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.

NEXT: What Will Republicans Do If WHEN They Win the Senate? A Limited-Govt Scenario

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  1. This is really cool. I wonder if there’s also a hacker culture with people designing their own radiation meters, radiation resistant clothing, etc.

    1. Why the connection between cyber punks and radiation?

      1. 80’s movies.

      2. I don’t really know how I would define cyber punks, and I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about radiation.

        In general, when you have new demand for things, people will either take what already exists and modify it for new uses, or they’ll come up with completely new ideas.

        Radiation just happens to be involved in this case.

        If you’re referring to the sci-fi references in the article, I think it’s because radiation has been dominated by government research. Which makes the idea of large scale disasters involving radiation very plausible and believable. Also, radiation is one area that the general public hasn’t had access to to start tinkering with new ideas.

      3. I remember after Fukushima, there were ads being posted online for people to design new kinds of geiger counters. People were setting up networks of radiation detectors and uploading the data to the internet. People would embed the information on maps so you could see the radiation levels based on geographic location.

  2. Would’ve been pretty rad if he said, “No third head”.

    1. “But uh, I do have, just, like, a whole bunch of testicles.”

    2. Heh…”rad”…heh….

  3. Jesse: “Not a Tarkovsky Fan, but the movie has its moments”

    I think any film that is 3hours long will ‘have its moments’ by definition.

    If you take the “I failed philosophy class”-psychobabble out of Tarkovsky films (ie. all the dialogue), you get a lot of ‘great cinematography’ of shitty Eastern European locales. In that sense, I’ve always thought his movies were like “travelogues for suicidal Russian intellectuals”.

    ” they are somehow fatally flawed and there is no downside to using illicit drugs or having unprotected sex.””

    Wait…. downside? What?

    1. I’ve always thought his movies were like “travelogues for suicidal Russian intellectuals”

      Is that your line? ‘Cause I’m guaranteed to repeat it, and I want to attribute it properly.

      1. It is mine, my own, my precious.

      2. I suppose that makes, “Solaris”, ‘Suicidal Russians Trapped on Space Station‘, and “Andrei Rublev”, ‘Suicidal Russian Priest Won’t Stay Indoors‘, and “Mirror”, ‘Suicidal Russian Discovers He Has Cancer, Gets Even More Depressed, Has Lots of Flashbacks’

    2. Well, there is a possible downside to unprotected sex.

      1. My mom keeps telling me

      2. C.H.U.D. babies!

        1. Put your erection away, SF, it’s unseemly.

          1. Yes. You are correct. My penis has no seams.

  4. “I did, twice. They were so big!”

    Chernobyl is teeming with wildlife nowadays, due to little human presence. Babushkas are probably the only ones left by now.

    Growing up in USSR/post-Soviet Russia, I remember buying carrots the size of an arm. I’m sure it was just farmers having way too much fun with nitrate fertilizer, but common joke was about ‘Chernobyl produce’.

  5. This video, “Radioactive Wolves of Chernobyl” has been in my YouTube ‘recommended’ section for months, and I have no idea why. I haven’t watched it and have been hoping it will just go away.

    1. Thanks, it was pretty good. YouTube recommend’ns work in mysterious ways.

  6. STALKER is one of my all time favorite video games. If you’re a gamer and haven’t played it, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. Keep in mind though, this ain’t no Call of Duty.

  7. I haven’t watched it and have been hoping it will just go away.

    made me think of this:

    Last night I saw upon the stair,
    A little man who wasn’t there,
    He wasn’t there again today
    Oh, god I wish he’d go away

    1. But YouTube IS like this.

      It recommends stuff to you, and keeps recommending them for ages even though you don’t ever watch anything remotely similar to it. It doesn’t have any way to say, “no thanks”. So it keeps trying. Its insidious.

      Then there’s other stuff for which I blame Derptologist – I click all his links to ‘leftist retards’, and now I get all sorts of stuff that is supposed to appeal to ‘fans of leftist retards’. Not “people who want to mock them!”

      Oh, youtube, will you ever *understand* me?

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