One of the last landmarks on the road from Kiev to Chernobyl is the egg. It’s just that, a concrete egg maybe a meter and a half long, sitting on its side in the middle of a ridiculously oversized traffic circle. The egg is there to remind you: you are small. Or more probably, because leaving such a big empty space without decoration offended someone’s sensibilities, and an egg is as good as anything else. Or could it be an answer to the Soviet Neorealism that infiltrates whatever it can? I may have been hasty judging the egg.
The traffic circle itself is probably eight to ten times larger than it has any reason to be and like the rest of the roads in Ukraine, not fit for mechanized traffic of any kind. People complain about the roads in Poland. Try Ukraine.
We’d spent the previous day in Pripyat on an official filming expedition with an official car, official guide, official permit from the Ministry for Chernobyl and finally, official—if sketchy—radiation dosimetry. Pripyat is the largest town in the Zone, the place you see in all the pictures. The posterchild for the catastrophe. Despite what you may read on the ‘tubes, access to Pripyat isn’t particularly difficult to get. At least one tour operator runs bus tours from Kiev, and if you pull some strings—as we did—you can get a permit, a car, and private guide for a few hundred dollars.
Which is all good and fine, but we need more material for the film and a friend of a friend is originally from one of the smaller abandoned towns, one that has figuratively and literally disappeared from the map. So the day after visiting Pripyat we head back to the Zone of Alienation on an unscheduled visit, just five shady fellows in a ridiculously overpowered, natural gas-powered Chrysler minivan full of film gear.
There are a few checkpoints scattered around the border of the Zone aside from the main one outside Chernobyl. They all share the same characteristic roadblock: a heavy metal bar nearly foot in diameter attached to a lifting mechanism far too small for the weight. The guard lifts the barrier and one senses that he’s just daring you to try. Are you feeling lucky? But at present the barrier is down and a guard in Soviet block blue and white urban camouflage is eyeing us with the sort of expression you generally want to avoid at any roadblock, anywhere. The “and what have we here” expression, slightly amused, dangerously bored. He has a few questions which he would like answered, preferably inside the guardhouse. Would we mind?
Yura (the cameraman) and our driver Sasha share a dubious look and step out into the guardhouse. We wait. We wait some more. Some 20 minutes later they both come out accompanied by two guards now.
Where are you going? To Polis’ke.
And whatever could you possibly be going there for?
A story, mostly true. Our guide Kot—the friend of a friend—once lived there, and he would like to visit the family graves, the house from childhood.
And all this? Oh, about $100,000 worth of film equipment.
Not actually voiced, but that’s the idea. The guards have a chat between themselves while I idly begin to wonder if this whole adventure won’t land me somewhere I’d rather not land. Time for another consultation in the guardhouse. Seeing where this is going, the ever practical Yura takes a bottle of vodka out of his backpack before heading over. Another ten minutes go by. Should I be worried? To tell the truth, I’m more amused than anything else.
Yura, Sasha, and Guard #1 come back out. We’re almost there, apparently. The guard takes a look at the rest of us passengers.
Da. Of course. Just don’t ask to see my passport. Please. But with the vodka it’s clear that we are in the less I ask, the less I know, and the less I know, the less I’m responsible for territory now and after a bit more work the roadblock finally goes up.
Which is how we got free rein to the entire Zone.
The sky is a heavy grey and it’s cold for October. Approaching the our destination through a forest I don’t pay much attention to what’s outside until Yura tells me to look out the window. It takes a while to see it, but it’s no forest. We’re already there. There are houses among the trees, just a short distance away from the road. One after the other. Some have collapsed roofs from years of snowy winters, others look like they could be inhabited, but there are no lights, no smoke, few windows. It’s strange because unlike Pripyat, Polis’ke was evacuated as late as 1999 due to significant radiation contamination from the Chernobyl plant several kilometers to the east. Radiation that somehow went unnoticed or ignored for more than a decade.
You don’t expect nature to reclaim a place so quickly, but eight years is all it takes.
