“Chernobyl: A Stalkers’ Guide” by Darmon Richter (London: Fuel, 2020), 250 pages
reviewed February 2021
Even though the term ‘dark tourism
’ is never mentioned in this book, it is nonetheless of great relevance
to this website, given that Chernobyl
as a dark travel destinations ranks so high in my overall top-20 list
and tops my personal top-10
. And much of the book is indeed about travelling to and within the “Zone”, and most of those travels go beyond the standard day-tour visitor itineraries. Moreover the book packs a lot of background information into its pages. So it’s an extremely valuable source of information for anybody with more than just a passing interest in Chernobyl. In fact it’s quite probably the best book I’ve seen on this topic so far, and the one most relevant to dark tourism, even though this is not explicitly made clear in the book.
But let’s start with the physical and visual appeal of the book. It comes in a somewhat unusual format, almost square (but slightly landscape rectangular), like a half-sized “coffee-table” book. It’s a hardback with a warning sign-esque yellow-and-black striped cloth-bound spine and the front cover with the title has a photo taken inside the control room of reactor 4, i.e. where the disaster of 1986 began. So it’s quite striking. The unusual format of the book is actually an asset: it handles very well, far better than a full-size coffee-table book, and the page format is much more conducive to photos in landscape than a standard book is (which is better for portrait format). And it’s in the nature of photography in Chernobyl that landscape format is far more frequently required than portrait.
Speaking of photography: there are some 200 photos
in this book, some small, some larger, even full-page, and a few even full double-page spreads. There are only a few spreads that are just text, without any images. So photos constitute a key element of the book. And they are excellent, some even absolutely outstanding! The most stunning one for me is on p136-37: a double-page night photo taken from a Pripyat
high-rise and capturing lightning striking behind the New Safe Confinement arch – an absolutely prize-worthy shot! Moreover, the print quality is also excellent, with perfect saturation and natural colours. I emphasize this because it cannot be taken for granted. I’ve seen photo books where the images were often too dark or colour-shifted or with exaggerated colours (like HDR photography
, which never looks good on paper, in my opinion). So this book is a visual feast and an absolute delight even before you’ve read any of the text.
But now for the linguistic
side of the book. I actually know the author and have been following his blog for many years (it’s now called “Ex Utopia
” – external link, opens in a new window), so I’ve come to expect well-researched and well-written prose from this author, and this book (his first) does not disappoint. It too is written in that same pleasant style
which is lively, personal and engaging. It’s erudite but not at all “dry” – the perfect balance. It’s also pretty well edited, although I did find a few typos, a couple of misplaced commas and a bracketing error, but nothing so serious as to distract much from reading. Most readers may well totally overlook these tiny little flaws. I probably would have, had it not been for me reading the book with a reviewer’s eye.
NOTE: the following is a detailed review of the content and hence includes bits that could be seen as “spoilers”, so if you want to avoid those you can jump straight to the conclusion here
As for the content
of the book: It’s organized into eleven sections, a prologue, nine chapters and an epilogue. The prologue is preceded by four maps
, the first two showing the spread of radiation in the wake of the destruction of reactor 4, and the other two are annotated maps that specify the locations of various individual sites and buildings in Pripyat
and at the Chernobyl NPP
, respectively. The epilogue is followed by some end matter including a radiation dose table, notes with references to primary sources, acknowledgements and a short disclaimer. The latter is interesting because in it we learn that one of the people featuring in the book is actually a “composite character” merged from three distinct persons in the real world. Since some of the travelling done for this book was on the borderline of legality (and sometimes beyond), real names and dates have been changed to protect those characters.
sets the scene by pointing out that one has to distinguish between Chernobyl as an event (the 1986 disaster) and Chernobyl as a place today, which is why calling contemporary travel to the Zone “disaster tourism” (as many journalists like to do) is actually inappropriate. The aspect of time not being so easily divided into past and present at Chernobyl is also stressed. I’ve made a similar point frequently: that travelling to/in Chernobyl has an element of time travel both backwards into the (Soviet
) past and forward into the (post-civilization) future, plus, of course the present. Much of this book is about the present, and especially the people in this present in and around Chernobyl, but there’s some history in it as well (and a look into the future too, see below
But first the Prologue is followed by two chapters that could also have been regarded as prologues, so to speak, as they, too, provide context and background info.
