JULY 22, 2022
ONE OF THE FIRST locations Russian troops occupied after invading Ukraine on February 24 was the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, a thousand-square-mile tract of contaminated land surrounding the defunct nuclear power plant. The brazen seizure further elevated global anxiety over Russia’s and stoked fears of another catastrophe at the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, which had occurred almost 36 years earlier.
Chernobyl has been inactive since 2000, when the last of its reactors went offline, but the site still houses tons of hazardous material. The remains of reactor No. 4, which exploded on April 26, 1986, are now encased in a stainless-steel and concrete structure designed to contain the ruin’s radioactive waste for the next 100 years. But while the facility, completed in July 2019 at a cost of 1.5 billion euros, was built to withstand tornados, it was not designed to be impregnable to weapons of war. Nearby, more than 20,000 spent fuel rods from the plant’s other three reactors are stored and kept cool in large water tanks that, basically, prevent them from exploding. And the land, water, and vegetation of the Exclusion Zone are contaminated with dangerous levels of cesium, strontium, plutonium, and other radioactive elements.
During the five weeks of Russian troops occupying Chernobyl, their actions increased the chances of a cataclysm. As documented in several stories by The Washington Post, the Russians made plant operators work uninterruptedly for three weeks before allowing in limited replacement staff. They elevated radiation levels by building fortifications, notably in the Red Forest, one of the most highly contaminated areas. And they damaged a high-voltage power line that provides electricity to the storage tanks cooling the spent nuclear fuel rods. Scientists assured the world that Russia’s activities were unlikely to cause imminent disaster, yet they also cautioned that there had never been a war fought in a country with nuclear power plants. Ukraine has four others besides Chernobyl, with a total of 15 active reactors.
Since the beginning of April, the Exclusion Zone, which lies some 100 kilometers north of Kyiv near the Belarusian border, has remained under Ukrainian control, but even if Russia ended its war efforts tomorrow, Chernobyl would not be a place where Ukraine could begin to heal. The Exclusion Zone has remained almost untouched for more than three decades now, since its tens of thousands of residents, most of whom lived in Prypyat, the city built by the city built by the 1970s to support the power plant, were abruptly Soviet evacuated soon after reactor No. 4’s meltdown. Unlike decimated cities such as Mariupol and Kharkiv, Ukrainians cannot even dream of rebuilding Prypyat, at least not for many lifetimes. According to scientists, the continued presence of radioactive metals will keep the Exclusion Zone uninhabitable for several hundred to several thousand years.
Yet the Exclusion Zone is not completely empty. Besides the workers maintaining the cooling tanks and securing the reactor No. 4 containment structure, there are 100 or so residents who returned to their homes, mainly in small villages, despite the dangers and government restrictions. And there are even tour groups that will take you there during the day. Several years ago, the popularity of HBO’s award-winning series Chernobyl sparked an influx of Instagram influencers, resulting in posts so jarringly discordant that a brief but vocal backlash occurred.
Beyond these intransigents, thrill seekers, and buffoons, another group regularly visits the Exclusion Zone, a group that includes Markiyan Kamysh, a Ukrainian writer based in Kyiv. Kamysh documents his trips to the Exclusion Zone in Stalking the Atomic Citythe English-language translation, by Hanna Leliv and Reilly Costigan-Humes, of A Stroll to the Zone, as the book was titled when it came out in Ukrainian in 2015. It is both intoxicatingly voyeuristic and alarmingly disturbing to spy on someone who dares to explore an exotic forbidden land that is slowly poisoning them. Reading Kamysh’s book feels like watching an early Harmony Korine film, except that the empty apartments and vacant lots have been replaced by abandoned cities and radioactive wilderness.
Kamysh, who was born in 1988, cannot really say why he visits the Exclusion Zone with such dedication, but he tries, at least rhetorically. He writes that “the first illegals” appeared soon after the “turbulent 1990s” loosened the borders of the Zone. This group of “daredevils, bums, deserters, looters, and fugitives” went to Prypyat seeking escape. For them — and, starting in 2010, for Kamysh — “the Zone became a land of tranquility and frozen time.” He writes that “the Zone is a place to relax,” yet there is little evidence of relaxation that is not chemically induced. He writes that “[a]bandoned houses make normal people sad, yet they make people like me sleepy and peaceful. I’ve found peace here,” but there are few signs of peace.
