Chenobyl Rave: Dancing in the Fields of Wormwood
“The third angel sounded his trumpet and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water – the name of the star was Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter. (Revelations 8:10 -11)
“I am not afraid of God. I’m afraid of man.” (Svetlana Alexievich: Voices From Chernobyl)
“No dose of radiation is safe,exposure is cummulative and adds to an individual’s risk of developing cancer.” (Helen Caldicott M.D., U.S. National Academy of Sciences BEIR VII Report)
‘That thing killed my grandmother and now its a disco!” (Annonymous observer)
Given that biological researcher Rupert Sheldrake believes that all things in Nature, including places, have fields of collective memory, which he refers to as “morphic resonance”, what are we to make of recent events that have taken place in northern Ukraine at the disastrous Chernobyl nuclear reactor site? From a systemic perspective, and “history of place”, this site chosen for construction of the country’s first nuclear power facility already had a lengthy history of fiery death and destruction. Prior to the 20th century, this Chernobyl region was inhabited by Ukrainian and Polish peasants as well as a relatively large population of Jews.TheJewish population suffered greatly from fiery pogroms in 1905 and again from 1919-1920. Entire villages were torched, inhabitants beaten, raped, kidnapped and slaughtered . This region also suffered from Stalin’s ruthless collectivization campaign’s mass murders; as well as the horrendous famine that followed. In 1936, Stalin’s frontier clearance mandated a forced migration of the Polish community to Kazakhstan which many did not survive.The Chernobyl region was also the site of Nazi atrocities in1941 through1943, when it was occupied by the German army, which systematically murdered the entire Jewish population. (Norman Davies, Europe: A History,1996).
When Ukraine was still part of the former USSR, their first nuclear power plant was named for the nearby town of Chernobyl, which dates onward from the 12th century which was, in turn, named for another kind of plant; Artemesia absinthium, a herbaceous perennial abundant in the region. In folklore it was said to have sprung from the Devil’s path as he left the Garden of Eden. This bitter herb with medicinal properties, used to flavor absinthe, is also known as wormwood. Absinthe is an alcoholic beverage, now banned in many countries, made from wormwood oil mixed with dried herbs also known as the “Green Fairy”; said to possess psycho-active qualities. The active ingredient is thujone, a potentially poisonous chemical found in wormwood, which excites the central nervous system. (Richard Mabey, Weed: The Story of Outlaw Plants, 2010).
The Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Station, better known as Chernobyl, was constructed as one of the largest in the world, during the 1970s and 1980s, in a peaceful wooded locale, 110 km north of Kiev, and 20km south of the border with Belarus, which runs along the Pripyat river. This rural facility was origially conceived as one part of a vast power-generating complex consisting of 12 blocks. As the world now knows, despite efforts of coverups by the former USSR, on April 25th,1986, at 1:23 AM a steam explosion, graphite fire and nuclear meltdown event in the Chernobyl nuclear reactor’s unit four, expelled a volcanic release of highly radioactive particles into our planetrary atmosphere with levels of radiation 300 times greater than our bombing of Hiroshima. Given the Soviet regime’s mania for secrecy and need to save face, the reactor core burned for 3 days before it was detected by sensors in Sweden and the secret was out. Reactor blocks five and six remain unfinished. (ASJ, Trauma: Time, Space and Fractals, 2012).
In the weeks following this disaster, trees in the surrounding pine forests turned red, withered and died. This “red forest” had weird deviations, double centers, with pine needles that grew backwards. (Kim Willsheer, ukguardian.com, April 24, 2016). Although organizations arose to bulldoze the “red forest”, dead branches could be seen in places rising red and skeletal above new ground. (the bohemianlog.com, September 2014). Over the course of the following summer, and again in 1992, 2002, 2008, and 2015, an unusually intense series of forest fires in the immediate region served to further spread highly radioactive isotopes throughout our Northern Hemisphere
At the time, much about this catastrophe was new and unexpected since there had not yet been a radiological disaster of this magnitude. Unfortunately, this magnitude has been superceded by Japan’s March 2011, Fukushima Daiichi disaster, also known as “Chernobyl on steroids”; with four damaged nuclear reactors, three in meltdown. While the Chernobyl reactor fire burned for only 10 days, Fukushima’s radioactive emissions into our atmosphere, and into the Pacific Ocean, remain ongoing with no end in sight. (Yoichi Shimatsu, “The Fukushima Disaster”, globalresearch.ca, October 12, 2011).