Chapter One “Nightmares and Premonitions” looks at a wider context, the history of nuclear science and its key events (e.g. Trinity, Hiroshima), as well as related literature, movies and popular culture in general. Two works are given their own detailed subsections, “Roadside Picnic”, the 1972 novel by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, and the 1979 movie “Stalker” by the legendary Andrey Tarkovsky, which was partly based on “Roadside Picnic” but deviates from it is some significant ways.
”, is a mix of different things. It starts with the author’s own first encounter with Chernobyl
as a regular tourist on one of those standard day tours from Kyiv/Kiev
. That was in 2013, at a time when visitor numbers had already reached 10,000 annually and the tour was by bus shared by thirty tourists (whereas my own first encounter, also by day tour, was in 2006, and there were just six of us in a van, and that was the total number of visitors for the whole day). The tourist experience is described, and on the side there’s a bit of an excursus about radiation and how it’s measured.
The second section in this chapter, “A City for Marx and Prometheus”, gives an overview of the history of Pripyat
, how it was organized, its (residents’) privileged status within the USSR
and its links to the two names dropped in the section header. Marx
, in the context of a socialist city, is obvious enough, the link to Prometheus less so. But indeed Pripyat featured a cinema named after this figure from ancient Greek mythology and a bronze sculpture of the same figure, which now stands in front of the NPP
. The author’s love of ancient mythology and its links to modernity clearly shines through here. (It is something I don’t really share much, so for me personally these sections were less appealing, but that’s simply a matter of personal taste and not a criticism!)
The third section in Chapter Two is entitled “The Pripyat Myth”. This kicks off with how “inauthentic” the author felt his initial tourism experience was (this changed a lot on his later independent trips and his own work as a tour guide in the Zone). This “inauthenticity” is mainly a reference to the various “manipulations” tourists (and journalists, as we learn, as well as stalkers) have made, e.g. putting gas masks on dolls and such like. This is then linked with the “lies” that Pripyat
had always been based on, e.g. how the slogan “let the atom be a worker, not a soldier” glossed over the fact that these NPP
s produced weapons-grade plutonium and powered the nearby Duga
is called “Wormwood Star
”, which is both the name of a large mural on a building in Chernobyl town and a reference to the translation of the Ukrainian name of the place “Chornobyl” as ‘wormwood’, but it also goes into more mythical connections again. Most importantly, in my view, it is pointed out that the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 was only the third worst thing that ever happened to these parts. The village of this name goes back over 800 years, and in the twentieth century it was the victim of both the Holodomor
in the early 1930s and then the Holocaust
. During the latter the region lost its once thriving Jewish community of which only traces can still be found today. The second section in this chapter recounts what happened at Chernobyl on 26 April 1986 and in its aftermath (see here under Chernobyl NPP
). Here the book plays out one of its strongest points: in addition to the cold technological and historical facts, the author also includes excerpts of interviews with some of the real people who were directly involved back then! Also covered in this chapter are the years since the disaster, including the collapse of the USSR
and the issue of looting in the Zone.
has the heading “Nuclear Tourism
” and, as you would expect, this is probably the one most relevant to this website. The chapter details the nature and rise of the touristification of Chernobyl
, from humble and somewhat circumspect beginnings as “study trips” to the development of a veritable “tourism boom” from the second half of the 2000s onwards. Also described is the reorganization of Chernobyl tourism in 2011, including a short ban on tours by the courts, after which the state got more involved and began milking profits from tours to the Zone. What has happened since in the “mainstream” sector of Chernobyl tourism is characterized as increasingly standardized, with almost all tour buses following the same fixed itinerary. The author recalls how he, from his first trip in 2013, craved something different, something more authentic and beyond the standard “sights”. He got involved in the tourism industry himself in 2015 and soon enough he was (co-)leading his own groups of tourists into the Zone, and in a different style to the “standard” tours. He notes the wide range of interesting people taking his tours, from highly diverse backgrounds and with different specific interests. Hence he rightly dismisses the superficial term “disaster tourism” given to such tours as “grossly misplaced” – mostly because that puts the sole focus on the 1986 disaster, but that’s not what the contemporary Zone is all about. It’s far more varied and multifaceted than that, and this is reflected in the author’s tours and the various non-NPP-disaster-related sites he describes.
