I was asked in the Flickr comments of this picture if I get scared while carrying around an expensive camera and tripod around with me. I replied no, not really. I keep the tripod cocked on my shoulder. It’s big and metal and I think anyone knows that an assault will be repelled by the business end of that tripod. It leaves a mark.
When I was in Kharkov, Ukraine, my host drove me up to the Russian border where we visited these mass graves. It was very eerie. This is the site of the Katyn Massacre, where the Red Army executed over 20,000 Polish prisoners, many of whom were senior officers in the military that were captured in 1939.
Those who died at Katyn included an admiral, two generals, 24 colonels, 79 lieutenant colonels, 258 majors, 654 captains, 17 naval captains, 3,420 NCOs, seven chaplains, three landowners, a prince, 43 officials, 85 privates, and 131 refugees. Also among the dead were 20 university professors (including Stefan Kaczmarz); 300 physicians; several hundred lawyers, engineers, and teachers; and more than 100 writers and journalists as well as about 200 pilots. In all, the NKVD executed almost half the Polish officer corps. Altogether, during the massacre the NKVD murdered 14 Polish generals. I got this information (and you can get more) at from the Wikipedia page on the Katyn Massacre.
For some reason, the picture of this gal I put up a few days ago got 4x the hits the my usual pictures in the first 24 hours. I don’t understand why people like looking at this stuff instead of landscapes and strange buildings. So anyway, let them eat cake I say…. here is another.
(just kidding…. of course…. glad you like this series)
I told my brother that I was going to the Ukraine. He warned me that the women there were not pretty – short, fat, and hairy were the three admonitions he passed along. I think Kyle learned everything he knows about East European women from the German swimming team in the 1976 Olympics.
I am in the Ukraine (it’s hard to tell from this picture) for work with a software partner there that has about 160 programmers, artists, animators, and other game-development disciplines. It just so happens that Oleg, CEO of this other company, is a famous photographer in the Ukraine. He has more photography equipment than Hefner and Flynt combined. He also has his own photography studio with enough lights to melt Chernobyl (strange segue to my story about Chernobyl).
Oleg and I talk a lot about photography. I’m more into landscapes and unique finds. He’s more into male/female models and having them do things with props and scenes and shaving cream. He invited me to his studio and Saturday and said, “We get models, zerefore we take some pictures.” I had never worked in a studio like his before, so I gave him a big thumbs up.
We showed up at his studio early and spent an eternity as he showed me every light, every strobe, every remote control, and another eternity looking at aperture and lighting and then having a 250-pound Ukrainian man sit in a chair to get the lighting right… Instead of posting a picture of the 250-pound Ukrainian man, I decided to put up this one of the model.
I only speak a few words of Russian, so I let Oleg do all the talking. We snapped away for a while and I got some interesting shots. I have a bunch more that I will post in coming weeks/months.
I’ve now spent a long time in the Ukraine because we are building some significant software there for our upcoming and super-secret gaming destination, and I’ve made a number of observations.
Since one of my hobbies is economics, it has been very interesting for me to be immersed in a country that is emerging from communism into a form of capitalism with a pinch of kleptocracy/oligarchy chewing away at the fringes during the transition.
I took the first three pictures below from the common areas behind my apartment that I stay in while in Kharkov, Ukraine. The inside of my apartment is very nice, as is the inside of many places throughout Ukraine. The offices up at Program Ace are spotless, pristine, and very HAL-2000-like.
However, every single “common” area in the Ukraine is completely run-down and looks bombed out, forgotten, radiated, and dangerous. In my judgment, this is a vestige from the communist era, when everything was commonly owned and there was no personal property. When things are commonly owned, they almost always fall into disrepair since “altruistic cleaning and maintenance” is a concept that only is heard from the ivory towers of college professors that are inside the theoretical and elitist bubble.