During the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl reactor’s explosion, tens of thousands of citizens of the nearby, entirely new Soviet model town of Pripyat, built for plant workers and their families less than 3 km from the reactor; were abruptly uprooted from their homes on April 27th. In those days there were neither emails nor telephone options and given less than 3 hours notice, these evacuees were unaware that they would never be able to return to their lives, within what became known as a 50km (31.mile) exclusion zone; which scientists say will remain unsafe for 24,000 years. Many experienced a metallic taste, uncontrollable coughing and vomiting. Today this uninabitable area serves as a kind of post-apocalyptic nature preserve, inhabited by mutated creatures such as giant catfish with flower-like fins and long serpentine tails, a six legged fawn and dysmorphic vegetation. (For the effect of radiation on humans, especially children see: Cory Charlton, “Living With the Fallout of Chernobyl 30 Years Later”, dailymail.co.uk, April 13, 2016).
- Chernobyl Daisy
Despite a deep sense of deception and betrayal that lingers to this day, Ukranian artist Valery Korshunov felt that this zone of isolation and death was an appropriate setting for his November 2018 Artefact installation which was, in essence, a sound and light dance party; designed to draw attention to an event that citizens remain reluctant to speak about. According to Korshunov, “Almost every Ukranian has acquaintences or relatives…having health issues related to Chernobyl. The consequences for the health of the nation will be felt for many more generations.” As a result, he reasoned, it would be a positive intervention to fill this alienation-zone with new meanings. Never mind that signs everywhere warn of contamination and visitors are cautioned to remain on authorized paths that have been supposedly “cleaned” and the overall site is punctuated throughout with various “hot spots”. (Tom Seymour, “Grab Your Geiger Counter: a trip to Chernobyl’s first rave”, ukguardian,co.uk ,November 28,2018).
This Artefact rave installation was set up in Pripyat’s center square, now a kind of time capsule, a Pompeii-like ghost town, once home to 50,000 residents with tree lined streets, which had schools, hospitals, a theater, a swimming pool and sports halls. Residents were promised a radiant future. At the center, there stood an abandoned Luna Park fairground of crashed bumper cars, derelict carnival ferris wheel, motionless with steadily encroaching vegetation. A nearby carousel also lit from below, evokes images from some ghoulish zombie-film dystopia and is reportedly a remaining radioactive “hotspot”. Amidst this field of ongoing tragedy, Korshunov welcomed the crowd as his Artefact launched an electro-infused kinesthetic melding of light, sound and color; and dancers were invited out to revel in the cold. Strobe-lights bounced across the featureless concrete surfaces of grim, crumbling Soviet-style apartment blocks, haunted by domestically disturbing interiors of beds still made and clothes carefully hanging in wardrobes, lending a somatic snapshot of shock, broken continuity, and existential doom. (ukguardian.co.uk, November 28,2018).
Despite the artist’s good intentions, this surreal, dance-macrabre scene, drew a sharp frisson, together with memories of Edgar Allan Poe’s: “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842). In this classic tale, careless, self-absorbed revelers continue to party, frantically oblivious to the fatal, invisible energies of a Red Pestilence devastating the countryside. As you may remember, the lavish entertainment of music, vibrant colors and their extravagant host, cannot protect them from the inevitable, uninvited guest. Perhaps my Red Death vision is too dark and this Chernobyl spectacle merely represents a recent iteration of medieval dancing manias, where thousands would gather to relieve the stress and poverty of their daily lives.
Whatever my feelings about the Chernobyl multi-media rave, given that I can hardly think of that place without dread, it is a fact that netherworld disasters have long attracted people who gravitate toward the dangerous and unusual or what might be termed, a morbid and voyeuristic pull towards death; especially popular with artists and photographers. Cynics have now claimed that Pripyipat has morphed into a kind of radioactive nightmare, disaster-porn Disneyland for photo-ops. And yet, this so called “Dark Tourism” may also be understood as a basically human curious need to see something extraordinary, a thirst for information or a craving for some sense of authenticity, deeper and even beyond the inevitable media spin. (wisegeek.com).
While some may argue that allowing such disaster tourism opens a way for the clueless and disconnected to prance about with their selfies; in a more practical sense, Chernobyl tourism is a great economic benefit to the deeply troubled land of Ukraine.
Well into my seventh decade now, I doubt that I will visit Ukraine. Still, my visits to Russia, working with war trauma colleagues there during the fall of the former USSR and the following decade, in the aftermath of Chernobyl; provided an invaluble opportunity to gain some understanding of the past, present and ongoing collective trauma, for which I will always remain grateful. (ASJ, Relative Balance in an Unstable World, 2006)