A subsection is entitled “Rules of the Zone”, but initially it continues with the description of the tourism boom in the years up until 2020, with more and more companies appearing and one big player becoming so dominant that it looked like it “owned” the zone. The commercialization of Chernobyl tourism is also driven by that big company, which started selling cheesy souvenirs from stalls just outside the main outer checkpoint. And as media attention grew, health and safety rules became stricter. The case of a stalker falling to his death from the Duga
radar in 2017 is mentioned and the author asks what would happen if a Western tourist were to die on an official tour. The rule that no visitors should enter any abandoned buildings had long been largely ignored, now police checks have become stricter and additional safety measures have been introduced (e.g. guides having to carry GPS trackers).
The next section is about Chernobyl after the HBO series “Chernobyl” that was launched in May 2019. The author brings up some inaccuracies in this otherwise highly acclaimed series, and again it is the personal stories that make the book shine: the author actually visited one of the real-life people depicted in the series in an overly dramatic fashion – the scene when three workers volunteer for a “suicide mission” to drain a water pool underneath the molten reactor core. In reality they were simply asked to do it and all three survived, and two are still alive today. But the real-life character does not hold it against the series and simply calls it an “American” way of dramatization.
It’s pointed out that the release of this TV drama series didn’t actually trigger a tourism boom in the Zone, as was often claimed in the media, because that boom was already ongoing. But it may have given it another boost. Growth rates in visitor numbers were the third highest in 2019 but had been higher in 2015 and 2016. Other failings in the media are also brought up, mostly resulting from the usual over-sensationalism the media tend towards, without proper fact-checking. The same frequently affects dark tourism in general. The particular moral panic outrage over selfies showing skimpily dressed Instagram “influencers” in the Zone is mentioned too, but it is pointed out that some of the images used as examples in the media were not in actual fact taken in the Zone but far away in Russia
or even London
. Moreover the author rightly stresses that the Western image of Chernobyl being a vast dead zone devoid of human life couldn’t be further from the truth. Of those thousands of people who enter the Zone every day only a tiny percentage are tourists, most go there to work and hundreds live there permanently. It is anything but dead.
The author also interviews members of the leading big tour company about the future of tourism in Chernobyl, given that in its current form it’s unsustainable long term, because buildings and infrastructure in Pripyat and the surrounding (ex-)settlements are slowly falling apart. Apparently creating variety in the tour programmes is one answer, another is campaigning for recognition of Pripyat
by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in the hope that some structures can be secured. Yet again, the author questions the slick branded approach of these tour companies, and wonders what ordinary Ukrainians, who can barely afford the Western prices charged by these companies, make of it. And this brings us to the theme of stalkers:
is called “Journey to the Centre of the Zone
” and it is about the author’s own involvement in ‘stalking’. That’s the term used to describe people who visit the Zone not with a tour company but independently, which ultimately means: illegally. Not all of it is independent, though, astoundingly you can even book stalker-led illegal “tours” online. I know the author has a penchant for ‘urban exploration
’, which also often involves illegal “trespassing”, so I wasn’t surprised that at some point he would join such a stalker adventure.
This is the longest chapter of the book, and in that way partly justifies the book’s title, although most of the book is still not actually a guide to just stalking, but much, much more than just that. Anyway, in this chapter we are told how it all came about through meeting the right people and how the stalking trip was organized. We learn about people involved in stalking, their often strong opinions and how opposed they are to the official touristification and the profit-making from it. Some are real characters with a deep connection to the Zone, but there are also some disturbing aspects (of which looting is just one). The description of the actual trip reads like a proper adventure story, beginning with having to strip down and wade through a river to get inside the Zone. What follows involves endless hiking by night within the Zone, camping out in abandoned buildings, the difficulties of organizing drinking water, eating nothing but freeze-dried food supplies, and lots of smoking and drinking vodka in between. Of course, the constant fear of getting caught is a key element of this stalking adventure and there were apparently a few close moments. I won’t go into the details. Suffice it to say they manage to reach Pripyat
and camp out in one of its apartment blocks, and it is in this section that the amazing night photos feature. Eventually this group of stalkers have the final adventure of “extracting” themselves out of the Zone again, but with the help of a local fixer they manage it.
