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Stalking the Atomic City by Markiyan Kamysh review – in search of meaning in Chornobyl’s forbidden wasteland | Autobiography and memoir

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The area around Chornobyl was once meant to be a paradise. “They even planned to build a promenade with bridges, street lights and musical entertainment. They already started to lay the foundation of new power plant units, the apotheosis of joy and happiness looming on the horizon,” writes Markiyan Kamysh. “Until,” he says, with characteristic directness, “things got fucked and reactor number 4 blew the hell up.”

Kamysh was born in 1988, two years after that calamity, the son of a nuclear physicist who had been brought in to work as a liquidator after the meltdown. The families of liquidators were given social benefits, and cheaper food – but this association was also a source of radioactive stigma, not to mention ill health. Kamysh’s father died in 2003. A few years later Kamysh dropped out of university in Kyiv to dedicate himself to literature and the exploration of the exclusion zone around Chornobyl – as well as the disaster’s fallout in his own psyche.

He also started leading other people into the forbidden territory around the reactor, evading the police and ducking under wire fences, acting like a real-life version of the guides who take people to a forbidden area in Andrei Tarkovsky’s mysterious sci-fi film Stalker. Kamysh undertook those trips for money, but in this account, which he wrote between 2012 and 2014, he also describes the fallout zone as somewhere he can “relax”. He goes there to drink with friends, to celebrate New Year’s Eve, to wander alone among the ruins. He brings back descriptions of empty streets, the “jungles” that are spreading across the landscape, the cries of wolves in the night.

Kamysh describes himself as a “degenerate”. On his trips into the zone he drinks and destroys. He makes fires with old physics textbooks and burns floorboards for heating. He smashes windows. He has a terrifying disregard for his own safety. He even jokes about meeting other stalkers in cancer wards in 20 years’ time.

He can be brutally funny (credit for this must go partly to translators Hanna Leliv and Reilly Costigan-Humes), but he also demands serious attention. To those asking if he’s afraid of radiation, he says: “No. It’s only here that life won’t slip by for me, for I’m living it in the most exotic place on Earth.”

By the time we get to that explanation, late on in this remarkable book, Kamysh has made us understand why he thinks the zone around Chornobyl is so special, why – because of its desolate serenity, and the freedom it grants from the strictures of normal life – it may even be worth dying for. No mean feat. It’s all the more unsettling to read about this bargain with death now that invading Russian troops have also blundered into his poisoned paradise. At least Kamysh had a choice, strange as it may seem.

Stalking the Atomic City: Life Among the Decadent and Depraved of Chornobyl by Markiyan Kamysh is published by Pushkin Press (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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