Stalking Chernobyl

The exploded Chernobyl Reactor today.

The exploded Chernobyl Reactor today.

By Hampus Eckerman: There is a connection between Sweden and Chernobyl. Sweden was the first country where the fallout from Chernobyl was detected and it was from there the first news of the accident spread around the globe. This even before Pravda wrote about the accident. The Chief of IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, was at that time a Swede — Hans Blix — and he was the first westerner to inspect the consequences of the disaster. The east coast of Sweden was one of the places outside of Ukraine that suffered the most fallout and there are areas where radiation is still much higher than normal. Around 1000 cases of cancer in Sweden are directly linked to the Chernobyl disaster. After the accident, Swedes opened up their homes on the west coast to let Ukrainian children come and visit during summer to build up their strength. I was only 16 years old at the time of the accident. I remember the newspapers questioning if it would be safe to eat elk meat (the local version of MAD Magazine jokingly talked about BecquerElks), but that is about it. Stockholm, where I live, is not one of the areas that was affected and I think I never understood the seriousness of the issue. For me, visiting Chernobyl had more to do with my interest in weird travel locations.

Headline: Reactor breakdown in Soviet. Subheader: Nuclear clouds over the whole north.

Headline: Reactor breakdown in Soviet.
Subheader: Nuclear clouds over the whole north.

Before leaving for Chernobyl, I dug up my old copy of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. For those of you that haven’t read it, the narrative of the book concern a visit from aliens to earth which causes a huge area to become affected. Strange lifeforms start to move around, the laws of nature seem to change and there are strange artifacts left that both governments and independents want to claim. The UN cordons off the area, saying that all items should be given to a specially created institute, but scavengers still sneak into the area to steal artifacts and sell to the highest bidders. These scavengers are called Stalkers.

There is no immediate connection between the book and Chernobyl other than a huge restricted zone that ordinary citizens can’t visit and where the earth itself has become poisonous. But in 1987, an Ukrainian game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R, was made based on the Strugatskys’ book and instead of letting aliens be the reason for the zone, they moved the narrative to Chernobyl in an alternative reality were a second explosion in the reactor made a much larger area toxic and caused strange mutations in animals. I only played the game a few times, but the feeling of it stayed with me. So I packed my book, thinking I was cool who remembered this connection.

Little did I know.


My Swedish translation of Roadside Picnic.

Chernobyl is a city around two hours from Kiev. It used to be inhabited by 14,000 citizens before the accident, but they were all evacuated. Now, somewhere between one-third and half of the houses have been made functional again and house around 5,000 workers who are still involved in the aftermath of the accident, nearly 30 years after it took place. It is placed around 15 km away from the nuclear reactor. Closer to the reactor is the ghost town of Pripyat. It used to house 50,000 people, who were all evacuated in around three hours. They only had one hour to gather a few of their belongings and were told that they would be able to return later on. This never happened. Between Pripyat and Chernobyl there are smaller houses that are being reclaimed by nature. Some of them are visible from the road during winter time, but during summer they are completely hidden by trees and leaves.

Radiation is patchy depending on fallout. There are hot spots, sometimes just a few meters wide, were radiation starts to climb and caused our Geiger counters to start screaming. Other places are quite safe. When going on a guided tour, you are strictly forbidden to enter forests or walk outside of the road. Nuclear dust still covers the area. You have to have clothing that covers both arms and legs. You are not allowed to eat or drink outside and before entering the canteen or leaving the zone, you are checked for radiation to see that you are safe. But those are the rules for us mundanes.

These do not apply to the Stalkers.

Old kindergarten near the town of Chernobyl.

Old kindergarten near the town of Chernobyl.

There have always been tours available for scientists and journalists. But for the general public, nothing like that was available until official tours started in 2011. What no one really counted on was the enormous amount of interest the game S.T.A.L.K.E.R would create. Suddenly there were a lot of people who became interested in the area, wanted to visit, but found no legal ways. Thus were the Stalkers created. And there were many kinds of them. Some who only were after the thrills of doing something they weren’t allowed to. Classic youth rebellion. Others started to create their own tours for visitors. Plunderers had existed since the evacuation, and also poachers. As nature has started to reclaim the houses, so has wildlife. Boars, wild horses, dogs, wolves, bears and more. And all of them named from Strugatsky’s book.

In an article from 2015, Slate Magazine tracks down this subculture. Much like in the book, they have to sneak past police patrols and ever-increasing security. They have to navigate in a toxic environment where eating and drinking by itself is poisonous. The effect is not immediate as cancer can take decades to develop, so they often ignore the basic safety precautions, drinking from the rivers and pools. As in the book, they bring home artifacts plundered in the zone which in itself makes the radiation spread. They are shot at, have to avoid dangerous creatures in form of wild life that may have taken shelter in deserted building. They sometimes make up small installations for tourists or put up things they find interesting on walls.

