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The Sarcophagus and the City: Reflections on Chernobyl and the Dystopian Imagination

Le sarcophage et la ville : réflexions sur Tchernobyl et l’imagination dystopique
Miles Orvell


Le nom de "Tchernobyl" est devenu synonyme du danger mortel des radiations et évoque la peur et l'horreur que représentent les vestiges laissés par l’explosion au centre du réacteur n° 4, au sein de ce que l’on appelle la "zone d'exclusion". Parallèlement, au cours des douze dernières années, - jusqu'à la guerre en Ukraine en 2022 - le site a attiré un flux constant de "thanatouristes" et d’individus animés par une fascination morbide pour ce qu’ils imaginent de la catastrophe de Tchernobyl. Sur la base de représentations photographiques et d'autres médias visuels, ainsi que de sources historiques, cet article explore le site de Tchernobyl (l'ancien sarcophage, la nouvelle arche et les ruines de Pripyat) comme un symbole culturel composite incarnant les contradictions de l'utopie et de la dystopie et comme un monument aux échecs de l'épistémologie autoritaire.

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1In the vast inventory of ruins, encompassing everything from the slow and peaceful disintegration of abandoned buildings to the sudden disappearance of cities under the unimaginable power of the atomic bomb, the ruins of Chernobyl occupy a place that defies easy categorization. From the instant the nuclear plant exploded in 1986, it became virtually unseeable, a thing that would be hazardous to observe first hand, even from a helicopter overhead. And it was of course untouchable, given the dangers of radiation, and consequently repair crews were limited to only minutes of exposure. The only "solution" was to make the whole mess disappear, and in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, as the condition of the plant was assessed, the decision to cover it was made, thus making the site forever sealed in darkness, yet surrounded by an aura of catastrophe that seemed to project indefinitely into the future.

Figure 1. Chernobyl 4th reactor core after the explosion, April 1986

Figure 1. Chernobyl 4th reactor core after the explosion, April 1986

Photo credit: Joker 345, licence CC BY. Source: File:Chernobyl exploded 4th reactor 1986.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

2For all its uniqueness, the possibility of more such events, replicating the terror of the original “Chernobyl,” is a prospect the world has lived with, making the name Chernobyl synonymous with the deathly dangers of radiation and evoking a fear and anxiety that continues to color the meaning of the ruined nuclear power plant. At the same time, over the past dozen years—until the war in Ukraine in 2022 changed things—the site became a magnet attracting a steady stream of “dark tourism” and “stalkers” who wanted to get as close as possible to what they imagine Chernobyl represents. Imbued with science-fiction authority and the magic of a forbidden zone, Chernobyl slowly became a dystopian theme park, interpreted by tour guides and experienced by visitors as a test of their courage and daring.

3Over the years since the 1986 accident in reactor n° 4, the nuclear plant has changed in many ways, most radically at the site of the original explosion, where, after the fires were smothered in thousands of pounds of lead and sand, a steel and concrete shelter—known as the Sarcophagus—was hastily constructed. Grown leaky and unsafe, that original covering, designed to last 20 to 30 years, was replaced in 2016 by the gleaming New Safe Confinement arch. It is the evolving cultural meaning of Chernobyl, as a place and as a symbol, that I want to explore in this paper, ultimately focusing on the significance of the New Arch that covers the damaged reactor, which I take to be a hieroglyph of the dystopian 21st century.

4Chernobyl is in Northern Ukraine, on the border with Belarus, and while the ruins of wartime Ukraine lie outside the scope of this essay, they must be mentioned at the outset, since from the beginning of the Russian invasion in early spring of 2022, Chernobyl was on everyone’s mind. Russian troops took possession of Chernobyl, holding the Ukrainian technicians—who were overseeing the plant in its decommissioned state—hostage for five weeks, before returning the nuclear plant to Ukrainian control on March 31, 2022. About 100 Ukrainian National Guardsmen were taken as prisoners by Russia. In the meantime, Russian troops seized control of the largest nuclear plant in Europe, located in Southern Ukraine, Zaporizhzhia.

5While much of Ukraine was fast becoming a landscape of war ruins in 2022, Chernobyl—once the Russians departed—once again assumed its identity as a ruin of the past, a unitary “Exclusion Zone,” where entry is restricted, as if all life inside was sheltered within an imaginary bell jar, frozen in time. Like every ruin, however, Chernobyl exists in both time and space, changing slowly, its meanings interpreted and reinterpreted. What makes it unique is that Chernobyl is the ruins of a utopian Soviet dream that has become now a symbol of dystopia, a place whose conflicting and paradoxical attributes have endowed it with iconic significance for contemporary culture.

