Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Merchandising of Chernobyl Decried

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 28 – Twenty-three years ago, the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history occurred at Chernobyl, a disaster that devastated the region, forced Mikhail Gorbachev to launch his glasnost program, and continues to claim pre-mature deaths among those exposed to the massive release of radiation.
And this year, as on every April 26th since that time, the victims, their families and activists of various kinds paused to take part in memorial services and demonstrations in the three countries most affected, Belarus, Ukraine, and the Russian Federation, and to bemoan the fact that while many people around the world recall the accident, they are forgetting its victims.
But in what is likely to strike many as an equally disturbing development, some people are now trying to profit from that disaster by organizing tours to the Chernobyl zone, from which radioactive contamination has driven the population, and by including references to the 1986 disaster in video games.
In an interview posted online today, Aleksandr Sirota, the head of the Internet-based Pripyat.com Center, said that in the pursuit of profit, tour firms in Ukraine are now offering to take people into the “zone” without any knowledge of the rules governing such visits or the risks that visitors still face there (www.ia-centr.ru/publications/4542/).
“In certain cases,” he added, “such ‘businessmen’ … simply disappear after they have collected money from those who want to go there.” But such activities have the effect of detracting attention from the fact that “the Chernobyl zone is not an amusement park” and that those who are thinking about going there need to ask themselves why they are doing it.
Such operators are not the only people who are seeking to profit from the disaster. As the interviewer pointed out, “the very popular computer game ‘Stalker’” has part of the action take place in the Chernobyl zone, something that likely is offensive to many of the victims of the nuclear accident.
Sirota, for his part, was ambivalent about that. On the one hand, he clearly indicated that he understands why some might be upset by that reminder of a tragedy in their pasts. But on the other, he asked, “what can be the harm from this game?” Almost all computer games “are based on real or imagined events.”
And there is at least one positive result from such games: “A large number of young people find out about the town of Pripyat and Chernobyl precisely from ‘Stalker.’” If they did not play that game, it is entirely possible, Sirota said, that they would not know anything about the accident at all.
The activist, who lived through the disaster as a 10-year-old child, said that at the time, the forced evacuation of the population seemed “like an attractive game, only with real military helicopters flying lower over the roofs of the houses, … with an unending line of buses carrying us and all the residents of the town ‘for three days’ into the unknown.”
“We did not know or understand then,” Sirota said, “that we were leaving out town forever.”
Sirota said he made his first return to his native Pripyat only eight years later, and it was at that time that he “finally understand” when, by making this “unique jump into the past, into childhood,” he came to recognize that as a result of the Chernobyl accident, there could be no going back not only anytime soon but ever.
That experience prompted him to become an activist, and he has made a number of visits to the exclusion zone since that time, noting the disappearance of most people and their replacement by wild pigs and other animals that are somehow able to survive in what is still a dangerously radioactive area.
There are a few people left in the zone, mostly older people who were unable to come to terms with the places to which they were evacuated. There aren’t so many of these people, Sirota said, with only 34 in the village of Teremtsy and a total of about 270 for the exclusion zone as a whole.
Sirota gave his interview both to attract attention to the center he heads and a new book his organization has just published about the disaster. The center was established was set up in 2006 in order to press the Ukrainian government to turn Pripyat into a museum city. But up to now, he said, the idea is “nothing more than a beautiful metaphor.”
The book on “The Pripyat Syndrome,” has been in the works for 15years, Sirota said. It describes the lives and in many cases deaths of the residents of Pripyat. It was released on the anniversary of the accident two days ago. And the activist said that he very much hopes that “it will find its reader.”
As to the future of Pripyat itself, Sirota said there are only two possibilities. “The first and the simplest is to leave everything as it is, to await its destruction and then forgetfulness. The second, more difficult and expensive, is to preserve this city as a reminder that no one is ensured against the repetition of such a nightmare wherever he may live.

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