Decay: Chernobyl and the Half-Life of Our Memories

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Tourist buses pull into the ghost town of Pripyat these days, thirty three years after it was abandoned to nature and decay in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Small groups of adventure seekers point their cameras at crumbling buildings, overgrown school playgrounds and the eerie rides of a long deserted fairground. Their guides refer to radiation readings on small handheld devices. It’s safe to spend the day wandering around the exclusion zone, laughing and taking photographs; shielded from such a catastrophic event by the passage of time.

On the ninth anniversary of the disaster, in 1995, I visited a small Kiev apartment, 100 kilometres south of Pripyat. Tanya chopped carrots and stirred a spoonful of sour cream into a thick borsch — a velvety beetroot soup — the rich smell of sweated garlic and onions filling the kitchen. Tanya’s husband was an engineer — a first responder to the disaster. Each night he came home blackened; their only, useless, instructions were to boil his clothes.

“That’s all I remember,” she said. “Washing his clothes to kill the radiation. Washing, washing and washing.”

Tanya’s husband died of cancer within a year. She spent the rest of her life with her mother, Olga, a small elderly woman, forever wrapped in blankets, who maintained a constant conversation with the television that flickered ceaselessly in the middle of the small room where they lived and slept.

Back in in April 1986, the day the news reached me, it felt like the icy fingers of the Cold War were marching down the back of my neck. In my thirteen-year-old imagination — fired by primary colours and the sugary fizz of western consumerism — the world beyond the iron curtain was a land of shadows, hunched figures in the snow and the sound of barking dogs.

“A nuclear cloud is coming,” our teacher told us; a Soviet nuclear cloud slowly drifting across Europe. The lexicon of our darkest Cold War fears was now daily news — ‘fallout’, ‘radiation’, ‘Geiger counter’. Each night, we sat around the television watching the weather — which way was the wind blowing? Presenters in wellies stood looking at the sky. Should we drink the water? Eat a mushroom? Boil our milk?

50,000 people visited the exclusion zone last year and a tentative new infrastructure is beginning to take hold.

How long does it take before the echoes of major events stop reverberating through our collective memory? A decade? A generation? Half a century? My grandfather bore the physical effects of the Second World War until his death in the 1950s; my father inherited the emotional effects, which in turn, more lightly, impacted on me. My daughter bears no scars at all. Our memories decay with each passing year. Like a dose of caesium-137 they each have their own half-life, becoming less destructive, just as Chernobyl itself becomes safer to approach and to look at through clear eyes.

Music, history, memory and the things we can see in the rear view mirror.

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