Arriving in Boripsol airport in Kiev is quite a shock to the system, particularly having earlier transfered in the glass and steel empire that is Amsterdam’s Schiphol; possibly Europes slickest airport, with toilets so automatic they almost know your name. Slick is not a term that springs to mind in Kiev. There is no glass and steel in Borispol; just miles and miles of rough concrete. Concrete walls, concrete floors, and concrete ceilings, inhabited by thousands of people all pushing and shoving and generally looking a bit….concrete.
I stood nervously waiting for my equipment to emerge beside the worlds shoddiest conveyor belt; more glorified duck-tape than rubber belt. All I could think about was what a fucking tragedy it would be if my camera gear hadn’t also successfully negotiated the transfer through Schiphol. I was on a schedule, and the idea of making it all the way to Chernobyl with no camera equipment horrified me. Don’t mind Reactor Four exploding; arriving in Chernobyl to make a film with no camera gear would be a real fucking disaster. I was also slightly anxious that my driver wouldn’t find me in this cattle-mart of an airport, but I needn’t have worried. Six-foot red-heads are thin on the ground in Borispol airport. A short stocky man wearing an Iron Maiden tee-shirt approached me as I stood beside the conveyor belt, gruffly introducing himself as Yuri, informing me that he was my driver. Finally the gear emerged, one piece at a time, and Yuri took me out to his car.
It was the last day of August, and it was hot. We drove through the endless sprawling concrete spread that is Kiev, slowly leaving civilisation behind us. The exclusion zone is two hours north of the capital city. It was only when we were an hour into the countryside when I remembered I’d forgotten to visit the ATM at the airport and get some local currency for my week in the zone. I told Yuri we needed to stop somewhere and get some cash and he laughed at me. “What the fuck you need money for in Chernobyl?!”
The Chernobyl Hotel is not really a hotel. It’s a big yellow prefabricated fiberglass structure, kinda like a massive portakabin, that was driven down from Sweden and plonked in place. It exists to house the scientists who come to the exclusion zone to study the warped environment, and the odd obsessed filmmaker. On that particular week however, I was the only guest. Within the 30km exclusion zone there are thousands of workers who work fourteen day shifts. After fourteen days of work they are required by law to leave the zone for fourteen days of recovery. The Ukrainian government has devised some sort of glow-in-the-dark scale that dictates the maximum level of radiation a person is allowed absorb in any twenty-four hour period, so how long you work each day is decided by how close to the reactor you are. Within the power-plant itself there are maintenance workers who only work for fifteen minutes per day, because within that fifteen minutes they’ve absorbed the days legal limit in radiation.
So despite being the only resident in the big yellow portakabin, the kitchens were still in operation; it appeared especially just for Yuri and I. We were to begin each day at 6am, and I was informed that there would be breakfast served for us before we left. I arrived down the first morning, and Yuri had already assumed the position. I sat down opposite him, and he poured tea. Next thing out from the kitchen arrives a hefty middle-aged woman bearing two bowls of purple soup, moving at incredible speed for a woman of her girth. Yuri told me that this was borsch; a Ukrainian speciality, and that it was fucking fantastic. The obvious thing about eating the national dish with a native, is that you run the risk of highly offending your host if you don’t appear to love the food as much as they say you should. Borsch is made from beetroot and tomatoes. I fucking hate both beetroot and tomatoes. I hate them both at any time of the day; never mind at 6am.
Yuri however, fucking loved beetroot and tomatoes. He loved borsch so much he was horsing it into himself; he couldn’t get enough of the stuff. I struggled manfully, trying to look as if I at least kinda liked it, all the while wondering what the fuck we’d be getting for lunch. Just when I thought my troubles were over, the hefty woman came out again, this time bearing two plates overflowing with vegetables, and what appeared to be chicken. Steamed chicken. Yuri informed me that this was also a Ukrainian speciality. He started horsing into it yet again; he was fucking loving this too. It’s incredibly hard to maintain a polite expression towards your happy host when you’re actually gagging; retching, desperately trying not to vomit all over the table. Yuri stood up to get more tea from the hefty woman, and I seized the opportunity and threw half the plate into my bag, all quickly wrapped in tissues. As soon as she took away our second course, she arrived back out with a third; dessert. Dessert…..at 6am. I gave up at this stage, telling Yuri I enjoyed the previous specialties so much that I just hadn’t any room for dessert. He looked momentarily disappointed, before he shrugged his shoulders and grabbed my plate, emptying it onto his; a mountain of cake in front of him.
