The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The UNESCO World Heritage List is updated regularly. Recently, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has appeared among the virtual queue of this document. The initiative group of Ukrainian researchers believes that this issue has long got on the agenda. The activists got explanations in Paris, at the headquarters of a renowned international organization, about the details of the complicated procedure for getting on the list.

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is the site of the largest radiation disaster in the history of mankind. So, it is difficult to call it a tourist attraction. However, it is an indisputable fact that the Zone is a unique object on the planet. So, it was decided to apply to UNESCO in order to preserve the memory of the Chernobyl disaster for posterity.

Ukrainian researchers propose to add to the UNESCO List not the entire Zone, but its specific objects. For example, the loading facility, used in the construction of the “Sarcophagus”; the city of Pripyat, points of sanitization of cars, etc. Why exactly these objects? Why do we need it? What path must we take for this?

Serhiy Mirny, the chairman of the Chernobyl Tourism Association, a leader of a radiation reconnaissance platoon at the ChNPP in 1986, answers.

– What is the difficulty of obtaining the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

– UNESCO is a UN structure. The right to vote in it belongs exclusively to a state. The state, having decided that there is an object on its territory which seems to be a world heritage, submits an application to UNESCO. So, I or any public organization, volunteers or business structures can’t do this. Only the Ministry is in charge of the potential heritage.

There are two types of UNESCO World Heritage Sites: cultural and natural. Accordingly, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Ecology and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should prepare a document for UNESCO. The application fits on page A-4. So, it does not impose any obligations.

The receipt of the document by UNESCO means that it has been agreed at the level of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine. And then, the real and serious work begins. If the state has sent an application, UNESCO will involve assistance mechanisms such as grants, conferences and expeditions. Then, if the UN accepted the application, it means that they understand the project.

A scientific monograph is the most important document for UNESCO

Experts say that the approval process for the application takes from three to five years. This requires extensive research and organization of two or three international conferences. After the completion of the scientific process, specialists prepare the final application. It is a collective scientific monograph. This includes already from 100 to 150 pages of text.

The state defines the boundaries of a potential UNESCO site. However, the main thing here is a professional analysis. When this is a natural heritage, then biologists, ecologists, botanists, zoologists, and partially agrarians are working on it. If the heritage is a cultural value, culturologists, ethnographers, art historians, historians take part.

After that, the monograph with maps, diagrams, justification, and a list of references “falls” on the UNESCO table. Then international experts study it and give their verdict.

 – So, is Ukraine now only at the stage of preliminary application?

 – Yes. I spoke at the bureau of the Ukrainian ICOMOS committee with the idea of a nomination and locations that meet the criteria. To my surprise, the participants adequately perceived the idea and voted unanimously. Even the humanities agreed; although because of the radiation hazard I thought they would mind. That is, we have taken the first step.

 – Is the ministry already taking part in this? Well, since the application is so simple, only one sheet of the text, why hesitate?

– It isn’t so easy. Chernobyl claims to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site both as a cultural and natural site. There is a criterion number six. It sounds like “a place of a world historical event”. In particular, according to this criterion, UNESCO included Hiroshima and the Auschwitz camp in the World Heritage List. Chernobyl also fits all criteria.

In addition, it can also pass as an architectural and technological complex, demonstrating an important stage in the development of our civilization. Pripyat, which has preserved the Soviet architecture of the atomic city and the locations associated with the elimination of the consequences of the accident, is also suitable. The Chernobyl Zone is subordinated to the State Agency for the Management of the Exclusion Zone, supervised by the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources. So, this Ministry owns the territory of the Zone.

How to overcome the bureaucratic procedure?

Not everything is so obvious with natural criteria. The most suitable of them is related to the conservation of biodiversity: the number of species. So, this area is very important for the preservation of unique species. Chernobyl falls with a high degree of probability here. There are rare animals in the Zone such as lynx, wolves, bears and many rare species of plants. However, our Ministry does not see Chernobyl as a place to meet this criterion.

So, the problem is how to do it technically. To apply through some other ministry? It does not work, because the owner of the Zone is the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources. It is not fair to recognize the Zone only as a natural monument, because it is a complex of natural, cultural and historical heritage. So, it would seem that everything is obvious. However, this question still causes discussion among some.

A complex bureaucratic constructor was formed, requiring the involvement of several ministries. Frankly speaking, we still need to overcome certain inertia of perception: how can Chernobyl be considered a cultural heritage? Many perceive it exclusively as a place of tragedy, memory, and not as some kind of attraction.

 – Where does this inertia of perception come from? You have been working in the field of Chernobyl tourism for many years. If there was a conversation about inertia about 8-10 years ago, it would be more or less clear. But today, the existence of Chernobyl tourism can surprise only few people. This site has become absolutely accessible, even despite serious losses during the fires of 2020.

– People are still superstitious. Besides, cultural processes are very inertial.

