A few years later, another photo-reference tour was being cited for the gaming press, only this time it was not a cheery holiday in Europe, but a trip to the Zone Of Alienation. This 30km area of Ukraine and Belarus remains poisoned and largely off-limits to mankind, thanks to the radioactive caesium that dusted it after the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986.
While it has remained quarantined and closed to (legal) habitation, it hasn’t kept out sight-seers. The production team at GSC Gameworld, a games studio based in nearby Kiev, intended to use the derelict zone as the basis for environments in their action shooter, STALKER: Shadow Of Chernobyl. The team went into the zone and photographed urban dereliction: a snapshot of an abandoned Soviet Union. They would go on to fill their game world with the zone’s rusting fences and collapsing grain silos, but that was not all that came with the material: the landscape and its decaying architecture was already charged with mythology—with narrative.
However, the zone as an idea already existed before the explosion in 1986. It appeared, for instance, in a 1972 science fiction novel called Roadside Picnic. A mysterious, contaminated pocket of landscape, quarantined from the outside world, was the main theme of that book, which was written by two brothers, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.
In the Strugatsky’s book, an alien visitation to the earth—an extra-terrestrial “roadside picnic”—has left dangerous and incomprehensible materials strewn across a zone of Northern Canada. Although sealed off for scientific research, this zone is raided by “Stalkers” who sell the unnatural trinkets for black-market cash. To do so, they brave bizarre dangers, because the zone has been transformed into a place that is utterly at odds with our own world. The alien is never seen or even described, and all the characters encounter is its terrible remainder: landscape made alien. Pools of jelly that will cripple a man lurk in basements, extra-terrestrial cobwebs that can stop a heart beating are strung across doorways, and gravitational mantraps will crush anyone who passes over the wrong patch of mud.
The zone of Roadside Picnic was seen by many as an allegory for the entire Soviet experiment: not simply in the literal sense of the poisoned landscapes created by the industrial excesses of the region, but the entire social order that was created by the Communist government. Polluted expanses, continually washed by acid rain, became shorthand for describing the bizarre political situation of a country in which Communism had failed, and yet robotically continued.
Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky shot a movie, called Stalker, which told a story based on that of Roadside Picnic. A glacially slow, almost event-free film about landscape and longing, it’s a work that lingers for long minutes over broken wastelands of abandoned industry. It encapsulates Tarkovsky’s style, as well as his interest in dereliction and decay—themes that would be revisited by the STALKER videogame, thirty years on.
Tarkovsky’s film manages to imbue derelict industrial landscapes with a terrible sense of threat. Largely unable to realize the alien properties of artifacts in Roadside Picnic, Tarkovsky projected the danger into the architecture itself. Passive landscapes that could swallow a man. Tunnels which tear them to shreds. These effects were never demonstrated, but also never doubted, thanks to the tentative way the actors explored their surroundings.
In much the same way that the images of the real Chernobyl zone seem like lush vegetative scenes, despite being formidably radioactive, so Tarkovsky’s zone is calm and invisibly dangerous.
Cinematic legend had it that the power station shown in the final background scenes of the film was in fact Chernobyl NPP, although the truth is the entire film was shot in Estonia. That’s not to say that Stalker was without poisonous consequences of its own, however. The first version of the movie was shot entirely on corrupted film, which was unsalvageable when Tarkovsky’s production team returned to their Russian studios. Worse, the second shooting took place down stream from a poorly regulated chemical works. The effluent from the plant was responsible for many of the astonishing visuals in the river scenes from the movie, but team members came to suffer serious side-effects from this exposure, including cancer. They had, it seems, suffered side-effects from their time in the zone: just like the fate of the fictional Stalkers in the Strugatsky books. It was as if the fiction and reality were blurring back through each other. As if—to quote Alan Moore—the written page was too fragile a boundary.
Or perhaps, as Steven Shaviro suggests in his book Connected, Roadside Picnic, like all science fiction, actually exists to cast a shadow over the present. “It shows us how profoundly haunted we are by what has not yet happened,” says Shaviro of science fiction writing. In the specific case of Roadside Picnic and Tarkovsky’s film, what had not happened yet was the Chernobyl disaster.
After 1986, however, there were others for whom the ideas of Roadside Picnic were to be immediately accessible and useful in describing the world that they faced. People going into the Chernobyl exclusion zone, to loot buildings or show tourists around, began to call themselves “Stalkers.” For them, the zone of the Strugatsky’s vision was immediate and first-hand, a kind of fictional reference for the reality they were facing. They were living it—and it was strangely convenient to have the Stalker nomenclature to hand.
As the first generation of Ukrainians born after the Chernobyl tragedy comes of age, a small subculture of them is now doing the unthinkable: defying government prohibitions and illegally entering the highly radioactive Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, or “Dead Zone”—for fun. This group is monitored and pursued by the police and not fond of journalists: They curry in the forbidden, recover meaning from Soviet detritus, and take digital appropriation to new extremes. “It’s a post-apocalyptic romance,” as one young man put it.
For the “post-apocalyptic romantics” who have taken to sneaking into the Zone, a visit to Pripyat has become the Holy Grail. Like trauma victims returning to the scene of the incident, they come here for reasons they can’t fully explain.
Since the Exclusion Zone was created in 1986, there have been isolated trespassers who’ve snuck in to loot. But today breaking into the Zone has become a true geek subculture, and for some, an obsession.
The stalker generation has grown up with a distrust of government and authority, first forged under Soviet rule and furthered in a post-Soviet era beset by corruption and economic turmoil.
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.”
Sex, drugs, and radiation: Stalking might be seen as the adolescent acting-out of a generation that feels it’s got nothing to lose. But for many stalkers, it’s clearly something more.
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.
“For stalkers, it is a unique place where you can find old production facilities and lost military machines,” says Sergiy Paskevych, an ecological expert and head of radiation safety in the Exclusion Zone. Indeed, many stalkers seek out these spots where Soviet cleanup machinery (“machinery cemeteries”) was piled or buried after the accident. These are among the most contaminated locations and are often unmarked and unmapped because the government did not keep records. Finding them is part of the “adventure.” GPS and dosimeters help.