We were around a hundred miles from the Zone, and already my thoughts had turned toward death. This had nothing to do with radiation and everything to do with road safety. I was in a minibus, on a highway between Kyiv and the 1,160-square-mile Exclusion Zone around the Chernobyl power plant. The minibus was being driven at an alarming speed and in such a way that caused me to question the safety standards of the tour company I’d entrusted myself to for the next two days. It had become clear that our driver and tour guide, a man in his early 40s named Igor, was engaged in a suite of tasks that were not merely beyond the normal remit of minibus driving but in fact in direct conflict with it. He was holding a clipboard and spreadsheet on top of the steering wheel with his left hand (that he was also using to steer), while in his other hand he held a smartphone, into which he was diligently transferring data from the spreadsheet. The roughly two-hour journey from Kyiv to the Zone was, clearly, a period of downtime of which he intended to take advantage in order to get some work squared away before the proper commencement of the tour. As such, he appeared to be distributing his attention in a tripartite pattern — clipboard, road, phone; clipboard, road, phone — looking up from his work every few seconds in order to satisfy himself that things were basically in order on the road, before returning his attention to the clipboard.
I happened to be sitting up front with Igor and with his young colleague Vika, who was training to become a fully accredited guide. Vika appeared to be reading the Wikipedia article for “nuclear reactor” on her iPhone. I considered suggesting to Igor that Vika might be in a position to take on the spreadsheet work, which would allow him to commit himself in earnest to the task of driving, but I held my counsel for fear that such a suggestion might seem rude. I craned around in an effort to make subtly appalled eye contact with my friend Dylan, who was sitting a few rows back alongside a couple of guys in their 20s — an Australian and a Canadian who, we later learned, were traveling around the continent together impelled by a desire to have sex with a woman from every European nation — but he didn’t look up, preoccupied as he was with a flurry of incoming emails. Some long-fugitive deal, I understood, was now on the verge of lucrative fruition.
Of all my friends, I knew that Dylan was most likely to accept at short notice my request for accompaniment on a trip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. He was his own boss, for one thing, and he was not short of money (tech entrepreneur, venture capitalist). He was also in the midst of a divorce, amicable but nonetheless complex in its practicalities. It would, I said, be a kind of anti-stag party: His marriage was ending, and I was dragging him to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone for two days. As soon as I made it, I felt some discomfort about this joke, with its laddish overtones, as though I were proposing the trip for the laughs or as an exploit in extreme tourism or, worse still, some kind of stunt journalism enterprise combining elements of both. I was keen to avoid seeing myself in this way.
“Lunch,” Igor said, pointing out the side window of the bus. I followed the upward angle of his index finger and saw a series of telephone poles, each of which had a stork nesting atop it. “Lunch,” he reiterated, this time to a vague ripple of courteous laughter.
About 40 minutes north of Kyiv, a screen flickered to life in front of us and began to play a documentary about the Chernobyl disaster. We watched in silence as our minibus progressed from the margins of the city to the countryside. The video was intended as a primer, so that by the time we got to the site of one of the worst nuclear accidents in history, everyone would be up to speed on the basic facts: how in the early hours of April 26, 1986, a safety test simulating the effects of a power failure ended in an uncontrolled nuclear reaction; how this caused an inferno in the reactor core that burned for at least nine days; how in the aftermath the Soviet government created a 19-mile-radius exclusion zone around the power plant; how they evacuated about 130,000 people, more than 40,000 of them residents of Pripyat, a “city of the future” built for workers at the nearby plant; how the vast endeavor of decontamination necessitated the bulldozing of entire towns, the felling of entire forests, the burying of them deep in the poisoned earth.
As the documentary played on the screen, Igor demonstrated his familiarity with it by reciting lines along with the film. At one point, Mikhail Gorbachev materialized to deliver a monologue on the terrifying time scale of the accident’s aftereffects. His data entry tasks now complete, Igor spoke along in unison with Gorbachev — “How many years is this going to go on? Eight hundred years?” — before himself proclaiming, “Yes! Until the second Jesus is born!”
I was unsure what to make of the tone of all this. Igor and Vika’s inscrutable jocularity sat oddly with the task they were charged with: to guide us around the site of arguably the worst ecological catastrophe in history, a source of fathomless human suffering in our own lifetimes. And yet some measure of levity seemed to be required of us.