6This essay mainly focuses on the nuclear plant and the company town of Pripyat; it is a reflection on Chernobyl as a place and on Chernobyl as a symbol, and it has been divided into five parts:

  1. Chernobyl as Utopian Space
  2. Chernobyl as Symbol of Technological Disaster
  3. Chernobyl as Emblem of Authoritarian Epistemology
  4. Chernobyl as Spectacle
  5. Chernobyl as Opaque Architecture

1. Chernobyl as Utopian Space

7The most famous of nuclear ruins is located, by coincidence, less than 90 miles north of what are perhaps the oldest preserved architectural ruins on earth, the Ice Age dome structures (possibly dating to 23,000 BCE) made of mammoth bones and found along the Dniepr river valley near Mezhyrich. The recorded history of Chernobyl (the name of an invasive weed in the wormwood family) goes back to the 12th century when it was first mentioned in 1193 as the site of a hunting lodge. In the 17th century, Chernobyl encompassed a monastery, and still later—by the end of the 18th century—it grew into a major center of Hasidic Judaism, until pogroms in the early 20th century drove the Jews out. In the Soviet era, Chernobyl was reconceived as a vital node in the network of security and energy, noted in a 1967 planning memo of the Communist Party with no hint of its future notoriety as simply “a site near the village of Kopachi” in the district of Chernobyl (Shcherbytsky). The Soviet Union, determined to pioneer the peaceful use of atomic energy, had already built the world’s first nuclear plant in Obninsk in 1954, and Chernobyl was to be a centerpiece of future Soviet planning (Higginbotham 7-24).

8This new Chernobyl was constructed in the 1970s as a composite: the nuclear plant, with its four reactors (two more were in the construction phase when the accident occurred); the town of Pripyat designed to house the plant workers and now a ghost town; and a third site, housing a massive wall of steel coils (700 feet long and 500 feet high), rising in the wilderness and designed as an anti-ballistic missile early-warning radar system. Duga-1, as the radar system is known, is located about 6 miles south of the nuclear plant near a service-town of about a thousand that is also named Chernobyl. (Secret military sites were sometimes named for nearby cities, possibly as a way of confusing the outsider [Joose].). Pripyat, a city of workers, grew rapidly to nearly 50,000, mostly young people and families, and was designed as a kind of proletarian utopia. As an outpost of military security and energy, Chernobyl as a whole was designed to defend the industrial, governmental, and cultural zones elsewhere in the Soviet Union (Joose).

9Saturated with the signs and symbols of the Communist ideology—statues and posters of Lenin, murals of heroic workers, welcome signs featuring the sickle and hammer, the ubiquitous Soviet flag glued to the wall in schoolrooms—Pripyat was a showcase of new city planning, a “Radiant City” inspired by Le Corbusier, with pleasant open spaces, gardens and walkways, cafés, high-rise and garden apartments, schools, hospital, recreational facilities, a “Palace of Culture,” swimming pool, and an amusement park—with Ferris wheel, bumper cars, and assorted other rides—scheduled to open a few days after the 1986 explosion. The place was “decommunized” by Ukraine following the demise of the Soviet Union, and the Lenin statues are gone, but all the rest remains, including the Ferris wheel and rides, all rusting away.

2. Chernobyl as Symbol of Technological Disaster

  • 1 In addition to the 31 immediate deaths, another 64 were killed by acute radiation poisoning, and t (...)

10Pripyat might have been a model of Soviet design, but the reactors at Chernobyl—we now know—were built with barely acceptable materials and designed without adequate fail-safe procedures in the event of accident and—that vague phrase—human error. All error in systems is, of course, human error, whether in the design or the execution and management, but analyzing the cause of the Chernobyl accident has seemed especially challenging, encompassing the building materials, the design of the reactor, the theory and rules governing its operation, and the decision process in dealing with emergencies. It is a story that has been told in detail by historians of Chernobyl (Higginbotham 169-216; Plokhy 59-120). The emergency itself may have been induced by managerial decisions that compelled the plant engineers to push the reactor beyond its safety range. Ironically, this occurred during a safety test of the reactor’s capacity to handle extreme conditions, but the explosion, under these conditions, occurred as a result of inherent flaws that were built into the Soviet-designed RBMK-1000 reactor system, with the boron control rods—used to slow down the rate of fission—tipped with graphite, which instead increased the intensity of the reaction. In addition, the four existing plants at Chernobyl were lacking the typical sphere that surrounds the building, a globe that is used universally in nuclear construction and is designed to safely contain whatever radiation might spill out as a result of accident. As a result, when reactor n° 4 exploded, the roof was blown off the structure, allowing the escape of radioactive gases into the atmosphere, with consequent deaths among first responders both immediate and in later months and years; liquidators (those assigned to the clean-up operation) likewise suffered radiation-related illnesses in years to come.1

11Nuclear reactors may be the statistically safest way to produce energy, but they are associated not with that safety record but with the horrors of mass destruction—in two ways: the atom bomb and nuclear waste. The peaceful use of atomic energy commenced in the early 1950s with the first reactors, which were based on experiments in controlled chain reaction undertaken in the 1940s by Enrico Fermi. Yet the association of “nuclear” reactors with the “nuclear bombs” dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki a mere five years earlier, fused these two images—reactors and bombs— in the popular imagination. And the association was justified to some extent by the fact that accidental explosions of liquid and gas from reactors did have the potential to drift on the wind as radioactive pollutants, not unlike the imagined drift of the nuclear mushroom cloud. (In fact, the Chernobyl accident confirmed this potentiality, since traces of radiation carried by clouds were picked up in Sweden, which forced the Soviets to admit publicly that things had not gone well.) Further confusing the distinction between peaceful and wartime uses, reactors also produce the fuel for atomic bombs, and their purpose—whether to produce energy to light cities or to produce material for bombs to destroy cities—is not easy to distinguish from the outside. In fact, it is believed that the Soviet Union was using Chernobyl’s reactors to produce the plutonium isotope used in creating fissile bomb explosives along with energy (Gillette). If so, the accident may have, at least temporarily, changed Soviet thinking: Gorbachev's first televised response to the event emphasized the necessity of developing international standards of safety and used the accident as a springboard to urge an end to atomic weapons (Gorbachev 1986).

