Siege Diaries 5/4/2021

Today’s Daily Stoic writing prompt:  Where can I spend money to help others?

I am not sure I like the phrasing of this particular prompt.  “Spending” money implies a purchase, or hiring someone to do something in exchange for cash.   I donate a certain amount of money to charity every year.  But in general what I do to help other people has to do with time or labour, not money.   I’m not rich. Beyond a few personal luxuries–very few of which are any kind of conspicuous consumption–I am not spending money on possessions rather than turning it to philanthropy.  

I guess one thing I do do is to try to support my artist friends.   I don’t have big enough pockets to be a high-level patron, but buying a piece of jewellery here, an art print there, or other things that my talented friends make–or attending a concert they put on– benefits both them and me.  These are not always items I truly “need”, but I tend to believe that the arts make the world a better place.

In the midst of that odd dual holiday/commemoration that is May 4–the contrast of a jokey pun about Star Wars that has turned into a quasi-holiday for geeks everywhere, and the much more real anniversary of the Kent State shootings–I instead found myself going down a rabbit hole of Chernobyl history.   

On May 4, 1986, it had been eight days since the accident at the power plant, and seven days since Pripyat had begun to be evacuated. Liquid nitrogen was being pumped into the reactor to cool it down.  The city has been abandoned–but no one knows that yet (and it will actually be a number of years before it is completely foresaken, being used as 

It started with the Chernobyl Gallery–which is mostly more recent photos of the vicinity of the plant–but a few photos showing various locations before the disaster sent me to,  a Russian-language site (thanks, Google Translate).  This one has pages and pages of photos of what the city looked like before the disaster, rather than the abandoned monument of decay that it’s become.   There are photos there of it being built, and then, gradually, there are photos of people.   It’s often forgotten that the city was built, from the ground up, on the site of a former collective farm starting in 1970.  Its entire existence as a living city was just 16 years; the population had reached about 50,000 in 1986.   The thing that is really striking is how vast and spread out and empty it looks–even in the photos taken within the last year of its habitation.  That’s partially the impact of the Brutalist-style architecture, but this was a city whose centre was built around vast, windswept plazas and wide boulevards.  It barely looks occupied. It seems static.   The lack of vehicles is striking as well.  And it doesn’t look finished–because construction was still ongoing, both in the city and at the power plant itself.   Only in the photos featuring parades does it look at all peopled.  It’s almost as if it were designed to be abandoned.

However, there are lots of photos in the collection of the interiors of buildings, and all of a sudden you see people and faces, and the city just comes to life.  There are scenes in restaurants and schools and grocery stores.  There are groups of friends palling around, shots of families on playground equipment, kids playing in marching bands, various festivals (some with music), and the like.    And all of a sudden Pripyat becomes more than a collection of abandoned buildings with quaint Soviet agitprop memorabilia strewn about.  There’s some gorgeous artwork (more on that in a moment.)   It starts to feel like a town again, a place where people were proud to live, a place that was shiny and new, a place full of hope and smart people with brilliant futures ahead of them (the average age of the residents was just 26). That’s certainly not what the Western observer typically was trained to see in the Soviet Union in the final years of its existence.  In hindsight, we look at Pripyat and know the town is doomed, that the reactor had a faulty design, and that there would be a futile attempt to cover up the disaster.  That leads those photos of normal people doing normal people things, sometimes with the power plant in the background, a searing kind of poignancy.  

I’ve been particularly taken by the mosaic work of Ivan Semyonovich Litovchenko , born in 1921 in Ukraine.  There are several monumental murals created by Litovchenko, who was the official artist for the town and its nuclear complex, in Pripyat.  The most abstract of these, “Music”, adorned the front of the music school.  Litovchenko died in 1996, years before it would be realized that his works could be again seen as tours of Pripyat became possible.   

I am considering attempting to embroider either this or one of the other mosaics at some point.  That may require some thought, given the mosaic techniques used to give them a polychromatic glow, but I love the design and think it deserves to be remembered.