Chernobyl: A Stalkers’ Guide – Interview with Darmon Richter

by Nathan James Thomas

Writer and photographer Darmon Richter has been a friend of Intrepid Times since we first interviewed him back in 2016. With the release of his stunning new book, Chernobyl: A Stalkers’ Guide, he was kind enough to grant us this interview where we explore Chernobyl from a traveler’s perspective. Enjoy!

What first attracted you to Chernobyl?

I think it was always inevitable that I would end up visiting Chernobyl someday. When I was growing up, I remember watching so many films about post-apocalyptic landscapes… The Time Machine, Planet of the Apes, Mad Max… and the British apocalyptic drama Threads too, which I probably saw at far too young an age. So my imagination was always captivated by this idea of a world without us – after us – where nature would reclaim the ruins of human civilisation. It wasn’t the apocalyptic event itself that interested me, but rather the wild, untamed beauty that followed.

When I found out it was possible to take a tour of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, I immediately began making plans. And I think one visit might have been enough – if that’s all Chernobyl was, a place in ruins. But the Zone today is far more complicated than many people realise. Tourism is just one small facet of what goes on in the region. It has hundreds of full-time residents, and thousands of employees working on one of the most advanced scientific sites in the world – a radiation containment project on a scale never seen before. In my opinion the region has some of the finest Soviet-era mosaic art and murals anywhere in the world, and today there is new art being made there too – exhibitions, installations, even musical concerts and raves in the Exclusion Zone. 

So it’s ironic: the thing that first attracted me to Chernobyl was the apparent lack of people. But in the end, it was the people I found there that kept me coming back.

Control Room 4, the room where the 1986 disaster originated. Now stripped of many of its fittings and cleaned of dust, it has been declared safe for visitors. Since autumn 2019, the power plant authorities have included it on official tours.

You benefited from some pretty rare/exclusive access to the site, how did you pull this off?

Most of the time, there’s no secret or shortcut to it: I first visited the Zone in 2013, then I continued to spend a lot of time in Ukraine and started getting to know people who worked in Chernobyl tourism. We created new tour routes together, then that led to other introductions, and so on. I have now been lucky enough to enjoy exclusive access to some fairly unusual parts of the Chernobyl Zone – but mostly that’s just the natural result of spending years getting to know this place and the people who live and work there.

Although having said that, there are a few instances in the book where that exclusive access was not so much granted, as taken. There’s a growing subculture in Ukraine (spreading into Belarus and Russia too) of people who call themselves ‘stalkers,’ and sneak into the Zone illegally. They borrow the name from the 1972 science fiction novel Roadside Picnic, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. I joined one of these stalker trips for the book, hiking through the Zone for four days, hiding from guards and sleeping in abandoned houses. As a Westerner visiting Chernobyl, I think it’s important to acknowledge the position of privilege we have: we can take an official tour of this world-famous place for a couple of hundred dollars a day. But for Ukrainian people – the people most directly affected, and with the greatest right to be curious about Chernobyl – the price for a tour is close to what they might be earning in a whole month. So it felt really important for me to be able to see the Zone this way too: because from the perspective of a lot of local people, paying Western rates for guided tours is the more exclusive experience.

Rooftops, central Pripyat. The back of the hammer-and-sickle emblem from the tower block roof. This symbol would have been brightly lit at night.

If someone wanted to follow in your (legal) footsteps and see Chernobyl, how would you suggest they go about it?

To visit Chernobyl legally as a tourist, you need to apply for a trip with one of the registered tour companies. But there are many of them now – and the experience will differ greatly depending on which one you pick. Some companies are more history focussed, while others have inexperienced guides and seem to be more interested in selling you tacky souvenirs. I’m afraid to say, Chernobyl really is one of those places where you get what you pay for, too. The cheaper your tour, the more likely it is that you’ll end up in a group of 30 people, following a queue of tour buses through only the most popular locations, and getting rushed so quickly from one stop to the next that you hardly have time to take out your camera.

I find it kind of crazy that all these tours focus on the same small area of the Zone. Really, it’s a huge territory with a lot to see – but 99% of the tourists who visit end up squashed into crowds at a small handful of locations: the power plant, the Ferris wheel, and so on. You would have a very different experience if you booked a private guide and asked them to show you around the sacred places of the Chernobyl region… there are some very significant Jewish sites for example, as well as a number of interesting churches in former Orthodox and Old Believers communities, and even an active monastery.