After the documentary, the minibus’s onboard infotainment programming moved on to an episode of the BBC motoring show “Top Gear,” in which three chortling idiots drove around the Exclusion Zone in hatchbacks, gazing at clicking Geiger counters while ominous electronica played on the soundtrack. There were then some low-budget music videos, all of which featured more or less similar scenes of dour young men — a touchingly earnest British rapper, some kind of American Christian metal outfit — lip-syncing against the ruined spectacle of Pripyat.
I wondered what, if anything, the tour company’s intention might have been in showing us all this content. Screening the documentary made sense, in that it was straightforwardly informative — the circumstances of the accident, the staggering magnitude of the cleanup operation, the inconceivable time scale of the aftereffects and so on. But the “Top Gear” scenes and the music videos were much more unsettling to watch, because they laid bare the ease with which the Zone, and in particular the evacuated city of Pripyat, could be used, in fact exploited, as the setting for a kind of anti-tourism, as a deep source of dramatic, and at the same time entirely generic, apocalyptic imagery.
I was being confronted, I realized, with an exaggerated manifestation of my own disquiet about making this trip in the first place; these unseemly, even pornographic, depictions of the Zone were on a continuum with my own reasons for making this trip. My anxieties about the future — the likely disastrous effects of climate change, our vulnerability to all manner of unthinkable catastrophes — had for some time been channeled into an obsession with the idea of “the apocalypse,” with the various ways people envisioned, and prepared for, civilizational collapse.
I was on a kind of perverse pilgrimage: I wanted to see what the end of the world looked like. I wanted to haunt its ruins and be haunted by them. I wanted to see what could not otherwise be seen, to inspect the remains of the human era. The Zone presented this prospect in a manner more clear and stark than any other place I was aware of. It seemed to me that to travel there would be to look upon the end of the world from the vantage point of its aftermath. It was my understanding, my conceit, that I was catching a glimpse of the future. I did not then understand that this future, or something like it, was closer than it appeared at the time. I did not understand that before long the idea of the Zone would advance outward from the realm of abstraction to encompass my experience of everyday life, that cities across the developed world would be locked down in an effort to suppress the spread of a lethal new virus, an enemy as invisible and insidious in its way as radiation and as capable of hollowing out the substance of society overnight.
The minibus slowed as we approached the checkpoint marking the outer perimeter of the Zone. Two policemen emerged from a small building, languidly smoking, emanating the peculiar lassitude of armed border guards. Igor reached out and plucked the microphone from its nook in the dashboard.
“Dear comrades,” he said. “We are now approaching the Zone. Please hand over passports for inspection.”
You feel immediately the force of the contradiction. You feel, contradictorily, both drawn in and repelled by this force. Everything you have learned tells you that this is an afflicted place, a place that is hostile and dangerous to life. And yet the dosimeter, which Igor held up for inspection as we stood by the bus on the far side of the border, displayed a level of radiation lower than the one recorded outside the McDonald’s in Kyiv where we had boarded the bus earlier that morning. Apart from some hot spots, much of the Zone has relatively low levels of contamination. The outer part of the 30 Kilometer Zone — the radius of abandoned land around the reactor itself — is hardly a barren hellscape.
“Possible to use this part of Zone again, humans today,” Igor said.
Someone asked why, in that case, it wasn’t used.
“Ukraine is very big country. Luckily we can spare this land to use as buffer between highly contaminated part of Zone and rest of Ukraine. Belarus not so lucky.”
Immediately you are struck by the strange beauty of the place, the unchecked exuberance of nature finally set free of its crowning achievement, its problem child. And everywhere you look, you are reminded of how artificial the distinction is between the human and the natural world: that everything we do, even our destruction of nature, exists within the context of nature. The road you walk on is fissured with the purposeful pressure of plant stems from below, the heedless insistence of life breaking forth, continuing on. It is midsummer, and the day is hot but with the sibilant whisper of a cool breeze in the leaves and butterflies everywhere, superintending the ruins. It is all quite lovely, in its uncanny way: The world, everywhere, protesting its innocence.
“All the fields are slowly turning into forest,” Igor said. “The condition of nature is returning to what it was before people. Mooses. Wild boar. Wolves. Rare kinds of horses.”
