The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 can hardly be viewed as a forgotten event of the past here in Kyiv. After-effects of the tragedy linger on as ominous reminders of man’s potential to cause catastrophic disaster, whether accidentally or intentionally, and for Ukrainians, the horrific events create a before and after division of the nation’s history. The other night, I met a woman at the ballet theater who introduced herself to me with her name, followed by “born eleven days after Chernobyl,” and it seems no more than two days go by without my ears hearing “Chernobyl” when I’m at school or around Kyiv City.
I had the opportunity to visit the National Museum of Chernobyl with my peer language coach from the NovaMova Language School, where my classes with The School of Russian and Asian Studies are held. The two of us took the metro to Kontraktova Station and walked along the cobble-stone streets to an old firehouse. The worn yellow building still prominently displays a look-out tower from which fire-fighters would catch sight of city fires and ring a bell of warning. This monitorial structure with its historical destruction-combating function seems a fitting place to memorialize the Chernobyl disaster, which remains the most severe radio-ecological disaster of the 20th century.
Upon entering the museum, my peer coach and I were welcomed by a presentation of photographs on walls and rows of 76 signs hanging from the ceiling, each one displaying the crossed-out name of a village that was evacuated and abandoned because of the Chernobyl tragedy. We purchased admission tickets and proceeded up a staircase to the main exhibits. Images of red apples lined each step of the passageway, introducing us to a symbol that recurs throughout the exhibitions. The vivid red fruits seemed to artistically roll toward us on the road to Chernobyl, recalling the biblical tree of life and all the lives lost by the explosion and radiation. At the top of the staircase stood the framework of a church wall and banners of religious icons, all transported from the Church of St. John in Dlinny Les village – one of the sites abandoned because of the disaster.
The highly-artistic presentation of exhibits then combined with equally technical displays of historical information: a three-phase diorama demonstrating the before, during, and after appearance of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, interactive maps, and three-dimensional models that track the location and levels of destruction. Primary “Top Secret” documents, relics from the Exclusion Zone, photographs, documentaries, and examples of the disaster relief effort added chilling gravity to the museum experience. I couldn’t help but feel somber as I took it all in and listened to my peer coach tell me all she knew about the tragic events, tears seeping from the corners of her eyes as she related her insights and translated some of the Ukrainian exhibits for me.
All-in-all, the museum’s seven thousand plus exhibits create an informative and emotional portrayal of the events and effects of the Chernobyl disaster. While taking a tour of the Exclusion Zone in Chernobyl might give a more up-close-and-personal experience of the tragedy, I’m told that this kind of first-hand visit to the primary radiation site is regarded as dangerous by some, as well as more costly and less convenient than visiting Kyiv’s National Museum of Chernobyl. I highly recommend that visitors to Kyiv prioritize a trip to the museum as a way to better understand an aspect of Ukrainian history that largely impacts present day Ukraine. Although it might not be the most joyful of excursions, the education and insight are well worth an hour and few dollars. Before leaving, museum visitors are encouraged to write a short message or simply sign their name in a book commemorating the Chernobyl disaster victims and heroes. I found myself at a loss of words to leave in the book, but I nevertheless added a short message of appreciation and condolence for all those who sacrificed parts or all of themselves in the aftermath of the disaster.
For groups and faculty-led tours, the National Museum of Chernobyl is a great option. When I was viewing the exhibits, a group of about 20-30 people were taking advantage of a staff-led tour in Ukrainian. They comfortably moved about the museum, looking at the displays and listening to the tour guide as she provided additional information and insight about Chernobyl. I was fortunate enough to temporarily join the group and catch some phrases of the guide’s quickly-spoken presentation, and although I couldn’t understand everything she said, I could tell that she was incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about the Chernobyl history and museum.
National Museum of Chernobyl /
Национальный музей Чорнобиль
Kyiv, 04071, Khoryv Lane, 1
Open Monday – Saturday: 10:00 – 18:00
Last Admission: Monday – Saturday at 17:00
Closed: Sunday and last Monday of each month
Admission: 10грн (~$1.50)
Personal tour with electronic audio device (1 hour): 50грн (~$6)
Staff -led tour (1 hour): 40грн for the group (~$5) in Ukrainian | 100грн for the group (~$12.50) in English
Photo permit: 20грн (~$2.50)