Duped Historian Visits Chernobyl Expecting to be Able to See Soviet Union as It Was 20 Years Ago

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Kate Brown, an assistant professor of history at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, tells in the Chronicle of Higher Education how she came to visit Chernobyl in June 2004 after reading a blog that turned out to provide a bogus account of life there now.

Brown writes: "I had come to the Zone because I had seen a Web site (http://www.kiddofspeed.com/chapter1.html) by a certain elusive "Elena." Elena owned a motorcycle, a 147-horsepower viridescent Kawasaki Ninja. She had dark eyes and black hair. She wore her leather biking jacket like a handmade Italian glove, and her voluptuous hips rode high on the racing bike. Elena's father had been a nuclear scientist at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, and he still worked there in the cleanup. Thanks to Daddy, Elena had a special pass to enter the Zone whenever she wanted. ... Within a few months of being posted in February 2004, Elena's site had drawn millions of visitors. From the chat rooms that cropped up, it became clear that many of the visitors were men across the globe, taken up in the fantasy of a hot babe, on a hot bike, in a hot zone.

"I had a different fantasy, one less seductive. I had hopes of recovering history that had been forgotten in a place that time had left behind. As Elena rode, she stopped in abandoned villages and in the vacated modernist city of Pripyat and snapped photos. Her Web site was mostly about the photos: haunting shots narrating lives suspended the moment the roof of the reactor buckled and sent forth -- invisibly, impossibly, inevitably -- the toxin most feared in our nuclear age....

"I immediately started making plans to go to the Zone. For a historian of the Soviet Union, few sites could be more compelling than this, the world's largest time capsule, frozen at a critical moment -- just before Mikhail Gorbachev experimented Soviet society into extinction. Now, 19 years later, nothing is the same: The Zone is in an independent Ukraine, on the edge of a recently reconstituted Europe, struggling with a global capitalist economy that no longer produces the household appliances, canned goods, and Communist Party tracts that had contained and sustained the lives of the departed inhabitants of the ex-republic of the former empire. I wanted to find out, by sifting through the abandoned homes, whether people knew their empire was about to crumble. I wanted to recapture stories that had been forgotten, along with the household articles, in the haste to get away.

"The problem was that my fantasy, like those of the millions of men hunkered over their computer screens, was just that. Elena's Web persona was a fake. When Elena first posted the site, she had never been to the Zone. She scanned in photos from coffee-table books on the accident, made up a narrative, and published it."

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