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

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture


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



You can learn much if you listen to the voices in the ruins

neorandomizer's picture

R3 you have a little archaeologist in you, ruins tell a story most times a tragic story. Chernobyl had its tragedy built into the design faults of the reactor the USSR built. A design the USA abandoned in the late fifty’s as too dangerous to use even though it was cheaper to build big planets that used that type of reactor. People do not understand your fascination because the tragedy happened in living memory and because it plays into there ignorant fears of nuclear power.

Ruins are a physical ghost of the rise and fall of a people and there dreams. They exist because a person or group had the will to build and they become ruins because of the ultimate failure of what they set out to build.

Roman ruins are a testament to the greatness of their empire and the evidence of their fall from the heights that they had achieved. The same can be said for Chernobyl it is a physical monument to the ultimate failure of the Soviet system. They knew that a graphite-moderated reactor was a dangerous thing but they chose to build it anyway, without any of the safeguards we would build into a reactor no matter what type it was. The shame is that people here in the US do not understand that we build pressurized water reactors and the type of accident that happened at Chernobyl could not happen here.

One day in the future people will find and study the ruins of what they will call the American Empire. They will say the same things about us that we say about Rome, that it was great but flawed. This will happen because no matter how great or powerful a society is it comes to an end. The bigger and more powerful the society the more spectacular the end will be.

The question of why the left has become an intolerant block is because America has rejected the far left as it has rejected the far right; we are to libertarian for the control that the far left and right crave.

The democrats won the last election and thought that it was a license to change the world, they are pissed that it was not a blank check but a small shift to voice the country’s displeasure with the Republican Party. The resistance to the liberal agenda makes them madder and madder because they think they are smarter than everyone else. There plans to make us France just does not sit well with most people and they do not understand it because they only talk to themselves and are convinced that the majority is with them and it rocks there world to find that it is not true.

link to Chernobyl style reactor

link to PWR style

oh, hell yeah, I love Archaeology!

Republibot 3.0's picture

Always have! What's not to love? Ruins? Ghost Towns? Creepy reminders of the transitory nature of man?

As to the political aspect, I think SNL summed it up nicely in their cold open last weekend when they pointed out that Obama's 1/4th of the way through his term, and hasn't accomplished a single one of his goals, nor is he likely to any time soon.

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

Waxing aggressively poetic

SmithCommaJohn's picture

Holy crow 3.0, you were on a literary roll yesterday!

Another point that makes Chernobyl so unusual, individual and tragic as an abandoned city is that people had to leave EVERYTHING behind. Clothes, utensils, photographs, tools, you name it. In the case of any other abandonment the people and could take at least a little of their stuff with them, But all the survivors of Chernobyl have no physical evidence of their lives or ancestry before 1986. All they have is memories.

Since I am enthralled with abandoned stuff as well, I'm going to be self-serving in saying that such a love of lost stuff is not only the sign of a fertile, curious and creative mind compared to those who don't ("it's just old junk"), but is also evidence of a higher reverence for those we do not know who have gone before us. Liberals can do that too, but like Spender in the Martian Chronicles, they'll kill their crewmates to "preserve" it.

Sadly, America is turning into a land increasingly full of abandoned buildings, factories, even skyscrapers! Detroit has the largest number of abandoned buildings in the world. Probably the saddest abandoned building in the US is the Dixie Square Mall south of Chicago. Search it on Flickr and you'll see some really cool photos taken by urban explorers.

As for Obama, that Coldplay song "Viva La Vida" is becoming prophetic.

we hide our ruins

neorandomizer's picture

But we will hide the empty buildings, I can not find the story now but I read that a town outside of Detroit is buying out the last few people in an otherwise abandoned neighborhood and bulldozing the houses and making green spaces out of the area. I am sure other towns and cities will start to follow this example and sell it as a sign of greening the planet.

Green Ruins

Republibot 3.0's picture

Thanks, Smithcommajohn, I guess I was. You may be on to something there - I'm not sure if it's an inherently conservative trait or not, but I like the sense of 'there was a person here' that goes along with abandoned buildings, and I guess there is a sense of respect for the past that goes along with that. Ultimately, that's all that conservatism is: a respect for the past, the idea that history and tradition are things you don't deface or throw away without good reason.

