No Pokemon in Chernobyl

By Sarah Hall

Darcy and I went on a tour of the Chernobyl exclusion zone with a video camera, because we thought it would be a good place to take footage for a short documentary competition on the theme ‘Anthropocene’ that we would like to have won last month.

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We mainly filmed other tour members filming the tour, zooming in on their cameras screens zooming in on the tour guide’s dosimeters close to the ground, beeping enthusiastically with off-chart readings in the ‘hot spots’ of high radioactivity throughout the ghost places. We got some footage of some footage of eachother shooting eachother; I with the iPhone running low on power, Darce with the battery operated video camera we hunted down at a second hand electronic store in Kiev for the project, and for which we always kept a stockpile of batteries in the bumbag (he later arranged our anthropocene batteries on the hotel window sill and they looked like a little Kiev - soviet apartment buildings all in a row). 

The trees have now colonised Pripyat, the town closest to the Power Plant, since it was evacuated the day after the disaster thirty years ago: a fresh green aspect to the anthroposcenery. We saw soviet town planning with all kinds of relics: a big poster of Lenin’s “study study study”  in the propaganda cinema, an amusement park in the central square, dusty dolls and rusty bunks in the old primary school. An old shopping centre with wrecked trolleys, fresh tags, some sights familiar to me from documentaries and internet searches and some tour members comparing the place to Hiroshima. As we sifted through the rubble in the old swimming pool our tour guide reminded us that we were not regular tourists, we were extreme tourists; tourists with a penchant for danger.

But for every tour company selling Chernobyl as extreme tourism to fearless adventurers, there are scores of articles and blogs condemning disaster tourism in Chernobyl, admonishing people who go for the wrong reasons. The ethics of “Dark Tourism” has been well explored in the media, especially in relation to Auschwitz, but also other sites of past devestation like Ground Zero, the Cu Chi Tunnels and Chernobyl. Given that some tourists behave in these sites in the same way they do at the Eiffel Tower or a cat cafe: laughing in an old gas chamber or taking selfies and throwing gang signs in front of the nuclear reactor that exploded and cost thousands of people their lives, it is worth thinking about. 

Chernobyl is different to some of these other Dark Tourism sites because the cause of the disaster was an accident/ oversight, so when thinking about the event you do not have to grapple with the human cruelty element, in the same way you do with, for example, Auschwitz. But a major criticisim of Disaster Tourism remains valid for Chernobyl; that tourists may behave direspectfully to those who have died and suffered here. 

Were we being dodgy tourists? Is witnessing this kind of devestation and abandonment useful to anything? Does it have to be? Everyone on our tour was glued to their cameras and our cameras were glued to theirs, does that make us even worse? There are so many bad categories of tourist to fit into: disrespectful tourist; boastful tourist; tourist who complains about every other tourist doing tourism the wrong way - taking up my spot on the walkway, taking too many photos, not caring about some real authentic thing - just looking around and coming home with new keyrings; or the tourist that cares about learning some real authentic thing and by doing so defines what is allowed to be authentic or not, forgets that everything is something real- the authentic locals eat at Maccas, and so forth. Even the tourists on main street looking through the trinket shops are a real part of the culture. Is there such a thing as authentic tourism or is that an oxymoron. And what is good tourism about. Seeing something new? Realising some new way of living? Thinking of a new way of thinking? Having a great time? 

And what kind of tourism at Chernobyl counts as good. Is being interested in what you see enough? Realising shared humanity through recognising a dropped doll that looks just like one I had, once? Learning more about what happened so understanding more about the victims’ plight? Thinking about the anthropocene? Making a film about tourism at Chernobyl that could win us money?   

You tell me.       

Anthropocene is a world to describe our current geological epoch, in which human activity is a primary player influencing the planet’s climate, and the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Reactor number four is the site of one of history’s most catastrophic nuclear disasters. The accident on 26 April 1986 caused radioactive particles to leak and spread out from Ukraine over much of the USSR and Europe. The site remains lethally radioactive in some parts, especially at reactor four which is covered, but in need of constant maintenance to avoid another leak. The thirty kilometer exclusion zone is now open to tour groups.

Like being a tourist at Chernobyl, the anthropocene requires that we think differently about our human relationship with everything else (aka nature). It becomes less easy to believe in a distance from or ownership over 'nature', while experiencing weather changes that affect us detrimentally, that are a result of human activity.