A hot des­ti­na­tion: Ra­dioac­tive Ukraine

Once un­think­able, guided tours of a Ch­er­nobyl sub­urb and a for­mer mis­sile base are in grow­ing de­mand

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY CH­ERYL L. REED

The but­ton that could have started a nu­clear holo­caust is gray — not red.

I learned this af­ter climb­ing into a nu­clear rocket com­mand silo, 12 floors be­low ground, and sit­ting in the same green chair at the same yel­low, metal con­sole at which for­mer Soviet of­fi­cers once presided. Here, they prac­ticed en­ter­ing se­cret codes into their gray key­boards, push­ing the launch but­ton and turn­ing a key — all within seven sec­onds — to fire up to 10 bal­lis­tic mis­siles. The of­fi­cers never knew what day their prac­tice codes might be­come real, nor did they know their tar­gets.

This base in Per­vo­maysk, Ukraine — about a four-hour drive from Kiev — once had 86 in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles ca­pa­ble of de­stroy­ing cities in Europe and the United States. Though the nu­clear war­heads have been re­moved, the com­mand silo with much of its equip­ment, gi­ant trucks that car­ried the rock­ets to the base and an empty silo were pre­served so that peo­ple could see what had been se­cretly go­ing on at nu­clear mis­sile bases in the for­mer Soviet Union. The mu­seum’s col­lec­tion in­cludes the R-12/SS-4 San­dal mis­sile sim­i­lar to those in­volved in the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis and the RS-20A/SS-18 Satan, the ver­sions of which had sev­eral hun­dred times the de­struc­tive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

“This is what the tourists come to see,” said Igor Bod­nar­chuk, a tour guide for Solo East Travel, a Kiev com­pany that spe­cial­izes in tours of Soviet ru­ins. “What else do we have to of­fer?”

Tourists go to Paris to marvel at the majesty of the Eif­fel Tower, to Rome to stroll the cob­bled streets of the Vat­i­can, to Moscow to be­hold the mag­nif­i­cent domes of Red Square. And while Ukraine has its own plethora of domed cathe­drals, in­clud­ing monas­ter­ies with un­der­ground caves, thou­sands of tourists are trekking to this coun­try for a uniquely Soviet ex­pe­ri­ence. Here, they stand out­side an ex­ploded nu­clear re­ac­tor at Ch­er­nobyl and ri­fle through the re­mains of a nearby aban­doned city — Geiger counter in hand. In Ch­er­nobyl’s shadow, they marvel at the gi­ant “Moscow Eye,” an anti-bal­lis­tic-mis­sile de­tec­tor that rises 50 sto­ries high and looks like a gi­ant roller coaster.

Ev­ery day, a hand­ful of travel com­pa­nies ferry

mostly for­eign­ers to Ch­er­nobyl’s 19-mile “ex­clu­sion zone.” In 2016, Solo East Travel hauled 7,500 peo­ple there, up from only one trip in 2000.

“It used to be sort of ex­treme travel,” said Sergei Ivanchuk of Solo East Travel. “You were very brave to go to Ch­er­nobyl in 2000. Now, not so much.”

Ivanchuk in­sists that peo­ple who go to Ch­er­nobyl are not mor­bid. “They are in­tel­li­gent peo­ple who want to learn some­thing new, and are of­ten in­ter­ested in nu­clear power,” he said.

Like­wise, peo­ple who ven­ture to the mis­sile base at Per­vo­maysk are in­ter­ested in the Cold War. “It’s a place to re­mem­ber — like the Holo­caust — about a dan­ger­ous time in his­tory and what it means to have nu­clear weapons,” he said.

Ear­lier this year, Rus­sia de­ployed a new cruise mis­sile, ap­par­ently vi­o­lat­ing its 1987 arms-con­trol treaty with the United States. In light of that event, the Soviet ru­ins in Ukraine seem all the more rel­e­vant.