is called “Monumenteering
”. I know the author is quite some expert in socialist-era monuments (especially across the Balkans) and I had already read a blog post of his about such monuments within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone; so I wasn’t so surprised to find this chapter in the book. It is different from that blog post, though, and again involves longer stretches that are about the people in the Zone, such as the various so-called “resettlers” (evacuees from villages around the inner Zone who came back to live in their homes within the outer Zone, first illegally, but now with state recognition). Only a few monuments are actually described in the text, though the quest to see every single one there apparently was achieved. There are several photos of various monuments, most in varying states of decay. Some images come with explanatory captions, others are without. What is so special about these monuments is that outside the Zone contemporary Ukraine
has imposed a programme of “de-Sovietization” which makes the public display of Soviet
symbols illegal, and so virtually all old Soviet monuments were removed. But not so in the Chernobyl Zone. Mostly these are WWII
monuments, or “Great Patriotic War” as it is still better known as in the (post-)Soviet sphere. They also meet some stalkers and the author’s fixer who drives him around points out that actually stalkers came to the Zone well before tourists. In their farthest explorations they also visit the “other ghost town”, Poliske, which apparently is not unlike Pripyat
, though somewhat smaller, and: without any tourists at all.
The “highlight”, in a sense, of the author’s monumenteering quest comes right at the end of it: a war memorial deep in the Red Forest. Those who know about Chernobyl
will be aware that this is one of the most contaminated places in the whole Zone; it’s like a super-hotspot but spread out over a large area. The author’s fixer/driver breaks the strict rule that prohibits all access to the Red Forest and they sneak in. The readings on their dosimeter go through the roof, peaking at a whopping 10,000 μSv/h, more than a hundred times higher than the highest reading I’ve ever measured inside the Zone, and, as the author remarks, it’s the equivalent of a chest X-ray every minute. Consequently they don’t spend long at this forbidding yet beautiful spot.
is quite mundanely entitled “Belarus
” and it is indeed about a tour that the author took into the only recently opened up “Radio-ecological Reserve” along the border of Belarus
. Belarus suffered more contamination than its neighbour, but receives only a tiny fraction of the attention that Chernobyl gets. Apparently, the Belarusians are aware of the sort of “over-tourism” seen in Chernobyl and are keen to avoid that. Hence tour numbers are restricted and highly regulated. Within the reserve there are similarities to the lands across the border but also differences. One concerns the monuments on the Belarusian side, which are not left to rot or taken down altogether as in Ukraine, but are clearly looked after and appear well maintained. In terms of nuclear tourism, the author notes that the Belarusian side lacks the big dramatic sights, the NPP
and block 5/6 cooling towers, which in a way is unfair, given that Belarus suffered so much more as a result of the disaster of 1986 but is now at such a disadvantage in terms of making a tourism profit out of it. Ironically, the highlight on this tour is the view from a forest-fire watchtower across the rural sea of green broken only by an object on the other side of the border: the huge New Safe Confinement structure over block 4 at the Chernobyl NPP.