12Reactors were—and still are—associated with another, equally terrifying potential, the contamination of nuclear waste. Whereas bombs consume the entirety of their uranium supply in exploding, reactors need a far greater amount of uranium to sustain the production of energy, leaving significant quantities of wasted fuel that remain highly radioactive—for thousands of years. In burying that waste deep in the earth in special caves (apparently the best solution), nuclear waste poses the special problem of how to warn off future inhabitants of the planet—future Urban Explorers-cum-Spelunkers—that they are entering a danger zone. This problem is the core of a new discipline, “nuclear semiotics,” which has evolved to address the challenge from multiple angles, although in the nature of things its creators will never know whether they have achieved their goal (Wegner; World Nuclear Association).

3. Chernobyl and the Narrative of Authoritarian Epistemology

13The complexities of the Chernobyl accident were dramatized in a 2019 HBO series directed by Johan Renck that has been enthusiastically received by the public and reviewers, and even (for the most part) by fact-checkers. Ambiguities and uncertainties remain, but not surprisingly the series, inspired by Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (1997) by Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich, reduces these complexities to the simpler melodramatic conflict between Good and Evil. Good is represented by science and the scientific class, while Evil is represented by the managerial and political class, and the result is what we might call the narrative of Authoritarian Epistemology. This narrative, at the center of the HBO series was anticipated by the earlier film, China Syndrome (1979), which will be considered briefly later.

14HBO’s Chernobyl portrays the events of 1986 as a political allegory, an exemplum of the Soviet system, where the authoritarian chain of command required action on the part of subalterns regardless of their own assessment of circumstances. Failure, in the Potemkin world of Soviet leadership, does not exist and any signs of it must be denied or suppressed. What matters is maintaining (or advancing) one’s place on the ladder of command and authority, and a facsimile of reality, no matter how unreasonable, is valued over an unpleasant truth. In trying to convince the bureaucrats that something is happening that no one wants to hear, the Soviet scientists in the HBO series are risking their own careers. The managing and political classes are also threatened, however, since any report of malfunction, let alone catastrophe, in the system destroys the aura of authority they must maintain and challenges the myth of the infallible and omniscient state. In a meeting of the Politburo, the nervous suppression of truth is palpable on the part of the military and state executives, while the scientist is presented as bravely risking his career in the effort to speak truth to power.

15The melodrama of the HBO series was designed to paint the conflict between science and authoritarian politics as colorfully and simply as possible, but it does include an element that may have been decisive in the days and weeks immediately following the explosion: the cooperation of the leading scientist, Valery Legasov, and the bureaucrat in charge of managing the emergency, Boris Shcherbina. Legasov explains the situation and Shcherbina listens, understands, and acts. Their mutual respect is represented as the chief reason the crisis was contained and as a model of cooperation that is otherwise lacking in the authoritarian epistemology of the Soviet Union.

16Presiding at the Politburo meeting is HBO-Gorbachev, who is portrayed as abrupt and decisive, though not dismissive of the scientist’s presentations. Gorbachev’s own account, written years later, describes a much messier state of disorientation and bafflement and a recognition of Chernobyl as a paradigm of Soviet dysfunction. From a distance of twenty years, he could draw a clear line of cause and effect, tying together the nuclear and the political: “The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl 20 years ago this month, even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the main cause of the Soviet Union’s collapse five years later. Indeed, the Chernobyl catastrophe was a historic turning point: there was the era before the disaster, and there is the very different era that has followed" (Gorbachev, 2006). In Gorbachev’s time-frame, the HBO series takes place in the “before” period, and the response he describes twenty years later argues for a degree of transparency not previously known in the “old” Soviet Union, which of course was literally dissolved five years after Chernobyl, in 1991, with processes of democratization and the breakup of the Communist Party.

17Ironically, the narrative of Chernobyl, in this regard, is not unlike the representation of the chain of command in the American film, China Syndrome, released in 1979—coincidentally a few weeks before the greatest nuclear disaster in American history, the Three Mile Island meltdown. Directed by James Bridges, China Syndrome depicts a reactor in Los Angeles on the brink of disaster as a result of conditions similar to Chernobyl—construction failures and human error. Beneath the surface of the film, the movie anticipates the narrative of the HBO Chernobyl series, in showing how a structure of top-down control is sustained by an authoritarian epistemology: the scientist who alone understands what is going on in the nuclear plant is telling truths that management, for its own reasons, does not want anyone to hear, and he is consequently dismissed and labelled as a crank, a drunk, a lunatic, especially by his boss, who is reporting to the top boss, with the latter looking primarily at the bottom line. Putting China Syndrome next to the HBO series, the two are offering similar critiques of Bureaucratic Authority vs. Science, whether in a capitalist or communist system. The role of Science and of the “expert,” in this structure, is to provide technical support; it is not to exercise judgment or make decisions.

