The ghosts in the dead city
They are called “stalkers” and they are the inhabitants of the dead city.
April 26th 1986: reactor number 4 of the Lenin nuclear power plant exploded in Chernobyl. The radioactive nightmare overwhelmed Europe and made the world tremor.
A 2,600-squared-kilometer wide security zone was created and, in addition to the woods and rivers within the zone, there were several villages, military buildings, and the large ghost city of Prypiat, which at that time had around 50 thousand inhabitants, who were never able to come back home.
It is here, in the dead city, that the “stalkers” pass by the days, a term which describes members of roughly organized groups which have become increasingly numerous among young Ukrainians, especially in Kiev.
The stalkers are able to illegally penetrate into the security zone; they walk through the woods for days, stopping over in the abandoned villages that they find on their way, hiding from the soldiers who patrol the area, and facing the risks coming from radiation and the presence of wild animals, which includes wolfs and bears.
The final destination of these journeys is always Prypiat, the big ghost city next to the nuclear power plant. Here there are several Soviet buildings, between 10 to 15 storeys high, where the stalkers have their houses.
On the highest floors, where the windows are still intact and the radiation is less present, the stalkers use apartments to live above the dead city.
Furniture is collected from numerous abandoned apartments. There are those who can afford even an upright piano, as well as old beds, dusty mattress, tables, chairs – all of them original and in 80s Soviet Union style.
Many of them live for weeks inside the “Zone”. They spend their days exploring, cataloging, recovering old newspapers, documents, and the stories of those who lived there. The collect water from old submerged foundations or from the Prypiat river which runs along the city. They nourish themselves with tinned food, garlic, lard, and vodka.
It has become clear that this isn’t simply urbex (urban exploration), even though the stalkers share the love for decadence and ruins.
Jimmy is a stalker. He is very critical toward the political situation in Ukraine (particularly the high levels of corruption) and, just like many other young people, he doesn’t trust the President: Petro Poroshenko.
“I knew about the Zone – he explains – thanks to a video game I played when I was in school,” Jimmy said. “It made a strong impression on me. I was really inspired by that scenario which strongly resembled our world, our country, our people, and their traditions. That is how I started feeling the desire to achieve a greater freedom. Even today, when I visit the Zone, I have flashes – some details reminding me of that game. The impact it had on me lasted for a very long time and it is still alive today, even after ten years.”
Jimmy’s life starts and ends in the Zone: “Outside of this place I don’t have a job. All of my life and my work are tied to the security zone. I even met my girlfriend here. I love photography and books, but they’re nothing compared to this place, to which my mind and my heart are tied”.
Why did they visit the Zone? Sasha explains: “Journey after journey you start to notice a series of things. It is a mixture of factors. The adrenaline flows in you because you know they may catch you even if the prospect is unlikely. When you’re walking down the street and a car pops out – you need to jump in the moat and the car speeds right next to you. It’s a unique sensation. The people in the car cannot even imagine that you’re there, one meter from them, laying down on the ground. There are emotions linked to a sort of courage. For example, when you walk in the night and you hear next to you a heard of boars, and it scares you so bad…”.
The zone was created in 1971 by the Strugazky brothers in their book “Roadside Picnic”, considered among the 100 most important science fiction books in the world.
In the book they detail a delimited area of a city, abandoned after the visit of the aliens, who broke the laws of physics and left some artifacts inside the area.
The term “stalker” is used for the first time in the book as a neologism that the Strugatzky brothers created to indicate those who illegally enter the Zone to steal the precious alien artefacts, as well as to accompany curious people and scientists.
In 1979 the Russian film-maker Andrej Tarkovsky fell in love with the book and decided to make a movie, considered among the best 50 movies of the world. Its title was “Stalker” and the script was edited by the Strugatzky brothers.
In the movie the stalker changed its nature, losing its rascal part and becoming a real guide, both physical and spiritual.
The Zone described both in the movie and in the book is very similar to the Zone created a few years later after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.
Sasha, Maksim, and all the other stalkers, the most active making up about a 100 all together, are persuaded that it was a presage, and that the Zone of the book and the movie is the same Zone of Chernobyl.
Another important medium was the 2007 video game “Stalker”, a first person shooter game which takes place among the ruins of the abandoned city of Prypiat.
According to Maksim, the video game, much more than the book and the movie, was able to condition young Ukrainians and to make them discover the dangerous beauty of the Zone.
Maksim himself admits he felt an uncontrollable impulse of seeing it with his own eyes only after playing with the video game.
It is surprising to see how they do not care about the radioactive threat, to the point even I let down my guard. Radiations are invisible, they do not have a smell or taste, nature around us is wonderful and luxuriant, and it is extremely easy to forget the danger or to pretend to do it.