Chapter Eight has another simple title, but one that at first looks more mysterious: “The Room” … this is an allusion to the “Stalker” movie by Tarkovsky, as is later explained. For me this chapter was the most exciting and the absolute highlight of the entire book. It is in this chapter that the author reports his chance to see the ominous control room of block 4 – i.e. the very place where the disaster originated – and even inside the New Safe Confinement (NSC) arch. While the former has meanwhile (since late 2019) been made available to ordinary tourists (willing to pay the extra price), the latter was a unique “now or never” opportunity. That’s because once work on dismantling the old sarcophagus and block 4 itself has begun, nobody will be able to enter this structure. Remote-controlled cranes and machines will take the disaster structure apart and collect highly irradiated objects and prepare them for safe storage. Getting access to control room 4 and the NSC took special personal connections, a hefty amount of money and two attempts, but eventually the author did come face-to-face with the iconic old sarcophagus closer up than any tourist will ever have been. The accompanying photography is also amongst the most stunning in the whole book: images show not just control room 4, which has largely been stripped of its fittings and looks like a ruin, but also the intact twin control room of reactor 3, as well as the reactor hall of the same block with its huge 1000-tonne top with the fuel-channel caps (the object propelled out by the force of the steam explosion on 26 April 1986 at block 4 right next door). And then there are the unique photos of the sarcophagus inside its new shiny silver shell. Awesome. In fact the author reports being quite overwhelmed by this sight, calling it “almost incomprehensible” (p212). The chapter finishes with speculative thoughts on future civilizations without our nuclear technology and what they would make of the “the poisonous atomic legacy we are leaving for them” (ibid).
Chapter Nine, the last full one, is entitled “Half-Life” and picks up where the previous one left off: the legacy of nuclear waste and the time spans involved. The NSC is supposed to last 100 years, but whether that will be enough time to clean away the old sarcophagus and the debris from reactor 4 no one can say for sure. And the materials to be retrieved will have to find some safe long-term storage, in particular the tonnes of reactor core material, including uranium isotopes whose radioactive half-life is hundreds of millions of years. How can such material be put in storage that can be safe for such a long time? Our present human civilization can be traced back in recorded history only for about 6000 years! Even if it is possible to find storage that could last millions of years, how are we to ensure that possible civilizations far in such a future will understand what they are dealing with and how do we prevent them from opening these deadly storage facilities? This is where the issue of “nuclear semiotics” comes in, and the author briefly outlines various proposed approaches. Some of these involve rather outlandish-sounding concepts, such as bioengineered flowers that perpetuate a warning sign for generations, or even a genetically engineered cat that changes colour in the presence of radiation (how to make sure such a species survives with that capacity for the required time spans is not asked). The discovery of fungi being able to absorb radiation is also brought up, before it’s suggested that the nuclear legacy will somehow be incorporated into a future mythology and folklore. Again it shows the author’s affinity with such mythological thinking, whereas I’m much more sceptical with regard to myths and folk tales and their potential accuracy (I know of no myths that approach or surpass science – so in a post-science world we’d be faced with less accuracy by necessity, I would say).
The final section of this chapter is a report of the author’s trip to Gavdos, the Greek
island that forms the southernmost point of Europe. Here a commune of former Soviet scientists was formed that engage not so much in science but more in speculative philosophy. And it’s the remaining members still on the island that the author visits in order to interview them. It turns out that despite the 1986 disaster these people are still full of enthusiasm for nuclear energy, but with regard to the problem of waste storage and nuclear semiotics their proposal is, well, extreme, to put it mildly: immortality. They genuinely say that in order to accompany nuclear science and storage, humans “have to” become immortal … and they believe that it should be medically, technically possible. Sorry, but at this point I’m lost. This is just too outlandish – besides: it ignores the consequent questions of how immortality could be made sustainable. We already have far too many people overpopulating
planet Earth. If nobody died, then how could the mass of people be sustainably managed? Or are they thinking only of themselves, as a tiny privileged elite (like in the movie “Zardoz”)? Anyway, this is drifting off into fairy-tale science fiction.
The very final chapter of the book, the Epilogue
, is about “The Chernobyl Rave Scene
”. So we are back in Chernobyl
and with the people who live there (or nearby). The reason the author got interested in this rave scene is the controversy surrounding parts of it, a subgroup calling themselves ‘Anarcho-Vandal Squad’ who are responsible for several “interventions” in the Zone, such as spray-painting famous signs or the infamous crane claw on the edge of Pripyat, much to the chagrin of purist stalkers and the Zone administration alike. So he attends a rave held at an abandoned clubhouse right on the edge of the Zone, but not quite in it. The description of the rave confirms how alien the scene is to me personally. I’ve only ever attended one such event, many years ago and I remember it not really being my kind of thing. So when I read of one of the rave’s protagonists raving (pun intended) on about techno as the “most honest of all music genres” I really balked. That’s what other people say about classical music, about punk, about metal, or any music that doesn’t require electricity (e.g. folk). Of course they could give reasons for their assessment but ultimately they’d all still be wrong (as it’s more about personal choices, not degrees of “honesty”). But when claiming this for a genre that strips back whole musical parameters, then I would at least have liked to be given a sensible reason. But never mind.
