Video Games and Pripyat
Computer Games in Pripyat and Chernobyl
In the Ukraine, I was surprised at how nobody who was organizing the trips had actually been to Chernobyl. Perhaps this has to do with the high cost of visits in relation to local salaries. What most people were familiar with, and they kept on mentioning to me was “stalquer”. It took me nearly a week to realize that they were saying “S.T.A.L.K.E.R”, a well know, Russian developed computer game that takes place in Chernobyl and Pripyat. Gradually I realized, that although most had been affected directly or indirectly at the time, for the Ukrainian generation under 30, much of what they knew about Chernobyl after the fact was through association. Computer games, outside media, and foreign interest fill a void left by the lack of an established Ukrainian educational system and an older generation that was often quiet about the topic.
The Ukraine is only 17 years old as a country, and a good portion of these persons’ education was under a Soviet rather than national education system. The tinderbox issue of Chernobyl was not explored in-depth in the Soviet system, except perhaps from a pragmatic safety concern. Schools have fall-out drills, like their counterparts in the West have fire-drills. I found it ironic that people could tell me how to respond to nuclear accident, but had never visited the hallow ground. In Germany, school visits to the Concentration Camps are common, and in Japan I saw many school kids at ground-zero, both in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Chernobyl means Wormwood
For those over 30, the pain and scars kept comments to a minimum. “It is too painful for us to want to remember,” is what one person told me. “Chernobyl means wormwood, and wormwood is mentioned in the Book of Revelations as a sign of the End of Days. We are a superstitious people, and we believe that the Chernobyl disaster was foretold in the Scripture. This is why we don’t want to talk about it,” said an elderly lady I interviewed. This last comment was something I often heard echoed in one way or another, even at the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev, where a recorded voice said:
“And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.” (Revelation 8:10-11)
Legacy of Radioactivity in Pripyat and Chernobyl
The most pragmatic explanation came from a former soldier I met. “The radioactivity from Chernobyl will last another 80,000 years. That means that the government uses our taxes to pay for taking care of the contaminated land that nobody alive will ever see clean. What state has lasted that long? Not even the Egyptians. Why should we want to talk about something that is so painfully long and will likely fail to be safeguarded? I don’t want my taxes helping pay for something that is not my fault. Let the Russians pay?”
I’ve noticed that when I mention I am working on a photography project in Chernobyl, most people are quick to identify what I am talking about and usually make a joke about my coming back with a nuclear glow. Other times I roll my eyes: “Is that the nuclear place or the Nazi concentration camp,” asked a recognized artist when she learned about my work. What I do expected, is that people would not know what Chernobyl looks like even if they do know what happened, after all I went there precisely with the intent of documenting it. But an interesting cross-segment of teenagers and tweens does know about the details in the city of Pripyat. “Cool, you went to the place with the big ferris wheel? Awesome!” said the twelve year old son of a friend of mine in Mexico.
I only have empirical evidence, but in the Western world the computer game Call of Duty may be responsible for this. It is an extremely popular game and one of the episodes takes place in Pripyat and Chernobyl. The closing scene is at the giant ferris wheel. Trolling the web and blogs related to the game I came across comments like, “The graphics are so good, I feel like I’ve been there.” Really? Like you’ve been there? The worst nuclear disaster in history and you are bonded by those who suffered through a computer game? Give me a fucking break! …but at least they KNOW about it, and that is important.
It would be easy to criticize this parochial chumminess as a singular byproduct of Western comfort, but many young Ukrainians, at least on the outside, seem to be as equally aloof from the tragedy. This could be a collective adaptive behavior developed by centuries of foreign induced famine, war, and occupation. They recognize the magnitude of the issue, and often know family that was directly affected, either by the accident or illness that followed but they seem to connect to it as if through a fog, or quite literally through the proxy of a singleplayer computer game that hunts artifacts and shoots mutants. “I have to admit, I’ve never wanted to go to Pripyat, but STALKER, really is fun”, commented one young female journalist I spoke to.
See Pripyat 25 Years Later: Complete Gallery