The zone a post atomic journey

Pierpaolo Mittica



Today in Ukraine there is a large community among Ukrainian youngsters that are doing a brand new trendy and risky activity: some of them in fact have recently started to illegally enter the Chernobyl Zone of Exclusion - in the centre of which there is the infamous Reactor 4 that exploded in 1986, making the area one of the most contaminated of the whole world - to play survival games. Those guys represent the latest Chernobyl generation. They are referred to as "Stalkers" a name coming directly from Andrei Tarkovski's film "Stalker", a cult movie dated back in 1979 - and from a survival-horror videogame released in 2007 and set right into the Zone named S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Chernobyl' Stalkers have lately developed a proper veneration for this specific area, which they consider it as a post-atomic private home. They form a large community, today more than 100 people, and it is increasing everyday. They are organized in paramilitary groups with names, symbols and rituals, while enjoying a dangerous trip to reach their final destination: the ghost town of Pripyat. In order to get there they have to walk about 60 kilometers through the woods - mostly by night to avoid the police patrolling - between nuclear radiations and wild animals. During their journey they usually sleep in abandoned villages, eat canned food and drink the water they find along the way, dirty and contaminated. They say they want to experience a different adventure, to test themselves and feel like they are the last survivors on the planet, just as they were in a real videogame; they want to break free from their routines and normal lives, while having fun and being isolated in a limbo with no rules for a while. They are a sort of post-romantic travelers, in love with these places which they consider almost sacred permeated with a tragic story not to be forgotten. They want to bring life again in the ghost and contaminated City of Pripyat, and become the new citizens of Pripyat.

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  • Maxim and other stalkers on the roof of a building in the ghost town of Pripyat.
    Every stalker who visits the area, interprets it and conceives in a different way, everyone has their own idea of what it is like to stay here, as everyone comes here looking for different feelings. Most stalkers are divided into paramilitary groups, with names, coats of arms, flags, rites, such as the groups we meet, "Sector Zone", "Korogod", or "Illegal Group". They have been regular visitors in the area for quite some time, dating on the internet and entering several times a year. Some of them, not many, fortunately, are fanatical, unconscious, lovers of risk, of danger, adventurers, and do not follow the "zone philosophy" lying behind other stalkers like Jimmy, Sasha or Maxim. For them it is not a question of culture, experience, respect for place and memory, but rather a game

  • Sasha walking in the woods. Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
    The trip inside the Zone is pure survival: 60 km walking in the woods, especially at night to avoid the police, among radiation and wild animals, to reach the final destination: the ghost town of Pripyat. On the way they sleep in the abandoned houses in evacuated villages, where the stalkers arranged some bench and table to eat. Normally they sleep upstairs in the garret in the middle of the straw, far from dangerous animals like wolves, bears, wild boars, but in good company of mice and ticks. Because one of the major risk in the zone is to meet wild animals that here in the exclusion zone now dominate, thanks to the absence of humans.
    The forests inside the Zone of exclusion are contaminated, especially the Red Forest, located near Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant and fully invested by incident’s radioactive cloud. Stalkers need to cross it to reach Pripyat, and radiations here are 1,000 times over normal.

  • Jimmy, Sasha and Maxim while preparing their breakfast in their apartment in the ghost town of Pripyat. During their trip to Pripyat the stalkers eat canned food brought in the backpacks and drink dirty and contaminated water collected in floodgates of the buildings. The town of Pripyat is located three kilometers from the Chernobyl nuclear plant. 50 thousand people lived there, and were evacuated two days after the explosion. The people were forced to leave behind everything except for their documents and what money they could bring. They never went back. Now Pripyat is a ghost city. No people live there, but their presence lingers in the abandoned streets and houses. That's why Pripyat is the Mecca for the stalkers. Here they arranged some apartments and fix them with what they found around the city. The city is still high contaminated.

  • An old USSR poster hanged on Jimmy’s apartment showing USSR astronaut Valery Bykovsky and his GDR colleague Sigmund Jähn, who went together for the Soyuz 31 mission in 1978. In Pripyat the stalkers occupied several apartments decorating them with what they found. They usually stop a few days, but some remain for one or two weeks. In the zone the time stopped on 1986, when the Chernobyl accident happened and the area was evacuated forever. All the objects you can find here dated back to the Soviet period like old magazine, books, documents and posters. And that is one of the reason why stalkers are going inside illegally in the zone, because visiting the zone is like to go back to the Soviet Era.

  • Jimmy just entered the Zone of exclusion, and checking if police is patrolling the area. The stalkers cut the barbed wire of the fence and enter inside the zone illegally especially during the night, when the police is not patrolling the zone. The only thing the stalkers risk is a fine of 20 dollars according to the current Ukraine law. And this fact constantly encourages stalkers to enter the area. Jimmy is very expert, he went inside the area illegally for 42 times in five years.

  • Sasha in front of the foresters cabin while preparing his backpack before heading to Pripyat. During the day the cabin is used by foresters of the zone and it is free during the night. So stalkers sometimes take advantage of it. But they have to leave it before 7 am when the foresters begin their shift.

  • A stalker dons a mock gas mask.
    "In the stalker environment there is a joke: no dosimeter, no radiation," he says. "I have to admit, we are rather unreasonable about our health and the presence of high radiation will not prevent us from visiting. There are many intelligent educated people who understand well what radiation is. The realities are that most of the territory of the zone has a low background." Without a dosimeter, their true amount of exposure is unknowable.

  • Jimmy, Maxim and Sasha exploring the swimming pool Lazurnyi in the ghost town of Pripyat
    The swimming pool Lazurnyi, «Azure» is one of the main attraction in Pripyat for tourists and Stalkers. The swimming pool is one of the few facilities in the city that continued to work after the accident and the evacuation of the population. The pool operated until 1998, serving people working at the Chernobyl NPP.