Kamysh is sort of a millennial cross between Hunter S. Thompson and William T. Vollmann, and his writing is often beautiful, often despairing, and frequently brash. His style can be ever-so-slightly solecistic, as evidenced in subtleties like serial nouns where the third item is a novelty, not quite like the others: “There are magical moments woven from snow, wolves’ howls, and soaked feet”; “these unforgettable moments, [where] wistfulness, lyricism, and whatnot overwhelm you.” He imbues his hedonism with a lyric majesty in phrases such as “[a]after sunset, I wade into thick nicotine tar and fountains of liquor.” But at other moments he is simply an insensate vandal: “There used to be a washstand, but I smashed it with a brick last year out of boredom and despair.” Hes grander touchstones like Fenrir, a giant wolf from Norse mythology, though he doesn’t develop them. Early on, he gives winter itself a poetic persona — “It is Winter who punches the wall tiles and scratches the faces of old Soviet murals” — but the conceit is quickly dropped. His naturalist observations can be eloquent, as when “[t]housands of islands drown in the early-morning mist among the last breaths of an Indian summer.” But overall, the book exudes an adolescent bravado, a remember-that-time-we-got-so-fucked-up-in-college nostalgia, except that these youths are more than merely partying, they are risking their lives.
At one point, Kamysh estimates that he has spent 200 days in the Exclusion Zone, though later he writes that he has taken 1,146 trips into the Zone. He refers to himself as “a bum” on numerous occasions, as well as an “idiot” and “a stalker.” He wonders whether he and others like him actually continue to exist or whether they have become “swamp ghosts” after all their wanderings in the Zone, after all the times they have drunk from poisoned streams or lakes. They get plastered. They smoke cigarettes. They get high. They drop acid. They break windows. They burn furniture. They have sex. They encounter bears and wolves and lynx. They get chased by the police and arrested and told not to come back, and then turn around and walk right back into the Zone.
They climb the rooftops in Prypyat and the dizzying antenna array of Chernobyl-2, which rises 500 feet and extends like a series of “thirty Eiffel Towers in a dense row.” Kamysh relates trips in the stifling heat of summer and the bone-chilling dead of winter. He almost drowns in downpours and almost gets buried alive in snow. He offers advice on a first trip (“go there alone” without an experienced guide or excessive planning); on surviving a frigid winter night (build a fire right beside you but only after breaking all the windows in the room); and on looting (“in the winter, bring a rope” so you can tow gear out on an overturned automobile hood, much like Rey’s scavenging when we first meet her in Star Wars: The Force Awakens).
He laments the “shitty lines of official tours” and the “[b]ored hipsters” and “rich girls from the capital” who have overrun Prypyat and obscured its “sense of mystery.” He doesn’t like taking new people into the Zone, or even anyone really, but he isn’t immune to the (presumably financial) lure. He recounts the time he ferried two Spaniards into the area and alludes to having taken many more prominent people — “TV hosts, actors, writers, famous artists” — though he insists he will never divulge their names.
There is an aura of invincibility to these explorers and their explorations. Kamysh acknowledges the risks several times, only to dismiss or discount them soon after. The confidence he seems to have is that of the faith healer facing a patient with terminal illness, or of the religious zealot trusting their God over the science behind a vaccine.
Stalking the Atomic City mainly reads like the confessions of an addict, as Kamysh repeatedly battles his dependence both on the zone and on zoning out, writing, “I feel better at the bottom of alcohol delirium than in a reality made of dusk, snow, and smoke.” He dubs himself a “Zoneaholic” and tries to trace his addiction to a youthful fascination with nature encyclopedias and, later, video games. And he reveals that his father, who died in 2003, was a design engineer who voluntarily helped clean up Chernobyl for six weeks back “when you could still get fried by radiation.” He does not, however, say how his father died.
Near the end, Kamysh writes, “I’m an idiot. Please kill me.” At another point he wonders how many years he has left “given the hundreds of liters of poisoned water” he has drunk. I honestly don’t know if he and others like him have a death wish. (It is impossible to even determine the veracity of what he relates, though there is certainly no reason to question it.) He says that some of the Exclusion Zone’s frequent travelers “have long gone off the rails” and now “seek out the most contaminated sleeping spots, munch on sand from the Red Forest, and rummage in boxes full of radioactive junk packed with catastrophic background radiation, groping for fragments of graphite rods.”
To a degree, this is simply the fatalism of a generation, any generation, that has come of age in what they see as a messed-up world. (And they certainly have as much of a claim to this impression as any generation ever has.) “We’re the children of our time,” he writes, while pointing out that anyone can die at any moment. Yet he repeatedly wonders why they go to the Exclusion Zone, what they are looking for, only to repeatedly answer, “I don’t know.” Kamysh thankfully doesn’t seem to crave a permanent escape, as he twice mention the joys of waking up at home, concluding that”[r]eal happiness is getting out of there as fast as you can and forgetting all the horrors.”
The current state of life in Ukraine makes it incredibly difficult to imagine Ukrainians forgetting horrors. Instead, all we can hope for is that artists and writers will continue to search for answers, with both their daring and their words, so that one day they may truly find peace.
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.