This is the colossal irony of Chernobyl: Because it is the site of an enormous ecological catastrophe, this region has been for decades now basically void of human life; and because it is basically void of human life, it is effectively a vast nature preserve. To enter the Zone, in this sense, is to have one foot in a prelapsarian paradise and the other in a postapocalyptic wasteland.
Not far past the border, we stopped and walked a little way into a wooded area that had once been a village. We paused in a clearing to observe a large skull, a scattered miscellany of bones.
“Moose,” Igor said, prodding the skull gently with the toe of a sneaker. “Skull of moose,” he added, by way of elaboration.
Vika directed our attention toward a low building with a collapsed roof, a fallen tree partly obscuring its entrance. She swept a hand before her in a stagy flourish. “It is a hot day today,” she said. “Who would like to buy an ice cream?” She went on to clarify that this had once been a shop, in which it would have been possible to buy ice cream, among other items. Three decades is a long time, of course, but it was still impressive how comprehensively nature had seized control of the place in that time. In these ruins, it was no easier to imagine people standing around in jeans and sneakers eating ice cream than it would be in the blasted avenues of Pompeii to imagine people in togas eating olives. It was astonishing to behold how quickly we humans became irrelevant to the business of nature.
And this flourishing of the wilderness was at the expense of the decay of man-made things. Strictly speaking, visitors are forbidden to enter any of Pripyat’s buildings, many of which are in variously advanced states of decay and structural peril, some clearly ready to collapse at any moment. Igor and Vika could in theory lose their licenses to enter the Zone if they were caught taking tourists into buildings. It had been known to happen, Igor said, that guides had their permits revoked. This had put them in something of a double bind, he explained, on account of the proliferation in recent years of rival outfits offering trips to the Zone. If they didn’t take customers into the buildings — up the stairways to the rooftops, into the former homes and workplaces and schoolrooms of Pripyat — some other guides would, and what people wanted more than anything in visiting the place was to enter the intimate spaces of an abandoned world.
One of the Swedish men who accounted for about a third of the group’s number asked whether any visitors had been seriously injured or killed while exploring the abandoned buildings.
“Not yet,” Igor said, a reply more ominous than he may have intended.
He went on to clarify that the fate of the small but thriving tourism business hung in the balance and depended, by consensus, on the nationality of the first person to be injured or killed on a tour. If a Ukrainian died while exploring one of the buildings, he said, fine, no problem, business as usual. If a European, then the police would have to immediately clamp down on tour guides bringing people into buildings. But the worst-case scenario was, of course, an American getting killed or seriously injured. That, he quipped, would mean an immediate cessation of the whole enterprise.
“American gets hurt,” he said, “no more tours in Zone. Finished.”
The tour made its way to the edge of the city and to the abandoned fairground we’d seen on the minibus that morning — on the “Top Gear” segment and the music videos. This was Pripyat’s most recognizable landmark, its most readily legible symbol of decayed utopia. Our little group wandered around the fairground, taking in the cinematic vista of catastrophe: the Ferris wheel, the unused bumper cars overgrown with moss, the swing boats half-decayed by rust.
The park’s grand opening, Vika said, had been scheduled for the International Workers’ Day celebrations on May 1, 1986, the week following the disaster, and the park had therefore never actually been used. Beside her, Igor held aloft the dosimeter, explaining that the radiation levels were by and large quite safe, but that certain small areas within the fairground were high: the moss on the bumper cars, for example, contained a complex cocktail of toxic substances, having absorbed and retained more radiation than surrounding surfaces. Though I can’t say I considered it, moss in general was not to be ingested; the same was true of all kinds of fungi, for their spongelike assimilation of radioactive material. Wild dogs and cats, too, can present a potential risk, because they roamed freely in parts of the Zone that had never been decontaminated effectively, and they carried radioactive particles in their fur.
I leaned against the railings of the bumper car enclosure and then, recalling having read a warning somewhere about the perils of sitting on and leaning against things in the Zone, quickly relocated myself away from the rusting metal. I looked at the others, almost all of whom were engaged in taking photographs of the fairground. The only exception was Dylan, who was on the phone again, apparently talking someone through the game plan for a new investment round. I was struck for the first time by the disproportionate maleness of the group: out of a dozen or so tourists, only one was female, a young German woman who was at present assisting her prodigiously pierced boyfriend in operating a drone for purposes of aerial cinematography.
