Chernobyl: A Stalkers’ Guide
Step inside the irradiated heart of the nuclear power plant
Pripyat is seared into our collective memory as the home city of Reactor No 4 of the Vladimir Illyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant. The 1000 sq ml area, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, is the epicentre of a “secretive ‘stalker’ subculture. Yet the zone is now one of the most visited tourist destinations in Ukraine, in places dressed like a movie set of dystopian ruin to provide photo opps for curious visitors. But, in the hands of British writer, guide, urbex-hunter and photographer Darmon Richter one explores deeper and further into the site, not just the darkness and the horror and the self-sacrificing courage that saved us from a far worse disaster, but the preserved remains of a Soviet ‘atomgrad’, atomic city. Join that exploration in Darmon’s new book, Chernobyl: A Stalkers’ Guide, Darmon’s revelations will surprise you as they surprised us.
The book gives an authentic voice to people who were there in the early hours of April 26th 1986 when a routine safety test went catastrophically wrong, and to those who came later from scientists and policemen to the people who had to leave their homes in Pripyat never returning.
Darmon reflects to Greyscape about his visits over the years and what inspired him to write the book:
Our journey with Darmon doesn’t just lead us into the belly of the nuclear beast he also explores the town and region which, by virtue of its complete evacuation, is now an eerie soviet-era relic.
What did you want to try and capture in your photos?
The first time I went to Chernobyl, I came home with a memory card full of shots of beautiful, melancholy decay: crumbling furniture covered in ivy, children’s toys in abandoned nurseries and decaying books. It’s hard not to photograph this stuff, seeing as many of the package tours on the market are designed around these kinds of photo-ops. But it isn’t authentic. Many of those scenes are staged by other post-disaster visitors, or, as I learned while designing my own tours in Chernobyl, sometimes by the tour companies themselves, who profit from this sensationalism more than anyone else.
Over the course of my many visits though, I became far more interested in the concrete heritage of the place – both figuratively and literally. Even in life, Pripyat was a very unusual city. It was established as an ‘atomgrad,’ which was the name given to Soviet cities involved in the USSR’s nuclear programme. But while the other Soviet atomgrads have changed and evolved over time, often being adapted for new industries, and a different style of living, Pripyat was frozen in time. So for people with an interest in architecture and urban planning, it’s like visiting an open-air museum – a rare chance to walk the streets of a would-be Soviet utopia.
My photographs in the book are generally not focussed on the decay, the clutter, the graffiti… but often they focus more on the design of Pripyat, its streets and buildings; on the synthesis of new and old technology at the power plant; and also on the monuments that were raised to commemorate war heroes in all the villages of the Chernobyl region. I tried to create images that de-sensationalised the Chernobyl Zone, de-mystified it, and instead offered an honest record of its shapes, forms and colours. But in doing that it’s impossible now not to photograph decay as well, and so the end result, I think, can’t help but be bittersweet at best.
When was your first visit to the site? What changes have you seen in the intervening years?
In 2013, I visited as part of a Russian-language package tour. Since then I’ve been back around 20 more times, and I have seen a lot of changes in that time. The most obvious one, of course, is the number of tourists.
Tourists have been visiting Chernobyl since the early 2000s, but the real tourism boom started sometime around 2015. That year saw a 90% increase in visitor numbers compared to the year before… the next year, it went up by 125%. It’s funny, but the HBO miniseries perhaps didn’t have as much effect on the numbers as a lot of people assume! Chernobyl only saw a 72% visitor growth in 2019, the year it aired. Whatever the cause though, the numbers now are higher than ever: with a total of 124,000 visitors counted last year. It’s strange to think that Pripyat – which was once home to just under 50,000 citizens – saw more people last year than it did in any single year before it was abandoned.
The Zone’s administration has been working hard to streamline the tourism experience, in order to keep up with these numbers. For example, it was always technically forbidden to go inside buildings, but now that rule is being more seriously enforced.
‘Tour guides always had to carry a dosimeter, but now each individual tourist has a radiation meter to hang around their neck… while the guides now have to carry a GPS tracker too, just to make sure they’re not taking tourists anywhere they’re not supposed to!’
From a tourist’s perspective, some of these changes might feel like limitations – exploring the Zone certainly isn’t the wild and free experience that it used to be, even when I first went in 2013. However, a lot of this is necessary. Chernobyl is now the highest-grossing tourist attraction in Ukraine, and I think the authorities want to keep it that way… the last thing they need is for people to see news stories about foreigners getting hurt there.
