Adventures in Chernobyl – a story from our launch at VIVID Sydney

Cybele Hi my name is Cybele Malinowski, and I’m a photographer. Today I’m going to tell you about my journey to the radioactive zone of Chernobyl, and just how I got there. It all started when my grandmother Nanna died, almost three years ago now. She was Woollahra’s very own Zha Zha Gabor. She had lived through post WWI famine, Leninism, Stalinism, World War II, more famine, and finally, she and my grandfather and my father escaped Soviet Russia and Poland, via Vienna, and found themselves here in quiet little Sydney. She never spoke of her past, and when she died, her story died with her. I decided to continue her story, rather than excavate it. I would create my own personal memories on her black soil she loved (and hated) so much. This time last year I went on my own Everything is Illuminated tour of eastern Europe and my Nanna’s homeland, Ukraine. I always feared traveling to Eastern Europe. I have been a proud semi-Australian- relating to my otherness here, rather than my Aussie-ness. Never feeling truly Australian, Would I feel an affinity with these slavic people? Yes and no. I guess, I feel most Australian when I am away from her shores. I digress. I am here to talk about Chernobyl. And we aren’t even there yet! So here we go. Mum and I wait below our apartment in Kiev. We are dressed in our thermals, and $20 duffle jackets. Disposable clothes we are willing to part with after our adventure in a radioactive land. My mum, so elegant, standing in an unknown city in her thermal underwear. Best mum in the world. A car pulls up. A ruddy faced man with piercing blue eyes gestures for us to get in. We obey. He with no English, us with no Ukranian, we make our way to Chernobyl, with our new mate Sergei. We are slowly driving away from the 21st century. My excitement peaks when we hurtle past a horse drawn cart. And then suddenly we stop. We get out, and there it is: past a boom gate and armed guard, Chernobyl and vast Zone of Alienation. My mum and I are not the only tourists on the holy grail of Soviet’s dark past. ‘Ruin porn’, as they call it, is big business in the tourist industry now. Bus loads of amateur and pro photographers line up waiting to capture a piece of this post-apocolyptic land. A photography safari, where we hunt and shoot trophies of disaster. My intentions were a tiny bit less macarbe. After reading a book titled Greetings from Sunny Chernobyl, it came to my attention that this nuclear zone was in fact a living breathing paradox. Ironically, this radioactive site has become a vast nature reserve for plants and animals whose homes have been destroyed in shrinking wilderness of Europe. I turn to mum- I bet you never thought you would come to here for a holiday! The geiger counter erupts into beeps as we drive past a buried town here and there. Forests line the road, trees and vines reclaiming what was once theirs. We approach the town Chernobyl. Though the streets are empty, there are signs of life everywhere. What with the growing tourism, and the continued efforts to build a sarcophagus over the infamous Reactor 4, the population of Chernobyl is at a healthy 2600. There’s even a supermarket. We drive past Chernobyl and head towards Reactor 4. It seems so small, reduced in the vast wild landscape slowly engulfing this super-utopia of the Soviet empire. We head towards Pripyat, the urban metropolis where the 26,000 Chernobyl workers were once housed. Row after row of apartment building hiding behind a veil of trees. Our driver Sergei stops the car in the middle of the road. No traffic here. He lets us out, and drives off. Silence. This absence of human. I am not scared. I am happy. The silence is slowly filled with the song of birds, shudder of leaves, and at one point the howl of distant wolves. Mum and I follow our bubbly guide Nickolia, clad in full military garb into an abandoned school in Chernobyl. It’s static chaos. Tables turned, books filling whole rooms to waist height, Lenin glares down at me. It’s as though the blast literally swept through and removed life. But it’s time alone that has turned this school into a scene of disaster. In actual fact, after the blast kids still returned to school. The locals were not evacuated for another four days. There was so much hope and pride within these classrooms, a utopian dream of a communist world. It is now estimated between 200,000 and 1,000,000 people have died a premature death as a direct result of the Chernobyl Meltdown. The 2600 people who still work in the zone have a cavalier bravado about them. They are the cowboys of this unchartered land. My guide Nickolai eventually ended up taking me to all the places he had said were out of bounds. Once he found out I was a photographer, he pulled out his Nikon and our mission began. We climbed an abandoned apartment block, 13 stories high. The wind raced through the long corridors of once warm homes, doors slamming, concrete and steel creaking and warping in the evening wind. I was standing in this room, wallpaper clinging onto the walls for dear life, when the front door slammed behind me. I was frozen. Too scared to move. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in feeling completely and absolutely alone. It had been 26 years since life had breathed in these rooms. My blood ran cold. I called out to Nickolai again and again, nothing. It was getting dark. Mum was 12 stories down waiting in the car with Sergei. How long would it take for her to come and find me in this monumentous building? Finally I could hear Nickolai’s combat boots bounding down the hall. He opened the door and I jumped into his arms. I was shaking. We ran up to the roof- I was starting to feel very claustrophobic. The view was something I will never forget. An entire town, a small city diminishing, engulfed within the wild forests of the zone. Entire blocks of apartments miniature models on a diorama. This is what the world will look like when we are gone. Nature will reclaim what was once hers. By the second day in the zone, mum and I had an entourage. Sergei 1, our driver, Sergei 2, our ex Soviet officer, and Nicholai, my knight in shining combat boots. We drove for about an hour towards Belarus. We passes many towns, most imperceivable to the eye, but for the geiger reading. Eventually we stopped and there was a lone, immaculate cottage. Surrounded by trees and fields, this was once a bustling town. We walked up the path, and there she was: an apparition. A five-foot tall babushka, Hanna, beaming at us. Her warm smile and sad wise eyes instantly brought my grandmother back to life. I had found her. Hannah was born in this village-and after being evacuated to a small apartment in a barren nameless city, she, like many other babushkas she decided to defy the police, and return to the zone. To her childhood, her buried husband, her home. Some 1200 people returned, most over 50. 230 re-settlers remain alive today. A knock at the door, and our babushka’s only neighbor in the village arrives. A little more surly and distant than our chirpy Hannah, this is clearly a friendship out of convenience. We all sit at the table for lunch. To my surprise, the men prepare the food. A small feast. I keep a keen eye on what food we brought in, and what food was brought in from the garden. Growing it local has a whole different meaning in the zone. The food is radioactive. Mum and I somehow avoided eating the forest mushrooms, though there was a glint of disappointment in Hannahs’s eye. She perked up again when we agreed to a shot of home-made vodka – alcohol supposedly kills the radiation. By the third shot, a local tradition apparently, Hannah and her once surly friend burst into song. Their sombre notes, the love and pain resonated through the room. We were all silenced. The lives of these elderly women were nothing but stoic. Just to stay alive, they continue to sing their folk song alone in this abandoned paradise. And suddenly I begin to cry. My final goodbye to my nanna. This was her home. I had returned. I always promised her I would. Despite her telling me not to bother in her matter-of-fact Russian. Spasiba nanna. By Cybele Malinowski, who wrote and performed this speech at our beautiful launch at VIVID Sydney on May 26. It was an incredible night – thanks so much to all who came! 

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