suess suggests that Chernobyl is distinctive in the nearly instant abandonment of the site and its quarter-century isolation.

image courtesy Pedro Moura Pinheiro

Signs in the Pripyat Palace of Culture (image courtesy Timm Suess).

All of these mediums aspire to represent Chernobyl artistically and express our anxieties, fascination, and curiosities with the disaster.  Mario Petrucci concludes that an artist’s perspective on Chernobyl tempers the scientifically driven bureaucratic efforts to manage the aftermath of the disaster.   He advocates an artistic imagination of the Chernobyl apprehension, anxiety, and suffering, suggesting that “In understanding Chernobyl, intellect can therefore only ever provide one tool. … I believe it a fundamental truth of our species that suffering – and a genuine empathy with suffering – serves to reorient us in a better direction.  Chernobyl is far more than a scientific mistake or a folly of Soviet zeitgeist; more, too, than yet another increment in our capacity to generate tragedy and environmental stress. On some plane – one that is more instinctive, and felt, than arcane – exists the chance to transform Chernobyl from wound to opportunity, to move from scientific progress measured scientifically to human progress whose values are rooted firmly in compassion.”

An abandoned nursery in Pripyat (image courtesy murderdoll17).

Our fascination with Chernobyl has complex roots, but much of it revolves around how we view the state and scientific authority and experience apprehension and anxiety.  Adriana Petryna weaves a compelling ethnographic case arguing that the models of “scientific knowability” that aspire to assess and politically manage the toll of Chernobyl simply fail to capture human suffering and apprehension.  Ulrich Beck made a similar case when he referred to Chernobyl as a moment of “anthropological shock” in its illumination of the divide between scientific knowledge and the human experience of suffering and risk.  In this shock, science fails to address the depth of our apprehension, and it evades our anxieties that even post-Soviet states will not always protect their own citizens.  Scientists have waded into the exclusion zone hoping to systematically document nature’s response to the disaster, but photographers may paint a more satisfying—if utterly emotional–image of floral and faunal rebound than tables of data analyses.

Chernobyl reactor today (image courtesy jon|k).

In the most creative hands, such art should lead to genuine activism and not simply be a voyeuristic gaze on distant Eastern Europeans.  Krista Harper has argued that the Chernobyl disaster moved some Hungarians (which borders the Ukraine) to openly question scientific and state authority and fashion communities of shared anxiety that fueled environmental activism.  Phaedra Pezzullo argues that “toxic tours” to places like the Chernobyl exclusion zone are fueled by a commitment to social justice intended to foster concrete activism against environmental pollution catastrophes.  For most of us, the discussion about Chernobyl simply will not occur without photographers, artists, cinematographers, poets, and novelists willing to tackle Chernobyl as something more complicated than a nuclear accident, instead framing it as a discourse on deep-seated apprehensions of an apocalypse we fear we may create ourselves.

Image courtesy murderdoll17

Chernobyl Web Pages

25 Years of Satellite Images over Chernobyl

28 Days Later Chernobyl Thread: urban explorers’ discussion of the exclusion zone

Abandoned Kansai: exceptionally thorough Chernobyl trip with video

Chernobyl: Robert Polidori

Chernobyl 1984-2009: Then and Now

Chernobyl 1986: Tom Bossi, available as an iPad application

Chernobyl 20 Years On:  BBC page on the disaster

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone: Firesuite Photography

Chernobyl Exclusion Zone: The Time Chamber

Chernobyl Flickr Group

The Chernobyl Project: among other things, examines the STALKER games, some Chernobyl music, and some art projects

Chernobyl Zone: images of survivors and the contemporary landscape

Chernobyl: The Exclusion Zone: Gerd Ludwig Photography

Chernobyl Up Close: Igor Kostin’s images of Chernobyl taken immediately after the accident

Chernobyl: Within the Zone: Heidi Bradner Photography

Chernobyl’s Zone of Alienation: Darren Nisbett Photography

Chornobyl Museum: Ukraine’s national museum of the nuclear accident

Eternal Tears: Chernobyl in Sand Animation

Flora of Chernobyl Exclusion Zone: the ecosystem’s rebound in the exclusion zone

Heavy Water: A Film for Chernobyl: YouTube trailer

Into the Zone: My trip to Chernobyl and Pripyat

Lost City of Chernobyl

Many Faces of Decay: Timm Suess’ Chernobyl trip, among the finest photograph collections from the exclusion zone with thoughtful commentary as well

Our Pripyat: YouTube channel of Pripyat videos

Panoramio Chernobyl Exclusion zone pictures

Picnic in the Death Zone: a 2007 video visit to the exclusion zone

Pripyat: Web page by displaced residents aspiring to preserve Pripyat as a “museum city”

Pripyat: Atom’s Wake: Jan Smith Photography

Prypat and the 30K Zone:  David McMillan’s photographs of the exclusion zone

Project Pripyat: “poetic excavation of a modern Pompeii”

Pripyat/Chernobyl 2010

Remembering Chernobyl: stories and images on Pripyat and Chernobyl before the accident

Road Chernobyl-Pripyat Flicker group

The Toxic Camera: video from Jane and Louise Wilson’s film

Touring Chernobyl 25 Years Later

Touring Chernobyl in 2010

Visit Chernobyl and Pripyat

Wildlife Photos in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Lenin Square, Pripyat (Image courtesy Timm Suess)

Image Credits All images on the blog are Creative Commons-licensed.  No images have been modified by me.

