On 26 April, 1986, at 1:23 AM, Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded. Outside of the control room, hardly anybody knew what had happened: even in nearby Pripyat, where people could see the reactor burning from their apartment balconies, the locals were unaware of the seriousness of the accident; six weddings happened in the city later that day.
While Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost meant that it was possible to discuss the USSR’s past more freely than ever, the same openness did not extend to the present, and the Politburo reacted with all the secrecy and dissemination that had been characteristic of the Soviet regime since its founding. It wasn’t until the morning of 28 April that workers at a Swedish nuclear power station detected abnormal levels of radiation and identified the USSR as the source. The news broke worldwide that evening, and the Soviet government was finally forced to admit that their “peaceful atom” was not as safe as they had claimed.
Thirty-five years later, and much has changed in the world — not least the disintegration of the USSR itself — but the idea of Chernobyl endures, lingering on in our imaginations as a symbol of the dangers of nuclear power. It manifests itself in serious books and solemn documentaries, but also in B-movies and weird comics, in an abundance of heavy metal songs, in Kraftwerk’s live shows, and in cult video games.
HBO’s 2019 Chernobyl series was a cultural phenomenon, one of those TV programmes that people just couldn’t stop talking about, like Making a Murderer or Tiger King. The Chernobyl-mania it induced led to a boost in disaster tourism in the area, with Instagram influencers pioneering a new, “pouting-in-Pripyat” genre of selfie. This in turn led to a brief tumescence of scandalised headlines, before the next outrage came along (long since forgotten, of course) to replace it.
The truth is, however, that while the HBO series gave Chernobyl tourism a bump, it was hardly a new phenomenon. I remember reading an account of a trip to the irradiated forests and abandoned buildings of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in the early 2000s in The Fortean Times. The author described an idyllic nature reserve which was not even all that lethal, so long as you didn’t stay too long and knew which areas to avoid. Equally fascinating was the “stalker” subculture that had emerged around the Zone, directly inspired by the 1979 Andrei Tarkovksy film, Stalker.
In that film, a mysterious “Zone” has been left uninhabitable following an alien visitation, but individuals known as “stalkers” illegally explore the forbidden landscape, and bring outsiders in, for a price. Stalker itself was adapted from Roadside Picnic, a novel by the USSR’s premiere science fiction writers, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, that was first published in 1972. Thus, the idea of a deadly, forbidden Zone had been imaginatively explored by a celebrated film director and two of the USSR’s most popular authors years before the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone erupted into real life; and that imaginary experience shaped how people conceived of and related to the irradiated landscape they now had to live with.
I was living in Moscow when I read the article in The Fortean Times and thought it would be interesting to visit the Zone, but it was difficult to organise, and I never got round to it. Nowadays, it’s much easier: you can sign up for one of several post-apocalyptic package tour options online, and, departing from Kiev, ride the bus for four hours to Chernobyl, accompanied by professional guides equipped with dosimeters. After stopping by the power plant and pausing for a photo, you can promenade through Pripyat, admiring the abandoned Ferris wheel and the crumbling Polissya hotel. So long as you stick to the approved itinerary, you will only be mildly irradiated — no more than if you spent a few hours on a plane.
In Chernobyl: A Stalkers’ Guide, British author-photographer Darmon Richter chafes against the rigid, schematized approach to experiencing the Zone that has emerged in recent years, and goes as deep into its forests and abandoned settlements as anybody is ever likely to. Richly illustrated with scores of photographs, it is a document of obsession, describing trips undertaken over the years since he first visited as a tourist in 2013. Starting in 2016 he began offering guided tours himself, and over the next four years took over one hundred visitors along routes that went beyond the usual sites to provide deeper insight into life in the area, with a focus on “village life and tradition, public art (murals, mosaics and monuments), and overlooked works of architecture”.
In Tarkovsky’s film, the Zone contains a room which is said to fulfil the wishes of anyone who enters it — if they can reach it, that is. So, too, in his book Richter is constantly searching for new, deeper, ways to experience the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, as if in pursuit of some secret as yet unrevealed. At one point he enlists the services of “Kirill”, an experienced stalker who leads Richter and some friends on an illegal hike that sees them creeping past police checkpoints, dodging cop cars, crossing rivers and fields, sleeping in abandoned houses, and staring at an abandoned radar station before finally spending a night in one of Pripyat’s 10,000 empty flats.