Neo, I never quite understood the whole "Let's bulldoze the abandoned sections down" as a green thing. Just as sunken ships are good for artificial reefs, so anyone who's ever been chased out of an abandoned house by a bunch of deer can tell you: abandoned buildings provide lots of beneficial niches for wildlife.

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

Speaking of ghost towns...

kelloggs2066's picture

I wrote a lengthy responce to this hours ago, but we've been losing power off and on all morning due to the snow storm. Let's see if it works this time.

I'm afraid I have to fundamentally disagree with the premise here. Ghost towns and abandoned structures are interesting on an animal instictual level. It has nothing to do with Conservative/Liberal.

My dogs will eagerly investigate old dens, burrows and anything that promises that there was once life in a certain spot.

Humans are the same. I'm guessing it's an instinct to investigate abandoned stuff because it might be useful. Old TV sets on the side of the road. Old abandoned buildings. Shipwrecks.

It shows up heavily in fantasy. Where would the game D&D be without treasure filled holes in the ground guarded by hordes of monsters?

The fascination with old abandoned stuff shows up, even when it makes absolutely no sense. Take Anime for instance. The most powerful Giant Robots in anime are invariably the ones that have been abandoned for thousands of years and found by the teenage hero, even when the culture they've been living in has been building and perfecting giant robots over the last thousand years.

Now, who out there would want to pit a bronze era army up against a couple M1-A1 Abrahms tanks?

Nope. I'm guessing that the reason your liberal friends took umbrage at your fascination in Chernobyl is simply a matter of who's ox is gored.

By talking about Chernobyl, you're talking about one of the greatest failures of their heroes. If you showed them photos of the bodies from the Titanic, they'd be all over it, saying "Wow! Look at all the dead rich people! Cool!"

21st Century Fox
The Future's So Bright You Gotta Wear Shades

I love to ramble 'neath the rubble as I rove around the town

Republibot 3.0's picture

>>Nope. I'm guessing that the reason your liberal friends took umbrage at your fascination in Chernobyl is simply a matter of who's ox is gored.

By talking about Chernobyl, you're talking about one of the greatest failures of their heroes. If you showed them photos of the bodies from the Titanic, they'd be all over it, saying "Wow! Look at all the dead rich people! Cool!"<<

I do tend to ramble, don't I?

It's kind of funny. I'll set out with some purpose in mind, get distracted by a shiny object, run with it for a while, getting more and more abstracted until I'm saying pointlessly flowery Bradbury/Ballard kinda' stuff, and then I try to ram it all home. Thanks to the content-devouring abilities of the internet I'm cranking this stuff out so quickly that I have no real memories of doing it. (When I wrote this one, I was doing two or three entries a day. I didn't have anyone helping me in those days. Special thanks to Robert Bee and Sheldon and Church and the rest)The net effect is that when some old content like this pops up on a weekend, I read it and little bits of it will spark memories - I had steakums for lunch that day - and other parts are complete blanks. I had no memory of the Conservative/Liberal thing, for instance.

Someone once called this "Performance Blogging." A more accurate person once described it as "Just like being trapped in a car with him for three hours, except this way you get to choose your own music." On the one hand, there's absolutely *NO* quality control. On the other hand, I come up with things like "The profound silence behind his words" that I never would have thought of in a million years if I'd been paying attention. Ah well. I'm feeling a bit guilty about this piece now, and sort of wish it had't popped up today. What with the recent Chernobyling of Japan - and the emergence of "Chernobyl" as a verb - this was perhaps not the most sensitive piece to revisit at present.

Oh well.

Reading this again for the first time just now, I *THINK* what the author was getting at was that our perspective colors the way we see things, irrespective of their actual value. That more or less matches what you just said: their emotions aren't based on what the thing is, but what it represents, and what it represents is dictated by their level of political indoctrination.

I used to see this kind of thing a lot in high school, when teachers would get really incensed that we weren't taking Nuclear War seriously enough, whereas we all looked at Armageddon as a viable alternative to failing another Algebra II test.

Hm. Not making much more sense now than I did when I wrote this piece. Ah well. Time to watch a few episodes of Psych and go to bed, I think...

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

>>I used to see this kind of

neorandomizer's picture

>>I used to see this kind of thing a lot in high school, when teachers would get really incensed that we weren't taking Nuclear War seriously enough, whereas we all looked at Armageddon as a viable alternative to failing another Algebra II test.<<

That's because you did not have the fear rammed down your throat. When I was in elementary school in the middle to later 60's we would have a weekly air raid drill. For my generation the Cold War was real for yours it was something the adults talked about but I'm sure that you could tell that they did not take it seriously anymore.

