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Markiyan Kamysh: Оформляндія або прогулянка в Зону (Stalking the Atomic City)

I first came across this book in a Uruguayan work which has a story about The Stalkers, those people that illegally enter the Chernobyl zone and explore it. Markiyan Kamysh is one of the pre-eminent stalkers and this is his story of his stalking.

Not surprisingly, Kamysh has a somewhat cynical view of authority, the Soviet Union and the world: Brimming with the optimism of utopian slogans and the motherfucking grotesque of Soviet supergraphics, we were building a Dream. And in pursuit of it, we stumbled upon the Cornucopia—the energy of the peaceful atom…Until things got fucked, and nuclear reactor No. 4 blew the hell up. The country got a piece of land as big as Luxembourg where people were forbidden to live, the whole area was sealed off and it was patrolled by police who arrested anyone trying to enter.

Of course people did try and enter. Prypyat was packed with daredevils, bums, deserters, looters, and fugitives. They came to see, to grab souvenirs. Most came and went. Kamysh came but never went. I am an illegal tourist in the Chornobyl Zone, a stalker, a walker, a tracker, an idiot. He loves it. He has had run-ins with the police, was nearly killed by a lynx, been caught in high snow drifts, got drunk and high on numerous occasions and knows the area better than anybody.

He distinguishes between the various categories of stalkers. There are those who go in to grab a few souvenirs or to take selfies. There are the “official” tours (which he himself sometimes leads). There are those who come kitted out in all the latest, expensive gear. And then there are the real stalkers like him. They do not just go to the obvious places. They go in snow storms and the place is very different in winter. They sleep there, often for several days. They brave the wild life (wolves, jackals, bears, lynx) and outrun the Chuhaister, the spirit of the Ukrainian forest, and his legions of marshland demons and outsmart the police.

Sometimes I think that we don’t exist. Not a single one of those forty people rambling time and again through Chornobyl’s swamps. We used to exist, but we dissolved a long time ago in the mire and decomposed into duckweed, reeds, and sunlight. We are swamp ghosts.

However long he is there he wants to stay longer. He finds a strange beauty in the zone, the decrepit building, the tall structures. He particularly takes to Chornobyl-2: gigantic pieces of iron, enormous radars, whose metal masts stick up five hundred feet closer to the sky. The ruins of a previous world. It’s full of magic—moments captured by a spellbound, slumbering sun.

He goes alone. He goes with a girlfriend. He goes with other friends. He meets people there, He takes people there. But whether he is alone or accompanied, you always get the feeling that it is him and the zone. The other people are not really relevant.

He tries to scare others off. He decides to look like a madman, the kind of guy that people immediately point at when asked to pick out a serial killer in a group photo.

He knows it is risky both because of the radiation but also because of getting lost in a blizzard or snow drift or swamp but still he is not too bothered about the danger. What the hell are you still looking for in the Zone? he is asked and mutters something about the beauty of the abandoned buildings. What kind of an idiot would stand in the middle of the Chornobyl forest when the snow is waist-high and it’s twenty below? he asks himself and does not really have an answer.

He gives advice on how to to do it. Do not take too much stuff – vodka (it doesn’t freeze at night), cigarettes, a bit of food. Not even a sleeping bag. Travel light is the secret. Prepare as little as possible. You’ll face true alienation.

It has been overrun. The Dead City. Dead, oh yes. Twice dead. For the second time, with the emergence of thousands of photos and the shitty lines of official tours. Bored hipsters. So he moves further away, up to the Belarus border.

He knows the area, recognises the noises of animals, the different winds, the sounds of the abandoned buildings.

Why should you do this? Because you are a degenerate not because he recommends that you do this. Normal people have no business in a radioactive dump. Remember this. Go to Greece instead. There are too many of us anyway.

We vanish only to come back late at night, because we didn’t just come here to booze and chill. We came here to … shit, why did we even come here? He has done it, he says, one thousand one hundred and forty-six times and he is fed up with tourists. I can’t be bothered to take someone to Prypyat for the fuckteenth time.

Illegal tourists make dead cities alive again. They breathe life into the empty shells of fragile houses and peeling apartment blocks. There is no rhyme or reason to it. It is stupid, dangerous, pointless. But he loves it and will carrying on doing it.

Publishing history

First published in 2015 by Nora-Druk
First published in English in 2022 by Pushkin Press
Translated by Hanna Leliv and Reilly Costigan-Humes