An estimated 200 tons of radioactive material festers beneath a steel containment structure inside Chernobyl, the site of the worst nuclear catastrophe in history. Weightless, odorless, and invisible to the human eye, it has leached into the ground and swept across the anguished landscape.
Today, the 30-kilometer radius around the most contaminated area—the exclusion zone—is a mausoleum of man’s technological folly. Its ruination has become a symbol of the failed utopian ideals of the Soviet Union, a warning of humanity’s capacity to wreak ecological havoc, and a reminder of both our fragility and resilience. (Read more about the Chernobyl disaster.)
Thirty-one years after being designated a dead zone, the living roam its corridors once again. Over the past decade, an increasing number of self-proclaimed “stalkers” regularly enter the zone illegally. Cloaked in darkness and camouflage, they navigate miles of irradiated forest, sleep in abandoned villages, and watch the sunrise unfurl over Pripyat's crumbling Brezhnev baroque rooftops.
“You feel like the last person on Earth,” says Eugene Knyazev, who estimates that over the course of 50 trips, he has spent a year of his life in the exclusion zone. “You wander through empty villages, cities, roads. This is a magical sensation.”
THE POST-NUCLEAR TRAVELER
The term stalker originated in Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1971 science fiction novel, Roadside Picnic, in which alien invaders have left dangerous artifacts in areas known as Zones. The stalkers infiltrate these highly-regulated Zones to steal and sell the objects on the black market. The story was later adapted into Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker.
Published 15 years before the Chernobyl disaster, the Strugatskys’ book proved prophetic.
On April 26, 1986, a series of mistakes at the Chernobyl power plant compounded into the worst nuclear disaster in history (only Fukushima shares its maximum level-7 rating). An explosion at reactor number four released a cloud of radioactive dust that poisoned millions of acres across Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia and forced the evacuation of nearly a hundred thousand people. In addition to the human toll, the political and economic consequences were profound and enduring.
Inspired by memories of Chernobyl—real and imagined—a new subculture emerged. Organized groups with names, symbols, and rituals began to enter the area illegally.
“[Stalkers] see their hobby as an escape from an overly-regulated world: an escape into another reality in which fragments of social collapse can be grasped and contemplated. A lot of these places, the Zone included, are fenced off by a perimeter, and there are political implications in transgressing it, beyond the sheer thrill of the forbidden,” says Stuart Lindsay, a Chernobyl researcher at the University of Stirling.
You go to one of the largest museums of Soviet life—you literally can touch history.
Stalkers see themselves as both students of history and documentarians—preventing the memory of Chernobyl from falling into oblivion while breaking free from the eternal haste of the city.
“You go to one of the largest museums of Soviet life—you literally can touch history,” says Alexander Sherekh, a physicist who has made the trip 11 times. “You escape the 40-hour work week, life in a concrete box, and enter a completely different world. Instead of society’s problems and the ubiquity of smartphones and social networks, it’s an opportunity to be alone with yourself.”
CYBERSPACE VS. REALITY
The Ukrainian video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R., a first-person video game set in the exclusion zone, was released in 2007 and has been highly influential in the movement.
“We never encouraged the players to visit illegally—you need to differentiate between virtual world of the game and the real one,” says Oleg Yavorsky, one of the game’s creators. “Obviously the desire to see with their own eyes has been pretty strong.”
Critics of both the video game and stalker movement argue that it’s youthful self-indulgence—the reduction of real tragedy into post-apocalyptic sci-fi entertainment. The reality may be more nuanced.
“A lot of the original survivors felt like they were viewed as circus animals or freaks by outsiders—predominantly by Western media,” Lindsay says. “The second generation of survivors—who are more numerous and widely-settled than the initial liquidators—are now going through their own health issues related to Chernobyl. In my understanding, the older people are content to let the younger ones approach the Zone using the tools of their time.”
Most stalkers agree that they have a meaningful connection to the place and what some consider exploitation they see as homage.
“S.T.A.L.K.E.R. [was intended] to warn mankind of dangers when playing with unknown forces of nature,” Yavorsky says. “At the same time the game was meant to generate interest of the young audience in history. We hope the lesson of the Chernobyl accident will be remembered, so as the deed of the people who paid their lives to save us all from the nuclear aftermath.”
"NO DOSIMETER, NO RADIATION"
Three decades after the city was hastily abandoned, lush vegetation has overtaken the ruins and wildlife roams freely. Although low levels of background radiation make it relatively safe for tourists to visit sanctioned routes, the stalkers are notorious for their lax safety standards—ingesting unfiltered water, eating berries, and handling contaminated objects.
In fact, “no dosimeter, no radiation” is a stalker proverb.
Scientists like Vadim Chumak, Head of the Department of Dosimetry and Radiation Hygiene at the National Research Center for Radiation Medicine, challenge this notion. "The stalkers belong to the same category of humans as base jumpers and shark swimmers—this type of character is adrenaline addicted and is attracted by any sort of risk and danger,” he says. "Since radiation has no smell or taste, evolutionally we do not have built-in biological sensors for detection. As a result, the feeling of risk associated with ionizing radiation is naturally biased. If base jumper smashes against the land, it is quite definite. If cancer develops 15 years after exposure, it is less obvious," he says.
Even if radiation is reasonably low, unstable structures, hidden pits, rivers and lakes, and wild animals can pose an even larger threat, Chumak says.
Despite a disregard for their own health, the stalkers acknowledge the threat of contamination within their community. “The most absurd thing in the zone is a man and his thirst for profit,” Knyazev says. “People take out the forest for sale, the contaminated metal from the cemeteries of radioactive technology and sell them as raw materials. It threatens with new cancers for those who will have contact with these materials. After all, from the forest you can make cribs, and with iron, toys.”
As of 2017, there are 448 nuclear reactors in operation worldwide and nearly 60 more under construction.