18China Syndrome illustrates the new pattern of science-based catastrophe movies of the last fifty years, reversing the earlier Frankenstein model, where it is the scientist, pushing beyond the limits of what we should know, who is dangerous. In the new model, it is the scientist who, alone, can see the truth behind what is happening, reading data with a knowing eye for predictable consequences, whether it is a massive earthquake, the eruption of a volcano, a tsunami, whatever. The HBO Chernobyl series mimics that model, with this difference. In the American version, the scientist is murdered by the energy corporation in the end in order to silence him; in the HBO version of the Soviet system, the scientist who carries a similarly deep knowledge of error in the design of the nuclear system commits suicide—before the Secret Police can kill him. In China Syndrome, the scientist is at least posthumously recognized as a hero; in the HBO Chernobyl series, the scientist-hero who heads the team of nuclear experts, Legasov, hangs himself, in advance of the KGB, and before the release of his recorded audiotapes.

19Of course, the reality is far more complicated. Legasov did hang himself, but he was apparently ill and had attempted suicide previously. It is also true that Legasov was an independent and outspoken critic of scientific error and was evidently the victim of jealousies within the scientific community and within his university, resulting in his loss of leadership positions. He was in fact the only member of the scientific team not to receive the award, “hero of socialist labor" (Nadler). Only in 1996, eight years after Legasov’s suicide, did President Boris Yeltsin confer on him the posthumous honor of “Hero of the Russian Federation.”

20Later analysis of the Chernobyl accident, including the Report of the International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group, suggests multiple scenarios that were all to some degree anticipated but were not incorporated into the decisions of managers and operators (International Atomic Energy Agency 23). Legasov’s own narrative of Chernobyl, transcribed and translated, is a rich source for our understanding of the complex events following the plant explosion and the nuanced intersections of scientific reasoning, political direction, and administrative management that were contained within the reactor accident and its aftermath (Legasov).

4. Chernobyl as Spectacle

21In recent years, the whole area of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (an area about 1000 square miles, drawing a circle with a radius of 19 miles from the nuclear plant) has become a popular tourist destination, and doubtless the idea that you are touring a place where “exclusion” is the operative word adds to its transgressive appeal. Its fascination might be related as well to the aura it has acquired as a symbol of failure, of disaster, the fulfillment of a counter-culture narrative that views the technological society as itself the ultimate source of oppressive social control and its failure therefore as a corresponding fulfillment of the ethos of alienation. In perfect congruity with that narrative, one official name for the area is the superbly (if unintentionally) ironic “Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation.”

22Initial aerial images of the disaster, taken soon after the explosion, were all taken from approximately the same distance, given the danger of getting too close to the radiation at the center and the necessity of viewing it from the safer distance of a helicopter. From that perspective, the exploded reactor plant appears like a confusion of exploded forms, a mass of shapes occupying the cratered center of a building shell, set in an industrial landscape with other reactor buildings on either side.

23In subsequent years, and especially in the 21st century, photographers have focused mainly on Pripyat, with the nuclear plant remaining a more difficult target, officially out of bounds and visible only in a scant number of images of the reactor’s control room. Few people have been living in the Exclusion Zone, and fewer still of them show up in the photographic record, which has been undertaken as a kind of aesthetic post-mortem, a documentary record of the deserted workers’ city that speaks to our 21st century sense of ruins as a central subject for aesthetic reflection. But the ruins of Pripyat embody in every image the sense of what has been lost—the happy environment of a planned city that seemingly had everything; and what was left behind—the material reality of everyday things that had to be left at a moment’s notice.

24The earliest of these photographic studies, Robert Polidori’s Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl (2003) , is a relatively straightforward survey of the place, offering the viewer a tour that progresses logically from the Chernobyl reactors to an overview of the city of Pripyat—its schools, hospitals, residential buildings; then to the field where contaminated equipment awaits burial; then to the abandoned port on the Pripyat River; finally to a catalogue of the older, pre-Pripyat, wooden houses in the villages and forests surrounding the new city, all now abandoned. Working with a large format camera over the course of just a few days in June 2001, Polidori—one of the contemporary masters of ruin photography, best known for his later work on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—pictures his subjects using a long depth of field, with everything in sharp focus. We see a few official personnel in the Exclusion Zone—security guards outside the reactors, a half dozen engineers still maintaining a presence inside reactor #3, which was shut down finally the year before, presumably to control the powered cooling process. But otherwise, Polidori’s Chernobyl is a place that has been abandoned and, at this point, vandalized. Outside views show us vegetation encroaching on deserted structures that were once alive with people. Interior views show us empty schoolrooms, littered with desks, books, sleeping cots, bookshelves, a wild disarray of dolls and gasmasks. Scavengers have evidently removed light bulbs from hospital lamps in operating rooms, leaving dozens of bassinets crowded together in lifeless rooms. On the Pripyat River rusting boats seem to disintegrate into the water, while in the surrounding forests, the old wooden buildings of former villages are overtaken by vegetation. What is striking about Polidori’s Chernobyl is the unified field of vision: we are not used to looking at a microcosm of human society as a complete ruin, and the very term, “zone of exclusion,” is a neologism, needed to name a place of total ruin. There is just one story here, and all the pictures tell that one story—the sudden abandonment of a region on account of a single incident. That single event created a chain reaction of ruin that has pervaded the entire “Zone of Exclusion.”