But this journey, while no doubt interesting for the participants, doesn’t quite translate to the printed page. Richter preemptively sucks the tension out of his narrative by sharing the story of a French group who got caught and suffered a fate no worse than $14 fine, and the reduction of their 90-day entry permits to five. They returned to Ukraine the next day, because, well, because the authorities in Ukraine just don’t care all that much.
Perhaps the most interesting of Richter’s several voyages into the Zone is described in the chapter “Monumenteering”. Here he decides to visit every Soviet monument left standing in all the villages and settlements that were so hastily abandoned by their inhabitants 35 years ago. This section reveals that the Zone is much more than a tourist attraction and nature reserve; it is also a strange radioactive Pompei, a lost world where the signs and symbols of a vanished civilisation linger on, even as they have been erased from the landscape elsewhere as a result of Ukraine’s laws on decommunisation.
As he ventures through this strange landscape, Richter discovers one strange sight after another: abandoned blocks of flats that run alongside crumbling roads; a decaying statue of a glowering Soviet warrior emerging from the trees, clutching a machine gun; a forlorn, overgrown arch commemorating the 300th anniversary of Russia and Ukraine’s unification; an enormous, rusty, sheet metal hammer and sickle that looks as though it was left in the woods by accident. Entering a former fish farm, he finds ancient specimens still preserved in glass jars; he also penetrates the most dangerous part of the Zone, the “Red Forest”, that was razed to the ground after all the trees died. Now beautiful pines and white birch trees grow there, at once beautiful and lethal.
Most haunting of all are the many monuments to those who lost their lives in World War II. The neglect of these once sacred sites marks a second death of sorts for those who died resisting Hitler’s armies; despite their sacrifice, those men and women cannot, in today’s Ukraine, be forgiven for serving in Stalin’s army. (By contrast, when Richter crosses into Belarus, which is run by a Soviet-style authoritarian, Richter finds that all the monuments to the war dead of the fallen empire are well-maintained).
Richter succeeds in his quest to visit all the monuments in the Zone, but he is not quite done. One more voyage remains: just as Tarkovsky’s Stalker is structured around a journey towards a mysterious room, so it turns out that Chernobyl: A Stalker’s Guide is leading us to the control room of Reactor 4, where the disastrous test that led to the meltdown run that fateful night 35 years ago. But whereas Tarkovsky’s film leaves the room unpenetrated and mysterious, Richter manages to bribe his way in and so achieve his heart’s desire; he even manages to sneak in a tour of the immense New Arch that today encloses the Soviet-era concrete sarcophagus that in turn encloses Reactor 4. It seems like a real achievement, but then he lets us know that today even the control room has been added to official tours. It is almost as if, by entering the room himself, Richter broke the spell.
Of course, there are those who might dismiss Chernobyl: A Stalker’s Guide, as “disaster tourism.” Richter rejects the term, describing it as “grossly misplaced”, and says that of the people he has led on tours “more had come to see signs of life and progress, than of disaster.” That may be so, but even then, I am not so sure that “disaster tourists” have that much to apologise for in the first place. People have been fascinated by ruins and the remnants of fallen empires for centuries. In Berlin you can visit a perfectly preserved bombed out church in Berlin and buy a postcard, in Mexico you can visit ziggurats erected by practitioners of human sacrifice, who were swept away by war and disease, and nobody will criticise you.
For as Richter discovers when he enters the control room at the end of his journey, Chernobyl has no great secret. In truth, its meaning is very old, and very obvious: there are forces larger than us that we cannot control, we are not the masters of the world, and our grand dreams can shatter in a second, humbling us. There is not much we can do about that but stand and stare and remember our powerlessness; it’s probably even quite a healthy thing to do.
That Chernobyl is today a popular tourist destination, added to the list of other sites where empires fell or tragedies happened, is a sign that the process which started 35 years ago, when people first began processing the event in books and art and music, is almost complete. Once unimaginable except in works of science fiction, today Chernobyl is almost normal.