e/utopia

For millennia the imagining of a ‘perfect society’ or ‘just state’ has been a pastime for men of learning. A philosophical exercise or discourse often presented as an account of a traveller’s journey to a far distant land. In reality the journey is into the realms of the mind, a pilgrimage of thought to a better way of being. The journey continues.”

In 1986, Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded releasing radioactive waste into the atmosphere that spread across Europe reaching the United Kingdom within days. The Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev later referred to the disaster as a ‘turning point’ in the Soviet Union that ‘opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue.’

The population was evacuated and an ‘exclusion zone’ created displacing an estimated 340,000 people. Given the political landscape and the long-term nature of low-level radiation exposure, it is difficult to estimate fatalities with various figures up to 1 million premature deaths being quoted in scientific papers. It is doubtful the true cost will ever be known.

My own journey through ‘the Zone’ included visiting the Nuclear Power Plant site, the city of Pripyat built to house the workforce and their families, and farming communities in the area, all of which had been evacuated. As I wandered through empty decaying streets and buildings it was difficult not to feel the presence of the ghosts of those long gone. Their echos still remaining in places they had once called home. It felt as if I blinked I might switch places with them in time and space. That it was only a twist of fate that had placed them in that position instead of me.

Whilst there is undoubtedly a melancholy in the Zone, it also filled me with hope. Hope that nature would recover from the folly of man, even if humans were no longer present because life in all its beautiful splendour was.

When I returned home I was struck by the similarities of Pripyat and my hometown of Peterlee during my childhood. Pripyat had been frozen in time by the disaster while Peterlee had continued to evolve as a living town. A journey to explore eutopia, utopia and even dystopia which started thousands of miles from home brought my back to the streets and woodlands which I had wandered as a child. I had no idea when I travelled to Ukraine that I was starting my own journey towards e/utopia.

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