We drive slowly, because all the manholes have been stolen to sell as scrap metal and the streets are covered with branches and dead leaves. We pass a massive hospital, rows of 70s era apartment blocks. Nearly all of the windows are gone, leaving massive facades of square black holes. We stop at a large intersection with a school on one corner, some of its walls covered with paintings by children. A green dinosaur.
With the car engine off the peculiar silence of the place stands out. It’s the sound of wind, but unlike any other wind I’ve heard. Wind blowing through apartment buildings mixing with the wind rustling the trees. It sounds like deep, distant wolves. Or singing dunes. I silently wish we’d brought a sound recorder.
Polis’ke, or Chabno as it was once known, has a long history. It was founded in the 15th century and by the end of the 1800s was both home to a sizable Jewish population and a Polish noble family. Then the Soviets came and destroyed its castle and its churches, building in their stead a model Soviet town. And without people the place feels even more like some state planner’s idea of a town than an actual one. Like something you would build in Sim City – the obligatory hospital, school, stadium, housing, parade ground, Great Patriotic War memorial. All that’s left of old Chabno are the wooden houses, some probably centuries old, and the cemeteries.
There’s a fun perk related to driving around in a forgotten city. You can go anywhere your vehicle can physically go. Suddenly wide sidewalks, parks, city squares and even certain buildings are accessible to anything with enough ground clearance. Enjoying this freedom we finally begin to look for signs of people.
To say the Zone is abandoned isn’t very accurate. A good number of people still live here, with varying degree of legal status. Aside from soldiers and cleanup personnel there are several dozen mostly elderly people who refused to evacuate and live isolated or in small groups, without electricity or running water. And then there are the squatters. I hear rumors of refugees from Chechnya moving into abandoned villages on the Belarus side of the border. Criminals also, I’m told. So it’s with some apprehension that upon finding a Lada in decent condition parked outside a large building with most of its windows still intact we decide to investigate.
Or rather, we send Kot, the local guy, to investigate while the rest of us wait in the car. Five minutes go by before our driver extraordinaire starts inexplicably honking. Now, honking in any big city is no big thing, just part of the soundscape. But honking in a place as abandoned and almost silent as Polis’ke feels like breaking some implicit law of the universe, to say nothing of attracting possibly unwanted attention, given that our own status driving around inside the Zone without a guide or even permission is questionable at best.
Kot finally emerges from the building, defusing some built up tension, but with inconclusive results. After a brief discussion in fast Russian it’s somehow decided that we’ll try again, but this time I’ll be going with Kot.
The building is clean and well-kept inside, and looks just like any generic Eastern Bloc mixed-use interior – offensive pastel green walls, concrete stairwells, 70s curtains and cheap aluminum doorknobs. It could be a hospital, or a small hotel, or a police station. Going up the stairs we hear noises on the next floor up, and coming out into the corridor we meet two burly fellows with shaved heads in camouflage pants next to a ping-pong table.
Kot defuses a tense moment of silence by explaining who we are, what we want, and after a few minutes we are on our way again with a rough set of directions to a street where apparently a few elderly people still live. It seems implicit the whole time that these men in camouflage are certainly not the people we are looking for.
Naturally we get completely lost and the whole thing seems hopeless until we come across another large structure in good order, apparently a fire station but with no one in sight. A quick reconnaissance by Kot ends with his swift disappearance and a pair of men in military uniform coming out from behind the building and eyeing us, who are moments later joined by another two, while back inside the van we watch this quickly materializing army in bemusement sprinkled with something just short of panic. Our cameraman looks back at me from the front seat smiling nervously and gives a voice to the atmosphere: “o, kurwa,” roughly “oh, shit.”
The standoff continues, film crew in car vs. now six men in military uniform across the street, though nobody seems in any hurry to do anything but watch and wait.
Finally, Kot returns triumphantly with… an armful of yellow apples, our first but not last encounter with the apples of Polis’ke.
“It’s a fire station, they’re all firefighters.” Kot takes a bite of an apple, passes the others around. We seem to be split 50/50 between those who are hungry and those who find the idea of consuming produce from the Chernobyl zone to be a questionable proposition. “They have a few trees.”