  • Sasha sleeping on the roof of a building in the ghost town of Pripyat. Chernobyl and the unfamous Reactor 4 are on his right, just three kilometres away.
    Sasha: The zone is beautiful because when you're here, even if you do not change your way of seeing things, you start living under other rules, not like in the city, not in the rules of civilization. So all that happens here is already unusual. The journey inside the area initially attracted me because I imagined how it was here before the accident, how people lived. It's really interesting. Here it is like to be in direct contact with history. Here you do not read the story, here you perceive it and touch it directly.

  • Maxim Rudyavsky rests in a pig shed after a long trek through the woods.
    Maxim is 29 years old, is computer programmer and currently manages a mobile business, but is also a great sportsman, an experienced sailor man and skipper. Very athletic and well-trained. Fortunately for him, he is part of the wealthy bourgeoisie of Kiev, you can see that he has no economic problems like most people here in Ukraine. It is dressed in purely military style, camouflaged uniform with the flag of Ukraine on the shoulder.

  • Jimmy e Maxim in front of the World War II memorial in the village of Chistogolovka. This village was so contaminated by the fallout of the Chernobyl incident that in the years after it was demolished and buried. The only memory left of Chistogolovka village is this statue, once located in the main square. The contamination levels are still very high today and it is very dangerous for the stalkers go through the village.

  • Vadim, of the Sector Zone group, in his apartment in the ghost town of Pripyat.
    Vadim is part of Sector Zone group, they meet themselves several times per year to come together in Pripyat and they stay in Chernobyl exclusion zone from 5 days till 2 weeks.

  • Maxim while escaping the police in the ghost town of Pripyat. Maxim: "When you get to the zone, time stops. You do not understand what day of the week and the more you get lost in time, you are left alone with nature, silence, and the post-apocalyptic atmosphere, It's like a drug."

  • Sasha walking in the woods. The forests inside the Zone of exclusion are contaminated, especially the Red Forest, located near Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant and fully invested by incident’s radioactive cloud. Stalkers need to cross it to reach Pripyat, and radiations here are 1,000 times over normal level.

  • Maxim reading an old book from the Soviet era, "Principles of Soviet law" of 1982 - precious book because it bears the original stamp.

  • Sasha and Maxim waking up in their apartment in the ghost town of Pripyat. When we arrived in Pripyat we discovered that in that day there were other 30 stalkers living in Pripyat. Jimmy in those years count at least 100 stalkers that regularly come illegally in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The stalkers do it for several reasons: adventure, adrenaline, to feel like the last survivors on earth, to get out of the schemes of everyday life, to live without imposed rules, to get drunk for fun during parties on the roofs of Pripyat, to isolate themselves from the world and find themselves again, and to bring life back to the ghost town of Pripyat, as they would like to do, careless of radiation. Mostly of them, like Jimmy, Sasha and Maxim, are post romantic voyagers, with a deeply respect of this sacred place, with a tragic story to remember.

  • Maxim Rudyavsky brushes his teeth in an apartment overlooking Pripyat. "There are several things that attract me to the area," Maxim told me. "The first is to see the nuclear power plant, to see Pripyat. And then test me and my resistance. There is primarily adrenaline because, for example, the police might catch you, even if it is unlikely. It is a special feeling when you are walking along the road and behind a car appears. Then you have to jump into a ditch and the car flies close to you. People in the car can not even imagine that you are one meter away, lying on the ground. There are emotions related to some kind of courage, like when you walk at night and beside you a bunch of wild boars rush and you make it under fear ... Then to stay alone with my thoughts. In Kiev there is another life, everything is perceived differently. Here you do not know what day it is, what time it is, the phone does not work, so you're just with your thoughts and your head rests. It's a moral rest. For me personally here there is something sacred. It's one of the occasions to retire to stay with yourself and with your comrades in the area. When you get to the zone, time stops. You do not understand what day of the week and the more you get lost in time. That's right. After the first trip, I said, "I will not come anymore." But after a few weeks from that trip I had already returned, there is something that drags you here."

  • Jimmy welcoming his friends invited to the party in his apartment in Pripyat.
    These groups are mainly sons of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video game, a survival-horror videogame released in 2007 and set right into the Zone. The videogame influenced the new generation of Ukrainians as Jimmy explains: "The game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. it is a cult for our country and for the whole post-Soviet area because, first of all, thanks to this video game, they could tell us that this place exists. In fact, it was with this game that for many people began the knowledge of Chernobyl and the desire to visit the exclusion zone. At school occasionally we talked about the accident, but always in a very superficial way. The game has this authentic look and is done in a realistic way from the point of view of the site. Here the places are really like in the game”.

  • A group of stalkers enjoy a vodka party in Knyazev's zone apartment.
    Stalkers, during their stay in Pripyat, use to organize in the evening parties in their apartments and enjoy the friendship and the sense of community with the other groups of stalkers.

  • A stalker dancing at sunset on the roof of a building of the ghost town of Pripyat
    Stalkers spend their days exploring abandoned sites and buildings, reading old Soviet magazines or books found around, hiding and escaping from guards and living as the last survivors on earth. In the evening they organize parties, often based on vodka and marijuana, in their apartments or on the roofs of buildings, drowning and watching the sunset on the ghost town of Pripyat and the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, tasting the taste of freedom and silence, the end of the world, far from prejudices. As one of the stalkers of the Illegal Group told me: "Being part of my group gives me a continuous sense of security and reliability, I know I can rely on other guys just as they know they can count on me. Here we feel alive, free, bond, see what exceptional people I've met here. The area is our life, and for this reason our intent is to bring Pripyat to life again, to preserve it from ruin and oblivion. Pripyat is no longer a ghost town, now we are here. “