Chernobyl and my irrational, possibly psychotic, love of Ghost Towns

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Chernobyl, site of the worst Nuclear Accident in history back in 1986, has been abandoned for nearly twenty-three years now. The place holds an unending fascination for me, as all ruins do, I suppose because at root I’m still basically a 12 year old boy. The adult part of my brain looks at scenes of devastation, of mayhem, of the carnage of war, and recognizes the terribleness of it all, the waste, the lost of life, the tears, the death. The twelve-year-old portion of my brain, however, says “Cool!” and wants to go poke around the rubble and listen to the ghosts, and pretend to be at the head of a conquering army, or an Astronaut discovering a new world isn’t quite as new as had been thought.

Does that make me a bad person?

Eh, probably. I have so many evangelically leftist people telling me I’m a bad person that I’ve kind of stopped listening, stopped bothering to deny it. It washes over me, now, and I ignore it. Occasionally I get pissy, put my hands on my forehead and stick my thumbs up like horns, and start screaming about how I’m the (Republican) devil, and that I’ll swallow their souls. They laugh nervously, or are genuinely startled. I don’t know why they would be. It’s not like they believe in the devil. It’s not like they didn’t already think ill of me for having a youthfully energetic imagination - I mean, they just said I’m a bad person, right? - you’d think just putting it out there on the table for them would make it that much easier to deal with their own preconceptions, but no, it seldom does.

I don’t pretend to understand my own thought processes - I’m a romantic, after all - so I certainly can’t pretend to understand other people’s minds. Everyone seems a bit alien if you look at them closely enough, but I have to admit the die-hard yellow-dog left - the “Evangelical Left” as I like to call them - seem more alien than most. When did this happen? When did the left stop being about free thought, free minds, intellectual development, and recognizing that all different viewpoints have their place? When did the left become about conformity and orthodoxy? I say things like “Ruins are pretty” to conservatives, and they may not get it, but they’re pretty live-and-let-live about the whole thing. I say the same thing to a Leftie, and I get some damned Star Trekian lecture about how all of this is the fault of [Name enemy of the month] which wouldn’t have happened if [name hero of the month] had been allowed to [name policy of the month] like he wanted to, but was stopped by damn fools like me.

I’m getting a bit off track here, but really, honestly, when did this happen? When did the question “Do you believe in Global Warming?” become rhetorical? When did saying things like “the evidence in support of climate change is tendentious at best, given how little understanding we have of out this aspect of the environment works, and I believe it tends to distract us from more important environmental concerns elsewhere” become “Reactionary” and “Wrong-headed” and “Pig ignorant?” I mean, I’m not even denying legitimate environmental problems, am I? Just pointing out that our understanding is small. Yet, the reaction is pretty much the same as if I told a *VERY* Catholic neighbor of mine that the Pope isn’t infallible. When did this happen, and why?

Anyway, to get back on track: There is something spooky and wonderful about ruins, which is, of course, why we go to see them in appropriately-designated ruin-viewing zones like Egypt and Italy. Evidently there it’s acceptable, but it’s somehow not acceptable to gaze with wonder at a ghost town like Chernobyl and feel the same awesome and frightening beauty. Apparently it’s not acceptable to wander through the south, and find lone fireplaces swallowed up by forest and realize “There used to be a plantation here, and this is all that remains,” or to wander through New England and trip over Franklin stoves in the woods, and the remains of foundations of houses long rotted away.

Why is that? Why is one right and the other somehow wrong? A ghost is a ghost, right? Not that I actually believe in ghosts, but there is a fun, spooky, sometimes numinous feeling you get walking through places like that. I see an abandoned carnival rusting to dust in a field in Indiana, and I see the bones of a magical wondrous beast that thrived on the laughter of children, the furtive hormonal gropings of teenagers, and the petty theft of the carnies themselves; a macro-creature that ranged to and fro over our land, but gradually starved to death and came to die here, across the street from that Walmart on the outskirts of town. I see the bones of a long-decomposed whale, its ribs - the supports of the bumper cars building - still standing defiantly against the sunset as triumphal arches, and monuments to a million glories - small and trivial, but glories still - that’s what I see. Grown ups see an eyesore.

I have a theory about most of the tourists who go to Italy. I think most of them don’t know what they’re looking at. They know - intellectually - that Pompeii was a city, but I suspect most of them don’t quite grasp that the columns they’re looking at are the felled trees that remain from a forest of buildings, or that they’re looking at the scattered bones a dead town. I suspect that many, most of them can’t connect what they’re seeing to what the place probably looked like back in the day. They’re just looking at stuff that’s old because it’s expected of people in a certain station to go look at things that are old. It’s like going to a museum for them - boring, vaguely educational, useless, but part of their social duty. I don’t think they get the vision that this was once a place people lived, no different from their own home town, nor that their own home town will - eventually - be a place that’s just as dead as what they’re looking at.

Chernobyl is, of course, the modern Pompeii. It was a modern, prosperous, mid-sized town that was wiped out more-or-less all at once. The method of it’s demise was even similar: the false god Vulcan saw fit, in his wisdom, to throw dust and ash and poisonous gasses in to the air, thus smiting the place. Likewise, the false god of the USSR saw fit, in his wisdom, to throw poisonous dust and ash in to the air, thus smiting the place. The difference, of course, is that fewer people died in Chernobyl. Most escaped, and while many died horrible, lingering deaths in the months to come (There are few ways to go that are worse than Radiation sickness), and many more died horrible, lingering deaths from cancer in the years that followed, the majority survived. It’s been less than a generation - most yet survive.

The place is no less amazing for that, though. The scope of the disaster is astounding, and there is probably not another place on earth that resonates with me like Chernobyl does. It is the stuff of dreams - terrible ones, but still dreams - it’s a modern city, abandoned for nearly a quarter century, reclaimed by nature. In fact, the irradiated zone surrounding the city has unexpectedly become one of the most successful nature preserves in Europe. Foxes, wolves, bears - even some buffalo imported in the 90s - are thriving there. And the city itself, a massive Marie Celeste of concrete and rebar and ugly little Soviet-era homes, it floats along the seas of time now, gradually reclaimed by the environment in a way that speaks volumes to people who can recognize it as beauty, to people who can read JG Ballard stories from the 60s, and totally connect with the unyielding silence behind his words.

For what is the city, but a thousand pulp magazine covers brought to life? What is it, but our cold war post apocalyptic dreams given flesh? The place is, in small scale, what many thought the world as a whole would become, but didn’t. The fact that it exists is a glory to the wisdom of those who managed to avoid that kind of thing on a larger scale, the fact that it exists is a tragedy to the hubris of those who managed to avoid any kind of foresight.

If buildings have a soul - and I don’t for a moment believe that they do - then we’re looking at the moldering remains of a city that died even when most of its people survived. It is forever a place for the imagined specters that we ourselves cast on the walls like magic lanterns. It is a place for reverence and whispers, the strangest of all things: A graveyard in which no one is buried. It is a place that I long to run through in my psychotic dreams, finding mysteries and wonders and special, hidden spots and tiny clues as to the individuals who lived there. It is a hunk of my dreams made manifest. It is the ultimate playground for gangs of twelve-year-old boys shouting and laughing through it’s empty streets, playing war and lobbing rotted fruit at each other. It is deadly, even still. It is no less beautiful for that. It is ugly, but, again, it is no less beautiful because of its ugliness.

It is a thing that speaks for itself. Check it out here