25David McMillan’s Growth and Decay: Pripyat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (2018) offers a longitudinal view of Chernobyl. Where Polidori presented a snapshot of the place over the course of several days, McMillan, a well-known Canadian photographer, portrays the Zone over the course of many years, from 1994 to 2018, and the theme of his study is to picture the changes that have taken place. McMillan documents these changes often by photographing the same object or scene over many years, taken from the same position, achieving a kind of slow-motion time-lapse photography not unlike Camile José Vergara’s studies of change in American cities, extending over decades. The effect is to reveal in striking detail the way material objects decay, as in the foldout series of “Building with Murals,” taken over the course of ten years and revealing the building engulfed by vegetation; other series—a hotel room, children’s playground equipment—are likewise shown as places or things overwhelmed in stages by encroaching vegetation. And at times, the photographer arranges the sequence to make a point that is both metaphysical and political, as in the sequence of photographs showing Soviet flags on the wall of a kindergarten; in each successive image, yet another flag is gone, having succumbed to the forces of gravity over time.

26The relentless growth of plants and trees is a major theme in McMillan, represented here as both a natural force (as in the outdoor photographs) and an unnatural one, as in the inimical power of nature to grow into and destroy the works of human construction. Human effort, in the context of such relentless natural power, seems irrelevant, fragile, easily overcome. Yet against that respectful view of nature’s power, there is the fact of nuclear power—a power of nature, and yet a power that is not “natural.” Chernobyl—as reactor n° 4—was under human control, until it was no longer. The accident occurred according to the laws of nature, as understood by physics and chemistry, but one that threatened (and still threatens) the natural lives of plants and animals, including the human animal.

27McMillan is creating both a documentary study of time and change (cemeteries, abandoned buildings, ruins) and an aesthetic meditation on Chernobyl that is filled with surprises. Ruin photography in the 21st century has pervaded the visual landscape in ways that have been both inescapable and predictable, and McMillan has his share of such pictures—the chaos and disorder of abandoned spaces, the peeling walls and decayed floors, the broken windows. What makes Growth and Decay distinctive is the poetic quality of McMillan’s work, which fuses realism in the precise rendering of objective reality and surrealism, in the way the photographer’s eye has discovered things that are seemingly out of place and represent a more general sense of weird dislocation, of things that are “wrong”—a rowboat inside a railway station, a woman on an empty country road pulling an empty baby carriage, a man in a forest holding a giant mushroom, a contaminated helicopter in a field, a pregnant dog standing against a background of deserted Pripyat residential buildings, looking calm but puzzled, as if she might need directions. McMillan’s eye for textures, shapes, and forms is the eye of a modernist, and many of his images—especially the photographs of interior floor ruins, look like paintings or collages by Weber, or Braque, or Schwitters.

28A more recent volume of Chernobyl photographs, Beauty in Decay: Photos from Chernobyl (2021), takes an entirely different approach to the same subject. Instead of privileging the eye and sensibility of the photographer, as McMillan does, photographers Maria Sütt and Keijo Kangur present Chernobyl in three principal modes that seem to promote the subject being pictured: landscape photographs of the reactors and environs (including the Duga radar system), seen at times through a framing window or door; images of buildings and bridges, including interiors; and photographs of single objects, seen up close. It is the last category that is most interesting. The objects they picture—dolls, a piano, false teeth in a dental studio, a cash register, a mural, a television set, a bottle of vodka, an automobile engine, the frame of an automobile, a butterfly, a mushroom, a ladybug, 35 mm. film rolls—are common enough, but seen in their decayed state as close-ups, they focus the attention on the object itself rather than the way it is pictured, thus isolating them on their own terms, frozen at the moment of the photograph as aesthetic objects to contemplate. Published independently, on matte paper with wide black borders, their book has a more philosophical, almost funereal presence, eschewing the high art glossy production of Steidl in favor of a more modest approach, which fits their subject beautifully. The epigraph to the book—“Everything rises but to fall, and increases but to decay”—a quote from the Roman historian Sallust, lifts the reader’s perspective to a view from eternity and fits the meditative purpose of the work, raising it to a level where the explosion in reactor n° 4 seems almost to be part of a more general existential truth, rather than a specific history.