There seemed to be a general implicit agreement that nobody would appear in anyone else’s shots, because of a mutual interest in the photographic representation of Pripyat as a maximally desolate place, an impression that would inevitably be compromised by the presence of other tourists taking photos in the backgrounds of your own. On a whim, I opened up Instagram on my phone — the 3G coverage in the Zone had, against all expectation, been so far uniformly excellent — and entered “Pripyat” into the search box and then scrolled through a cascading plenitude of aesthetically uniform photos of the Ferris wheel, the bumper cars, the swing boats, along with a great many photos employing these as dramatic backgrounds for selfies. A few of these featured goofy expressions and sexy pouts and bad-ass sneers, but a majority were appropriately solemn or contemplative in attitude. The message, by and large, seemed to be this: I have been here, and I have felt the melancholy weight of this poisoned place.
Pripyat presents the adventurous tourist with a spectacle of abandonment more vivid than anywhere else on Earth, a fever dream of a world gone void. To walk the imposing squares of the planned city, its broad avenues cracked and overgrown with vegetation, is in one sense to wander the ruins of a collapsed utopian project, a vast crumbling monument to an abandoned past. And yet it is also to be thrust forward into an immersive simulation of the future, an image of what will come in our wake. What is most strange about wandering the streets and buildings of this discontinued city is the recognition of the place as an artifact of our own time: It is a vast complex of ruins, like Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat, but the vision is one of modernity in wretched decay. In wandering the crumbling ruins of the present, you are encountering a world to come.
And this is why the images from my time in Pripyat that cling most insistently to my mind are the fragmented shards of technology, the rotted remnants of our own machine age. In what had once been an electronics store, the soles of our sturdy shoes crunched on the shattered glass of screens, and with our smartphones we captured the disquieting sight of heaped and eviscerated old television sets, of tubes and wires extruded from their gutted shells, and of ancient circuit boards greened with algae. (And surely I cannot have been the only one among us to imagine the smartphone I was holding undergoing its own afterlife of decay and dissolution.) In what had once been a music store, we walked amid a chaos of decomposing pianos, variously wrecked and capsized, and here and there someone fingered the yellowed keys, and the notes sounded strange and damp and discordant. All of this was weighted with the sad intimation of the world’s inevitable decline, the inbuilt obsolescence of our objects, our culture: the realization that what will survive of us is garbage.
Later, outside the entrance to one of Pripyat’s many schools, a small wild dog approached us with disarming deference. Vika opened her handbag and removed a squat pinkish tube, a snack from the lower reaches of the pork-product market, and presented it to the dog, who received it with patience and good grace.
There was a dark flash of movement on the periphery of my field of vision, a rustle of dry leaves. I turned and saw the business end of a muscular black snake as it emerged from beneath a rusted slide and plunged headlong for the undergrowth.
“Viper,” Igor said, nodding in the direction of the fugitive snake. He pronounced it “wiper.”
The school was a large tile-fronted building, on one side of which was a beautiful mosaic of an anthropomorphic sun gazing down at a little girl. Dylan was rightly dubious as to the wisdom of entering a building in such an advanced state of dilapidation. Turning to Igor, he remarked that they must have been constructed hastily and poorly in the first place.
“No,” Igor replied, briskly brushing an insect off the shoulder of his camouflage jacket. “This is future for all buildings.”
The school’s foyer was carpeted with thousands of textbooks and copybooks, a sprawling detritus of the written word. It felt somehow obscene to walk on these pages, but there was no way to avoid it if you wanted to move forward. Igor bent down to pick up a colorfully illustrated storybook from the ground and flipped through its desiccated pages.
“Propaganda book,” he said, with a moue of mild distaste, and dropped it gently again at his feet. “In Soviet Union, everything was propaganda. All the time, propaganda.”
I asked him what he himself remembered of the disaster, and he answered that there was basically nothing to remember. Though he was five years older than me, he said that I would most likely have a clearer memory of the accident and its aftermath, because in Soviet Ukraine little information was made public about the scale of the catastrophe. “In Europe? Panic. Huge disaster. In Ukraine? No problem.”
Climbing the staircase, whose railings had long since been removed, I trailed a hand against a wall to steady myself and felt the splintering paint work beneath my fingertips. I was 6 when the disaster happened, young enough, I suppose, to have been protected by my parents from the news and its implications. What did I recall of the time? Weird births, human bodies distorted beyond nature, ballooned skulls, clawed and misshapen limbs: images not of the disaster itself but of its long and desolate and uncanny aftermath. I remembered a feeling of fascinated horror, which was bound up in my mind with communism and democracy and the quarrel I only understood as the struggle between good and evil, and with the idea of nuclear war, and with other catastrophes of the time, too, the sense of a miscarried future.
