Seiko 6309-7040, The Turtle That Crawled Through Chernobyl

Field Report – The Turtle That Crawled Through Chernobyl – A Destroyed Seiko 6309-7040

The Beauty of Destruction

My modest Seiko 6309-7040 Turtle has so much patina it is borderline destroyed. But this Seiko is the watch I wore to Chernobyl, and I’ve formed a bond with it that ups its personal value far beyond what it’s actually worth, which isn’t much due to its condition.

But I love patina, Wabi-sabi or whatever one calls naturally-occurring imperfections. I live in an old house, drive an old car and I’m getting old, too. I build my collection around my love for beautiful destruction. I don’t look for the best example; I look for the most interesting one. Interesting doesn’t mean it was owned by a prince or issued to a deep sea diver. Interesting for me is texture, that extra bit of character, the Wabi-sabi sense of time having had its way with a watch.

Seiko 6309-7040, The Turtle That Crawled Through Chernobyl

I’d wanted a Turtle for a few years, it’s a no nonsense dive watch with a storied history related to humanity’s worst endeavors, as in the film Apocalypse Now. The specific reference that seemed to fit the bill was the 6309-7040. As is the norm for Seiko at that period the first four digits of the code are the model/movement – 6309 – and the next four – 7040 – are the market the watch was sold in: 7040 being Japan and the rest of the world, 7409 for the American market. The 6309 was in production from 1976 to 1988.

There are so many 6903 Seiko Turtles out there for sale, and many have been modded or “Frankensteined” into something implausible. It’s not easy to find a clean original example, but my preference for patina and character helped keep me away from the too good to be true watches. And still, it took me about two years to buy this 6309, because I could find one with the right look which I could also trust was original. But I finally found the one.

Seiko 6309-7040, The Turtle That Crawled Through Chernobyl

It is beat to hell. The dial is missing text. The lume has turned beige, hands pitied, and so on, and I absolutely love it. It is a Suwa model from 1981. Suwa Seikos are models built in the factory in Japan, marked with a “S” symbol above six o’clock and more prized examples (for more on this see David Flett’s Seiko Guides here at BTD). I was thrilled to have found the Turtle that sang to me. (Ed. note: If you get the Grateful Dead reference, send me a message so we can be friends. – Allen.)

Then an opportunity came up, one that gave my Seiko personal history, upping its value within my collection far beyond any objective value.

Seiko 6309-7040, The Turtle That Crawled Through Chernobyl

Into The World’s Worst Disaster Zone

In February 2020,  a good friend and fellow filmmaker/photographer called me on my cell ‘Should we go to Chernobyl?’ It was a place I’d always wanted to go, oddly. I have always had a fascination for abandoned places, and nowhere on Earth is as abandoned as Chernobyl. As a child growing up near the docks of East London, I became enchanted with the soulless voids of dead industry, of civilization in decay – Wabi sabi on a massive scale. It was because of those youthful explorations that the Chernobyl accident had such an impact on me as a kid. 

Seiko 6309-7040, The Turtle That Crawled Through Chernobyl

On April 26th, 1986 reactor No.4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded during a safety test. It remains the worst nuclear power plant incident in history. The ongoing Cold War between NATO and the Soviet Union resulted in short lived cover-up. It was simply impossible to hide a leak of that magnitude, radiation detected as far west as Wales—a big worry then and now was the radiation traveled in clouds and rained onto sheep pastures in Wales and thus entered the UK food chain. The scale and clean up of this disaster was a contributing factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moscow could not undertake this alone. I can still remember watching the early days of the clean up on the BBC news as a child, the power station and reactors looked from another world. Those images never left me, they are the reason I boarded the plane to Kyiv in March 2020.

Seiko 6309-7040, The Turtle That Crawled Through Chernobyl

I honestly didn’t think long and hard about which watch to bring with me to Chernobyl. I had camera equipment to think about and was too excited to fuss over my watch. I went with the Seiko because it had just come back from its service and was not all that precious. It wouldn’t be missed if something happened to it, and no one was going to mug me for it. With my Fuji X-Pro II and lenses packed into my Billingham bag, I just grabbed the Seiko 6309-7040 somewhat mindlessly.

Seiko 6309-7040, The Turtle That Crawled Through Chernobyl

Post-Apocalyptic Tourism

The village of Chernobyl, which served as our base for three days, is in the outer exclusion zone and about half an hour from Pripyat where the power station looms large. Before we set off for our first visit to the exclusion zone our fixer handed us our personal dosimeter, to measure our radiation dose during our visit.

“Do we get the results when we leave?” I asked our fixer.

“No,” she replied.

We boarded our passenger van and headed to the inner exclusion zone at 10km. Coaches full of tourists traveling for half a day to tour the ‘Zone’ sport backpacks, ball caps and fanny packs— the kind of folks photographers like me do our best to avoid at all costs. But our paths would only cross at the 10km checkpoint. 

From there we head into the abandoned model town of Pripyat. Built to house the Chernobyl nuclear power station workers and their families, designed as the best example of what the Soviet Union could do for its people. Evacuated days after the 1986 nuclear accident the town now sits in silence, the only sound was our team disembarking from the passenger van outside the Pripyat Hospital. I stood outside and tried to take it in, a hospital abandoned, forgotten. 