The Chernobyl power-plant isn’t actually in the town of Chernobyl, where I was staying. Pripyat, the empty city which was my focus point for the film, is closer to the power-plant, about two kilometres away from the looming reactors, and about ten kilometres from our fibreglass lodgings. We drove at speed towards the empty city; traffic cops and penalty points are just not an issue in the exclusion zone. The exclusion zone itself is a thirty kilometre radius from power-plant out. Within this there is another ten kilometre radius, the inner zone. We passed through this several times a day on our journeys to and from Pripyat. The border was manned by some hardcore looking Militia lads in blue camouflage gear. You can’t just wander into the zone; each morning Yuri had to produce my passport and permit papers. Each evening on the way out the car would be searched by the Militia; it’s highly illegal to bring anything out of the inner zone for fear of contamination.
Despite having done so much research and having a virtual map of Pripyat in my head, nothing can ever prepare you for the overwhelming sense of sheer emptiness when you actually arrive there. To stand in this once great town’s central square and shout and hear your voice bounce back at you against the huge empty Soviet apartment blocks is something I will never forget.
After each days shooting was over and we’d swapped the glowing inner zone for the only slightly less radiated outer zone, my first priority was to head straight to the shower to try and wash some of the day’s cancer off myself. Then we’d head to the one shop in the village, which appeared to exist mainly to supply the Militia with vodka and smokes. Whole litres of Russia’s finest could be procured for the equivalent of about two euros, and there was a constant queue. Yuri’s poison of choice was honey and chili flavoured.
The routine was always the same. We’d head to the kitchen and sit down at our usual table. Yuri would produce two cups; tea-cup size. He’d fill each cup with vodka, right up to the top, and then we’d down them in one go. As soon as the cup hit the table and the vodka hit the stomach, Yuri’d be filling the cups up again. Bang, down in one again. And again. And again. This process continued until the bottle was empty; the whole procedure took about five minutes from start to finish. The Ukrainian’s don’t fuck around when it comes to the drinking; they have a much different method than we do. While we sit around talking shite supping pints, gradually getting more and more steamed, the Soviets have a much more business-like approach. Get steamed in five minutes flat; then have the craic.
But there was also a much more serious reason for this hardcore approach. Yuri had explained to me on the first day that alcohol protects the body from radiation. Red wine and vodka in particular. When he’d first said this to me, I’d waited for the knowing smile; a flicker of mirth, anything. Nothing came. He was deadly fucking serious.
This mad notion had obviously been adopted as concrete scientific fact by every single person working in the zone. Everybody seemed completely fucked, all the time.
Once the bottle was finished, the hefty woman would come charging out with whatever Ukrainian specialties I’d to pretend to like this time. The evenings three-course dose would always go down that bit easier than the mornings session, helped in no small part by the half-litre of vodka churling around inside me.
Once the dinner was done we’d head outside where there’d be a group of mostly Militia convened around a bench smoking fags and drinking vodka. The air was always so still, and sun set late in the day, giving the lazy feel of a perfect summers evening barbarque, except for the huge nuclear reactors forever present on the horizon – constant eerie reminders that this was no ordinary drinking session. Yuri produced a box of cigarettes and offered me a smoke. When I shook my head and explained that I was off them, the whole group looked offended, so I took one from him and sparked it up. Fuck it; my newly-acquired Ukrainian logic dictated that the massive quantity of vodka was killing the huge doses of radiation; I’d that angle completely covered. So therefore I was just being smug by not smoking. Being too health conscious never did anybody any favours; after-all you can’t be taking the piss – nobody likes a smart-arse.
