We are sitting in a canteen that was built recently, but its design and menu are meant to evoke the Soviet era for tourists in Chernobyl. For someone from Lithuania, it instead reminds of experience at high school.
Alexander, our guide, receives a message that risks ruining the appetite in front of an already less-than-tempting serving of pork cutlets and cabbage soup. “A woman wrote to me that organising tours to Chernobyl is disgusting. I’ll think later what to reply,” he comments.
Paradoxically, the more tourists come, the more the atmosphere in Chernobyl differs from organizers’ descriptions. One is still keenly aware of the disaster 33 years ago while walking across the deserted sites, but the sense of complete abandonment is constantly broken by the clicking cameras or Geiger counters in the hands of tourists.
Paradoxically, the way tour organizers describe the atmosphere in Chernobyl, the more it differs from the actual reality on the ground amidst increasing tourism.
Of late, attracting tourists to Chernobyl has been easy, thanks to the new HBO and Sky TV miniseries that aired this spring. It led to an estimated 30-percent rise in tourism and is expected to double the number of visitors this year, to around 150,000.
The tour organisers are mostly Ukrainian companies, though there are some from other countries, including Lithuania. They are responsible for ensuring safety for visitors who are not allowed to enter the exclusion zone on their own. The risks include not just radiation, but also potential accidents in decrepit buildings.
Alexander, our guide, comes from Odessa, a coastal town on the opposite end of Ukraine, but says he feels solidarity with people from the region, since the Chernobyl disaster was not contained within the 2,600 square kilometer exclusion zone.
Some tour companies, however, decided to create games and “make a show” out of Chernobyl.
“They hide things that people have to find in a ‘treasure hunt’. One company in Slavutych (a town some 60 km from Chernobyl built to house the evacuated residents) organises an annual festival, which is unbelievable when you think of the place nearby,” he says.
Pressed further, he explains that the festival is quite an ordinary one, with music and alcohol.
Another company – or it may be the same, Alexandre does not specify – lures clients with tours in Pripyat, where tourists can take part in evacuation reenactments.
There have been wedding parties in Chernobyl, Alexander tells us. Stories about his former employer offering Valentine’s day packages for lovers sound almost ordinary.
Coffee mugs and glowing condoms
Craig Mazin, the screenwriter of the ‘Chernobyl’ miniseries, has recently urged Chernobyl tourists not to forget where they are, commenting on selfies from the nuclear disaster zone. “If you visit, please remember that a terrible tragedy occurred there. Behave yourselves with respect for all who suffered and sacrificed,” he tweeted.
More tourists mean more business – there are now several kiosks by the entrance to the Chernobyl exclusion zone, selling T-shirts, mugs, baseball hats, fridge magnets and even glowing condoms.
While walking through deserted towns around Chernobyl, one gets the impression that tour organisers took care of not just that the tourists be safe, but also that they have enough photo opportunities.
Many abandoned homes, shops and warehouses were looted in the first years after the disaster, but the things that remain seem like they were put there sometime afterward.
Somewhat unnatural positioning of objects, seemingly staged for a shot, and the very existence of others make one question the scene.
For example, in a windy kindergarten room overtaken by bushes and moss, a doll is left on a tiny bed; it has a speaker in the belly. It is hard to tell if the modern toy could have been here in 1986, but if so, its owner was, at least for a short time, was the luckiest kid in Pripyat.
Chernobyl has become one of the most popular destinations, albeit a relatively new one, on the map of so-called dark tourism. Previously, “dark tourists” had discovered Pompeii, the 9/11 memorial in New York City or Nazi concentration camps, like the one in Auschwitz.
The term itself was coined over a decade ago by researchers wondering at the popularity of sites linked to the life and killing of US President John F. Kennedy.
But it’s not all up to tourists – countries get to pick how to narrate their histories. Professor Natalija Arlauskaitė of Vilnius University notes that these narratives can sometimes be ambivalent or even at odds with commercial imperatives.
“In Georgia, for example, the same government institution runs two different museums: the occupation museum in Tbilisi and the Stalin museum in Gori, the birthplace of the Soviet dictator. The first museum documents the history of repression and tragedies brought on by Stalin’s regime, while the other sells souvenir bullets with his images and tourists often take photos with his portraits and his mask,” Arlauskaitė tells LRT.lt.
This, she says, represents an attempt to “build a reflective narrative about history” and, at the same time, sell a legend of “an exceptional strongman tyrant you may not be straightforwardly proud of, but one that you use as a celebrity, an attraction”.
What is at stake is “the functioning of historical narratives in a particular society” and “who gets to partake in their generation, control and exhibition”, Arlauskaitė adds.
The second element is the awareness of tourists themselves, she says, offering an example from the Ukrainian documentary filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s film ‘Austerlitz’.
“It is about people visiting former concentration and extermination camps and shows them endlessly taking selfies. This raises the question of why people go there – to tick the ‘I’ve been here’ box or to seek excitement, sensual stimulation, which is egocentric and unreflected,” Arlauskaitė says.
People do take selfies in Chernobyl as well, though most of the tourists we passed by were quiet and composed.
“Thank you and come back again,” a saleswoman sees us off from a shop in Chernobyl. She is only partly joking, we learn soon enough. Visitors do return to this place, oftentimes more than once.
Some seek adrenalin rush, which, clearly, is more intense if one travels illegally, that is, without guides. Unguided visits to Chernobyl are forbidden, but not impossible. The so-called ‘stalkers’ face fines of several dozen euros, but the biggest risk is to one’s health rather than the pocket.
A Belarusian died a year and a half ago when he tried to climb the Duga radar, a 150-metre-tall and 700-metre-wide structure that the Soviets built to protect themselves from surprise US ballistic missile attacks. The site was classified and inaccessible to ordinary people – when the locals started wondering about the massive construction in the middle of a forest, they were told it was a Soviet youth camp.