‘They call it the Zone,’ says Mr.Rudchenko, sitting beside his equally aged wife in their broken home in the middle of the Ukrainian town of Pripyat. ‘But does barbed wire stop radiation?’ His question, however, was no barrier to the couple returning to their life-long home in the so-called Zone of Alienation that runs for 30 kilometres around them and in which all things are dead or dying, and in which all life is contaminated.
Pripyat, the title of Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s 1999 documentary (part of the Barbican’s Architecture on Film series) has a complex identity. It’s a town, and it’s the river after which the town was named. It’s also the opposite of both of these: an abandoned town and a dead river. It’s the former model home for tens of thousands of Soviet workers during its heyday. Simultaneously, it’s the exemplar of Soviet failure for the last four decades. It’s a largely forgotten name, and yet it’s the strongest of metaphors for one of the world’s greatest ever man-made disasters. That disaster, collectively and internationally known as Chernobyl, began with a power surge in reactor number 4 and ended with a chain reaction of explosions, combustion and dispersal of radioactive particles over western Soviet Union and Europe. It took place on 26 April 1986 and is still, with the exception of Fukushima in Japan, the worst of all nuclear disasters, achieving the maximum ‘7’ on the International Nuclear Event Scale.
To watch Geyrhalter’s film isn’t simply to tour the aftermath of a monstrous historical event – in fact, since 2011, the Ukrainians have been running tourist visits – it’s to enter a world that seems to conflate fact and fiction. After all, dead zones, forbidden territories and restricted areas holding the secrets of the past are the stuff of dystopian fiction, most obviously Zamyatin’s We, the novel on which Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four is based. At the time the film was made, parts of Chernobyl were still in operation. We get to see the inside of the Unit 3 main switching room, again a haunting admixture of the real and the invented, part nuclear war-room from the set of Dr Strangelove, and part RAF Neatishead, once Britain’s underground East coast frontline of Cold War nuclear defence. The humans who still inhabit or work in the Zone are certainly alive and yet they, too, carry about them a post-apocalyptic air, an aura of living death or half-life, as if, in nuclear terms, half of their atoms had already decayed.
One of the strengths of Geyrhalter’s film is that none of the above is imposed on the viewer, partly because it doesn’t need to be, partly because the work itself, shot not so much in black and white as devoid of all colour, allows its subjects to speak for themselves, directly to an unmoving camera. The aged couple; a fisherman; a militiaman of the 1st Company guarding the perimeter; a radiation analyst; the foreman of the contaminated vehicle depot: all display a remarkably phlegmatic attitude to the omnipresent yet invisible threat. One tells us that mushrooms absorb a lot of radiation ‘but we eat them anyway’. Another says that fish, such as carp, survived in the cooling pond of the nuclear reactor but as long as the food chain of the fish is relatively short they are relatively uncontaminated. A third tells us that she drinks the water but has no idea what it contains. A military policeman informs us that alpha, beta or gamma radiation will one day claim its victims. And a woman says that whatever telephones exist barely work: ‘You can die waiting to make a call.’
All of them are aware that the Pripyat River carries its radioactive material into the Dnieper and beyond, to the Black Sea, that radioactive dust is carried on the slightest breeze and that nobody, especially the experts, really knows anything. But it’s one old woman, another of the few remaining residents, who encapsulates the continuum, the ongoing spirit of life before and after the ‘event’. Her doctor, apparently bereft of medication and patients, asks her how she deals with her bad knee. ‘With a compress of vodka, of course,’ comes the reply.
There’s something endearingly Soviet in this eternal remedy of the Motherland. Nevertheless, it’s important to note the fondness and nostalgia of some of the workers. The flats, cleanliness and simple order of the old, bespoke service town of Pripyat could have come straight from Mayakovsky’s famous poem, ‘Ironworker Ivan Kozyrev’s thoughts on moving to a new flat’. As the radiation analyst returns to her former home in one of the blocks to find her son’s school exercise book still on the floor, she recalls the typical enthusiasm with which so many came to help after the meltdown. Then, referring to the young soldiers who handled graphite and other contaminated material with their bare hands, she adds: ‘That’s the real disgrace.’
Hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated and resettled, and just as many workers were contaminated. And it’s true: nobody knows or can calculate the full effects of the cancers to come or the physiological and biological horrors that persist or lie in wait in the resurgent wilderness. But Pripyat’s ‘tragic fame’, as one technician puts it, is no deterrent to those who have continued to live and work within an architecture of abandonment and mutation. This is where Geyrhalter’s record transcends its barbed wire perimeter and, like invisible radioactivity, seeps into our human core: we see little people finding and living life in the most atomically decayed of places, able to force vital signs from a landscape of despair. As such, the film is a Geiger counter whose frail human sounds are both warning and celebration, and whose sensors have detected the very essence of something in nothing.
Nick Barlay’s Scattered Ghosts: One Family’s Survival through War, Holocaust and Revolution is published by I.B.Tauris. For details of this and other works, see www.nickbarlay.com
Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Pripyat (1999) showed as part of the Barbican ‘Architecture on Film’ season (till July 2015), ‘a season of one-off events where architecture meets cinema, curated by the Architecture Foundation’.