The various bottles of vodka would be continuously passed round and round the circle until everybody had trouble lighting their smokes. My willingness to indulge made me instantly accepted. Yuri explained that usually the foreigners are of the Yanky scientist flavour, and they never partake in the festivities. Another factor was my red-hair, which the Ukrainians believed was very lucky, particularly if they rubbed my head. Apparently there exists some old Ukrainian nursery rhyme that they are all taught in school which extolls the virtues of rubbing a ginger’s head. They’d obviously taken this to heart, and after several litres of vodka they were almost aggressive in their affections. Red-heads are an extreme rarity in this part of the world; so an opportunity to amass as much good luck as possible would be foolish to ignore. Stockpiling the luck they were.
By midnight everybody would be completely tanked, and the festivities would wind down. I’d stumble back to my fibreglass home and pass out on the rickety bed. I woke up one night a few hours later; completely dehydrated from all the vodka. I panicked as I realised I’d forgotten to buy a bottle of water; my mouth was stuck together, I’d never experienced such a crippling thirst. My whole body was pounding with each pulse. Even in this state of severe dehydration I recognised that to drink the tap-water in Chernobyl would be pretty much the most reckless thing a person could ever do. I burst out into the corridor, and knowing that I was the only guest in the hotel I started frantically charging through empty rooms in search of something to drink; anything to ease this throbbing pain. Room after room there was nothing but empty cupboards and presses. The only place that was locked was the kitchen, so I gave up and returned to my room, grimly aware of the decision I now had to make. Don’t drink the tap-water and die a painful death now within the next ten minutes, or gamble and drink the glow-in-the-dark water and suffer the possible consequences in years to come. I sucked on that tap like a cancerous calf.
That morning sitting at breakfast I decided not to tell Yuri of my disastrous decision, for fear he’d insist on some immediate and extreme form of vodka-based cleansing. Nobody needs a vodka-enema, no matter what poison they’ve just ingested.
When you’re leaving the exclusion zone you are advised to leave behind any clothes you wore inside the zone. For this reason you keep a sealed bag of clothes that you only open upon your departure. When you reach the border, you are required to leave the vehicle, and step into a sort of shed-type building. Inside there is a big metal machine, which is a little bit similar in shape and structure to those machines we have in Ireland for checking how obese you are in pharmacies, except this is a much bigger, cruder version. I was instructed to stand up onto the machine. There are two pads to put your feet onto, and two pads to put your hands onto, and a big red light in the middle at chest height. The machine apparently scans through your body to see whether you’ve managed to ingest particles of cesium or strontium. These are the single biggest worry when in the exclusion zone. While hanging around in an area where the general levels of radiation are pretty much off the fucking scale by normal standards is hardly a healthy pursuit; it’s nothing compared to how fucked you are if you’ve managed to ingest either cesium or strontium. These evil little particles are a fraction of the size of a grain of salt, completely invisible to the human eye. They attach themselves to foliage in particular, so for this reason you have to try and avoid grass or trees while wondering around the exclusion zone, and stick to concrete as much as possible. If you do manage to get a grain of either of these inside you, your days are numbered. You bleed to death within a few weeks, horrible internal bleeding that destroys you from the inside out. You have to stand on that machine for about ten seconds while it sends the detective wave up through your body. The light stays red all this time, and only when it turns green you know you’re safe. I was nervous considering my tap-water antics a few days earlier. It feels like an hour, standing there, waiting for that fucking light to go green. But eventually it did go green, and I was cleared to leave the zone.
Yuri, being a seasoned pro at all this carry-on, approached this whole process with a much more relaxed attitude. Throughout the week inside the zone, I’d constantly been gently trying to gauge whether he was worried about the possible consequences of spending every second week inside the exclusion zone. Like all the other workers who inhabit this strange time-warp, he didn’t give a fuck. Some of them dismiss all this radiation nonsense as sheer American propaganda; a sort of “well if you can’t see it it’s not there” attitude. They argue that an area of such natural beauty could hardly be poisonous, and it’s difficult to depute their logic when you see the vast untouched green fields, and forests with teams of wild horses happily roaming. Yuri had a different attitude. He said that if you spend your life worrying about getting cancer, then you probably will get it. So don’t spend your life worrying about it, and you’ll probably be okay. Logic like that is just plain hard to defy.