29The most ambitious of the Chernobyl photo-documentaries is Darmon Richter’s Chernobyl: A Stalker’s Guide (2020).⁠ Richter had been writing about the Exclusion Zone on his blog and leading tours of the region for years—until the war began in 2022. Many of the photographs in his Stalker’s Guide have the quality of things not seen before—details of the Soviet iconography, the landscape, places off the beaten track that have not been part of the more familiar repertory of Chernobyl photographers. What further distinguishes the volume is Richter’s narrative, for Stalker’s Guide is at once a detailed description of the place, a history of Chernobyl tourism, and an account that verges on the philosophical, recording the author’s quest for some sort of nuclear or post-nuclear reality.

30Where the other photographers have observed Chernobyl from the outside, Richter writes with a more intimate familiarity with the people who live and operate in the Zone and with the challenges and tricks of survival on the ground. Motivating his approach is a drive to see it all, to get as close to the “reality” of the Chernobyl experience as possible. As the title suggests, he is “stalking” Chernobyl, borrowing the term as an analogue for Urban Exploration, and the Stalker is one who trespasses onto abandoned properties of all kinds, guided by the pleasure of exploring the unknown (Edensor). These are typically places of danger—remote, falling apart, doomsday scenes for horror movies— and that is their appeal. The Stalker mentality is a variant, one might say, of the pioneer spirit, but instead of seeking new and fresh lands to explore and open up, the Stalker is exploring places that have been left behind in a state of decay. Ruins are the Stalker’s El Dorado, and what they yield is an experience of authenticity otherwise lacking in the commercial civilization that embraces advanced Western culture. The Stalker’s El Dorado is a place that represents not treasure and gold but the feared reality of mass destruction.

31Richter is not interested in the packaged tours of Chernobyl, which until the 2022 war were becoming popular and all too predictable in their standardized attractions; instead, he is looking to circumvent the security guards, to enter the forbidden zones, to reach the ruins of the control room itself, to the extent that stealth and bribes can get him there. It is in approaching the most dangerous inner sanctum, the place that is closest to the “elephant’s foot” meltdown of plutonium and graphite, that the courage and ingenuity of the Stalker is tested and where “authenticity” can be found. The origin and inspiration for the Stalker’s Chernobyl quest, as Richter explains, is the science fiction classic Roadside Picnic, by Soviet writers (and brothers) Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1972), made into a film with a cult following, Stalker (1979), by Andrei Tarkovsky. (More recently, it has inspired several video games.) Written in a tone of ironic detachment, the story depicts the exploration of a forbidden zone that was once occupied by extra-terrestrial visitors who picnicked on earth and left behind a variety of strange and supernatural objects. Their brief stay on earth, landing on six sites, were known as “Visitations” and presumably the visitors had no interest in the human inhabitants on their planetary stop; but they did leave a mess of extra-terrestrial trash behind them, which is what fascinates the earthlings who are driven to explore these places. The appeal of Roadside Picnic may be hard to explain to the uninitiated, but it has taken on a mythic status in popular culture as a journey into a magical place, a mystical Land of Oz for earthlings seeking a wizard to explain it all. Seeing the Chernobyl Zone of Exclusion through the eyes of the Strugatskys, Richter perceives it, oddly enough, as a kind of sacred space, which places his book somewhere between mystical quest and reportage.

32By the end of the volume, the utopian and dystopian visions seem to be looking at each other in the mirror, as Richter concludes with an account of his visit to Gavdos, a remote Greek island that is now home to the remnants of a commune founded by ex-Soviet scientists who came to the place after the Soviet Union fell apart in order to found the Pythagorean Institute of Philosophical Studies for the Immortality of Man. Gavdos, which sounds like science fiction, is real, and the two scientists Richter finds there are utopian engineers, committed to a nuclear future that can provide efficient and safe energy for human life on earth, if only the political will existed. Can human beings take the long view of human possibility that is required? As one of the scientists remarks, “Immortality is necessary to understand how the world—how different worlds—can be organized. One life is not long enough” (Richter 230). Given the first decades of the 21st century, and especially the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the utopian possibilities of nuclear energy extolled on Gavdos, even setting aside the tragedy of Chernobyl, seem like a very distant vision in a world that seems increasingly dystopian.

5. The New Safe Confinement Arch: the Architecture of Opacity

33Richter includes a dramatic two-page photographic spread of the New Safe Confinement Arch, pictured at night in a thunderstorm, with electric lights glowing across the base and over the top, a photograph taken in the instant that a lightning streak seems to reach down from heaven to touch the structure. It evokes a Hollywood version of Frankenstein’s unholy laboratory, charged with menacing electrical energy and an aura of monstrous violations of nature. A later image of the New Arch shows it in daylight as a triumph of technology, an object of immaculate geometric design, affirming our confidence in the operations of enlightened science. As opposing visions of Chernobyl, these conceptualizations aptly represent the extremes of its significance.

