The Ruins of Chernobyl Captured in Three Haunting, Drone-Shot Videos

Voic­es of Cher­nobyl—Svet­lana Alexievich’s oral his­to­ry of the 1986 nuclear explo­sion in Ukraine—brings togeth­er the har­row­ing tes­ti­monies of over 500 eye­wit­ness­es to the acci­dent: Fire­fight­ers, nurs­es, sol­diers, for­mer Sovi­et offi­cials, engi­neers, nuclear sci­en­tists, and ordi­nary Sovi­et cit­i­zens (at the time), who saw, but could not under­stand, events that would cost tens, per­haps hun­dreds, of thou­sands of lives.

We will nev­er know the exact toll, due to both inter­nal cov­er-ups and the immea­sur­able long-term effect of over 50 mil­lion curies of radionu­clides spread out over the Sovi­et Union, Europe, and the globe for over three decades. But Alexievich’s book eschews “the usu­al approach of try­ing to quan­ti­fy a dis­as­ter in terms of loss­es and dis­place­ment,” notes Robert Matthews at the Jour­nal of Nuclear Med­i­cine. She opt­ed instead to tell the sto­ries “of indi­vid­u­als and how the dis­as­ter affect­ed their lives.”

The inher­ent­ly mov­ing, dra­mat­ic sto­ries of peo­ple like Lyud­mil­la Ignatenko—the wife of a doomed fire­fight­er whose unfor­get­table jour­ney opens the book—immediately draw us into the “psy­cho­log­ic and per­son­al tragedy” of the dis­as­ter. For their vivid­ness and sheer emo­tion­al impact, these sto­ries have a cin­e­mat­ic effect, fill­ing our imag­i­na­tion with images of gris­ly tragedy and a grim per­sis­tence we might not exact­ly call hero­ism but which cer­tain­ly counts as a close cousin.

It’s no won­der, then, that parts of Alexievich’s deserved­ly-Nobel-win­ning his­to­ry made such a bril­liant tran­si­tion to the screen in Craig Mazin’s HBO minis­eries, which draws from sto­ries like Lyudmilla’s in its por­trait of the explo­sion and its con­tain­ment. The series’ psy­cho­log­i­cal focus, and the need to cre­ate indi­vid­ual heroes and vil­lains, cre­ates “con­fronta­tion where con­fronta­tion was unthink­able” in real­i­ty, as Masha Gessen writes in her cri­tique at The New York­er. We can­not trust Cher­nobyl as his­to­ry, though it is incred­i­bly com­pelling as his­tor­i­cal fic­tion.

Rather what the show gives view­ers, writes Gessen, is a stun­ning­ly accu­rate visu­al por­tray­al of the time peri­od, one that seems at times to have recre­at­ed his­tor­i­cal footage shot-for-shot. The show’s total immer­sion in the bleak, bureau­crat­ic world of mid-eight­ies Sovi­et Rus­sia has so enthralled view­ers that peo­ple have tak­en to post­ing Insta­gram pho­tos of them­selves inside the Cher­nobyl exclu­sion zone. Though it may seem like a fool­ish thing to do giv­en the lev­els of radi­a­tion still present in much of the area, Cher­nobyl has in fact been slat­ed for rede­vel­op­ment since 2007. Tourists began vis­it­ing the area not long after­wards.

Since the zone became acces­si­ble, hours of footage from Cher­nobyl and near­by city of Pripy­at, for­mer home of Lyud­mil­la Ignatenko, have appeared in ama­teur video and and more pro­fes­sion­al pro­duc­tions like “Post­cards from Pripy­at” (top), shot by Dan­ny Cooke for CBS, “The Fall­out,” a demo reel shot by Aer­obo Designs, and the drone footage in the Wall Street Jour­nal video just above. These are stun­ning mon­tages of decay­ing Sovi­et cities left behind in time. Even emp­tied of the indi­vid­u­als whose sto­ries keep us com­pul­sive­ly read­ing eye­wit­ness accounts like Alexievich’s and watch­ing fic­tion­al­ized dra­mas like Mazin’s, the videos still have a sto­ry to tell, a visu­al account of the remains of an empire brought low by cor­rup­tion, fear, and lies.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Scenes from HBO’s Cher­nobyl v. Real Footage Shot in 1986: A Side-By-Side Com­par­i­son

A Haunt­ing Drone’s‑Eye View of Cher­nobyl

The Ani­mals of Cher­nobyl

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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