The day I vis­ited the for­mer 46th Rocket Divi­sion in Per­vo­maysk, sil­ver en­gines gleamed in the sun­light as the tem­per­a­ture edged up to 22 de­grees. Stick­ing out of the snow were mis­siles rem­i­nis­cent of the one Ma­jor T.J. “King” Kong rode like a rodeo cow­boy in the movie “Dr. Strangelove.” Nearby was a sur­face-to-air mis­sile sim­i­lar to the one that brought down Malaysia Air­lines Flight 17 over Ukraine in July 2014.

The mu­seum tour guides are all for­mer Soviet of­fi­cers who once worked at the mis­sile base. Ours, Gen­nadiy Fil’, once manned the nu­clear con­trols. When Amer­i­can tourists dal­lied, snap­ping pho­tos of the rock­ets above ground, he barked: “Ledz go!”

Then he darted through a heavy door of a squat build­ing, down a se­ries of wind­ing stairs and through an un­der­ground tun­nel, nav­i­gat­ing by me­mory through the nar­row, 500-foot-long pas­sage­way to the con­trol cen­ter in a silo. The nar­row cylin­der is sus­pended from the ground — the­o­ret­i­cally, to with­stand the shock of a coun­ter­at­tack.

In six-hour shifts, Fil’ and an­other of­fi­cer would de­scend in a tiny el­e­va­tor (max­i­mum ca­pac­ity: three peo­ple) to the bot­tom of the silo. Sta­tioned at metal con­soles in an 11-by-11 con­trol room, they would read se­cret codes from Moscow that flashed on a com­puter screen, then quickly tap them into a dingy yel­low mon­i­tor. Then, they pressed a small, gray but­ton and turned a key on the op­po­site side of the ter­mi­nal to launch up to 10 nu­clear rock­ets at once.

“You don’t launch just one mis­sile, be­cause the other side is go­ing to shoot back and de­stroy you,” ex­plained Elena Smerichevskaya, our Ukrainian in­ter­preter. An in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic rocket fired at New York, she ex­plained, would take about 25 min­utes to hit its tar­get.

Fil,’ 55, said he never knew when he would be or­dered to in­put real codes. It was his job, he said and shrugged. He said he had no moral ob­jec­tions to push­ing the but­ton. Launch­ing nu­clear mis­siles was a “po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion,” some­thing that peo­ple on top of the ground de­cided, not him.

He ad­mit­ted that he was scared about the pos­si­bil­ity of nu­clear war. “You’d have to be crazy in the head not to be scared,” he said.

But just in case Fil’ or a fel­low of­fi­cer (two of­fi­cers were re­quired to launch a rocket) re­fused to push their but­tons, re­serve of­fi­cers could be called up from a com­part­ment be­neath the con­trol cen­ter.

For of­fi­cers like Fil’, there were both men­tal and phys­i­cal chal­lenges. The com­part­ments were her­met­i­cally sealed, and Fil’ said there was im­mense pres­sure on their ears. There were also con­cerns about the psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pact of be­ing iso­lated in the cham­bers. While the Sovi­ets kept enough food and wa­ter on hand for 45 days, some men started to be­come batty af­ter only two or three days in­side the silo bunker, Smerichevskaya said.

While Fil’ is glad the world didn’t im­plode un­der his watch, he said he is sad to have lost his job be­hind the mis­sile con­trols.

In 1994, three years af­ter Ukraine be­came in­de­pen­dent, it joined the NonPro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty and agreed to dis­man­tle its 1,900 Soviet mis­siles. At the time, Ukraine boasted the world’s third­largest stock­pile of nu­clear war­heads af­ter Rus­sia and the United States. Ukraine shipped its nu­clear war­heads to Rus­sia and dis­man­tled its si­los, of­ten blow­ing them up or fill­ing them with ce­ment. The con­trol silo at Per­vo­maysk was the only one spared — so it could be­come a mu­seum. The 46th Rocket Divi­sion, part of the 43rd Rocket Army, was dis­banded in 2001.

