Chernobyl: A Stalkers’ Guide
FUEL Publishing, £24.95
Hardcover, 248 pages, © 2020

CHERNOBYL: A STALKER’S GUIDE, new from Darmon Richter and FUEL Publishing, is an impressive hybrid: part travelogue, part memoir, part essay. The book weaves together numerous strands of history, mythology, and ecology that intersect at Chernobyl, ranging from Prometheus as an atomic Marxist saint to pop-cultural references like the Fallout games and HBO’s Chernobyl to mushrooms as a potential solution nuclear waste solution. Richter, who has spent decades exploring and writing about what he calls “ideological architecture” (which often, but by no means always, focuses on Communist-era buildings) does an impressive job of unifying these numerous trajectories, resulting in a highly focused and immensely readable study of a fundamentally misunderstood place.

Richter’s first trip to Chernobyl was a similar experience to that of nearly all outside visitors to the site: an official bus tour that visited a list of well-known, highly trod locations within the Exclusion Zone. While the tour piqued his interest, a look at a map revealed just how much he hadn’t seen, and he soon began making return trips via an underground network of self-proclaimed “stalkers”: guides who lead unsanctioned tours of the “real” Chernobyl, visiting sites well outside the official list of “safe” areas. Tarkovsky’s Stalker (which was released seven years before the disaster) serves as an uncannily prescient precursor of the real-life Chernobyl disaster and its aftermath, in particular its portrayal of a zone where dangers abound and the rules of the outside world no longer apply. Like the film’s eponymous protagonist, the real-world “stalkers” have a symbiotic relationship with the real-world Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, where treading lightly and leaving no trace not only prevents detection by roving guards and police, but also contributes to the long-term sustainability of both buildings and nature within the Zone.

A tame fox sits picturesquely in front of the sign for Pripyat. With the exodus of most of the human population following the disaster, many animal populations have thrived, including horses and stray dogs.

Despite its reputation as the Mount Everest of dark tourism, Chernobyl constitutes much more than the disaster with which its name has become synonymous. The book seeks to differentiate the place known as Chernobyl from the events of April 1986: as Richter states several times, the nuclear disaster, while horrific, was by many orders of magnitude not the worst human tragedy the region saw during the 20th century. The devastating famine engineered by Stalin from 1932-33 killed millions of Ukrainians, and the Nazis dispatched untold millions more – from partisan fighters to ordinary citizens, including scores of Orthodox Jews – during WWII. 

Nonetheless the disaster, which played out 24/7 on televisions around the world and seemed to fulfill every apocalyptic fear of the nuclear age, led to it being indelibly seared in the collective mythology. We spoke to Richter about how Chernobyl tourism has changed over the years, the current state of the region, and the lasting appeal of lost and abandoned architecture.

Chernobyl: A Stalkers’ Guide is the result of numerous trips to the region around Chernobyl. When did the idea for this book begin to take shape? Is there something of a pilgrimage aspect in your return visits to the site?

My first dozen-or-so visits to Chernobyl were purely driven by my own curiosity, with no thought of ever making a book about it. I took a two-day tour there in 2013, and had more or less the same experience that hundreds of thousands of other tourists have had since. We stopped at the power plant, the Ferris wheel in Pripyat, and visited a handful of schools, hospitals and apartments full of suspiciously arranged photo props… an unlikely assortment of children’s toys and gas masks. But I kept thinking back to it over time, and looking at maps of the small area of Chernobyl we had toured, compared to the vast unmarked parts of the Exclusion Zone that tours basically never touch.

Maps of Pripyat (left) and Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, which lie approximately 3km apart.

Maps of Pripyat (left) and Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, which lie approximately 3km apart.

The only legal way to visit Chernobyl is in the company of a licensed guide… but I kept going back to Ukraine, and in time I met a Chernobyl guide who shared my curiosity, so we began working together on new, alternate routes through the Zone. The vast majority of this 2,600-square kilometre Exclusion Zone is untouched by tourism. So while other visitors would be complaining about over-tourism in Pripyat, we’d often be in some far flung corner of the Zone, meeting the people still living in villages that don’t even appear on maps anymore. I remember one winter trip we did, when we saw more moose than tourists!

It was that sense of exploration that kept me going back. Finding monuments, churches, murals and mosaics, that had lain largely undisturbed and undocumented since the fall of the Soviet Union. And the oral history of the region too – books about the history of Chernobyl usually take a top-down approach, piecing the story together from official records and government documents. But I was meeting Chernobyl re-settlers who were more than happy to share their own first-hand perspectives on local history. For most foreigners, the disaster in 1986 is all they know about the Chernobyl region – but even before the Soviets decided to build a nuclear power plant there, this region was already a fascinating corner of Ukraine. From the people who still lived there I was hearing local folklore, and stories going back as early as memories of WWII.

