Monday, March 21, 2016

The Babushkas of Chernobyl - Film Review

On April 26, 1986, one of the reactors in the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, Ukraine, exploded and caught fire. At the time, it was the world's worst nuclear accident (though in March of 2011 it was superceded by the earthquake and tsunami damage to the Fukushima reactor, a slow-motion catastrophe still in the making).  The area around the reactor was evacuated and closed, declared an Exclusion Zone. Within a 10 km radius, radiation levels are extremely high. Within the 30 km zone, levels are still toxic, but that zone is not depopulated.

The documentary The Babushkas of Chernobyl, directed by Anne Bogart and Holly Morris and released in 2015, explores that world.

Three groups of people spend time in the Exclusion Zone:
1. Scientists tracking radiation hot-spots and effects (new hot-spots keep showing up, since the radiation doesn't stay in one place), sampling soil, water, plants and animals. They are rotated out of the zone every 15 days to forestall toxic buildup of radiation in their tissues.
2. A group of enthusiasts of a post-apocalyptic video game called S.T.A.L.K.E.R., whose mecca is the 10 km zone. They seek the abandoned city Pripyat, quite near the reactor, to get there climbing barbed-wire fences and sneaking through the forest, their dream being to tramp through the deserted buildings of a once-thriving city - essentially playing high-risk hide-and-seek. On camera we watch young men fill bottles from the river and drink it, though the water doesn't look potable even if it weren't radioactive. They don't stay long. Police patrols arrest and remove them - when they can catch them.
3. The babushkas. In Russian, the word (pronounced BOB-ush-kuh; the pronunciation buh-BOOSH-kuh refers to a style of colorful kerchief worn by these women) babushka means grandmother, but more than that, it refers to the tough peasant women of a generation not much longer for this world, survivors of what they call the "famine of Stalin" and World War II.  In the aftermath of the explosion they were evacuated, but they longed to return to their motherland, the villages where they spent their lives. And because they were old (ages range from 70s to 90s and even older), there seemed no harm in letting them come back - the ailments of age would likely kill them before radiation did.

They live mostly alone, with chickens and pigs, planting, harvesting, distilling their own moonshine, and foraging for sustenance. In the Exclusion Zone there are no stores (no nightclubs, as one babushka laughs), only the labs. They're on their own. But the forest is beautiful, wild and lush, abundant with game and plant-life.  There are about 130 of these old women. They cheerfully share their raspberry jam, their potatoes and mushroom soup with visitors - it would be rude not to partake. Our young tour guide says she eats as little as possible then gets out of there. We watch one babushka lovingly add new soil to the planter box over the grave of her grandson, then plant flowers in it. Who will tend her grave?

When conditions are dry and the wind picks up, radioactive dust blows around - this is the most dangerous time to be in the zone. After rains, when the air is humid, it's a little safer. Groups of scientists visit the babushki, taking samples of their garden soil, their water, the buckets of mushrooms they've harvested for soup, eggs from their chickens, berries and tomatoes. The Geiger counters are clicking away, the levels far above anything considered safe. The babushki are, however, thriving: cheerful, independent, hard-working. They laugh about the crows that will maraud for eggs if they leave the coop open, or the wild boars that root in the garden eating potatoes. An almost toothless babushka demonstrates how banging on a pail eventually scares the wild boar away - after he's eaten his fill. But clearly she doesn't mind sharing her harvest. Another remarks that if she had stayed in Kiev, where she was evacuated, she'd be dead by now, what with the polluted air and the traffic and noise. The forest is her home. She impales mushroom caps on a tree at different levels: near the ground for the hedgehogs, at thigh level for the wild boars, and at eye level for the moose. She uses the diminutive form for each of these animals - they might as well be her children, the way she looks after them.

Our tour guide brings us near the damaged reactor, pointing out the porosity of the concrete sarcophagus originally built to entomb it. She shows us the new cover under construction, a giant arch of concrete which will be rolled into place, to seal in the radiation - for a hundred years. She seems very pleased with this new structure. It's worth remembering that the half-life of uranium-238 is something like 4,468,300,000 years (source: Wikipedia: Isotopes of Uranium).  We can't even imagine how long that is.

Those who tout nuclear power as "clean energy" conveniently ignore not only this timeline but the accidents which have already occurred.  It's time to admit humans have not even begun to grasp the task of coping with toxins so long-lasting, and that we have no way of either cleaning up, storing, nor containing such material until geologic-scale time finally renders it harmless.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Too Far Afield, by Gunter Grass

Gunter Grass's 1995 novel Too Far Afield is set in East Berlin during the time leading up to, during, and immediately following the breaching of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany.  His primary character, Theo Wuttke, known as Fonty, is an aging scholar/ file courier in the Reich Aviation Ministries building, whose labors under the East German government have earned him a permanent shadow, a man named Hoftaller.  Unlike the spies familiar to us from stories and movies, Fonty and Hoftaller have many conversations, spend a lot of time together, and work together - except when Hoftaller plays his government-agent card to prevent Fonty from going "too far afield" - speaking bluntly about political affairs, pursuing his friendship with a Jewish professor, leaving Germany, and so on.

Fonty's life study is of the writer Theodor Fontane, a man born exactly a century before him, and whose life events he parallels, consciously and unconsciously, throughout his own.  Fontane, referred to as The Immortal, becomes, through Fonty's scholarship and life-mimicry, indeed a timeless figure.  Working under censorship constraints, Fonty uses lectures about The Immortal to cast light on current events, a secret language well understood by his audience.

The novel has two central metaphors. First is the paternoster, a continually moving loop elevator whose open-front compartments one simply steps into to board, and out of to leave, on any floor.  No doors, no buttons, no pausing to move cumbersome objects on or off.  And no record, visible from other floors or by any engine-room observer, of one's travels.  Thus, a person who has occasion to visit many parts of a building, such as file courier Fonty, can choose his compartment companion, or avoid one, and make his journeys, observing activity on every floor he passes, all unobtrusively.  He and Hoftaller take many long rides together, and when tasked with writing a history of the building, he describes the appearance, feet first or hat first, of various high-level officials as they ride the conveyance.  Having worked in the Ministries Building under first the Reich, then the Workers and Peasants State, and finally in its incarnation as the Handover Trust, Fonty is as much a piece of its history as the paternoster itself.  Grass uses the elevator's circularity as one more confirmation of the cyclical nature of life - especially Fonty's.

His other metaphor is the diving duck. Fonty loves to spend time in the Tiergarten, watching the ducks paddle along, vanish suddenly beneath the surface, then pop up - where?  He envies them, because he would disappear if he could - indeed, he tries.  But he is also a diving duck, veiling his own views in his talks and articles about The Immortal, as though the present time were some lake surface he can dive beneath, traveling in concealment till he emerges to make his point.  And thus, though the government distrusts him, he is able to express himself with comparative freedom.

The plot, modest as it is, does not distract from the central observations of unification's impact particularly on East Germans: having grown poorer than their Western counterparts, they are underdogs when the private property confiscated by the East German state comes up for sale, and is promptly snatched up by West Germans with money.  The richly ironic title of the Handover Trust perfectly encapsulates this imbalance - the handover is essentially a handout to West German businesspeople, and trust is nonexistent.

Grass beautifully weaves the centuries together, showing that experience is recurrence, and that knowing the past is not only instructive but essential to knowing who we are as individuals, as nations, as humans.