When my guide first started to talk about the Stalkers, I got a weird sense of déjà vu. I was walking around in areas I had seen both in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R game and in other computer games as Call of Duty and Counter Strikes. It is officially forbidden to walk inside buildings, but it is hard to hide during winter time where tracks can be seen in the snow where people have walked. Looking inside a building showed how realistic the Fallout games really are. When windows are broken and the interiors are subjected to winds, cold and snow, walls and floors start to crack. This together with people plundering what others had left behind made me feel like a cross between a Stalker and the lone wanderer of Fallout 4, trying to adjust to a new reality after the catastrophe. For a comparison between the different games covering Chernobyl and reality, see this nice article on Atlas Obscura.

Ferris Wheel displayed in all games based on Chernobyl.

Ferris Wheel displayed in all games based on Chernobyl.

It is also possible to visit a missile base around three hours drive from Kiev. It is a scary place to visit in how it reminds you of Dr. Strangelove. Not only is there a bomb of the same type as the one that is dropped in the movie placed in the courtyard (that tourists straddle for nice touristy photos, preferable with a cowboy hat in one hand). We were also told that the nuclear weapons there, with a power of in total 500 times larger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, was connected to an automatic warning system for automatic deployment of the bomb. The Perimeter system was a system that analyzed data from a difference of factors as radiation, seismic activity and atmospheric pressure. If the system judged that a nuclear strike had occurred in Soviet Union, it would automatically deploy all existing nuclear missiles, bypassing any human decision making. It was in fact the doomsday machine from Dr. Strangelove.

A vile filer and wretched soul, riding the bomb. In the background, an SS-18 missile that was destined for US.

A vile filer and wretched soul, riding the bomb. In the background, an SS-18 missile that was destined for US.

It is one thing to read in articles about nuclear accidents and missiles. It is quite a different thing to see this in reality. To understand the real persons involved. In this I must applaud the museums of both the missile base and the Chernobyl (placed in Kiev). Both of them took care to tell the stories of individuals and how they were affected. The people who suffered radiation sickness, had to leave their homes for ever, died to try to save hundreds of thousands of others or who had to sit in a small tiny room for days upon days, waiting for a signal that might start a nuclear war. It was a humbling experience and, as both my guides said, a scary tale of the folly of humanity.

But it was the stuff of great Science Fiction.

24 thoughts on “Stalking Chernobyl

  1. For the life of me, I can’t remember if my friend Jim Young ever visited Chernobyl; I know he worked in disarmament, and did some visits to areas that the Soviets had not let anyone travel to. The timelines of his travels with the State Department versus the accident in ’86 are confused to me now, and now Jim’s not here to be able to ask for clarification.


  2. Since it’s officially part of Ukraine, I’ve been spelling it in accordance with Ukrainian rules: “Chornobyl”. Oddly enough, most of the affected areas — other than the reactor site and the town of Pripyat — are in Belarus and Russia.

    Fif-cond. DANG! Fird.

  3. I know someone who was a child living in Kiev at the time of the accident. She says that the government delayed reporting the disaster for more than a day, due to desperately seeking for ways to spin things and cover asses — therefore people in Kiev were not told to stay indoors and were exposed to far more fallout than they needed to be. She herself got out early because her family knew someone in the nuclear administration who tipped them off.

    Also, winds were not blowing from Chornobyl toward Kiev, or there would have been one hell of a cancer epidemic in that large city.

  4. Ginger: He, I’m usually spelling it by swedish rules. “Tjernobyl”. 😉

    Vasha: That is the same information I got from the museum and from the documentary they showed us on the bus on the way to the site. They even encouraged people to go out may day parade, exposing them to radioactive dust. All official photos from the parade later disappeared from the archives, only privately owned photos remain.

    Another scary thing is how reservists in the Soviet army got the choice to help with the cleanup of the roof of the reactor. Either one minute there or 2-3 years in Afghanistan were their choices. Over 500 000 people took part. Many of them got sick later on or developed cancer. Still, it is extremely hard to see what the choices were as all machines died from the radiation if they were used for cleanup.

    Can’t say I got any more positive about nuclear power after this visit. :/

  5. People in Ukraine have still not forgotten and forgiven the government’s delay either; there are many causes of bad blood between Ukrainian and Russian government but that’s one of them.

  6. There are still some areas in Norway where sheep and reindeer have to be “fed down” before slaughtering – meaning that instead of being rounded up from grazing and taken to slaugher, they are given safe and non-radioactive feed for a couple of weeks to reduce the radioactivity in the meat. Sheeps are also given extra iodine and kalium, either mixed in salt licking rocks or by feeding them a slow-release capsule, which reduced the amount of Cesium they take up. The magnitude of the problem varies from year to year – mainly from how much mushrooms there are, mushrooms absorbs lots of radioactivity from the ground and are popular among sheeps.


