Alex walks in the open front door. We climb the cracked steps, littered with broken glass, rusted piles of old pipes, crushed ceramic tiles, and mounds of dust. On the stairwell landings there are odd pieces of furniture, a busted chair, a table missing its legs, and more rusted pipes lie on the steps of the cement staircase. He peers into the elevator shaft. “Whew,” he says and shakes his head. There’s just a gaping empty space with loose cables stretching all the way to the ground floor. Pripyat was looted soon after the accident, and since everything here is radioactive, all the things that were stolen and sold have spread radioactivity all over the former Soviet Union. The elevator car and its parts are now somewhere else, shedding their radiation.
The decay and destruction have an odd beauty. Life and objects left to the elements have become like art. They are all part of a time gone, a time that does not exist anymore. The Soviet Union fell apart not long after the Chernobyl disaster, in part because of the widespread distrust and dismay it inspired. Gorbachev said, “For me, life is divided into a time before Chernobyl and a time after.”
Alex climbs two steps at a time, and we follow. There is more and more debris the higher we climb: discarded refrigerator and stove parts, slats of wood, and more shards of glass. He quickly reaches the eighth floor and points to a moldy, brown padded door on the left. It creaks when he pushes on it, and he walks into his musty, decaying apartment. He darts from room to room as though to make sure he is not in some dream.
Alex stops, tapping his foot on the floor. “Here, bedroom,” he says. He stands in a small, sunny room with a decades-old mattress in the corner, soggy, ripped, springs sticking out; near the window a pile of moist clothes sits in a heap. He picks up a pair of kid’s navy blue shorts. “Mine,” he says and drops them to the floor back on the same heap. He walks through his old bedroom to an adjacent room. “Here play games, stereo,” he says.
From a tiny terrace outside the apartment’s living room, the Chernobyl reactor is visible in the distance, its blocky shape now covered over by the sarcophagus, the concrete coffin designed to contain its radioactive dangers. “We see fire,” Alex says, shaking his head. He goes into the kitchen, looks out the window for a moment, then walks out of his home. He goes across the hall and taps on the door. “My friend, here,” he says and touches his heart.
I walk behind Alex as he leaves. We don’t say anything. Heshowed me something close to him. Why? I don’t know. Maybe Alex wanted someone to bear witness. Maybe he wanted another human being to live this moment with him.
We follow him through a brambly path until he reaches an apartment building. He touches his chest. “My home,” he says.
All day there have been moments when groups of Pripyat returnees gather outside a building or along the bare road, and they stand around drinking beer, chatting. It is difficult to detect how they are reacting to all this. Late in the day, on a side street, a few of them find an old soccer ball, deflated and covered in dusty ash. They take turns kicking it around. Are they happy or sad? Dostoyevsky wrote, “Man is a creature that can get used to anything, and I think that is the best definition of him.”
“Our permit only lasts till 6 p.m.—we have to get going,” Youri tells us after we have spent most of the day walking the avenues of Pripyat, opening doors, peering into people’s homes, looking at the remnants of lives we will never know. In one apartment we found a set of black-and-white photos of children dressed up for a party. The photos were sitting in a wooden étagère, their curled edges showing age, but the arrangement was intact. Who left it behind? Or was this some form of tribute, placed there by another intruder who had also sifted through these dead, contaminated rooms?
Before we leave we drive to the sarcophagus, a massive concrete building. It is hard to believe what went on there, what radioactive cauldron is still cooking within. Chernobyl reactor number 4 looks utterly inert. There is nothing to tell you of the danger inside. Youri takes out the dosimeter and puts it near the ground in front of the sarcophagus gate. It clicks up to 1,300 in seconds, the highest level we’ve seen since we arrived. No one wants to stay here long.
Alex takes a group shot in front of the sarcophagus with a big www.pripyat.com banner hanging in front of us. And then we drive away as the sun is setting in the zone. The golden light illuminates the thin, dark brown trees, and it looks beautiful, lonely, and unreal.
I return to Chernobyl almost a year later working on a film with Christophe Bisson. I can still see the power plant’s corridors, long silent except for the clicking of the guide’s heels on the black-and-white tiles. The floor patterns change as we walk through miles of hallways—black-and-white floors, golden triangles, then black-and-white again. Christophe says it is like being in the organs of a giant beast.
I am not impressed or amazed that I am here. Rather, I accept it, like the thousands of workers who come here every day. It seems ordinary, mundane. It is only in the cafeteria of the former nuclear power plant, while we sit with the other workers eating their free lunch, that we look around, noticing faces that register, well, nothing. “You could do a film just in the cafeteria,” Christophe says. “Look at those two men, sitting side by side, not speaking. In their green uniforms, they say it all.”
We ask to follow one worker. Alexi, a sandy-haired, tall, thin man who wears glasses, meets us in the Estonian restaurant. We are late, and so he is already eating from a little Crock-Pot filled with tiny ravioli when we arrive. “Sorry,” I say.
He doesn’t look up, just nods his head and keeps eating.
“Did you choose to go work at Chernobyl?” I ask.
“Well, you could say that,” he says. “When it was still the Soviet Union in 1987, they offered me a choice to go work in Siberia or come to work here. It was an easy choice. I came here.”
“And the danger?”
“Well, it’s dangerous to do many things.”
He keeps eating and never looks up.