As I continued up the stairs, a memory came to me of a country road late at night, of my mother helping me up onto the hood of our orange Ford Fiesta, directing my attention toward a point of light arcing swiftly across the clear night sky, and of her telling me that it was an American space shuttle called Challenger, orbiting the planet. That memory was linked in my mind with a later memory, of watching television news footage of that same shuttle exploding into pure white vapor over the ocean. The vision of the sudden Y-shaped divergence of the contrails, spiraling again toward each other as the exploded remains of the shuttle fell to the sea, a debris of technology and death, striking against the deep blue sky. That moment was for me what the moon landing was for my parents and their generation: an image in which the future itself was fixed.
We rounded the top of the stairs, and as I set off down a corridor after Igor, I realized that those images of technological disaster, of explosions, mutations, had haunted my childhood and that I had arrived at the source of a catastrophe much larger than Chernobyl itself or any of its vague immensity of effects. I remembered a line from the French philosopher Paul Virilio — “The invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck” — that seemed to me to encapsulate perfectly the extent to which technological progress embedded within itself the prospect of catastrophe. And it occurred to me that Pripyat was a graveyard of progress, the final resting place of the future.
In a large upstairs classroom, a dozen or so toddler-size chairs were arranged in a circle, and on each was perched a rotting doll or threadbare teddy bear. The visual effect was eerie enough, but what was properly unsettling was the realization that this scene had been carefully arranged by a visitor, probably quite recently, precisely in order for it to be photographed. And this went to the heart of what I found so profoundly creepy about the whole enterprise of catastrophe tourism, an enterprise in which I myself was just as implicated as anyone else who was standing here in this former classroom, feeling the warm breeze stirring the air through the empty window frames.
I wondered whether Igor and Vika held us in contempt, us Western Europeans and Australians and North Americans who had forked over a fee not much lower than Ukraine’s average monthly wage for a two-day tour around this discontinued world, to feel the transgressive thrill of our own daring in coming here. If it were I in their position, I knew that contempt is exactly what I would have felt. The fact was that I didn’t even need to leave my own position in order to hold myself in contempt, or anyone else.
“How often do you come here?” I asked Igor.
“Seven days a week, usually,” he said. He had a strange way of avoiding eye contact, of looking not directly at you but at a slight angle, as though you were in fact beside yourself. “Seven days a week, eight years.”
“How has that affected you?” I asked.
“I have three children. No mutants.”
“I don’t mean the radiation so much as just the place. I mean, all this must have an impact,” I said, gesturing vaguely toward my own head, indicating matters broadly psychological.
“I don’t see my wife. My family. I get up at 6:30 a.m., they are asleep. I get home late night, already they are asleep again. I am a slave, just like in Soviet Union time. But now,” he said, with an air of inscrutable sarcasm, “I am a slave to money.”
I followed Igor and Vika into another classroom, where we were joined by the wild dog Vika had fed earlier. The dog did a quick circuit of the room, sniffed perfunctorily at a papier-mâché doll, an upturned chair, some torn copybook pages, then settled himself down beside Vika. Igor opened a cupboard and removed a stack of paintings, spread them out on a table flaked with aquamarine paint. The pictures were beautifully childish things, heartbreakingly vivid renderings of butterflies, grinning suns, fish, chickens, dinosaurs, a piglet in a little blue dress. They were expressions of love toward the world, toward nature, made with such obvious joy and care that I felt myself getting emotional looking at them. I could all of a sudden see the children at their desks, their tongues protruding in concentration, their teachers bending over to offer encouragement and praise, and I could smell the paper, the paint, the glue.
I picked up a painting of a dinosaur, and I was surprised by sadness not at the unthinkable dimensions of the catastrophe itself but at the thought that the child responsible for this picture was never able to take it home to show his parents; how instead, he had to leave it behind just as he had to leave behind his school, his home, his city, his poisoned world. And I became conscious then of the strangeness of my being here, the wrongness of myself as a figure in this scene: a man from outside, from the postapocalyptic future, holding this simple and beautiful picture in his hand and looking at it as an artifact of a collapsed civilization. This, I now understood, was the deeper contradiction of my presence in the Zone: My discomfort in being here had less to do with the risk of contamination than with the sense of myself as the contaminant.