As a child grow­ing up in the Cold War who was taught to hide un­der her school desk in case of a nu­clear at­tack, I found it sur­real to meet a man who at the same time had his fin­gers on the trig­gers of the Soviet Union’s nu­clear war­heads.

Fil’ shakes his head at how things have changed. “I never thought I’d be stand­ing here talk­ing to an Amer­i­can,” he said, his eyes wide with amaze­ment. “I never thought I’d be hav­ing my pic­ture taken. That was ab­so­lutely for­bid­den. And now . . . it’s okay.”

The mu­seum claims that its si­los are very sim­i­lar to those still in op­er­a­tion in Rus­sia. The Satan mis­sile is still part of Rus­sia’s weaponry, al­though an im­proved ver­sion is set to be op­er­a­tional in 2018. Be­fore Rus­sia in­vaded Crimea and backed the sep­a­ratists’ war on Ukraine’s eastern front, Rus­sian sol­diers fre­quently took their fam­i­lies to Per­vo­maysk to show them what they did at work, mu­seum tour guides say. The mis­sile sites in Rus­sia re­main se­cret.

The city of Pripyat was once a se­cret Soviet city, closed to any­one but work­ers of the Ch­er­nobyl nu­clear re­ac­tor and their fam­i­lies. Now the city, an hour-anda-half drive from Kiev, is a nu­clear ghost town. Forty-nine thou­sand peo­ple were forced to evac­u­ate the day af­ter Ch­er­nobyl’s Re­ac­tor No. 4 ex­ploded on April 26, 1986.

Nearly all the first re­spon­ders and sol­diers died from ra­di­a­tion poi­son­ing while try­ing to con­tain the graphite fire and the ra­dioac­tive par­ti­cles spew­ing from the de­stroyed re­ac­tor, ex­plained Bod­nar­chuk, our tour guide. Of­fi­cially, only 31 fire­men and sol­diers were killed. But some be­lieve that the dis­as­ter claimed at least 10,000 lives as wind car­ried ra­dioac­tive ma­te­rial into Be­larus and North­ern Europe.

Even though crit­ics have said that the de­signs of Ch­er­nobyl are out­moded and in­her­ently un­safe, Rus­sia re­port­edly is still us­ing 11 sim­i­lar nu­clear re­ac­tors.

To­day, vis­i­tors can stand across the street from the dam­aged re­ac­tor at Ch­er­nobyl, which re­cently was cov­ered by a huge, $2.3 bil­lion shield. But the high­light of the tour is, by far, the crum­bling city of Pripyat. Though tour op­er­a­tors are warned to stay out of Pripyat’s build­ings, tourists rou­tinely stomp through the city, in­clud­ing the hos­pi­tal where dy­ing first re­spon­ders were taken.

Tourists stick their Geiger coun­ters against tat­ters of cloth­ing in the hos­pi­tal lobby and watch their ma­chines shoot up to shock­ingly high lev­els — 85 mi­crosiev­erts per hour. The nor­mal range is .09 to .30 mi­crosiev­erts per hour, ac­cord­ing to the tour com­pany. Most guides carry their own Geiger coun­ters; many tourists come with their own.

Tour op­er­a­tors claim that a visit to Ch­er­nobyl is no more dan­ger­ous now than a flight from Ukraine to North Amer­ica. This cal­cu­la­tion in­cludes spend­ing 10 min­utes in front of the burned-out re­ac­tor and no more than two hours in Pripyat.

Solo East Travel has a video that shows how it came up with such math. Those cal­cu­la­tions, how­ever, don’t fac­tor in hov­er­ing over a fire­fighter’s highly ra­dioac­tive cloth­ing that has been dug up from deep in the hos­pi­tal. Nor do they specif­i­cally in­clude driv­ing through the red for­est near the Ch­er­nobyl re­ac­tor — where the ra­di­a­tion burned up all the trees, which were then bull­dozed and buried. Our Geiger coun­ters went crazy as we drove through the new-growth for­est, reg­is­ter­ing 26 siev­erts per hour.

