Stalkers of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Sneaking into a radioactive wasteland


A great piece in Roads & Kingdoms visits the world of the stalkers—not creepy dudes who follow women around, but a Ukrainian subculture devoted to illegally exploring the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Here's an excerpt:

I'm not a huge Tarkovsky fan, but the movie has its moments.

Online communities have emerged to trade information, tips, and advice on what routes are safe from the police, which entrances have become too dangerous, or where supplies are hidden. Experienced stalkers sometimes mentor younger wannabes. Pseudonyms are always used. In-person meetings are only cautiously pursued, as stalkers worry about police sting operations.

Some forums are open only to those who've achieved a certain level of success. Stalkers pursue a set of thresholds—or "acceptances"—by reaching an increasingly challenging (and dangerous) set of destinations. "Dogs and security are the biggest problem in the Chernobyl Zone, not radiation, not zombies," says one veteran who almost lost an eye while fleeing police.

Of course, radiation seems like the most obvious danger, though the health risks aren't as clear as you might think. Nearly 30 years after an accident, nuclear contaminants with short half-lives are no longer a threat, and acute radiation poisoning would only take place if you "went into the sarcophagus and sat on the fuel containing rods," says Chernobyl official Vita Polyakova. But there are still elevated background radiation levels in places such as Pripyat as well super "hot spots" of severe contamination, many of them undocumented. The risk of ingesting radionuclides—the radioactive strontium and cesium present in dust, water, and food grown in the area—is the most acute threat.

"Maybe on the outside we got more radiation than usual," a stalker concedes, "but once we leave, radionuclides are washed off our skin and that's it. The greatest risk is when it gets inside your body. That's why we try to bring everything with us—water, food."

"But D. ate apples in the Zone," I remind him.

"I did, twice. They were so big!" D. chimes in. "I drink water in the Zone, eat apples, and everything is good for me. No second head," he adds with a small smile.

The stalkers took their name from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video game franchise, in which players probe a post-apocalyptic Chernobyl region. The games, in turn, were inspired by Andrei Tarkovsky's cerebral science-fiction film Stalker, released in the pre-Chernobyl-disaster days of 1979; and Tarkovsky's movie was broadly based on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's 1971 novel Roadside Picnic, in which "stalkers" steal artifacts from mysterious and deadly "Zones." So this is a life-imitates-sf story, overlaid with a layer of no-future punk pessimism:

Another oft-cited piece of cultural fallout from Chernobyl is a pervasive fatalism; a widespread victim mindset, which creates a feeling of "lacking control over their future," as Fred Mettler of the International Atomic Energy Association wrote in the report Chernobyl's Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts. He adds, "The population remains largely unsure of what the effects of radiation actually are and retain a sense of foreboding. A number of adolescents and young adults who have been exposed to modest or small amounts of radiation feel that they are somehow fatally flawed and there is no downside to using illicit drugs or having unprotected sex."

Or eating other forbidden apples.