Stalking the Atomic City by Markiyan Kamysh must be one of the strangest examples of tourist literature ever written. Its focus is about visits to ‘the Zone’: the radioactive Exclusion Zone around the devastated nuclear power plant at Chornobyl (the Ukrainian spelling of the place). Markiyan Kamysh describes his frequent illegal visits to the Zone during the 2010s, before the Russian invasion. At first, these sound unbelievable. Why would anyone want to crawl through barbed-wire fences, run from border guards and — in winter — suffer below freezing temperatures as they spent days and nights sleeping rough in decaying apartments and collapsing industrial machinery?
Kamysh refuses to engage in glamorous romanticization of his illegal journeys. He insists they’re not expeditions, not marches, just ‘walks’ (p. 120). He boasts of his lack of preparation: he can pack his deliberately small backpack in twenty minutes, he refuses to wear camouflaged fatigues, he’s happy with a pack of out-of-date sandwiches as food, he won’t take a water bottle, maybe just a can of Pepsi, because he’ll drink from pipelines, swamps and puddles. He refuses any idealization of himself, repeatedly calling himself ‘a bum’. (This British publishing house has chosen to commission a translation into American-English, probably so that it can be sold into the US market.)
Although Kamysh reflects on the lasting effects of the catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred at the Chernobyl power plant in 1986, including the health consequences for those exposed to radiation and the efforts to contain and mitigate its impact, he dismisses the dangers of entering a radioactive zone. He argues that the radiation from Chornobyl spread across the region, and so he has grown up absorbing it, so his walks will add little to the radiation he’s been exposed to since birth. He fully expects to bump into other devotees of the Zone in twenty years’ time in some cancer clinic.
So why does he do it? Kamysh admits the Zone ‘promises nothing’ (p. 107). Each time he returns, he tells himself ‘never again’. And yet — the Zone offers something. He reflects on how different groups have remembered and interpreted the Chornobyl disaster over time, and on the ways in which personal and collective memories intersect with the larger historical narrative.
The Zone draws in looters who run away with copper cables. Down-and-outs look for tins in cellars. For the commercially-minded, official legal tourist excursions to the Zone were growing in popularity before 2022. But Kamysh is not a looter, a tramp or a tourist guide. He returns for the ‘nothing’ that the Zone offers. ‘I love the Zone,’ he admits (p. 17). There’s maybe just a hint of ostalgie in his attitude.
Ostalgie is usually associated with the German Democratic Republic (old East Germany). One of the best recent evocations of ostalgie is the film Goodbye Lenin! (2003).
The Zone preserves elements of the old Soviet life: scraps of newspapers, murals of Red Soldier-Liberators and hand-painted slogans: ‘WE WILL BEAT YOU REAGAN’. But this isn’t the whole story, far from it. It’s the emptiness of these places which seduces Kamysh. ‘Break through the bushes, stumble through the artery of an abandoned railroad that turned into a forest, into a land of wolves a long time ago. Its ties became beaches for snakes, while the paths alongside it are now tracks for wild boars. Fall down into the gravel, take a nap in the rain, in the starlight, in the floodlight of the full moon. Crawl to a crossroads at dawn and nod off…’ (p. 115)
Pripyat was once a bustling and modern city, but after Chornobyl, it was abandoned and has since become a ghost town. Kamysh explores the haunting beauty of this abandoned city, with its decaying buildings and overgrown parks, and reflects on the strange allure that draws people to this post-apocalyptic landscape.
By entering the Zone, Kamysh escaped History and found a unique space which he made his alone — when he wasn’t sharing it with looters, dare-devils or tourists. But History doesn’t play fair. In February 2022, History returned to the Zone, with armed force. No one can be sure when (or how) the present conflict will end, but I doubt that the Zone will ever be as free again. Kamysh is no longer freewheeling through the Zone: in 2022, he volunteered to fight with the Ukrainian armed forces.
Kamysh’s strange, intriguing and lyrical work of creative non-fiction, written with a semi-Beat intensity, is a precious memoir of a few snatched moments of freedom.
Reviewed for BookBlast by Sharif Gemie.
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