It was almost surreal to your parents because a life long fear of war dulls the senses to the sensational news reports in the 80's. You also did not have the Vietnam War on TV every night at 6pm where they showed things that CNN would never show now.

Then the Cold War ended and for a time it seemed to be all a really bad dream. The fear is back just the names have changed to protect the guilty.

Boiling water

Republibot 3.0's picture

Probably. That's probably 85% of it right there. The other 15% is that if you grow up in a happy, idyllic world and get dropped into one where people have guns aimed at your heads, it really freaks you out. If, on the other hand, you grow up with guns pointed at your heads, you tend not to notice. I mean, it's always been that way, right? It'd be weird if you didn't have a gun pointed at your head, really...

So what they feared was normal for us, and how can you fear something normal? It helped that the Baby Boomer generation were mostly annoying 'fraidy cats that we were rebelling from anyway.

Oooh, there's an interesting idea: fear being standard, so youthful rebellion rejects fear. There's soemthing storywise there, but I'm too tired to suss it out now.

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

Not for lack of trying

Republibot 3.0's picture

>>That's because you did not have the fear rammed down your throat. <<

Well, not for lack of trying. Seriously: my teacher were endless in their "Nuclear war will make us go extinct, better red than dead, America will get the world killed" early-eighties nuttiness. It just didn't take. It just wasn't scary. It's like trying throwing a rubber snake at a kid raised in a reptile house: It's just passe. We grew up with it. That kinda' fear just slid off us.

Now, gym class: THAT was scary!

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

Lefty Loons

neorandomizer's picture

>>"Nuclear war will make us go extinct, better red than dead, America will get the world killed" early-eighties nuttiness. <<

I am sorry but the anti-nuke movement was so blatantly leftist that most people thought they were tools. Even Ted Kennedy the liberal lion of the Senate was against cutting our nuclear forces without a treaty making the Soviets cut the same amount.

Sure in New York City you could get two thousand disarmament protesters but you get 80,000 for a Giants football game so two grand is nothing. But it looked good on TV and they always wanted us to disarm first all it was missing was a sticker "Paid for by CPUSA."

made from the tastiest fear, coated in crunchy chocolate!

Republibot 3.0's picture

Why would you apologize for saying that? It's completely true. No argument. My point was just that fearmongering has a halflife, and it's only really effective for the first generation. (I'm sure the first generation of Soviets were utterly terrified of us as well, but the ones in my lifetime have mostly just wanted our jeans and Bon Jovi albums ["We can pay for them in firewood!")

This is an interesting thing that most of the SF authors of the 20th century missed. Tons of stories of societies manipulated by fear, but any really good motivating fear is one you can live with long enough to get bored with.

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0

Fear as plot point

neorandomizer's picture

>>This is an interesting thing that most of the SF authors of the 20th century missed. Tons of stories of societies manipulated by fear, but any really good motivating fear is one you can live with long enough to get bored with.<<

The 1981 Frederik Pohl book 'The Cool War' and John Brunner's 'Shockwave Rider' both touched on what you say but they were really more about government lies post Watergate.

It was only in America that nuclear war went from a deadly fear to a plot point or a back-story. In Europe they never lost the fear; in the 80's they convinced themselves that we and the Russians where going to fight our war in Western Europe only and leave the mother countries untouched. They pointed to the deployment of the Russian SS-20 and Pershing II medium range missiles (MRBM)as proof of this wacky idea. No the sad truth was if war came both sides were planning to smash the whole planet. Lucky for us both side were only crazy enough to build the weapons not use them. Now we have people crazy enough to build nukes but they also look forward to using them.


Republibot 3.0's picture

To be fair, Europe would have been destroyed in any hypothetical US/USSR war. Nukes were never the first-choice strike weapon, though, and they were generally aimed at *our* bases. I can understand the fear, but it was an oddly misdirected one since we had no tactical reason to attack the east, and the east had *every* reason to try and gobble up the rest of the continent.

(An interesting and deliberately under-developed implication of "A Clockwork Orange" is that this has happened, that the Soviets own the continent, and the UK is all that's left, though there's no implication of Nuclear War)

The Artist Formerly Known As Republibot 3.0