– Have you noticed a change in the reaction of people who come to the Zone today?

– It’s obvious. A new generation has grown up. Chernobyl is not a personal experience for them. And they don’t feel Chernobyl wound. So, they do not tell where they were at the time of the disaster, how hard they survived the radiation and exposure. A new generation has appeared. They pose logical questions which they are sincerely interested in. If people get a logical concept of events, providing with facts, everyone understands everything perfectly. I think this is one of the factors in the growing popularity of Chernobyl tourism.

Lakes and fortresses are everywhere, but Chernobyl is only here

As for Chernobyl, we have a certain cultural blindness. I always wondered when the competitions such as “The Seven Wonders of Ukraine” or “The Unique Places of Ukraine”, etc took place. Synevyr is among the leaders. But there are lakes and fortresses everywhere, and Chernobyl is only here. The Chernobyl accident influenced the history of our civilization. The disaster was merciless. However, over time, the revived nature has brought a lot of positive results to the development of the affected area.

Ironically, but Chernobyl accelerated the adoption of Ukrainian independence. The first popular demonstration, inconsistent with the Soviet government, took place exactly one year after the Chernobyl accident. On April 26, 1987, a public movement for environmental protection organized a protest action. Nobody shot anyone. After that, one thing led to another. The Ukrainian people ceased to be afraid.

Chernobyl is a fundamentally new phenomenon, associated with advanced technologies for the use of nuclear energy. It is a social phenomenon, because the consequences of the catastrophe demonstrated to the world the utopian idea of Soviet society. Only after the Chernobyl disaster, humanity learned that there is a radiation threat in the world.

What gives the status of a UNESCO heritage site?

– The granting of status has three functions. The first one is identification. It is necessary to reveal that a particular object, for various reasons, is of great importance for humanity. For example, the concrete transfer unit was used in the construction of the sarcophagus. Clean cars came from the one side of it and brought concrete to the Zone. But they could not drive up to the sarcophagus. There was a huge level of pollution. And concrete had to be transported. Therefore, a concrete transfer unit and an overpass were built at a distance of 5 km. Clean cars drove in unloading concrete on the one side. But there were dirty cars on the other side that brought concrete to the sarcophagus.

This is a small thing. However, it is an element of technology, which there are a lot of. This is identification. The object tells an important story about the culture and skills of humankind in an extreme situation.

The second one is natural preservation. Fortunately, there is not much metal there, until the whole thing is “NOT cut”. There is still a lot of concrete and reinforced concrete. So, there is something to keep. But how long can it stand there? It is necessary to designate the territory and take care of these locations. In addition, there are less stable objects.

The third one is popularization. Who knows about this concrete transfer station now? In fact, those who worked on it may be still alive. But I’m not sure about that. However, if the state submitted an object to UNESCO, recognizing its value, it undertakes to preserve it. The object becomes a priority in the allocation of funding for its own safety, given its universal value. The greatest damage to the Zone happened when it was closed. It happened when they cut out the metal and dismantled the points of sanitization, such as “Rossokha”.

Has the Zone become more accessible in terms of environmental and public control?

 – The situation is not ideal now, but much better. The administration of the Zone communicates with business and the public. Tour operators also communicate with the administration. There has already been a dialogue. So, there is no feeling that the authorities are princes, and the rest are nobody. The public controls the situation and draws media attention to various issues. A significant part of the metal has long been cut out. But I have not heard of poaching for a long time.

Indeed, there was a real chaos earlier. They even shot Przewalski’s horses. For example, in 2010, the livestock was cut by half. It was real wildness! There are only about a thousand of these horses in the world. Now the situation has become much better in the aspects of flora and fauna protection.

– You have been in the Zone for many years. So, you know its entire territory. Is it still interesting for you or has it become a routine?

– The Chernobyl Zone is very large. There are many interesting objects in it. Recently, I have come to the village of Krasnoe, not far from the Chernobyl NPP, on the other side of the Pripyat River. For the first time I saw a wooden church, built of oak in 1800. It survived two world wars, a bunch of revolutions and the Chernobyl accident. And the church is still standing, although the villagers left. There is a completely different perception in the Zone. Even the light falls there in a different way.

In addition, now I go there exclusively with specialists. I’m trying to solve the problem of giving the Zone the status of a UNESCO heritage site. I see my mission in it, but not just as a person who is dear and close to the history of the Zone. This is the only way we can preserve the memory of the accident and the heroic deed of our children for posterity.

For me, it is a debt of memory in the face of those who, together with me, traveled every centimeter of the Chernobyl land. In the face of those who walked with me toe-to-toe in the radiation reconnaissance group. In the face of those who loaded the concrete, who with their bare hands scraped the graphite from the roof of the reactor. And in the end, it is a debt of memory to those who extinguished the fire at the ChNPP at the cost of their own lives.