Seiko 6309-7040, The Turtle That Crawled Through Chernobyl

At the time this was considered a state of the art hospital, but it lacked one crucial facility: the ability to deal with radiation at the level found in the area around the reactor after the accident. Because no one believed that such an accident could occur, the power station was considered fool-proof. This was Soviet engineering and hubris at its finest.

I enter the Hospital over a pile of sand, knowing that I’m headed out of bounds. The day trippers do not come here. This is where the real Pripyat is and I am drawn in. Our fixer tells us that we must watch our step and be back here in one hour. I look down at the Seiko and, for the first and perhaps only time, I actually set my bezel because I need to.

Seiko 6309-7040, The Turtle That Crawled Through Chernobyl

The Penetrating Stillness

Our group splits up. I move down a corridor into a labyrinth of broken glass and half light. The deeper I go, the closer I am to that Saturday in 1986 when the No.4 reactor exploded. I feel a little ashamed as I take pictures, as if I am watching the accident unfold in front of me. I can sense the pain and fear of the victims of the disaster in these dark rooms. None of them understood the suffering that would await, the horror of radiation sickness as lethal doses permeated their bodies. 

The building understands and communicates the horror to me.

Seiko 6309-7040, The Turtle That Crawled Through Chernobyl

As I walk from room to room, deeper and deeper, and farther from 2020, there is complete silence—the kind of silence you find in a desert, not the absence of sound, but the penetrating stillness borne of the absence of humanity. I enter a room and a chair is left as if a patient still sits waiting to see a doctor, a doctor long since gone, maybe a victim of the radiation.

Seiko 6309-7040, The Turtle That Crawled Through Chernobyl

I take a look down at the Seiko 6309 Turtle, the lume long since faded. I turn the Seiko towards a window. I am almost in complete darkness, my camera seeing more than I can. The Seiko’s bezel indicates that my hour is almost up. I retrace my steps from empty room to empty room and find our fixer and our driver smoking cigarettes at the entrance to the hospital. 

Seiko 6309-7040, The Turtle That Crawled Through Chernobyl

Back To Civilization

The small supermarket in Chernobyl is filled with everything we need: Vodka, Paprika Crisps and Chernobyl Disaster Fridge Magnets. I stand outside with one of the team and we eat our crisps and watch the comings and goings of this strange little town. A police petrol car saunters by, from nowhere a dozen of Chernobyl’s stray dogs appear, bark frantically and surround the police car. Soldiers were assigned to kill dogs near the reactor after the disaster, because the dogs were toxic—an unthinkable mission. These dogs keep barking at the police.

“Everyone hates the police,” our fixer says as she boards the passenger van.

The next morning we have our breakfast and are joined by our fixer. 

“So today Pripyat. Would you be interested in seeing inside a housing block? It’s against the rules, should we do it?” 

I am not really taking this in. Boris Johnson is speaking on a Ukrainian news channel on the TV across the room. I ask the fixer what she is talking about. 

“Coronavirus” is her one word answer. 

Further Into The Forbidden 

We arrive at the foot of an abandoned housing block that towers over the trees that surround it like an ancient concrete oak. 

Seiko 6309-7040, The Turtle That Crawled Through Chernobyl

“We can get a great view of the sarcophagus that covers the reactor from the rooftop.” 

So we climb past empty rooms and over broken glass. There are no insects, no spider webs which inhabit empty buildings around the world, but not here. We climb higher and higher, the interior growing darker and darker, less and less alive—more dead. The rest of the group falls behind. For a moment the only sound is my breathing and the glass underfoot. 

Seiko 6309-7040, The Turtle That Crawled Through Chernobyl

Then I hear someone approaching. Out of the half light a dog appears, one of the strays of Pripyat. It has followed me in the hope of a snack. I climb through almost total darkness, turn a corner and I am bathed in light from an open doorway above me. I can see the gray of the Ukrainian sky, a brilliant gray after the darkness. 

I emerge onto the rooftop. The rest of the group arrives on the roof behind me, all of us stop to look in wonder at the distant reactor, wrapped in white like a body awaiting mourners. But as I slowly approach the edge, my mind goes back to our fixer’s words. 

Seiko 6309-7040, The Turtle That Crawled Through Chernobyl

“Pripyat is a model town, the finest home and faculties of its time.” 

But below me that model town has been swallowed whole. Swallowed and returned to nature. Trees stand in the streets like tall green people on route to their reactor jobs, but they don’t move. There is a total silence below me, no song bird, no sound of children playing. The trees stretch endlessly. I can see into the heart of Belarus, a country that never truly recovered from the Chernobyl disaster. I lean over the edge and raise my camera.

Disaster After Disaster

Little did I know as I stood on that edge looking out on the disaster of the Chernobyl nuclear power station explosion below me I would return to London into a global pandemic. I left Ukraine on the last flight before the border was closed to control the spread on COVID-19. London was locked down the day after I arrived home. I’d gone from one empty place and returned to find my home city just as empty.

Seiko 6309-7040, The Turtle That Crawled Through Chernobyl

To this day when I put on my Seiko Turtle 6309 I think of Pripyat hospital, the stray dogs, the view from the tower and the silence. The watch has become unthinkably special to me. Morbid, apocalyptic, a reminder of our existential frailty. Now in 2023 President Putin relentlessly assaults Ukraine. The lives of the people of Chernobyl turned upside down, again. Our fixer and driver were out of work when I last heard from them.