Bastard Eden, Our Chernobyl, (2004-08)| Some 20 years after the nuclear reactor incident of April 26, 1986. Chernobyl lies 100 kilometers north of the capital city of Kyiv, in a boreal forest of winding rivers and dark bogs. This wilderness was known as the Pripyat Marshes, the historic refuge of the Slavic people from foreign invasions.
That first morning, as the plume of radioactive debris fell across the land and into the rest of Europe, the authorities evacuated the city of Pripyat and created a 40-kilometer Exclusion Zone around it. The 50,000 residents had fifteen minutes to leave, and never returned.
Today a ring of silent fire surrounds these pine woods and abandoned apartment buildings. People are not supposed to live here; wild boars, rabbits and deer thrive in the lush greenery. Even the steppe wolves have returned.
Donald Weber began visiting this region, as he says, because he wanted to see what was there. He had little interest in theories of history, or root causes. His question was simple:
What was daily life actually like, in a post-nuclear world?
What Don found was a haphazard community of survivors, and emigrants from other cities, who told him they preferred Chernobyl’s rural peace to the urban blight of Ukraine’s industrial zone. They were all exiles. A self-imposed exile, to the nation’s peasant past, and the relative safety of its prehistory.
Life was cheap, if uncertain. A typical farmhouse could be bought for a few hundred dollars. A litre of strong homebrew, samagon, was a dollar. Wild game could be snared on the deserted commons.
The residents were happy to invite him into their homes, sharing their food and strange stories. Were they afraid of dying early? No, people told him, they were afraid of modern life. “Modern life is war,” one ex-coalminer told him. “Constant struggle, no clear purpose.”
Don’s working method was simple, as befits the primitive setting. He drove around in an old Lada, acquainting himself with the slow pace of rural life, and ate and drank whatever was offered.
“Potatoes and vodka,” he says, “You get used to it.”
During his three years of documentary work, Don began to discover certain unconscious motifs, hidden themes that only announced themselves to his camera in the seasonal life of his subjects.
One of these themes is Mothers and Sons.
Mothers, even aged ones, sought to be photographed sitting close to their adult sons, in domestic scenes of proud companionability. There is no rift between made and maker. Their eyes signal an unalterable communion. And more – elevation. A man’s mother transcends the material order. As these pictures reveal, she rises easily above even the most squalid circumstances. It is the frank declaration of her biological supremacy: This is my child.
This domestic possession echoes the claims of Chernobyl’s nature over the products of its fiery liaison with technology. Its offspring is a bastard Eden, born unsanctified. The invisible father, now ruined and impugned, is irrelevant.
Life goes on, as it must. The matter-of-factness about the continued fertility of the despoiled landscape is both thrilling and terrible.
You see it on the faces of mothers who stoically look after their damaged children and drunken husbands. They are living witnesses to an implacable power older than civilization. The war, the keen psychological struggle which the people of Chernobyl must face daily, is between the idea and the thing, between monument and experience, life and evidence.
Slavic culture reveals a central preoccupation with three absolutes: God, history, and salvation. Everyone has committed their hard lessons to heart.
“God is the only one who forgives.”
The tension between the objective and the subjective is ongoing, profound. The sudden collapse of Socialism in 1989, soon after the nuclear incident, created a spiritual crisis in the country. The moral vacuum was quickly filled by quacks and criminals.
People got mysteriously sick, no matter how far they lived from the fateful epicenter. Exorcists plied their priestly trade against demonic possession in newly-embellished Orthodox vestments; while bleached blonde “electroshock therapists” charged two weeks’ wages to cure their clients of strange cancers with wooden boxes, stuffed with high-voltage wires. A mysterious 25th frame ruled television shows, beaming subliminal messages directly into the brains of innocent children and housewives:
Kill your parents. Drugs are good for you
Gangs of criminals stole everything they could get their hands on: TV sets, apartment elevator motors, bronze manhole covers – entire factories, too. Nothing worked. The middle class fell. Powerful oligarchs built themselves fortified hill castles. The world turned upside down.
There was nothing to hang on to, but the idea of hanging on itself. The monumentality of the past – its iron statues, concrete symbols, the grand promise of its mega-projects – was superceded by invisible longing. The Monumental had disappeared into pure Idea; nothing was left but the scanty evidence of the senses. The future was abandoned.
What do Donald Weber’s photos of Chernobyl reveal?
They claim Chernobyl as our own world – our condition, our new fate.
They say that everything’s changed now. That there is no such thing as the objective, it was all just private experience. The Monumental was a beautiful illusion, something we used to protect ourselves from the pain of being human.