Soviet-era mural, Pripyat. Due to the region’s unique status, the “de-Sovietisation” practices that affect most of Ukraine have not been enacted around Chernobyl.

Soviet-era mural, Pripyat. Due to the region’s unique status, the “de-Sovietisation” practices that affect most of Ukraine have not been enacted around Chernobyl.

At some point, while visiting these largely forgotten settlements, collecting photographs as well as hours and hours of audio interviews, I think my research just reached a critical mass and it suddenly became obvious that I needed to turn this into a book.

What’s something about the region that might be surprising to people who haven’t visited?

I have a feeling that this book is going to contain a lot of surprises, even for people who have visited the region. What I found, over the course of my numerous visits, is that in many ways the Chernobyl tourist experience is a carefully managed illusion… from the high-security checkpoint entering the Zone, guarded by police with Kalashnikovs, to the abandoned kindergartens littered with the belongings of children long-since evacuated. In reality, those high-security perimeter fences don’t stretch much further than you can see from the main road. There are some parts of the perimeter which are entirely unguarded, and where local people can drive in and out of the Zone unchecked. Meanwhile, many of the scenes that tourists are photographing have been deliberately arranged for dramatic effect. That much seemed clear to me, even after my first visit in 2013… but what I learned during the course of making this book is that often it is not photographers, but some of the tour companies themselves who are going in and doing this – because of course, they profit more than anyone from the results of such sensationalism.

View of Pripyat from an abandoned building, with the New Arch containing Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 in the background.

View of Pripyat from an abandoned building, with the New Arch containing Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 in the background.

Over the decades this has had the effect of turning Pripyat and other popular tour stops into a kind of post-disaster theme park, and with more than a hundred thousand tourists visiting Chernobyl in 2019, it is now a multi-million dollar industry. But as time goes by that curated tourist experience becomes less and less accurate to the reality of the Zone in general, which continues to change outside of the static tourism bubble. There are hundreds of people who live in the Zone full-time, and thousands more who commute in every day for work – not just power plant employees, but people working in construction, forestry, conservation and fire prevention. In the evacuated regions of Belarus, there are even large-scale farming and animal rearing operations. Most of what you’ll read about contemporary Chernobyl was written by people who saw it from the perspective of a Chernobyl tour. But tourism, today, represents less than 5% of the total human traffic in the Zone… so I set out to write a book about the other 95%.

Chernobyl’s popularity as a destination has grown tremendously over the past decade. How has the experience of visiting changed for you over the years?

The number of tourists has been in rapid growth for the past five years, and the result is that those places favoured by the standard tour routes can sometimes feel positively crowded now. Pripyat, a city that used to accommodate fewer than 50,000 people, saw 124,000 tourists in the course of last year.

In response to these growing visitor numbers, the Exclusion Zone’s administration has started tightening restrictions in an effort to streamline and safeguard the tourist experience. So for example, tourists were always technically forbidden from entering buildings in the Zone, but for a long time this rule was ignored by every tour company working in Chernobyl. For the last few years though, that rule has actually been enforced. Tour guides are being made to carry GPS trackers, while the police have allegedly been placing motion detectors inside some of the more photogenic buildings in Pripyat, to catch trespassers. Meanwhile, there has been a fair amount of drama behind the scenes too, and by all accounts certain tour operators are employing quite aggressive business tactics in their efforts to monopolise the incoming tourism revenue.

Abandoned trolleybus, Kopachi village.

Abandoned trolleybus, Kopachi village.

Another major development happened just this past week – when Ukraine’s Council of Ministers met to discuss new legislation that would reclassify trespassing in the Zone from a civil, to a criminal offence. A large part of my book involves meeting the people who call themselves “stalkers,” and who explore the Exclusion Zone on foot, illegally. There are hundreds of active stalkers in Ukraine, and while some of them prefer sneaking in for the thrill of it, or for the sense of freedom it gives compared to a structured tour experience, for others there are also financial motivations: a Chernobyl tour might not seem expensive to Western tourists, but the price of official admission is similar to what some Ukrainians will earn in a whole month.