For the last few years I have been leading tours there for Atlas Obscura (though of course, we’re taking a bit of a break in 2020). I think the trips we do show an entirely different side of Chernobyl, compared to what people might expect… we’ll often go right out into the wild areas of the Zone, and spend whole days learning about local history, without seeing another tour group once. But there are some other companies I would strongly recommend too: Chernobyl Zone, Gamma Travel and SoloEast are the best of them, in my opinion.

Polissya’ Hotel, Pripyat. Once the tallest building in the city, the hotel hosted scientists, engineers and politicians visiting from other parts of the Soviet Union.

Can’t resist but: Thoughts on the famous HBO series [“Chernobyl“] – what did it get right/wrong?

I had mixed feelings about the HBO series. As a piece of television, it was incredible – so good, that I almost wished I knew nothing about the subject matter, and could just switch my brain off and enjoy it. There was a lot it got wrong, though in some cases, I don’t think it really matters. In a fictional retelling of events like that, a little dramatic license is to be expected. So for example the helicopter crash depicted did not happen (although a helicopter did crash at the plant, under different circumstances, several months later). The so-called ‘Bridge of Death’ is an urban myth – this idea that everyone who watched the fires from the bridge outside Pripyat died soon after from radiation poisoning, that’s just not true. And also in the first episode, the scene where engineers volunteer for a task that’s believed to be a suicide mission… again, that whole scene is entirely fictional. The big Hollywood speech about sacrifice never happened, the mission wasn’t considered to be as dangerous as the series portrays it, and nobody volunteered for it – it was simply the duty of the engineers on shift. 

In the book I meet one of those three engineers, Alexey Ananenko, who is still alive and well, and living in Kyiv. He watched the HBO series too, and said it felt very American to him – like how Hollywood might imagine a disaster in the Soviet Union, and not very accurate to the real event. But he still enjoyed it, and he appreciated the attention it drew to the efforts of those involved. 

There were other issues with it too. The series uses unreliable sources for some of its history, it mischaracterises how radiation works, and also, in trying to create drama, it makes villains out of a few historical characters who really, if you read up on this, probably don’t deserve that treatment at all. Having an antagonist makes for better TV, but in this case I find it a bit disrespectful to the dead, to be honest.

Ultimately, I think the HBO series is a terrific piece of fictional drama inspired by real events. It shouldn’t be confused with a documentary though, and anyone with a real interest in the subject needs to dig deeper. For example, read Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham – that’s an incredibly well researched history of the disaster, and was an invaluable source while I was working on my own book.

A tame fox poses in front of the sign pointing the way to Pripyat from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

What, if any, others places in the world fascinate you in the same or similar way?

One of the most interesting things about Chernobyl, for me, is that this accident didn’t just happen in some regular industrial town. Pripyat was a showpiece city, it was designed to a radical new urbanisation plan and was intended to serve as a kind of socialist workers’ utopia. Not just financially, but ideologically, there was a lot invested into this place – so to see that city now ruined and overtaken by nature is a powerful vision. I am generally very interested in this theme of abandoned Modernism, and the trajectory from utopia to dystopia… it is truly humbling to see what nature can do with humankind’s proudest monuments, even in the space of just thirty years. 

I feel a similar kind of fascination for some of the communist-era memorial sites in the Balkans, another area where I have spent a lot of time researching, and leading tours. They share the political dimension in common with Chernobyl – but for me, it’s not about communism so much as the regime change that followed it. This idea of vast, self-congratulatory monuments built to a maniacal scale, and then entirely abandoned soon afterwards. At one such site in Bulgaria, the saucer-shaped Buzludzha Memorial House, some recent visitor wrote graffiti inside that calls it: “The Bulgarian Chernobyl.” So I guess I’m not the only one sensing a thematic connection between the two.

Chernobyl – a Stalkers’ Guide is published by Fuel Publishing, and is out now!

Editor’s Note: A story by Darmon Richter also appears in the upcoming title Fearless Footsteps, created by Intrepid Times (published by Exisle Publishing, out in November!). All photos used in this article are from Chernobyl – a Stalkers’ Guide and are reproduced with permission of the author.

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