34The original Sarcophagus was a makeshift operation, a covering that was made remotely with cranes, helicopters and robots that were ingeniously used to create a protective shield over the radioactive mess within. Built in a little over 200 days, it was a temporary solution, and there were spaces and gaps between the plates that over time permitted the release of radioactive particles. With an expected effective life of about 30 years, the Sarcophagus needed to be replaced, and the New Arch—commissioned in 2007, was the ultimate solution, designed and built by an international consortium of engineers and financed by a union of European banks. Completed in 2016, it is designed to last at least 100 years, which is apparently long enough into the distant future not to worry anyone now living. In order to build it properly, it was put together near the reactor but far enough away to eliminate the risk of radiation poisoning. And it was built, necessarily, as a moveable structure on a track, so that it could be pushed precisely into its place, designed to fit perfectly and to house inside it, on scaffolding, the machinery and robots that could be controlled remotely in order to dismantle, clean, and remove the remains of the old, leaky Sarcophagus and the lava-like mess of sand, lead and boron inside the reactor, a clean-up job that could take 45 years. (Recent signs of renewed reactivity in the fissionable material in the lava suggest the possibility of yet another explosion at some point in the future—though this would be presumably safely contained by the “New Safe Confinement.”) If human error caused the problem in the first place, human genius evidently could solve it, which might be a good omen for the Anthropocene era in the face of climate change, except that so far the New Arch qualifies as a singular achievement, the only problem approaching planetary scale that has been successfully solved through international cooperation.

Figure 2. Reactor 4, temporary radiation shield, 2005

Figure 2. Reactor 4, temporary radiation shield, 2005

Photo credit: Petr Pavlicek/IAEA, licence CC BY. Source: File:4th block of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Figure 3. Construction of the New Safe Confinement arch at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. 2013

Figure 3. Construction of the New Safe Confinement arch at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. 2013

Photo credit: Tim Porter, 2013, licence CC BY. Source: File:New Safe Confinement.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Figure 4. The new safe confinement arch, 2017

Figure 4. The new safe confinement arch, 2017

Photo credit: Tim Porter, 2017, licence CC BY. Source: File:NSC-Oct-2017.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

35The perfection of the New Arch is, one might say, the perfection of Modern functionalist architecture. Superficially, its design recalls the simplicity of Eero Saarinen’s St. Louis Arch (1947), designed as a celebration of the opening of the West a hundred years earlier; and Saarinen’s arch in turn recalls the 1935 design by Pier Luigi Nervi, never built but intended to grace Mussolini’s 1942 Esposizione Universale in Rome. At 108 meters high, the New Arch is shorter than the St. Louis Arch (190 meters), which in turn is smaller than the unachieved Mussolini arch, but where these other arches were designed as optimistic symbols of the state—of America’s Manifest Destiny, of Italy’s triumphant fascism—the New Arch is an ambiguous symbol: it represents the failure of the nuclear state, but it also represents the triumph of collective will and shared expertise in addressing that failure. And where the St. Louis Arch—in the simplicity of its geometry—seems like a triumphant symbol of functionalism, it is in reality a decorative object, whose function is precisely to serve as a national symbol. By contrast, the Chernobyl New Safe Confinement exists for the very reason that it is functional. It does not vaunt its height or mass in order to signify the power of the State; it is just the right size, given its purpose. Although it might remind us of Christo’s monumental wrappings—of buildings, bridges, islands—the artist’s canvas coverings are a post-modern commentary on form, a mockery of functionalism, a cloth that conceals what it covers, canceling its own functionality. The Chernobyl Safe Confinement is, by contrast, the embodiment of the Modernist ethos that form follows function: its materials, its shape, the thickness of the walls, and its interior design, are entirely and perfectly an expression of its function.

36The monumental size of The New Sarcophagus—as it is sometimes called—inevitably evokes comparison with other monuments across the history of civilization that have embodied their respective cultures. It is, in a way, a massive metal shroud, covering the remains of nuclear wreckage in a form whose name, at least, evokes the ancient world of Roman and Egyptian rulers, whose coffins were placed in elaborately carved stone containers, located in underground shrines that were contained within giant temple architecture. From another angle, the New Arch, echoes the massive Arc de Triomphe, built to commemorate a victory, though in reality the Chernobyl arch conceals in its airtight, radiation-proof walls, the monumental failure of the Soviet Union. It is, one might say, an embarrassment masquerading as a sublime object.

37If Chernobyl began as a utopian place, it became, after the explosion of 1986, a dystopian ruin, an Exclusion Zone, a place of mortal danger. It also became a uniquely invisible ruin. Where the town of Pripyat was abandoned and has gradually decayed, overtaken by nature, reactor n° 4 exploded into a confusion of shapes and forms not unlike a building on which a bomb was dropped. But reactor n° 4—even immediately after the accident—was a ruin that could not be viewed, a Medusa that would destroy whoever dared to look at it or get too close. It needed to be covered as quickly as possible. Unlike the evolving ruins of Pripyat, which welcomed the natural flora and fauna that have slowly reclaimed the place, reactor n° 4 became immediately hidden, put to death and buried inside a Sarcophagus. Now, with the New Arch permanently sealing off the radioactive lava at its core, the ruins of reactor n° 4 have become the anti-ruin, visible only as a shiny arch, a continuous surface covering, the opposite of the temporal metamorphosis that the ruins of Pripyat are undergoing. Until the New Arch was installed, the reactor was undergoing—hidden from sight—the changes that all ruins exhibit, regardless of their cause. Now, the old, crumbling Sarcophagus will be taken apart, the mess inside cleaned up, yet the entire process will continue out of sight, concealed from public view, visible only on the mechanical screens of the robots, which will be managed from an adjoining control building.