Up until now the punishment for trespassing in the Zone was a fine equivalent to roughly €15. But if this legislation passes then stalkers could be facing as much as one hundred times that amount in fines, along with a permanent criminal record. The Chernobyl Zone is gradually transitioning from post-Soviet terra nullius to a tightly-managed tourism park, and if this new legislation is approved, then I think it’s really going to feel like the end of an era for many people.

While your main focus is abandoned sites in the former Soviet Union, you’ve also documented a wide array of places far outside that sphere, from Iran to Myanmar to Winnipeg. What draws you to the particular locations you choose to visit?

Though I might end up writing about other places I find along the way, I almost exclusively plan my travel around visits to specific cities or memorial sites. I have always been deeply fascinated by built environments, their visual narratives, and the illusions that they sometimes present – especially when design is placed ahead of organic growth. Naypyidaw, for example, the capital of Myanmar, is a new city designed from the ground-up as a 21st century metropolis offering a futuristic take on traditional Burmese architecture… but today it remains unfinished, and only sparsely populated. Naypyidaw felt to me like a piece of conceptual art, or an eccentric Victorian-era folly, but blown up to the size of a whole city. Winnipeg couldn’t be more different as a place, but again, I feel it’s a city where the architecture speaks very loudly. Elegant Châteauesque architecture dating from the railroad expansion years sits right alongside Brutalist buildings constructed with post-WWII grain money. You can spot the periods of new growth, and read the city’s history, as clearly as the layers of sediment in rock. Pripyat, the planned Soviet workers’ city in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, is also the very epitome of this kind of ‘readable’ architecture.

Playground near Pripyat Middle School no. 3.

Playground near Pripyat Middle School no. 3.

I am based in Eastern Europe, and most of the places I document are located in the post-communist world. My interests are not limited to this part of the world though, and it isn’t the theme of ‘communism’ itself which motivates my work in Eastern Europe – but rather, how the single-party governments of this region attempted to manifest their ideology through large-scale projects in art and urbanism. In Yugoslavia, for example, the creation of abstract war memorials after WWII marked a separation of identities, clearly setting the Yugoslav Socialist Federal Republic apart from the more rigid Socialist-realist art and architecture that was then being prescribed in the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the Communist Party of Bulgaria built literally thousands of monuments, I think perhaps more per capita than any other communist republic, in what was effectively a state-wide propaganda campaign: these monuments often rewrote the nation’s history, for example presenting 19th century revolutionaries as proto-socialists in an effort to legitimise, and more deeply entrench Bulgaria’s communist present as the inevitable conclusion to a shared understanding of national history. Taken as a whole those monuments constitute a singularly focussed design project on a truly staggering scale.

I might seem to focus more on abandoned sites in this region, but I don’t think that’s a deliberate choice as much as it is perhaps a reflection of the fate of communist heritage in a post-communist world. After all, there’s no urgency to get out there and document a building or monument that’s still being maintained, and I feel a part of what I do is about raising awareness of heritage at risk… in a few cases I have even been able to contribute towards projects aimed at preserving or restoring such sites. With this Chernobyl book, I have tried to do something similar for the art and architecture in the Exclusion Zone – creating a photographic record of some quite incredible places, some of them rarely seen by anyone, and many of which now seem doomed to a gradual decline into ruin.

Reactor Hall 3, Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Each “tile” is the lid of a single fuel rod container.

Reactor Hall 3, Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Each “tile” is the lid of a single fuel rod container.

How have you adapted to being mostly homebound this year? Has there been any sort of silver lining, such as a chance to work on other projects? 

The way things turned out, 2020 really couldn’t have been more different from what I had planned. By now, I would already have visited three continents this year. Instead this is the longest I’ve spent in one single country, for a decade. Though honestly, the last few years have been a little intense at times – I visited more than 20 countries a year for three years in a row, which is as exhausting as it is exciting. So even though 2020 has been an absolute trainwreck from the perspective of my tour business, in other ways, I think I probably needed this. I used this time at home to finish the book, which represents the culmination of everything I know about a place I have been visiting, and leading tours to, for seven years: real closure in itself. But I have also had time to revisit other projects. I’ve been making music – my other big passion – as well as digging through old hard drives to find stashes of photographs and scribbled notes that I never got around to publishing anywhere before. 

Any travel goals for 2021?

Right now I am definitely looking forward to getting back out there and travelling to some new places again – Central Asia was high on my list for 2020, and now it’s high on my list for 2021 instead. But I feel like this year has been both a turning point, and a valuable lesson for me. I already have more photographs here than I know what to do with, so in future I plan to spend perhaps just a little bit less time travelling, and more time working on new books instead.

Read more of Darmon’s writing at The Bohemian Blog.