The same thing happened in New York’s Central Park in the late 70′s. It was very much treated in a communist way, where a faceless bureaucracy expected their disconnected staff and an altruistic public too keep Central Park nice, clean, and well maintained. It turned into one of the dirtiest and most unsafe areas in the US. After that, Colombia University did a study and the system changed to one of privatization where people had a sense of ownership and pride in different parts of the park. Today it is one of the best public parks in the world.
Even though apartment buildings are privately owned in Kharkov, the landlords still have the oligarch mentality that there is no real need to maintain and beautify the common areas since competition is not yet in full force. Almost every elevator I entered was very old, with exposed and rusted gears, creaking chains, and a layer of dust collecting since the days of Sputnik. Every stairwell looked like the Germans had used it for target practice in 1943. Every face I saw in those stairwells was morose and untrusting. My walks home in the middle of the night after a long day of work have very little light as I pass from one cloister to another, walking from one group of dark-dressed smoking men quietly grunting to the next.
The final picture is from another stairwell, just outside the old KGB building.
This is Cathedral of the Dormition at the Pechersk Lavra in Kiev. It was cold and my tripod was like holding on to liquid nitrogen.
The cathedral was built by a group of Antonite monks from Constantinople on top of a complex network of caves under the Berestov Mount overlooking the Dneiper river.
The second photograph is of the backside in different light much later in the day.
In the last few moments of twilight in the middle of winter, we left the Lavra (distant right) to go into this little restaurant to have some hot chocolate. We sat up in that little round area at the top and they brought us a tiny mug full of super-thick chocolate. It was barely even a liquid, but it was burning hot. You could tell that if you let it fully cool, it would actually turn back into a solid.
This very unusual and moody old fortress, the Golden Gate, sits obscurely in the middle of old Kiev. It is unlike anything I have ever seen, and I still don’t know what to think of it. It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t well-formed… it was just… kinda… there. But picture-worthy? Sure!
Part 2: Exploring Deeper into Chernobyl
Because nothing is maintained, every roof of every building in Pripyat has leaks, causing swampy conditions inside all the rooms. This has resulted in all sorts of fauna, trees, roots, weeds, and other strange things to flourish in these Planet-of-the-Apes conditions. I am sure a botanist would have a field day there, seeing as there is still ample Cesium-137 and Strontium-90 that is slowly decaying there and probably causing all sorts of random mutations. I pictured Venus fly traps that eat humans and the like.
Another place I visited was the big hotel here was the shining star of the city in its Russian splendor, now an empty, cold, and radiated husk. Part of me wanted to go inside and explore all the floors… explore everywhere! But, the snow was waist-deep in most places and I was having enough trouble just getting from place to place.
After that, I visited a giant apartment building that is slowly collapsing from the harsh winters and rainy springs. A lot of windows have been broken and desperate daredevils sneak in to loot on occasion. It wasn’t exactly the homiest place in the world, and I am not sure everyone got the damage deposits back. Then again, I don’t know if mid-eighties Soviet policy had a robust apartment deposit system in place.
Schoolhouse and Beyond
And then it was time for the schoolhouse. Creepy dot com.
As children evacuated, schoolbooks, papers, drawings and coloring books were left scattered behind. It is as if everyone just suddenly disappeared and time froze in a Soviet educational stasis of 1986. However, that educational system was clearly amazing. I know a ton of brilliant Ukrainian and Russian programmers. It’s interesting that these ex-Soviets come from the same system that enabled their brains to launch rockets with slide rules. They are absolutely some of the smartest and sharpest math/comp-sci minds in the world. The US public education system is as socialist and government-operated as the Soviet system, but the general populace of the US does not have close to the scientific prowess of the typical cold-war child. I don’t know why this is, but I do know that I have digressed.
My geiger counter started clicking away, so I took quick photos while speed-walking. Below is a photo of a phone booth outside the entrance. You can clearly see the amount of disintegration in the past 20 years. The paint colors have stayed bright. Nothing galvanizes paint like a sealant of unstable elements.
