Growing up in the 1970s and 80s amidst a plethora of media threatening a grim dystopian future, my generation’s minds were prepped with facing the fallout of nuclear disaster in films ranging from ‘Beneath the Planet of the Apes’ to ‘Threads’ to ‘When the Wind Blows’ and then on Saturday 26th April 1986 the wormwood star fell and science-fiction became fact – Chernobyl happened…
At the beginning of his beautifully bleak creation, the book ‘Chernobyl: A Stalker’s Guide’, author and photographer Darmon Richter primes us with “Atomic Cinema” – a brief look at how the splitting of the atom had fuelled the dreams and nightmares of creatives. From ‘Tarantula’ to ‘Dr Strangelove’ to ‘The Incredible Hulk’, radiation has provided inspiration to a multitude of stories, but it is one tale in particular that provides a backdrop to Richter’s book and indeed is inspirational to its title.
That film is Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 artistic masterpiece ‘Stalker’. Scripted by the brothers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky and adapted from their 1972 novel ‘Roadside Picnic’. The film follows a journey made into a forbidden exclusion zone by a writer and a scientist alongside their guide, who is known as a Stalker. They seek for a room somewhere within the Zone that is said to have the power to make wishes come true. Whilst that is not the case within the exclusion zone that exists for 1000 square miles around the epicentre of the Number 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, covering areas of Ukraine and Belarus; people still have a curiosity and desire to enter the zone. In the 34 years that have passed since the grievous explosion at the power-station (that ironically occurred during a safety test) ejaculated radioactive particles into the air, water and soil, ‘disaster tourism’ has become a considerable industry in the area. There are legal tours that follow certain strict measures and routes led by guides but there are also illegal excursions into the zone, where off-route paths may be trod. other things seen and explored – the guides for these clandestine visitations are the Stalkers.
Richter employed the services of both the official tours and the illegal Stalker led missions that take him to the surrounding villages, the abandoned atomgrad city of Pripyat, the radiated Red Forest and even into the heart of the power-station itself, which was in the process of being decommissioned at the time of his visits having continued to produce electricity for some time after the disaster using the other reactors on site. The doomed reactor 4, source of the accident, is now entombed within a domed sarcophagus, its second shielding cover since the disaster.
Pripyat is a ghost city, (or was until tour buses began to drive its streets), its inhabitants forced to move far away, but in its premature urban decay, nature has taken hold and surprisingly thrives, but although Richter’s camera mostly catches the desolation and loneliness of the Zone, within his writings we find he has company.
Chernobyl: A Stalker’s Guide is as much about people as it is about place. Richter is interested in the Stalkers and their motivation in following a role in life that in numerous instances leads to arrest but more deeply in the risk to their health and longevity that they potentially expose themselves too on recurring occasions. He speaks to some people who remained or have returned to live within the zone, for there are some whose lives are tied to the place and fear starvation more than radiation, people such as the babas – grandmothers; old ladies whose families who survived the Holmodor a genocide by famine during the Stalin era that claimed the lives of at least 3.3 million people and the Nazi invasion and whose spirit will not surrender to the Chernobyl disaster. He talks to people who were involved in the operation following the disaster and who survived the conditions that claimed the lives of many other liquidators and other operatives either quickly and dramatically through high levels of radiation exposure or slowly claimed over time by the cancers that grew within them. He asks those who were involved in the operations their opinion of the 2019 HBO television series ‘Chernobyl’ and for the most part their answers are favourable, saying that not all elements were factually accurate but that overall it was a fair enough representation, although one man interviewed remains bemused as to why they depicted him within the show as having a thick moustache when he has always sported a clean-shaven look.
Chernobyl (2019) – Directed by Johan Renck. Written by Craig Mazin
Richter’s book is a great addition to the Chernobyl media. It is very informative regarding the specifics of the disaster and to the clean-up operation but it is far from a dry read, his own experiences on stalker-led visits read like an adventure story and his interviews with the people whose lives are touched everyday by the 1986 catastrophe are engaging and bring a poignant presence to the areas that he captures within his evocative photographs; for as well as being a satisfying, thought-provoking read, ‘Chernobyl: A Stalkers Guide’ is a handsome, visually rich book that would make a great companion to Jonathan Jimenezs ‘Spomeniks’ and will sit comfortably on the shelves of any psychogeographers, urban explorers and Stalkers everywhere.
Chernobyl: A Stalker’s Guide available now from ~
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Review by Andy Paciorek