Sunday, August 24, 2014

Documenting Chernobyl and the early rumbles of Russia-Ukraine war

Most of this blog post was already written and edited when I discovered, to my surprise, that Elena Vladimirovna Filatova has her own Wikipedia page, on account of being a controversial Internet sensation back in 2004. I respect and understand how that might cast this post in a different light.

But that was a decade ago. This is 2014.

I am not saying that you should take everything Filatova writes or the contents of this blog post at face value. But it's worth your consideration, I think. Her voice is a valuable one, and it's up to all of us to take everything into account and decide what we want to take from it.

See the Afterword for more full disclosure about Filatova's history.

The Post
August 19, News on situation in Ukraine.

Russian aid convoy arrives at border. It is not for a first time that Russia does so called humanitarian occupation. Together with aid they bring military units with tanks. It was success in Abhazia 1993, but here in Ukraine is different situation. So far this convoy can't move into Ukraine territory. For second week it is held by Red Cross bureaucrats, OSCE bureaucrats and our State officials. The whole thing look like Putins honorable intentions buried by hateful Western and Ukrainian bureaucrats.

Maybe later Putin will play this humanitarian convoy card, but so far convoy is some sort of distraction. Putin know that people watching ball instead of the game and so he just throw you ball to watch, discuss and guess his intentions.., meanwhile he sends tanks, cannons, buks in hundreds. In last two days more than 1200 Russian soldiers crossed our border.

Around 50.000 Ukrainian army fight separatists. At beginning percentage of separatists was 70%, the rest 30% were Russian volunteers. Later it became 50/50 and now vast majority are Russians. Eventually there will only be Russians fighting Ukrainians. Local population (3 millions) leaving war zone. Pro-Russian civilians moving to Russia and pro-Ukrainian will stay in Ukraine.

Instead of helping Ukrainians with lethal weapons NATO takes ostrich position. People of the world, you must wake up to the danger of Adolf Putler or you will just end with head in the sand, buried forever

That is the latest blog post regarding the ongoing Russian military intervention in Ukraine, written by Ukrainian motorcyclist, photographer and blogger Elena Filatova. I was tipped off to Elena's writings and website by my brother-in-law, David.

The author introduces herself on her website in this way: "My name is Elena. I run this website and I don't have anything to sell. What I do have is my motorbike and the absolute freedom to ride it wherever curiosity and the speed demon take me."

I fear that Filatova's voice, as an everyday Ukrainian citizen, might get lost in the crowd — she has only 40 Twitter followers as of this writing — when it comes to the ongoing, tense situation in the Ukraine.1

There is, however, another topic about which she has been an important documentarian for more than a decade: Chernobyl.

Here are some of her website's amazing photographs of the city that was devastated by a 1986 nuclear accident, all from

Regarding her photojournalism, which has continued with essays on Gulag and this year's Ukrainian revolution, she writes something that I agree with:
"Nowadays, we are moving from catastrophe to catastrophe so fast that no one has time to learn from what is happening, thus we are doomed to repeat it all again and again. Each time history repeats itself the price goes up.

"My aim is to take hold of important events I have witnessed and rescue from oblivion deeds that have been forgotten or chosen to have been forgotten. With time, cities perish and the memory of things is lost, so the sole purpose of my work is to preserve memories on the internet forever."
Of course, the Internet will not last forever. Elena's blog (and Papergreat) will vanish into the digital Twilight Zone at some point. Most books and photographs will eventually disappear, too. All that our generation can ever do is try to find the best ways to document our history, passing it along to future generations in the hope that they find new and ever-better ways to preserve the past and its lessons.

This blurb comes from the January 2005 issue of Cycle Canada:
"When a Ukranian woman called Elena Filatova launched a website last year about riding her Kawasaki ZX-11 through the post-nuclear wasteland of Chernobyl, it attracted attention around the world. ... We contacted Elena and offered her a fee to write an expanded version for CC, which she agree to — but then suddenly pulled the plug on her e-mail and failed to respond to correspondence by post. Elena, it turned out, had faked the motorcycle tour through the blighted area."
For more of the story on Elena Filatova and the accusations that some of her Chernobyl photographs and writings were a "hoax," see these links:

A message board poster named TrickCyclist wrote the following on in 2006: "I thought that she had admitted it was a spoof, but said that her motivation was to raise awareness about the continuing effects of radiation on the local population almost 20 years after Chernobyl. She certainly achieved that, so big up to the geiger lady."

Finally, there is this from Filatova's Wikipedia page:
"Around May 16, 2004, Filatova posted to her website that she was 'being accused that it was more poetry in this story then [sic] reality. I partly accept this accusation, it still was more reality then [sic] poetry.'"
More reality? Or more poetry?

Of course, there can be great truth in poetry, too.

I suspect that the truth of Filatova's citizen journalism is probably somewhere in that gray area in the middle. In journalism, of course, there is no room whatsoever for plagiarism or fraud. But within the context of pushing an ongoing examination of the Chernobyl disaster back onto the world's radar, I think there is a seed of nobility in what Filatova accomplished.

1. With regard to the showdown between Russia and Ukraine, another voice to listen to is that of Russian Garry Kasparov (yes, the chess Grandmaster). Kasparov has been an outspoken opponent of Vladimir Putin. Here, strung together, are two of Kasparov's tweets (@Kasparov63) from the weekend:
"[Chancellor of Germany Angela] Merkel presses Russia to 'engage with Ukraine'?? If Russia were more engaged they'd have tanks on streets of Kiev! Press Russia to disengage with Ukraine, that would make much more sense for Merkel to say! Putin is 'engaging' Ukraine to death now."

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