The tour company had put us up in the town of Chernobyl itself, in a place called Hotel 10 — a name so blankly utilitarian that it sounded chic. Hotel 10 was in reality no more chic than you would expect a hotel in Chernobyl to be and arguably even less so. It looked like, and essentially was, a gigantic two-story shipping container. Its exterior walls and roof were corrugated iron. Internally it seemed to be constructed entirely from drywall, and it smelled faintly of creosote throughout, and the long corridor sloped at a nauseating angle on its final descent toward the room Dylan and I were sharing on the ground floor.
The Ukrainian government imposes a strict 8 p.m. curfew in the Zone, and so after a dinner of borscht, bread and unspecified meats, there was nothing to do but drink, and so we drank. We drank an absurdly overpriced local beer called Chernobyl — the hotel had run out of everything else — that the label assured us was brewed outside the Zone, using nonlocal wheat and water, specifically for consumption inside the Zone itself, a business model that Dylan rightly condemned as needlessly self-limiting.
We all turned in early that night. Even if we’d wanted to walk the empty streets of the town after dark, we would have been breaking the law in doing so and possibly jeopardizing the tour company’s license to bring tourists to the Zone. Unable to sleep, I took out the book I brought with me, an oral history of the disaster and its aftermath called “Chernobyl Prayer,” by the Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich. As I reached the closing pages, after dozens of monologues about the loss and displacement and terror endured by the people of Chernobyl, I was unsettled to encounter an image of myself. The book’s coda was a composite of 2005 newspaper clippings about the news that a Kyiv travel agency was beginning to offer people the chance to visit the Exclusion Zone.
“You are certainly going to have something to tell your friends about when you get back home,” I read. “Atomic tourism is in great demand, especially among Westerners. People crave strong new sensations, and these are in short supply in a world so much explored and readily accessible. Life gets boring, and people want a frisson of something eternal.”
I lay awake for some time, trying to attend to the silence, hearing now and then the faint howling of wolves in the lonely distance. Had I myself, I wondered, come here in search of strong new sensations? There was, I realized, a sense in which I was encountering the Zone less as the site of a real catastrophe, a barely conceivable tragedy of the very recent past, than as a vast diorama of an imagined future, a world in which humans had ceased entirely to exist.
Among ruins, Pripyat is a special case. It’s Venice in reverse: a fully interactive virtual rendering of a world to come. The place is recognizably of our own time and yet entirely other. It was built as an exemplary creation of Soviet planning and ingenuity, an ideal place for a highly skilled work force. Broad avenues lined with evergreen trees, sprawling city squares, modernist high-rise apartment buildings, hotels, places for exercise and entertainment, cultural centers, playgrounds. And all of it was powered by the alchemy of nuclear energy. The people who designed and built Pripyat believed themselves to be designing and building the future. This was a historical paradox almost too painful to contemplate.
It wasn’t until after I returned home from Ukraine that I began to imagine my own house a ruin, to picture as I walked through its rooms the effect 30 years of dereliction might wreak on my son’s bedroom, imagining his soft toys matted and splayed to the elements, the bare frame of his bed collapsed in a moldering heap, the floorboards stripped and rotted. I would walk out our front door and imagine our street deserted, the empty window frames of the houses and shops, trees sprouting through the cracked sidewalks, the road itself overgrown with grass.
Now I find myself wanting not to think about abandoned streets and shuttered schools and empty playgrounds any more than I have to, which is all the time. One recent evening, a few days into pandemic-mandated social distancing, I went out for a walk around my neighborhood — a densely populated community in Dublin’s inner city — and it was sadder and more uncanny than I was prepared for. It was not the Zone, but neither was it the world I knew. I thought of a line from “Chernobyl Prayer” that haunted me for a time after I read it but had not occurred to me since: “Something from the future is peeking out and it’s just too big for our minds.” I walked for maybe 10 or 15 minutes and hardly encountered another soul.