Caesium-137 and Halflife
We checked the Geiger counter because this area was supposed to still have a significant amount of caesium-137, which takes a good 300 years to dissipate to safe levels. It was around 0.054, so we decided to keep moving. Now we started heading for the main power plant complex. Slogging it through the snow was slow and tough. We stopped to commune with nature a little bit and add to the exotic cocktail around the trees. While doing this, the Geiger counter started clicking in a very scary way. *0.290* on the screen. He looked at me, “We should leave quickly.”
Getting back in the truck, we took another way. Yuri looked at the readout a little too much, and then he stepped on the accelerator. When Yuri was worried, I was worried. I grabbed a look at the monster under the bed (the highest number I had seen yet) and grabbed this photo.
Heading over to the reactors themselves was another matter. The snow was thick and the roads were difficult to see. We swerved around and Yuri looked nervous. I don’t like my Russian military die-hards to look nervous. It is a bad sign. He mentioned we should not get off the road because we end up in areas that have not yet been “scrubbed.” Okay, sounds like a good plan to me too, Yuri.
Approaching the main reactor, we stopped and found one that had not yet been completed. It was a hollow husk of a structure, left to fall apart in the radioactive fallout. You can see that another one was just in the beginning stages to the right.
Stuck in Time
We came across another area of interest – a new Chernobyl reactor that was abandoned in the chaos of the fallout. The cranes remain there, frozen in motion for 30 years. There was no activity at all. It is the closest I’ve come to that superhero power we’ve always wanted, where we can freeze time and run around while everything else stays still.
I asked Yuri about this place. I was curious about the day-of and the day-after. Even though Yuri spoke great English, the conversations started to become more stilted. It’s the opposite of almost every interaction I’ve had. Usually I warm up to people, even strangers, as we spend the day together. But Yuri, who clearly knew this place inside out, would often just shake his head at my questions. He didn’t want to talk about it.
And then, I decided it was time to go. We headed for the exit of the Exclusion Zone faster than Trotsky heading the Politburo.
It was time to head for the radiation checks, cleaning, and scrubbing.
I was immediately put at ease by his avuncular smile, that is, until he pointed the radiation gun at me.
This was the first of three different radiation checks. This cheerful gentleman took me through the various stages. At the end of each one, he gave me one of those characteristic Russian frowns and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “Eh, good enough.”
He didn’t speak any English. But, you know, there is sort of this international language. I’ve learned to get by in any country in almost every situation. Have you read this book, *”The Alchemist”*? There are many wonderful themes in there, but one of them is this idea that there is only one language. I’ve found this to be very true.
Not to go down a tangent, but why not. I read this book very late in life — I read it after I had already independently suffused the same themes into my own life. But, it was very nice to see all of these personal things described in a pleasant, allegorical manner. I do recommend it, obviously. The audiobook version is wonderful too – read by Jeremy Irons.
Okay, back on topic. There was one final stage of decontamination.
Upon final departure from the exclusion zone, I had to do a final rad check. You can see me below, jammed into a 10,000 kilo metallic device used to check the amount of rads all over my body. Often times, people end up with a “light dusting,” as they so brochurely described, of radiation.
This device was curious. It looked like stripped down telephone booth mated with a late seventies nautilus machine. I placed my hands and feet on special sensors. It flashed something in red cyrillic letters that may or may not have said I was clean. Either way, I found this whole Soviet-era scrubbing experience to be far cry from that decontamination scene with Trip and T’Pol. I can assure you of that.
I am currently writing Part 2 (edit: completed and located here) of my adventures in Chernobyl (Part 1 of the Chernobyl story is here). It’s kind of a long entry that I am writing this weekend, but I am taking my son camping so I need to get on that. I’ll post the full story tomorrow.
In the meantime, here is a new picture that I uploaded from the Chernobyl security gates that lead into the fallout Exclusion Zone. Below that, I posted a picture of the Chernobyl facility itself.