If you want to spend a sobering day -- but a fascinating one as well -- then you need to pay a visit to the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum in Kiev. I have been there twice and, if I returned a third time, I am sure that I would discover more layers of information and symbolism that I missed the first two times around.
Technically speaking, it's a very simple facility, with few of the multi-media bells and whistles that are now the norm in the museum world.
What hits you is the power of the, literally, the parables, icons and relics on display. The contents are simply overwhelming, for those with the eyes to see.
So if you ever enter the museum, look up at the ceiling above the main staircase and search for an explicit reference to the Book of Revelation. Here's what I described in a 2012 column:
KIEV -- The apocalyptic visions begin just inside the doors of the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum and many of them lead straight into the Book of Revelation.
The final pages of Christian scripture are full of angels, trumpets, flames, thunder, lighting, earthquakes and catastrophes that shake heaven and earth.
In this museum, the key is in the eighth chapter: "And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters. And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter."
When Ukrainians translate "wormwood" into their own language it becomes "chernobyl."
Didn't see that one coming, right? See the symbolism in the Orthodox icon with this post?
Now on to the news. You see, the 30th anniversary of the disaster at the Chernobyl Power Station north of Kiev has received some much-deserved mainstream coverage on both sides of the Atlantic -- which is more than appropriate. You don't have to dig very far into the history of what went on there to grasp that that the story really isn't over.
What is the ongoing impact of the Chernobyl meltdown? We really don't know and the debate about the ongoing fallout is, in and of itself, an important story.
I simply want to note that Chernobyl also great importance to people in Kiev on multiple levels, beyond that of science and health. When you visit the museum you see, over and over, images that depict the disaster as a sign of what happens to humanity when government and science are turned into gods.
How is this reflected in the coverage? So far, I have only seen tiny hints of this side of the story, as if reporters are watching the events and not seeing or hearing all of the content. Here is the overture in a USA Today report:
Ukraine on Tuesday commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident that sent radiation spewing across Europe, led to a death toll that is still being debated -- estimates range from 4,000 up to 1 million -- and displaced and sickened hundreds of thousands of people.
The meltdown is considered the world's worst nuclear disaster.
Throughout ... Ukraine bells and sirens sounded at 1:23:58 a.m. -- the moment the plant's reactor No. 4 exploded on April 26, 1986. In the city of Slavutych, built for workers who were evacuated from Chernobyl's Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Station in the former Soviet Union, there was a remembrance ceremony for "liquidators," the term for the thousands of military personnel and volunteers who responded to the unfolding accident without suitable protective equipment.
Many liquidators have since died or are ill from radiation.
"Chernobyl has become a serious lesson for all mankind, and to this day it has severe repercussions on both the environment and human health. The scale of the tragedy could be immeasurably greater, if it were not for the unprecedented courage and dedication of the firefighters, military personnel, experts, medical workers who honorably fulfilled their professional and civic duty. Many of them sacrificed their own lives to save others," Russian President Vladimir Putin said. ...
That's a really interesting statement by Putin, since Ukrainians have long considered it highly symbolic of Soviet priorities that the reactor was placed where it was in the first place.
However, what precisely are "Ukraine bells"? Again, if you have been to Kiev you know that we are talking about the city's famous church bells.
Look at the coverage in The Guardian, where you can see the outlines of the civic and religious rites linked to this anniversary. My question: In Ukraine, is anyone making any effort to separate the two spheres? Is that even possible when talking about Chernobyl?
Ukraine is marking the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which permanently poisoned swathes of eastern Europe and highlighted the shortcomings of the secretive Soviet system.
In the early hours of April 26, 1986, a botched test at the nuclear plant in then-Soviet Ukraine triggered a meltdown that spewed deadly clouds of atomic material into the atmosphere, forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes.
A series of events is being held to commemorate the tragedy, which remains the worst nuclear accident in history. A memorial service is being held at the town of Slavutych, which was built to re-house workers who lived near the nuclear plant, and a church service will be held in Kiev for the families of victims.
If you click through and look at the picture with this report, it shows a distressed woman. Her head is covered and, in the foreground, there is a yellow-brown beeswax candle burning. Anyone who has been in an Orthodox or Eastern-Rite Catholic church can read the symbolism here.
Obviously, at the time of this photo, some of the prayer rites had already begun. What is being said? What did the Ukrainian people believe God wanted them to learn from this tragedy?
Please allow me to return to my 2012 column, in which I went through the museum a second time -- viewing it with the help of a priest.
The bottom line: All of the major exhibits in this "secular" museum include some kind of religious symbolism. What's the message?
"The catastrophe at Chernobyl station took its victims before their time," said Archpriest Andrei Tkachev of St. Agapit of Pechersk Orthodox Church in Kiev. "Man is supposed to meet death in his own time, when he has a chance to prepare to meet God. That kind of death is a gift from God -- a good death.
"That is not what happened for many of the victims of Chernobyl."
The museum opened on April 26, 1992, the fifth anniversary of the disaster and soon after the Soviet Union's collapse. The exhibits include 7,000 artifacts from the 76 towns and villages -- with 76 churches, in this historically Orthodox culture -- that were razed in the radiation-tainted resettlement zone.
The door into a large chamber dedicated to the families and children of Chernobyl leads to the church iconostasis, with a radiation suit hanging in place of the Archangel Michael and barbed wire and a contamination sign blocking the way to the altar. High overhead is an icon of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of endangered children.
The altar is gone, replaced by a boat -- to carry souls over the waters of death -- full of children's toys. Under the boat, the blackness is full of the icons of saints.
Returning to an earlier question: Why is this event so central to issues of Ukrainian identity? Why is the location part of the message?
The Chernobyl disaster was especially poignant, said Tkachev, because it struck a region that for many symbolized the innocence and safety of the past.
"The people here were simple people. They didn't have writers and journalists to tell their stories," he said. "This is an attempt to tell their story, using what they left behind when they were forced to flee the homes, their schools and their churches. ... Modern life separates a man who has deep faith from a man who has little. In these villages, life and faith was simply combined and you can see that here."
In one of the starkest images -- over a map of the stricken region -- the melting reactor literally shatters a famous icon of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child, while an apocalyptic storm swirls around her.
"We are tempted to think that fire and water and all the elements of nature are at our command, but that is not true," said Tkachev, outside the final exhibit hall. "We can become victims. ... The more technologies are in our lives, the more danger there is that we become their servants, even their slaves."
Here is the archpriest's final theme and, frankly, this is the message that would imagine is soaked into the language of the current rites in Ukraine. Once again, are journalists missing one of the darkest of dark themes connected to this image of hell on earth?
If a man builds a bicycle and it breaks while he is riding it, then he will be hurt when he falls, said Tkachev. If he builds an airplane and it breaks, this man will almost certainly die when it crashes.
"Now, if we build a nuclear reactor in our back yard and it breaks, then the catastrophe will kill many and it may last into future generations," he said. "What this teaches us is that we must fear God and try to be humble about the things that we build with our own hands."
Has anyone seen coverage of this anniversary that gets the importance of the candles, the bells, the prayers and the liturgies? Has anyone noticed that this is unfolding in the days just ahead of Eastern Orthodox Holy Week?
Front page and second image: The remains of an Orthodox iconostasis in the national museum, taken from a sanctuary inside the infect zone, complete with a hazard suit and an icon of the Angel Gabriel. Top image: The Chernobyl Savior icon.