An older man with gray hair and a well-trimmed mustache, also in uniform, walks up to us. It turns out he’s the chief of the firehouse and one of the town’s original inhabitants. We ask him what a bunch of firefighters are doing out here, and it turns out the Zone has a serious problem with forest fires. But because emergencies are few, most of their work involves measuring radiation levels in the area.
He offers to give us a tour. Seats are rearranged and we head off again, this time with some idea of where we’re going.
Our first stop is a tiny Orthodox church hidden behind a thick wall of bushes and trees and accessible only by a narrow footpath. Aside from the fire station, it’s the only building in Polis’ke I’ve seen in decent, clearly looked-after condition. The inside is spotless, floors washed and what look like fresh flowers at the front. We ask our guide how many people still live here. Around ten, he tells us, scattered throughout town. All elderly who refused the evacuation order. We say we’d like to find someone for the film, and that’s how we came to meet Józefa.
We find her on the road to the church, just outside her house; a babushka with a blue headscarf carrying a bouquet of flowers.
It turns out no introductions are needed because upon seeing this group of poorly-dressed, unshaven men with a camera her eyes light up. A film? Poland? She disappears quickly into her wooden cottage. I tell Yura to roll the camera as she comes out again, hands full of the yellow apples we’re familiar with, a present for all of us. Accepting one is not enough, and she isn’t satisfied until our pockets are loaded.
Before I know it I’ve been given the bouquet meant for the church and am being led by the hand as she shows off her garden full of more flowers and vegetables, the last of which have been gathered ahead of the approaching winter. Then we’re led next door to an abandoned house repurposed as storage, its floors torn out to reveal the dirt two feet below, wooden planks crisscrossing here and there to allow access to the various rooms. The walls are lined floor to ceiling with chopped firewood for the winter. But this and everything else we’ve seen doesn’t prepare us for the apple room—what I suppose used to be the kitchen full of, well, apples. All over the floor, the table, the shelves. Hundreds of them.
Yura goes off to change the film in the camera so we can shoot inside while I’m left among the apples with Józefa, trying to understand her story across the language barrier. Luckily she needs little encouragement, and I catch just enough to ask questions to keep her going. She insists the radiation hasn’t had any ill effects. Actually, she says, her neighbors only got sick after they were moved to another village just outside the Zone, she she feels it’s better for her health here than elsewhere. Seeing her energy and enthusiasm it’s hard to disagree. I wonder if the apples have something to do with it. I ask her about food. Sometimes the fire chief brings her something, but usually it’s a 10 km bike ride to the nearest store just outside the Zone for necessities like bread.
With the camera loaded again we film Józefa in the room with her apples. The attention doesn’t bother her; she stands for a portrait as if though posing for a photo.
Before we leave someone asks her if she doesn’t get lonely out here by herself. She smiles. She has a few neighbors, the church. Sometimes the firemen come by to check up on her. Why would she be lonely?
On the way back our guide asks if we want to see the old stadium. He notes that the radiation levels in the mud there are significantly elevated, several dozen times the amount considered ‘safe’. We pass and drop him off back at the fire station. He asks us to wait for a moment and comes back with four copies of his book, a parting gift. Only then do we find out that our guide was a poet.
Our last bit of work in the city is filming a drive through the town. With the camera rigged off the side of the van we go through the outskirts, through the city center and stop as the film runs out again. We all get out. The Ukrainians share a joint while I walk over into one of the houses intending to use the toilet, but the path through the living room is blocked with a fallen tree. I settle for the tree instead.
We make one stop on our way out of Polis’ke, for Kot. After more than a few wrong turns we end up at the cemetery. As he’s getting out I realize I still have Józefa’s flowers. I hand them to him, and Kot promptly disappears. After 20 minutes go by we start calling him. It’s already getting dark. He finally comes back after half an hour. We don’t ask about it.
The guards at the checkpoint give us some trouble on the way out again, checking to make sure we aren’t bringing anything—or anyone—out with us. It’s a fair precaution given that Belarus shares a long, unguarded stretch of border with the zone. The road back is quiet. From time to time we pass a bus stop out in the middle of nowhere. At each one there’s a small fire burning next to the road, with a few bundled up figures warming themselves, waiting.