Peddlers of the Apocalypse: Voices from Chernobyl, and Expo 86

The prime years of my life are bookended by Chernobyl and Fukushima. All the important things happened there between the ages of 27 and 52. In April of 1986, I was in training for one of my first jobs out of university as a host at the Canada Pavilion of Expo 86 in Vancouver. When the news broke about an explosion at a nuclear power plant in the USSR, I was struck by how little the people around me seemed concerned about it. We were working in a stunning new architectural landmark now known as Canada Place. The views of the mountains and the harbor were spectacular. The staff of young hosts had been selected from all over Canada as if in a modeling audition (I exclude myself—I got in through a second round of last-minute hiring). There were only two things this group wanted to do: work and party.

Everyone was getting ready for the big opening day, the excitement of greeting the world and all the VIPs that would be coming through. Lady Di and Prince Charles appeared at the opening. Vice President George Bush came one day. I saw Prime Minister Brian Mulroney pause to wave at the staff for a few minutes. John Travolta came to see the exhibits one hot summer day, and every female staff member left her post immediately to get a glimpse of him. And this was in the doldrums of his career between Saturday Night Fever and Pulp Fiction.
Most days it was an annoying stream of tourists from the Midwest, people seeing mountains and ocean for the first time ever. In the first week of operations, a nine-year-old child died in the rotating theater that moved the seated audience from the Goose and Beaver show (that was a real thing, I kid you not) in the Canada Celebration Theater to the film in the Earthwatch Theater. The child had made the mistake of sitting on her father’s shoulders while the whole platform of seats rotated through a low opening in the wall. I have always felt haunted by this accident because at first look I had thought it seemed dangerous, but I said nothing. I was just hoping I didn’t get assigned to this theater where I’d have to be the one pressing the button. During training, when we were asked, “Any questions?” it was clear they didn’t want any pesky questions from the trainees, especially ones like “Who dreamed up this accident waiting to happen?” A week later Expo opened on the grim note of a dead child, but a large compensation was paid out quickly and the show went on. Expo turned a profit and put Vancouver on the map, supposedly. This marked the beginning of a new era for the city when its economy shifted from a dependence on natural resources to a reliance on real estate speculation. Real estate is actually called an "industry" now.
Chernobyl was happening as the background to all of this, and I wasn’t busy most of the time when I was just pacing the deck of Canada Place, waiting to “host” and answer questions from the tourists in either of Canada’s official languages. Remembering it now, it seems ironic that our Alfred Sung-designed uniform jackets were the color of uranium yellowcake.
There was a lot of time to just look at the big sky and think about what was happening over the horizon on the other side of the world, or to wonder what my counterparts at the USSR pavilion were thinking while they had to put on a brave face for the tourists. There was talk of radionuclides circulating the globe, and a barely-averted second explosion that could have heavily contaminated all of Europe. Years later I learned that the RADNET monitoring post in Revelstoke, British Columbia recorded a big spike in Iodine 131 (251 Bq/cubic meter, on May 13, 1986). But at the time no one around me cared or wanted to understand. The Expo 86 theme was “world in motion, world in touch,” transportation and communication, but everyone preferred act as if Ukraine was on another planet. It was strange to realize that this is what it would be like if the world were about to end. There would be no panic. No one would want to stop his daily routine or forget about whatever simple comforts and joys he might have to look forward to. We’ll keep shopping and saying “have a nice day” until the very last moment. We couldn’t even face up to our own techno-bureaucratic failure and shut down a theater long enough to properly show remorse for the death of a child.
Reported in The Hour, Norwalk, Connecticut, May 10, 1986
Looking back on it now, it seems like after 1986 I went to sleep for the next twenty-five years, most of which I spent in Japan. I forgot about Chernobyl, and seldom thought about what millions of people under the fallout were living through, how it had divided their lives into two distinct parts: a pre and a post- catastrophe. In my long sleep I had many nice dreams, one particularly good one in which I was married to a beautiful woman and we had three fantastic children. Such an indulgence. The events of the world--like the many disconcerting incidents at Japanese nuclear plants--sometimes disturbed this dream, but not enough to stop me from getting back to it. It didn’t end until the meltdown fallout landed in my yard in March 2011.
Now I’m awake. I can’t forget, and I can’t go back to sleep. Every April when the Chernobyl anniversary comes around I go back to the oral histories and recall what the catastrophe revealed to people there: a truth about the post-nuclear world that most people prefer not to think about.
You can learn so much more from the oral histories compared to the scientific reports. I reach to the shelf now and thumb through these books like my grandfather once looked through the Bible every April looking for inspiration for his Easter sermon in his small-town Anglican Church.
This year I reread the account of Sergei Gurin, a filmmaker from Minsk who was sent to Chernobyl to record man’s historic battle against his own creation. He began by following the training and habits which told him to point his camera at heroes, and feats of sacrifice and hope, but the radiation slowly broke down all accustomed ways of looking at the world, melted his fear of showing something that didn’t fit with standard propaganda. Finally, he saw a question from a child as a voice from the future, something which forever turned his gaze toward that which he said had been completely ignored in Russian culture and Soviet ideology.

