Chernobyl: 30 years on
Thirty years on, Chernobyl still holds the imagination in thrall. A new book and series step back in time
"We buried the forest. We sawed the trees into metre-and-a-half pieces and packed them in cellophane and threw them into graves," says Arkady Filin in Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s arresting oral history Voices from Chernobyl. "The place was so beautiful … incredible. The horror was more horrible because it was so pretty. And people had to leave here. They had to run away, like evildoers."
At 1.23am on April 26 1986 a perfect storm, brought about by poor design, human error and circumstance, catapulted the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine to a macabre mark in history: the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
The explosion that rent the roof of Reactor 4 — and a days-long fire burning at its core — released a radioactive cloud that would poison the surrounding countryside. In the wake of the accident, and for years following, thousands of liquidators, like Filin, were brought in to contain the damage: quelling the fire, shovelling melted bitumen and graphite from the reactor roof, burying contaminate — topsoil, the Red Forest, even a village — and later shooting the feral animals that had once been family pets.
At 2pm on April 27, the authorities began to evacuate the 50,000-odd residents of the nearby town of Pripyat, once a sought-after Soviet posting. Told they would return in three days, the residents packed little. "The kids were told to take their school books," Nadezhda Vygovskaya told Alexievich. "The only thing I took was a gauze kerchief, in case the weather turned bad."
Three decades on, what remains of those interrupted lives — the homes, parks, schools; the discarded remnants of daily life — are given breath in a new book, David McMillan’s photographic masterpiece, Growth and Decay.
McMillan has visited the 30km "exclusion zone" around the reactor repeatedly since 1994, documenting the shifting landscapes and the slow destruction of Pripyat as the hubris of human endeavour is laid bare by the resilience of nature.
The result is emotionally complex; at once beautiful, haunting and uplifting — and desperately sad. It’s a master class in light, framing, and juxtaposition, carefully curated continuity without the straitjacket of being overly thematic.
Some of that may be of unintentional origin. The accompanying critical essay in McMillan’s book by art history professor Claude Baillargeon, itself an excellent work, explains how McMillan on his first visit hoped to shoot mostly outdoors. But harsh light that stripped the landscape of nuance forced him into abandoned buildings — laying the ground for some of his most powerful images and sequences. The opening page, for example, looks out from the windows of the Pripyat riverside café — some broken, some misted by rain; a chequerboard of texture and colour. The limb of a dead tree leans in over long-broken tiles and shards of glass.
Elsewhere, there are variations on the theme: a tree struggling through the concrete of a hotel room floor, its leaves luminous in the ambient light; an amber creeper spilling through the window-wall of the children’s hospital, a living windowsill decoration; a lone chair in the dental hospital, stark concrete against an unbelievably verdant backdrop.
It is in these spaces that McMillan captures also the intimate details of lives abandoned: children’s toys on a bookshelf; patients’ medical records, curling and yellowed with age; a tinker’s tray of dental casts. The otherworldly eeriness of an abandoned anatomical model, disembodied dolls and gas masks discarded next to a children’s game. And beauty in the mundane: the splash of ochre in an abandoned paint bucket, the shade picked up in the rust of nearby barrels, and set against a black, rippled floor; mosaic after mosaic of disintegrating floor tiles; leprous, peeling paint that over years reveals a black underbelly of concrete.
McMillan’s outside excursions yield no less dramatic results. He moves between the passive serenity of nature — berries, creepers, flowers, fruit; autumn leaves and lush foliage — and nature in advance, reclaiming spaces long abandoned by people. It is here especially that his decades-long project comes into its own.
In some frames, McMillan revisits a spot, year after year, positioning his camera in exactly the same place. In others, the same effect is achieved more by chance than intention. These series, shot over years, chronicle the resurgence of the natural world over the man-made. Reactor 4 appears in the middle distance, across the barren scrubland that was once the Red Forest — so named because of the colour of the dying, contaminated trees before they were cut down and buried. Nineteen years later, only the very top of the tower is visible — a forest, resplendent in myriad hues, has claimed this no-man’s land.
The same view, shot from a Pripyat rooftop, tells a similar tale of regeneration in the city: only the tallest apartment buildings still peep out above the trees to spy the reactor.
Zoom in closer, get down on the ground, and it’s sometimes hard to tell there was ever a city there at all. Basketball courts have been swallowed into a literal urban forest. Children’s slides, playgrounds, washing lines, fences, whole buildings have been relegated to decrepit, rusting sideshows as nature takes hold. This is growth writ large.
And then there’s decay. Not just the obviously dilapidated buildings and rotting, contaminated hardware used in the clean-up, but also the decay of the idea: the failure of the communist project. The rusting Soviet sickle; Vladimir Lenin’s effigy, toppled by time; an image of Karl Marx peeling in strips from school walls, now face down on the floor, powerless.
In his closing sequence, McMillan photographs a collection of Soviet state flags in a kindergarten stairwell: 12 intact in 1994; seven in 2009; by late 2018, black-stained concrete carrying the vestiges of what may once have been a red flag.
"Just four days after the catastrophe the red flag was already flying over the fourth reactor," Filin tells Alexievich in Voices from Chernobyl. "It blazed forth. In a month the radiation had devoured it. So they put up another flag. And in another month they put up another one. I tried to imagine how the soldiers felt going up on the roof to replace that flag. These were suicide missions. What would you call this? Soviet paganism? Live sacrifice?"
McMillan’s offering is in many ways a companion to Alexievich’s — even an antidote. If Voices from Chernobyl is at times grotesque, a heart-wrenching reminder of the past, Growth and Decay offers a beautiful, more benign stillness — a place for a quieter contemplation. The one tells of the lives of the people of Chernobyl; the other breathes life into the place they lived, the landscape they loved, and the lives they left behind. Both are testament to the human cost of the disaster.
• Growth and Decay, by David McMillan, is available from Steidl, at steidl.de