At the periphery of my taking in the Chernobyl Zone during the summer of 2018, my awareness clicked in of other passing presences. I might be talking of ghosts; I might not. Ghost villages abound in the "exclusion zone," the name given to the land extending 30 miles in all directions from the nuclear plant, and Pripyat's handle swiftly changed from "City of Children," due to the record number of children born in this privileged USSR community servicing Chernobyl, to "City of Ghosts." And the ghosts of life linger everywhere, trace reminders of activities dropped years ago when the inhabitants of Chernobyl and Pripyat were unceremoniously shuttled off several days after the accident, indecision, obfuscation, and terror befouling evacuation.
But I talk of something else. Not just ghost hands, but active hands. I understood the silence, the decay, the penetration of uncontainable nature. Something unimaginably catastrophic has happened. I understood, too, that not all buildings, when left to the elements, decompose at the same rate, nor even the rooms within those buildings, nor even the objects within them. My years of exploring ruins and abandoned places have taught me the strange selectiveness of atrophy. Nonetheless, my apprehension piqued as I moved through schools and hospitals, council houses and gymnasiums, churches and theaters. It became unrelenting, though spectral. The unquiet of finding a toy perched on a chair in an otherwise cleared-out room of a building designed for vocational students. The presence of three shiny coins, arranged like pilgrim offerings, on a mattress-less bedframe before a broken, limbs-splayed doll. How, in a dusty classroom with furniture and other remnants piled up on one side, a dustless collection of aviator and military photographs are arranged informatively with pieces of writing on the teacher's otherwise-cleared-off desk. Had this instructional material always been here, always laid thus, I wondered, throughout all the wind and storms and winters that have passed through the broken windows? If yes, then who has recently dusted them? If no, then what does someone want me to know, to remember, pulling these fragments from the room's rubble?
Once stirred, questions are like ghosts. The nature of haunting is that you can't push away what haunts. Who put the fairly new sheet music on the windowsill of a long-abandoned Chernobyl home? How is it, in a drama classroom of Pripyat emptied of most furniture, that against one wall is a small mound of rubbish while, against the opposite wall, the class stage presents a scene seemingly set? When was this room organized this way? And by whom? In a hospital maternity ward, who removed the bedding but kept the cribs in organized rows? In a kindergarten playroom, I find dolls in three distinct states: tucked pristinely into bed, covered in dust, and shattered on the ground. In a different kindergarten dormitory, next to bedframes piled up in a hodge-podge clean-up effort, still molting their bedding, a quartet of soldiers and action figures stand on a bedside table, clean and ready for play. Inside the command center of the highly secretive Duga radar system, a Soviet-era anti-ballistic missile early-warning network, cavernous rooms are either studiously emptied out of technology or their floors are piled with certain technological components. Outside, this organization continues, though eerily suspended, the conical cages both scattered and collected, frames nested into frames nested into frames.
These observations of organization, placement, and even offerings mounted across the days spent tiptoeing through silent buildings and outdoor brush. It wasn't the organizational efforts that arrested me—the Ukrainian government has long been wondering how to create use-value out of the Chernobyl Zone, including floating ideas of turning it into a nature sanctuary or a full-on dumpsite of radiological materials. And the act itself of opening the exclusion zone to outsiders has meant the need to clean. What arrested me, instead, was the feeling of those hands—and the hands of others who engage this land, from the self-settlers to the stalkers to the visitors. Everywhere I experienced the catastrophic absence of people. In equal measure, I experienced the touch of others who came after, often in forms very delicate and ephemeral. Touch is intimacy. Touch is fleeting. Touch is also the very thing outlawed when inside the zone because touching something, even the ground, contaminates skin and shoes with radioactive particles that stay around interminably. This touch, like ghosts, isn't possible to capture. But I believe this touch, and its haunting presence at the edges of clear decay, is what makes the Chernobyl Zone so palpably harrowing forty years on. This isn't an abandoned place, a forgotten place. Instead, it's a mystic site to which we as humanity will, unfortunately, endlessly give pilgrimage.