Anyway, the inevitable over-tourism at some of the more famous sites in the Zone (like the power plant itself, or the former workers’ city of Pripyat) has resulted in a lot of people starting to look for alternative experiences. Illegal ‘stalker’ trips are happening more often, but in response, a lot of the official tour companies are beginning to diversify their offerings too – with helicopter and small plane tours, nature hikes, kayaking in Chernobyl, or travelling into the Zone by train with the power plant’s employees.
Until now most of the tours in Chernobyl have been limited to the same small parts of the Zone… leaving the rest of this huge area mostly unused. But spreading tourism across a broader area of Chernobyl is going to make the experience better for visitors, and it’s also going to make the industry more sustainable in terms of infrastructure and logistics – so it’ll be exciting to see what happens next.
Will the site ever be fully decontaminated?
An incredible amount of decontamination work has already been done at Chernobyl. The fact that tourists can visit safely today, exploring villages, schools and even Pripyat itself, is a testament to the efforts of the ‘liquidators’ – the teams who extensively cleaned this region following the disaster. Now, in most of the Exclusion Zone, background radiation levels are comparable to average levels anywhere else in the world.
However, there are still a number of ‘hotspots’ around, which are often caused by the presence of tiny particles of fuel, or debris leftover from the disaster. Pripyat Hospital still contains the bandages used while treating firemen and other first responders at the power plant, and these materials are still heavily contaminated. It is unlikely that all of these waste particles will ever be found and contained, and it’ll take thousands of years for all of them to naturally decay to safe radiation levels. At least in the meantime, they are few in number and easily avoided.
Most of the decontamination work these days is focussed on the power plant itself, as that’s the source of the problem. After the disaster back in 1986, a concrete and steel sarcophagus was assembled over the destroyed Reactor 4 to contain the worst of the radiation. It was designed to have a safe lifespan of around 30 years, which has now expired. In 2016 a new structure called the ‘New Safe Confinement’ was installed over the top of it. The plan now is to crack open the old sarcophagus within and begin dismantling the contents. That wreckage is believed to contain hundreds of tons of uranium fuel, much of it now melted and mixed with other materials. It all needs to be separated and sorted using remote-controlled cranes, before sealing it inside secure containers that can then be taken out of the structure, and transported to nuclear waste storage facilities elsewhere.
The New Safe Confinement is one of the most fascinating structures I’ve ever seen – and I was lucky enough to be taken inside, and given an exclusive tour of the secure area under the arch. My scientist guide explained that the ultimate goal was to dismantle and clean the entire power plant complex, leaving nothing behind but a monument on a grassy lawn. I think it must feel like a bit of a thankless task though, for some of the staff working on this project… the New Safe Confinement was designed for a hundred-year lifespan, and it’s very unlikely that anyone working on the project now will live long enough to see the job finished.
Should Chernobyl be presented as a tour destination or a memorial to those who lost their lives fighting the meltdown?
Chernobyl tourism has the potential to be a very good thing for Ukraine. It brings money into the country, and also to the power plant complex where the project to decommission three reactors – and decontaminating the remains of a fourth – has already cost a small fortune. For some local people, tourism has meant that jobs and incomes are beginning to return to a region that was socially and economically devastated by the events of 1986.
There have been questions raised, in the past few years, about the ethics of Chernobyl tourism… and how tourists ought to behave while visiting such a place. But I think it’s very important to remember just how big the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is. We are talking about an area of roughly 1000 square miles, which is larger than some countries. It does contain a large number of memorial sites, many of them honouring those who lost their lives during the clean-up. However, Chernobyl is also a place where thousands of people travel to work every day, and hundreds more are full-time residents. It simply wouldn’t be realistic to treat the whole Zone as a memorial site, and that’s not what anyone there is asking for.
Of course, visitors need to show proper respect when visiting any places in the Chernobyl Zone that have been designated as memorials. But in the rest of the Zone, they may as well relax. Go kayaking. Put some money into the region, and try to learn something in the process. One local woman, who moved back to the Chernobyl Zone a few years after the evacuations, told me she was simply glad to see people having fun here once again.
Now the book has been put to bed so to speak, what next?
It feels like closing a chapter on one particular obsession of mine – but Chernobyl hasn’t been my only obsession in recent years, and I have other projects too that feel like they’d benefit from the book treatment. I think it might be too soon to say any more than that right now! But yes, I do have something in the pipeline… so I don’t think it’ll be long before I’m pitching another book to publishers.
Darmon has been based in Bulgaria since 2012, he has a ‘particular fascination in ideological architecture.’ He is hugely knowledgable about the Buzludzha Memorial House visiting on a regular basis, documenting its slow decline, as well as contributing efforts towards the campaign to see it preserved.
All images the Copyright of Darmon Richter