Our guide tried to calm fears about our ex­po­sure to ra­di­a­tion by as­sur­ing us that any high lev­els on our body would be de­tected by the ma­chines we had to pass through on the way out of Ch­er­nobyl’s ex­clu­sion zone. Those ma­chines — old Soviet steel con­trap­tions that look like retro air­port metal de­tec­tors — hardly in­spire con­fi­dence.

To am­plify tourists’ shock, guides have em­bel­lished some of the Pripyat re­mains: Amid hun­dreds of crum­bling gas masks spread over the floor of an el­e­men­tary school, a baby doll has been placed on a chair — wearing a gas mask. A hos­pi­tal nurs­ery has been out­fit­ted with plas­tic dolls, placed in cribs with blan­kets, to make the scene ap­pear even more macabre. Out­side a vil­lage school build­ing, old toys are scat­tered about. One-eyed teddy bears and dolls with miss­ing limbs sit on

bed springs at a vil­lage or­phan­age. Ta­bles are set with plates and pots.

The most eerie scenes in­clude an aban­doned amuse­ment park with its empty, lonely-look­ing Fer­ris wheel and bumper cars filled with leaves; a swim­ming pool with cracked tiles, its deep end filled with trash and an old shop­ping cart; school hall­ways clut­tered with books; school desks laid out with sci­ence ex­per­i­ments; posters of Lenin and other Soviet lead­ers adorn­ing class­room walls; and a bro­ken baby car­riage aban­doned in a de­cay­ing com­mu­nity cen­ter.

Vis­i­tors are ex­hausted by the time their tour bus leaves Pripyat and turns down a one-lane road through a thick for­est. Hid­ing there is the Moscow Eye, also known as the “Rus­sian Wood­pecker,” an enor­mous metal struc­ture sil­hou­et­ted against the sky like a ver­ti­cal Stone­henge.

Us­ing over-the-hori­zon radar, the Moscow Eye was the re­ceiver for a pow­er­ful ra­dio broad­cast sent from else­where in Ukraine. Some said that the sig­nal’s short, repet­i­tive tap­ping noise sounded like a bird — thus the wood­pecker moniker. Oth­ers say it sounded more like a ma­chine gun. From 1976, un­til it went off the air in 1989, the un­ex­plained ra­dio sig­nal in­ter­fered with many broad­casts. Lis­ten­ers spec­u­lated that it was a method of Soviet mind con­trol. Only in the past three years have tourists dis­cov­ered its sub­lime metal ar­chi­tec­ture ris­ing from the for­est floor near Ch­er­nobyl, an anachro­nis­tic rem­nant from a not-so-dis­tant era.

“You’d have to be crazy in the head not to be scared.” For­mer Soviet Army of­fi­cer Gen­nadiy Fil’, on the fear of nu­clear war that hov­ered over sol­diers’ heads dur­ing the Cold War at the Per­vo­maysk Mis­sile Base in Ukraine.


TOP: In Ukraine, an over­head look at the nu­clear ghost-town of Pripyat, which once was ear­marked solely for Ch­er­nobyl work­ers. LEFT: A de­serted, crum­bling hall­way in a for­mer el­e­men­tary school there.



TOP: An aban­doned class­room in Pripyat, Ukraine, fea­tures en­grav­ings of fa­mous men still hang­ing on peel­ing walls.

BE­LOW: An RS-20A/SS-18 Satan mis­sile on dis­play at a base in Per­vo­maysk, Ukraine, which now is a mu­seum.


TOP: The floor of an el­e­men­tary school in Pripyat, Ukraine, is cov­ered with gas masks meant for school­child­ren. Some­what cheeky tour guides have put the masks on some of the dolls left be­hind. MID­DLE: At this seat at the for­mer Per­vo­maysk Mis­sile Base, an of­fi­cer with the cor­rect codes could launch up to 10 nu­clear in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles. ABOVE: Gen­nadiy Fil’, who once was a Soviet army of­fi­cer sta­tioned at the base, now is a tour guide.



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