In attendance at the rave are also several stalkers, including the one the author had as his guide on his own stalking trip. The rave’s organizer is also a stalker, and one of those who got interested in the Zone through the ego-shooter computer game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. which is set in Chernobyl. Again I felt a certain alienation, because personally I’ve never played any such computer games and I find the ego-shooter concept highly questionable in principle. But I failed to connect even more when the group describe themselves as “virtual counter-culture” and their interventions in the Zone as “performance art theatre” and “post-irony”. I side more with those critics who plainly call it vandalism. Maybe I just lack the author’s open mind and tolerance towards such “counter-culture”.
The book ends at the rave scene – or rather: near it. Behind the clubhouse a path leads towards the border of the Zone, and as the “fence “ consists of nothing more than some loose strands of rusted barbed wire, he simply walks in and enjoys a moment of immense freedom. The final words are a quote from Tarkovsky’s “Stalker”.
I must say I found the closing chapter of the book an odd almost anti-climatic choice, but maybe that’s just due to my distance from rave scenes, their music, computer games and the type of justifications given for their interventions.
The book is not, as the title claims, just a “Stalkers’ guide”, but it is much, much more beyond that. Though the word “stalker” is a common thread throughout the book (often in reference to Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker”), the actual stalking scene itself is only portrayed in one chapter and a half, namely Chapter Five and the Epilogue, respectively. The rest of the book looks at Chernobyl from every conceivable angle, historical, sociological, cultural and so on. It’s the broadest approach that I’ve ever encountered and in that sense easily the best book about Chernobyl yet. Moreover, it takes the reader to places even seasoned Chernobyl visitors will not have seen or, in at least two cases, will never be able to see. That alone makes it second to none.
If you’re only interested in the accident of April 1986 and the subsequent disaster, then other books are better suited for you. This book deliberately keeps the account of the accident very brief and otherwise rather takes a different approach by also looking at Chernobyl in other, more contemporary than historical ways. It’s at its strongest when it’s about the people of Chernobyl, and the author’s intimate knowledge of the place and his connections with the people there really pay off. I struggle to imagine anybody else being able to pen such a book. And it’s not just the fascinating text, the photos so richly illustrating the book are beyond fabulous too. So if you’re interested in Chernobyl
as it really is, not just was, but is, now, then this book is absolutely required reading! Highly recommended!
Now, a review ought to have some critique as well, but the only issues I have with this book are really very minor and result more from differences in personal taste (e.g. me being less into mythology, folklore or certain aspects of counter-culture). There were only two small individual points I saw as errors, one where it says the Trinity Test
took place at Los Alamos
, when it was only devised there but actually took place 150 miles (250 km) to the south in the desert near Alamogordo. The other is a slight simplification when it talks of “the “ explosion at reactor 4, in the singular, when it is generally agreed that there were two explosions in quick succession (the first a steam explosion that destroyed the reactor core, and the second most likely a hydrogen gas explosion, which ripped the reactor building apart.) But given that the book deliberately keeps the technical account of the accident to a minimum, this latter simplification is perfectly forgivable.
Otherwise I found the book, as far as I can see, exceptionally well researched and thankfully free of any of those many misconceptions about Chernobyl that are floating around. On the contrary, this book debunks dozens of those misconceptions and will be a real eye-opener to many. I’ve been dealing with the topic of Chernobyl
on and off for decades myself, so the historical and technical parts weren’t all that new to me, but I still learned tonnes of things about Chernobyl that I had been unaware of or not yet seen in the right light. So I too took a lot away from this book. Moreover it’s not the sort of book you file away after having read it, but I for one keep it out and frequently open it again to look at all those fabulous photos, many showing places I’ve been to myself and love, but also enticing images of less well known sites within the Zone I have yet to get to myself. It certainly made me want to go back to this unique and forever fascinating place.