Chernobyl reactor image courtesy jon|k

Chernobyl art image courtesy ~Sk1zzo

Ferris wheel image courtesy ssmarta

Gas Mask imagePripyat Nursery, and Bumper Car image courtesy murderdoll17

Palace of Culture image, Pripyat Palace of Culture signs image, Lenin Square image, Theatre audience image, and Hotel Polissya image courtesy Timm Suess

Pripyat sign image courtesy Pedro Moura Pinheiro 

STALKER ferris wheel image courtesy hiroshiman

Image courtesy ~Sk1zzo


Melanie Arndt (editor)

2012 Special Issue: Memories, Commemorations and Representations of ChernobylThe Anthropology of East Europe Review 30(1).

Ulrich Beck

1987 The anthropological shock: Chernobyl and the contours of the risk society.  Berkeley Journal of Sociology 32: 153-165. (subscription access)

Gabrielle Decamous

2011 Nuclear Activities and Modern Catastrophes: Art Faces the Radioactive WavesLeonardo 44(2):124-132.

Paul Dobraszczyk

2010 Petrified ruin: Chernobyl, Pripyat and the death of the cityCity 14(4):370-389. (subscription access)

Ian Fairlie and David Sumner

2006 The Other Report on Chernobyl (TORCH).  The European Greens Party.

Bradley Lannes Garrett

2012 Place Hacking: Tales of Urban Exploration.  PhD Dissertation, University of London.

Krista M. Harper

2001 Chernobyl Stories and Anthropological Shock in HungaryAnthropological Quarterly 74(3): 114-123.

David R. Marples

1996 The Decade of Despair. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 22-32.

Mary Mycio

2005 Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl.  National Academies Press, Washington DC.

Adriana Petryna

2002 Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl.  Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

2004 Biological Citizenship: The Science and Politics of Chernobyl-Exposed Populations.  Osiris 19:250-265. (subscription access)

Mario Petrucci

2006 “Three Hot Drops of Salmon Oil”: The Artist and the Self in the Aftermath of Chernobyl.  Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 31(3):254-260.

Phaedra Pezzullo

2007 Toxic Tourism: Rhetorics of Travel, Pollution, and Environmental Justice . University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

Sarah D. Phillips and Sara Ostazewski

2012 An Illustrated Guide to the Post-Catastrophe FutureThe Anthropology of East Europe Review 30(1):127-140.

Stephens, Sharon

1995 The ‘‘Cultural Fallout’’ of Chernobyl Radiation in Norwegian Sami Regions: Implications for Children. In Children and the Politics of Culture, ed. Sharon Stephens.  Princeton University Press, Princeton University Press.

Alexey V. Yablokov, Vassily B. Nesternko, and Alexey V. Nesterenko (editors)

2009 Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the EnvironmentAnnals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1181.

Andrea Zink

2012 Approaching the Void: Chernobyl’ in Text and ImageThe Anthropology of East Europe Review 30(1):100-112.

Theatre audience space (image courtesy Timm Suess)

Posted on November 25, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Very thought provoking – as ever – it’s great to see academics speaking through open access outlets, rather than saving their thoughts for minority access journals (or maybe you do save your even better stuff for those !?). If anyone reading this is based in the north of England they might be interested in the workshop being held at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester on 28 November on the theme of Chernobyl, contamination and the art of ruin. I don’t know if there any spaces left but here’s a link to more info:

    • That workshop sounds fabulous, very interesting folks and clear parallels to questions archaeologists are discussing as well, there obviously are lots of scholars and artists coming at this from a variety of disciplines (and tons of popular interest outside the academy). I will get lots of this material in peer-reviewed publications and conferences, but this is a nice way to float new ideas.

  2. Reblogged this on Lyn Leahz and commented:
    Interesting post with photos on Chernobyl

  3. What a terrible thing to happen. Yet the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were far worse. I still can’t believe that after all these nuclear disasters the world leaders are still in the arms development stage. Yes, I know everyone wants to protect their own, but if you think about it, nuclear bombs aren’t really the correct way to do it, because a nuclear bomb would affect everyone, including the man and people whopush the button.

  4. Thanks for this essay, the images, and the tremendous collection of sites and resources about this theme. I plan to use some of the images and ideas in a presentation I will be giving at a labor history conference ar Wayne State University in Detroit in October, titled “The Planetary Work Machine: Perils and Prospects” (the latter category questionable to say the least). It will be a historical description of global industrialism, influenced by Lewis Mumford’s idea of the megamachine. Your images give a good idea of both perils and prospects.I will definitely mention this site and your insights. Detroit is of course the infamous city of ruins–the iconic abandoned train station here was used by Godfrey Reggio for his opening in Naqoyqatsi, the third of his trilogy of films starting with Koyaanisqatsi, the “life out of balance” we are more and more seeing the consequences of. Back in 1977 I was in a group that published, on the cover of our local radical newspaper, a picture of the downtown Detroit skyline with the title, “Soon to be picturesque ruins!” We had no idea how far this was going to go (though Detroit was already in ruins at the time). (I would send the image to you but not sure how to do it.) RE the prospects, reading your blog I appreciate your take, and think I can talk about the uses of ruins to inspire ecological activism, as you point out at the end of your essay. All best.

  1. Pingback: Wandering invisible ruins – radiation, steel, photographs and footprints « lukebennett13

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