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Stalking the Atomic City, by Markiyan Kamysh

As we view the horrific images on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the leveled cities, the destroyed lives, the massacre of civilians, this week brings us the hallucinogenic Stalking the Atomic City: Life Among the Decadent and the Depraved of Chornobyl, by the Ukrainian writer Markiyan Kamysh, translated by Hanna Leliv and Reilly Costigan-Humes. The briefest description of the book would describe it as a look at the Luxembourg-sized dead zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor after the 1986 accident. In fact, it is a crazed account of the people who have flocked to the Exclusion Zone over the decades, a narrative reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson.

Take, for example, these scene-setting snippets from the opening chapter:

[Chornobyl’s] satellite town soon grew rapidly, its neat apartment blocks towering in their exemplary excellence, enormous slogans flowing high on the rooftops, and boisterous children running around cozy playgrounds….

In the wilderness, the Atomic City looked like something out of a sci-fi novel promising rapid growth, further improvements, and outrageous opportunities...the apotheosis of joy and happiness looming on the horizon.

Until things got fucked, and nuclear reactor No. 4 blew the hell up. The area by Chornobyl lit up like the Wormwood Star and turned into a poisonous emerald in the precious crown of Polissya….

The Exclusion Zone was fenced off by barbed wire and patrolled by watchful soldiers. They raced around like predators on their armored vehicles in search of looters, but then the turbulent 1990s exploded with even greater force than the reactor, and the Zone’s borders loosened.

That’s when the first illegals appeared. Haggard drunkards would steal pickled food from the cellars in the villages just outside the Zone….Prypyat was packed with daredevils, bums, deserters, looters and fugitives. They hid in the villages for months, munching on rotten apples and dreaming of hunkering down until all the troubles of the world melted away.

Kamysh is of the generation that grew up since the date of the explosion in 1986. He describes his generation’s complicated relationship with Chernobyl: for some, it represents the shattering of their childhood, for others it is a toxic radioactive zone, a mysterious land where zombies and homicidal soldiers are rumored to reign, and for others a money-making opportunity in illicit tourism. And for Kamysh?

In my case, it’s even worse. For me, the Zone is a place to relax. Better than the seaside, the Carpathians, the gob piles or the Turkish resorts drowning in chilled mojitos. Countless times a year, I am an illegal tourist in the Chornobyl Zone, a stalker, a walker, a tracker, an idiot—you name it.

He is one of the several dozens of people addicted to the draw of exploring the dead zone. These adventurers sneak in, hoisting their backpacks to venture into desolate ruins of isolated former villages, breaking into abandoned buildings, banging out music on pianos left behind, smoking and getting drunk, and exploring even the ruins of the reactor itself.

They are seekers of forbidden thrills, or of a visceral manifestation of the spiritual alienation they feel in the decadent, consumerist corruption of daily life. They know it’s crazy, with danger from the radiation, the wild animals, the criminals and looters and scrap hunters who still roam the area, the police and military patrols. But they keep returning, pushing ever deeper while mocking the tourists who descend briefly, shallowly into the zone and fill social media with repetitive photos. (The published book has photos by the author, which were not included in the digital advance copy I have used here.)

It is a stunning narrative, both in the wild landscape and the equally wild inner workings of those who venture in. Towards the end of the book, Kamysh writes:

I firmly believe that, in two decades, I will meet those boys and girls who kept me company during my travels around the Zone in the chemotherapy room of a nice cancer clinic in Kyiv. And I know we’ll smile at each other. We’ll smile at a life that challenges you and dictates where you should walk, how you should live, and what you should breathe. After all, we’re the children of our time. Where else could we be?

This was all, of course, before another cataclysm shook the country, one with far-reaching consequences much greater than Chernobyl. Kamysh is in Kyiv, and has posted from there on his Instagram account as recently as last week. I hope he survives this bitter war, and at some point can offer another hallucinogenic journey in the psyche of survivors.