    The Perimeter system was a system that analyzed data from a difference of factors as radiation, seismic activity and atmospheric pressure. If the system judged that a nuclear strike had occurred in Soviet Union, it would automatically deploy all existing nuclear missiles, bypassing any human decision making.

    this kind of thing is seriously spooky.

  7. Chernobyl (or Tschernobyl, as we spell it in Germany) happened about a week after my 13th birthday.

    Unlike Hampus’ experience in Sweden, there was quite a lot of awareness of the risks of radiation and fallout here in Germany. But then, nuclear power already was controversial in Germany and became only more so after Chernobyl. And I lived in North Germany, where there was less fallout than in South Germany.

    I remember that at school we were not allowed to go out during recess, when it was raining because of the fallout (which didn’t help much, since we had to go to school by bike and were exposed to the rain anyway). We were warned against drinking milk and farmers had to plough under lettuces and other fresh greens. There were also warnings about eating venison, wild mushrooms (which still have higher radiation rates 30 years later) and wild berries. My parents had a holiday home in an area called Teufelsmoor at the time and when I went roaming through the woods later that summer, I remember that there were more wild blueberries, raspberries and blackberries than I have ever seen before or since. Of course, I picked and ate the berries – I was 13 after all. For a few years after Chernobyl, you also saw a lot more mushrooms in the wild than you used to.

  8. Thanks Hampus. This is what I love about this place. I remember playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R back when it came out. It was an incredibly atmospheric game, in that the world building was really well developed, engaging, and permeated much of the game.

    Few months back someone mentioned Roadside Picnic. and I thought, “Huh, that sounds familiar”. And now this article, with the impact the game had in terms of the Stalker subculture, something else I wasn’t quite aware of.

    Thanks Hampus, excellent article.

  9. Nice article!

    Re: “…in 1987, an Ukrainian game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R, was made based on the Strugatskys’ book and instead of letting aliens be the reason for the zone, they moved the narrative to Chernobyl…”

    S.T.A.L.K.E.R (Full name: “S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Shadow of Chernobyl”) was originally announced in 2001, and after a prolonged and troubled period of development (which resulted in some “vapourware” awards!) was released in 2007.

    It was a great game, full of atmosphere.

    A prelude, “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky”, followed in 2008, and a sequel called “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat” came out in 2010 (earlier for the Russian version). I didn’t like them as much as the first, but they’re all good in their own way.

  10. Great report, Hampus!

    I remember the news came in while I was at work (the US heard the news from Sweden, so this was way before the Russians and Ukranians were told) and we all just stopped and gathered around a radio (we couldn’t find a TV that picked up signals) to listen and talk about it. Several of the people were MDs, so they predicted the cancer rates and what kind.

    My brother had Sami (Lapp) friends in Norway who couldn’t eat their reindeer for a while and their birch trees, mushrooms, and lichen were also radioactive. It was a huge imposition on their traditional lifestyle. I mean, you just can’t mess with the Sami reindeer!

  11. Completely off topic, but what’s that (porcelain?) trophy the athlete (hockey player?) is holding? It looks like there’s a Hello Kitty (without the bow) on it. And I’ve now used up my allotment of parentheses.

  12. My guess is that the hockey player is Håkan Södergren, one of the best players in Sweden at that time. It would be from the World Ice Hockey Championships where Sweden won second place. The games took place in Moscow.

    I know nothing about the trophy, but I guess it would be that years mascot on it.

  13. That was fascinating. Haven’t read the book or played the game and so only know Stalker from the Tarkovsky film (which I’m told is quite different from either) but I think I get the sense of the same quasi-illicit exploration.

  14. You have to stalk Chernobyl? It is just sitting there! And it is miles across! I don’t think there is much chance of it running away from you if you step on a twig.

    “Be vewy, vewy, quiet–I’m hunting Chewnobyl!”

  15. For those unaware of it, Wolves Eat Dogs, the 5th (ha!) volume in Martin Cruz Smith’s ‘Arkady Renko’ series, is set in post-disaster Chernobyl.

    The series itself isn’t SFF genre, apart perhaps for some slight exaggerations about hagfish in Polar Star (but then again I’ve never met one so I might be wrong), however Smith is no stranger to Horror and Alternate History.

    A couple of my closest friends visited Chernobyl around 18 months(?) ago – I’ll see if I can get one of them to post a link here to his write-up of the trip.

  16. Great article, Hampus! Thanks!

    There is a book–Wormwood Forest by Mary Mycio–about how the wildlife came back in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Apparently radiation is not good for wildlife, but human presence is much worse.

    That book really changed my mind about nuclear power. It’s astonishing how quickly those things can turn a heavily populated area into a wildlife preserve.

    On the other hand, for power in *my* neighborhood I think I’d prefer solar.

  17. Pingback: AMAZING NEWS FROM FANDOM 1/31/2016 - Amazing Stories

Comments are closed.