Sergei Gurin, cameraman
in Voices from Chernobyl (Picador, 2005)
by Svetlana Alexievich, pages 105-114

… I started filming the apple trees in bloom. The bumblebees are buzzing, everything is bridal white. Again, people are working. The gardens are in bloom. I’m holding the camera in my hands, but I don’t understand it. This isn’t right! The exposure is normal, the picture is pretty, but something’s not right. And then it hits me: I don’t smell anything. The garden is blooming, but there’s no smell. I learned later that sometimes the body reacts to high doses of radiation by blocking the function of certain organs. At the time, I thought of my mother who is seventy-four years old and can’t smell, and I figured it had happened to me too. I asked the others. There were three of us: “How do the apple trees smell?”
“They don’t smell like anything.”
Something was happening to us. The lilacs didn’t smell—lilacs! And I got this sense that everything around me was fake, that I was on a film set. And that I couldn’t understand it. I’d never read about anything like it…
… One day I filmed people who’d been in concentration camps. They try to avoid meeting one another. I understand that. There’s something unnatural about getting together and remembering the war. People who’ve been through that kind of humiliation together, or who’ve seen what people can be like, at the bottom, run from one another. There’s something I felt in Chernobyl, something I understood that I don’t really want to talk about. About the fact, for example, that all our humanistic ideas are relative. In an extreme situation, people don’t behave the way you read about in books. Sooner the other way around. People aren’t heroes.
We’re all peddlers of the apocalypse. Big and small. I have these images in my mind, these pictures. The chairman of the collective farm wants two cars so that he can transport his family with all its clothes and furniture, and so the Party organization wants a car too. It demands fairness. Meanwhile, I’ve seen that for several days they don’t have enough vehicles to transport kids to nursery school. And here two cars aren’t enough to pack up all their things, including three-liter cans of jam and pickled vegetables. I saw how they packed them up the next day. I didn’t shoot that, either. We bought some salami, some canned food, in the store, but we were afraid to eat it. We drove it around with us, though, because we didn’t want to throw it out.
The mechanism of evil will work under conditions of apocalypse, also. That’s what I understood. Man will gossip, and kiss up to the bosses, and save his television and ugly fur coat. And people will be the same until the end of time. Always.
… I have this big, long film in my memory, the one I didn’t make. It’s got many episodes. We’re all peddlers of the apocalypse.
One time we went with the soldiers into a hut, and there was an old lady living there.
“All right, grandma, let’s go.”
“Sure, boys.”
“Then get your things together, grandma.”
We wait outside, smoking. And then this old lady comes out: she’s carrying an icon, a cat, and a little bundle in a knot. That’s all she’s bringing.
“Grandma, you can’t bring the cat. It’s not allowed. His fur is radioactive.”
“No, boys, I won’t go without the cat. How can I leave him? I won’t leave him by himself. He’s my family.”
Well, with that old lady, and with that apple tree that had no smell, that’s when I started. Now I only film animals. I once showed my Chernobyl films to children, and people were mad at me: why did you do it? They don’t need to see that. And so the children live in this fear, amid all this talk, their blood is changing, their immune systems are disrupted. I was hoping five or ten people would come; we filled the whole theater. They asked all sorts of questions, but one really cut into my memory. This boy, stammering and blushing, you could tell he was one of the quiet ones, asked: “Why couldn’t anyone help the animals?” This was already a person from the future. I couldn’t answer that question. Our art is all about the suffering and loves of people, but not everything living. Only humans. We don’t descend to their level: animals, plants, that other world. And with Chernobyl man just waved his hand at everything.
I searched. I asked around, and I was told that in the first months after the accident, someone came up with a project for evacuating the animals along with the people. But how? How do you resettle them? Okay, maybe you could move the ones that were above the earth, but what about the ones who were in the earth—the bugs and worms? And the ones in the sky? How do you evacuate a pigeon or a sparrow? What do you do with them? We don’t have any way of giving them the necessary information. And also it’s a philosophical dilemma. A perestroika of our feelings is happening here.
I want to make a film called Hostages, about animals. A strange thing happened to me. I became closer to animals. And trees and birds. They’re closer to me than they were, the distance between us has narrowed. I go to the Zone now, all these years, I see a wild boar jumping out of an abandoned human house, and then an elk. That’s what I shoot. I want to make a film, to see everything through the eyes of an animal. “What are you shooting?” people say to me. “Look around you. There’s a war on in Chechnya.” But Saint Francis preached to the birds. He spoke to them as equals. What if these birds spoke to him in their language, and it wasn’t he who condescended to them?

Sergei Gurin, cameraman
in Voices from Chernobyl (Picador, 2005)
by Svetlana Alexievich, pages 105-114

See also:
"Svetlana Alexievich wins 2015 Nobel prize in literature," The Guardian, October 8, 2015.

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