The Exhibition

The Reactor Room: An Immersive Chernobyl Exhibition is a digital installation featuring the work of students in Professor José Vergara’s course Chernobyl: Nuclear Narratives and the Environment (Spring 2020) at Swarthmore College. This interactive exhibition seeks to facilitate public engagement with the Chernobyl catastrophe and its associated mythology. Over the course of the Spring 2020 semester, students produced outward-facing digital projects that investigate diverse aspects of Chernobyl’s cultural, environmental, social, and political consequences. As you navigate through this installation, you will encounter maps that visually trace the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl. You will meet some of the key figures who experienced, survived, and perpetrated one of the worst nuclear catastrophes in history. You will have the opportunity to engage with the sounds and silences associated with the disaster. You will be taken on a virtual tour of street art in Pripyat; read annotated poetry translations; see Chernobyl through the paranoid lens of conspiracy theories; and consider the disaster’s ongoing and unquantifiable impact on plant and animal life. Individually, these projects are snapshots that reflect the fragmented narratives and memories of Chernobyl. Together, they invite you to become an active participant in the study of Chernobyl’s collective mythology.

The Course – Chernobyl: Nuclear Narratives and the Environment

We began this course by asking a straightforward question: What really happened at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant? At our first meetings, we pieced together the basic facts of the disaster. On April 26, 1986, the operators of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station near Pripyat, Ukraine conducted a routine test of the reactor’s capacity to operate under reduced power. Due to a combination of operator error and faulty design, Reactor 4 exploded. The ensuing spread of radioactivity across Europe resulted in a mass evacuation, political turmoil, unprecedented ecological devastation, and, some would argue, the end of the Soviet Union.

Class notes on a whiteboard
Class notes on a whiteboard

Drawing on Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl and Serhii Plokhy’s Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe, we introduced questions that complicated our understanding of this historiography:

  • How do historical accounts explain and limit the story of Chernobyl?
  • How do oral testimonies complicate and/or reinforce dominant political, scientific, and historical explanations of Chernobyl?

These questions about the role of historical narrative framed our study of memory in the aftermath of disaster. Survivors’ poetry provided us with the opportunity to interpret the catastrophe through the lens of metaphor, meter, and symbolism. We also thought about what it means to stage catastrophe by reading and performing scenes from Vladimir Gubaryev’s Sarcophagus: A Day’s Tragedy and Sergei Kurginian’s Compensation: A Liturgy of Fact. These works, which reflect a sense of spiritual alienation, motivated us to consider how disasters like Chernobyl simultaneously resist and necessitate memorialization and interpretation.

We revisited these topics in our conversations about Chernobyl’s potential geographical and political boundaries. By reading Christa Wolf’s Accident: A Day’s News alongside “anti-memoirs” written by Mohamed Makhzangi, an Egyptian doctor studying in Kiev in 1986, we discussed how catastrophe is experienced from a distance. Together, these conversations led to another central question: Who and what can bear witness to disaster?

The tensions between international politics, governmental rhetoric, and the uncontrollable spread of Chernobyl narratives served as the foundation of our study of media and conspiracy theories. Julia Voznesenskaya’s novel The Star Chernobyl interrogated how the suppression of information challenged Soviet citizens to reevaluate their relationship to the state. Later in the semester, Chad Gracia’s documentary The Russian Woodpecker depicted how a Ukrainian artist’s obsession with a conspiracy theory about Chernobyl connects to the Soviet Union’s lingering political and social ghosts.

annotated still from the film Stalker
Annotated still from the film Stalker (1979)

In the “Transmedial Chernobyl” unit, we read the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic about so-called “stalkers” who trespass into a dangerous zone. Although this science-fiction novel was written prior to the Chernobyl accident, its representation of intergenerational trauma as well as of the perils of scientific inquiry resonates with Chernobyl’s legacy. Members of the Swarthmore community joined a screening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s acclaimed film Stalker, an adaptation of Roadside Picnic. Students then played S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl to consider the ethical implications of virtual immersion in the Chernobyl landscape through video games.

Looking at such representations of Chernobyl prepared us to explore appropriations of the catastrophe. We watched Bradley Parker’s horror film Chernobyl Diaries in order to analyze Chernobyl’s status as a disaster tourism hotspot. We read excerpts from young adult novels, mystery books, and monster stories that instrumentalize Chernobyl as a plot device. Identifying how such approaches commercialize the story of Chernobyl compelled us to question whether engaging with catastrophe and visiting sites of death can facilitate meaningful reflection.

In our study of Chernobyl as an environmental disaster, we endeavored to improve our scientific understanding of the catastrophe’s ecological effects and to decenter the human perspective. In the documentary An Invisible Enemy, we listened to the indigenous Sámi people speak about how radioactive fallout from Chernobyl has compromised their economy based on reindeer herding and ability to transmit their culture. Historian Kate Brown’s Manual for Survival exposed significant gaps in our understanding of Chernobyl’s impact on the environment. Michael Marder and Anais Tondeur’s innovative project The Chernobyl Herbarium compelled us to reflect on Chernobyl by focusing on the meditative silence of plant life.

We closed the course by explicitly linking our analysis of Chernobyl’s ecological effects to society’s complicity in the climate crisis. We read an excerpt from David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth about how storytelling is central to our ability to anticipate, respond to, and mitigate the effects of disasters such as climate change and Chernobyl. Our class ended with the following questions:

  • Do tragedies like Chernobyl need to have a meaning?
  • What are the limitations of language in light of catastrophe?

It is our hope that this digital installation will both enable us to articulate some of our own responses to the political, linguistic, scientific, and existential ruptures that Chernobyl has caused and to catalyze ongoing dialogue. Thank you for joining us in this process.

Additional Contributors

Special thanks to Scott Cassidy, Susan Dreher, Pam Harris, Doug Herren, Mike Jones, Nabil Kashyap, Michael Forster Rothbart, Bethanne Seufert, Jacquie Tull, John Word, the Environmental Studies Program, the Global Studies Program, Swarthmore Libraries, and the Provost’s Office.