By Charlie Connelly
30 JUNE 2022 12:00 AM
They took all the kettles. That was weird. What was even weirder was that
they left behind all the base plates needed to make the kettles work.
One of the most alarming aspects of early reports of Russia’s attempted
invasion of Ukraine was how on the first day of the invasion they targeted
the Chernobyl nuclear power plant close to the Ukrainian border with Belarus. No sooner had Russian forces rolled across the border than troops
were descending on the plant where, 36 years after the worst nuclear accident in history, 3,000 people are still employed in monitoring the
effects of the 1986 explosion and processing spent nuclear fuel that arrives from all over Europe.
The night shift was coming to an end on February 24 when Russian soldiers arrived from Belarus, marched into the plant and announced they were taking over. Nobody was sure why a near-derelict and still highly toxic nuclear power plant was an early priority for Putin’s forces. There was propaganda talk that the Ukrainians were using Chernobyl to make a dirty
bomb but the military top brass surely didn’t believe that?
Either way, that unfortunate night shift remained permanently on duty as
best they could for the next five weeks until the Russians suddenly packed up and left in a tearing hurry.
It could be that some troops were already displaying signs of radiation sickness. They’d charged through the exclusion zone as if unaware of how
dangerous it was and they thundered through what’s known as the Red Forest apparently oblivious to the most toxic piece of ground in Europe, if not the world. A pine forest at the time of the accident, the trees had absorbed massive amounts of radiation, turned red, died and were buried where they’d stood, making the Red Forest the most radioactive part of one of the most radioactive areas in the world.
When the ground is undisturbed a person on the Red Forest site can absorb a year’s worth of safe levels of radiation in 24 hours. If they kick up any dust that amount increases dramatically. Driving tanks and trucks across it throws up a lot of dust, vastly increasing the risks of radiation poisoning for those in the vehicles. But the Russians went one better than that: they dug trenches in the Red Forest and used the displaced soil to fill sandbags and build gun emplacements.
The damage inflicted on the plant by the Russians won’t really be known until the end of the war, but so far the inventory of stolen equipment includes 700 computers, 350 vehicles and 1,500 Geiger counters. And the kettles, of course. Every electric kettle in the place was taken, but none of the base plates that make them work.
Before the invasion the Chernobyl exclusion zone had become an unlikely tourist destination. In 2019, the last year before the pandemic, 124,000 people participated in official guided tours of Prypyat, the ghost town once home to 50,000 people. That figure was nearly three times the 46,000 who visited just two years earlier: the 2018 HBO series dramatising the disaster brought flocks of sightseers.
Stalking the Atomic City: Life Among the Decadent and the Depraved of Chernobyl by the Ukrainian writer Markiyan Kamysh was first published in Ukraine in 2015, its new English translation commissioned by Pushkin Press long before the invasion. It details Kamysh’s many years of travelling illegally in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, wandering among the abandoned villages for weeks at a time, sometimes alone, sometimes with a girlfriend, occasionally with eager tourists who persuade him to take them into what he calls simply
Kamych is a self-described “stalker” of the Zone, one of a handful of individuals who go there not to gawp, not to feel the thrill of being somewhere forbidden and not even to rummage around looking for stuff to take away and sell. In fact for most of the book it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why he keeps returning to such a bleak, uninviting region and staying for long periods. It’s roasting hot in summer and freezing in winter. He’s beset by midges in the heat of the swamplands, then is swimming through chest-deep snow, drinking vodka on waking at 6am because it’s the only liquid that doesn’t freeze.
Why does he do it? It’s left largely unsaid but his father, a physicist, was one of the ‘liquidators’ sent to Chernobyl in 1987, months after the explosion, to monitor radiation levels and oversee the early stages of the clean-up. Kamysh was born a year later and his father died when he was 14, as a direct result of exposure to the site.
He’s a child of Chernobyl, it’s been there since his conception, it’s there at the core of his being like the reactor core lurking beneath its thick concrete casing at the heart of the Zone. It’s as if he’s pulled back to the region because they have the same polluted DNA. In this profound and understated duel with grief, ennui and uncertainty, Kamysh has written a surprisingly meditative book entirely lacking in anger or bitterness about what Chernobyl did to his father and what might yet lay in store for him.
“When people ask me about my health, I really have no idea what to tell them,” he says, believing 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”.
What the future holds for any further explorations of the Zone by
Kamysh is anyone’s guess right now. He must miss it terribly. It seems likely
the Russian soldiers, most of whom professed ignorance of the 1986 disaster and even the nature of the facility they were occupying, may well be the spawning of a new generation of stalkers to come, an increasingly ancient disaster lurking in their very make-up.
Stalking the Atomic City: Life Among the Decadent and Depraved of Chernobyl by Markiyan Kamysh, translated by Hanna Leliv and Reilly Costigan-Humes, is published by Pushkin Press on July 7, price £12.99