At the heart of the Zone is Reactor No. 4. You don’t see it. Not now that it is enclosed in the immense dome known as the New Safe Confinement. This, they say, is the largest movable object on the planet: roughly 360 feet tall at its apex and 840 feet wide. The dome was the result of a vast engineering project involving 27 countries. The construction had been completed on-site, and in November 2016 the finished dome was slid into position on rails, over the original shelter, which it now entirely contained. That original shelter, known variously as the Sarcophagus and the Shelter Object, had been hastily constructed over the ruins of the reactor building in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
The group stood looking at the dome taking photos of the plant for later Instagram sharing, as Igor talked us dryly through the stats.
“Sarcophagus is an interesting word to have gone with,” Dylan said, trousering his phone.
“It really is,” I said. “They have not shied away from the sinister.”
Zone. Shelter Object. Sarcophagus. There was an archetypal charge to these terms, a resonance of the uncanny on the surfaces of the words themselves. Sarcophagus, from the Greek, sark meaning flesh; phagus meaning to eat.
A couple of hundred yards from us was an accretion of fissile material that had melted through the concrete floor of the reactor building to the basement beneath, cooled and hardened into a monstrous mass they called the Elephant’s Foot. This was the holy of holies, possibly the most toxic object on the planet. This was the center of the Zone. To be in its presence even briefly was extremely dangerous. An hour of close proximity would be lethal. Concealed though it was, its unseen presence emanated a shimmer of the numinous. It was the nightmare consequence of technology itself, the invention of the shipwreck.
In the closing stretch of the Bible, in Revelation, appear these lines: “And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters. And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.” Wormwood is a shrub that appears several times in the Bible, invoked in Revelation as a sort of curse, perhaps the wrath of a vengeful God. In fact, Chernobyl is named for the plant, which grows in lavish abundance in the region. This matter of linguistic curiosity is frequently raised in commentaries on the accident and its apocalyptic resonances.
Laborers in construction hats ambled in and out of the plant. It was lunchtime. The cleanup was ongoing. This was a place of work, an ordinary place. But it was a kind of holy place too, a place where all of time had collapsed into a single physical point. The Elephant’s Foot would be here always. It would remain here after the death of everything else, an eternal monument to our civilization. After the collapse of every other structure, after every good and beautiful thing had been lost and forgotten, its silent malice would still be throbbing in the ground like a cancer, spreading its bitterness through the risen waters.
Before returning to Kyiv, we made a final stop at the Reactor No. 5 cooling tower, a lofty abyss of concrete that was nearing completion at the time of the accident and had lain abandoned ever since, both construction site and ruin. We walked through tall grass and across a long footbridge whose wooden slats had rotted away so completely in places that we had to cling to railings and tiptoe along rusted metal sidings.
Once inside, we wandered the interior, mutely assimilating the immensity of the structure. The tower ascended some 500 feet into the air, to a vast opening that encircled the sky. Someone in the group selected a rock from the ground and pitched it with impressive accuracy and force at a large iron pipe that ran across the tower’s interior, and the clang reverberated in what seemed an endless self-perpetuating loop. Somewhere up in the lofty reaches a crow delivered itself of a cracked screech, and this sound echoed lengthily in its turn.
The more adventurous of us clambered up the iron beams of the scaffolding in search of more lofty positions from which to photograph the scene. I was not among them. I sought the lower ground, sitting cross-legged in the dirt, having forgotten for a moment the obvious danger of doing so. I looked up. Hundreds of feet overhead, two birds were gliding in opposing spirals around the inner circumference of the tower, kestrels I thought, drifting upward on unseen currents toward the vast disk of sky, impossibly deep and blue. I sat there watching them a long time, circling and circling inside the great cone of the tower. I laughed, thinking of the Yeatsian resonances of the scene, the millenarian mysticism: the tower, the falcons, the widening gyres. But there was in truth nothing apocalyptic about what I was seeing, no blood-dimmed tide. It was an aftermath, a calm restored.
These birds, I thought, could have known nothing about this place. The Zone did not exist for them. Or rather, they knew it intimately and absolutely, but their understanding had nothing in common with ours. This cooling tower, unthinkable monument that it was to the subjugation of nature, was not distinguished from the trees, the mountains, the other lonely structures on the land. There was no division between human and nonhuman for these spiraling ghosts of the sky. There was only nature. Only the world remained and the things that were in it.
This article is adapted from the book “Notes From an Apocalypse,” to be published by Doubleday in April.
Mark O’Connell is a writer based in Dublin. His first book, “To Be a Machine,” was awarded the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize and the 2019 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.