38In concealing what is going on inside, the New Safe Confinement creates a space that is best defined in terms of Foucault’s accommodating concept of heterotopia— places that house ritual events or contain crises (hospitals, prisons, holy places), microcosms that are apart from society and also represent it (like museums), places that exist outside of time, isolated, outside the norm, yet hold symbolic importance (Foucault 1967). If we go farther and take it as a symbol of the state, however inadvertent, the New Arch can be seen as the epitome of concealment, the perfection of the cover-up, the embodiment of Opaque Architecture. Paradoxically, this opacity is related to the image of the Panopticon, again in terms developed by Foucault (Foucault 1975). Foucault converted Jeremy Bentham’s 1791 Panopticon into a 20th century symbol of the state’s power of surveillance, used in a variety of forms to ensure social control. Bentham’s Panopticon was, of course, the design for a prison that places a guard at the center, with the cells of prisoners visible in a circle from that central point, thus creating the belief (and possibility) that the prisoner is constantly being observed (Bentham). Surveying all, Foucault’s modern state closely guards its own secrecy, through privy councils, forbidden zones, private chambers, secret police, secret operations, classified documents, executive privilege. It is in that sense that the opacity of the New Arch, guarding its secrets, is the inner image of the all-seeing state that surveys the world outside itself.

39To some degree the explosion in reactor n° 4 was the result of the rigid hierarchy and secrecy that characterized the pre-Gorbachev Soviet Union; but it was also, as Gorbachev saw it, the catalyst for the changes that he would initiate, changes that would attempt to transform the paralyzed Soviet Union through two parallel movements— perestroika (restructuring of the economic system) and glasnost (opening up of information). The explosion in reactor n° 4 foreshadowed the breakdown of the closed society that had been the Soviet Union, dominated by an authoritarian epistemology; it was an accident, but also an opportunity. Seen through the lens of history and filtered through its many visual representations, Chernobyl appears to contain the contradictions of contemporary Western civilization, representing the dream of peaceful atomic power and our corresponding fears of nuclear waste. Placed at the intersection of utopia and dystopia, Chernobyl seems the perfect symbol of the anomaly of the atomic age that was initiated in the mid-20th century. The Chernobyl “Zone of Alienation,” also known as “The Exclusion Zone,” is a place we are supposed to stay away from, yet a place that attracts and welcomes increasing numbers of “dark tourists,” a liminal space whose ambiguities define the nervous condition of the 21st century.

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1 In addition to the 31 immediate deaths, another 64 were killed by acute radiation poisoning, and the hundreds of thousands of workers assigned to the clean-up, called “liquidators,” were exposed to radiation whose long-term damage (genetic mutation, increased cancer rates), is statistically visible in epidemiological studies but almost impossible to accurately assess, with estimates ranging from 4,000 to 90,000. See Plokhy 315; and Gray.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Chernobyl 4th reactor core after the explosion, April 1986
Crédits Photo credit: Joker 345, licence CC BY. Source: File:Chernobyl exploded 4th reactor 1986.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Fichier image/jpeg, 223k
Titre Figure 2. Reactor 4, temporary radiation shield, 2005
Crédits Photo credit: Petr Pavlicek/IAEA, licence CC BY. Source: File:4th block of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Fichier image/jpeg, 371k
Titre Figure 3. Construction of the New Safe Confinement arch at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. 2013
Crédits Photo credit: Tim Porter, 2013, licence CC BY. Source: File:New Safe Confinement.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Fichier image/jpeg, 51k
Titre Figure 4. The new safe confinement arch, 2017
Crédits Photo credit: Tim Porter, 2017, licence CC BY. Source: File:NSC-Oct-2017.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Fichier image/jpeg, 57k
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Miles Orvell, « The Sarcophagus and the City: Reflections on Chernobyl and the Dystopian Imagination »Interfaces [En ligne], 49 | 2023, mis en ligne le 30 juin 2023, consulté le 15 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Miles Orvell

Temple University, Philadelphia

Miles Orvell is Professor of English & American Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia. His early book on Flannery O'Connor was followed by The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940 (1989), a study of technology and culture that was co-winner of the ASA's John Hope Franklin Prize. The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community ( 2012) was a Finalist for the Zócalo Public Square Book Prize. Orvell's Empire of Ruins: American Culture, Photography, and the Spectacle of Destruction (Oxford University Press, 2021) won the Prose Award for Best Book in Media and Cultural Studies, 2022 and the Athenaeum Literary Award for Art & Architecture, The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 2022. Other books include After the Machine: Visual Arts and the Erasing of Cultural Boundaries (1995), American Photography (Oxford History of Art, 2003), Photography in America (Oxford, 2016), and John Vachon's America: Photographs and Letters from the Depression to World War II (2003). Orvell was Editor in Chief of the Encyclopedia of American Studies (American Studies Association--print and online) from 1998 to 2011; he received the Bode-Pearson Prize in American Studies for lifetime achievement.

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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