A teenager in green and black paramilitary gear is speaking Russian in a hushed, low voice. An overgrown graveyard is barely visible off to the right of him. Traditional Ukrainian cloths hang on a few crosses. A white stork passes overhead.
“This should be the cemetery,” he says. “We got to the exact spot we were aiming for.”
He puts away his GPS. He holds his hand-held Geiger counter up over a mound of dirt that covers radioactive machinery; the beeping goes wild and the numbers shoot up. 1.1.7, 1.1.8, 1.1.9. “This is beyond the scale,” he says, half-scared and half-thrilled. He moves away from the spot. The carcass of Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4 punctuates the distance.
On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant’s Reactor No. 4 exploded, and the ensuing nuclear fire burned for 10 days, releasing 400 times as much radiation as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. A radioactive rain of cesium, plutonium, and strontium blanketed parts of Ukraine, western Russia, and Belarus. Twenty-eight years later, Chernobyl remains the world’s worst nuclear accident. (Caveat: The Fukushima disaster is still playing out.)
The long-term effects and death toll of Chernobyl are controversial and hard to quantify. The World Health Organization expects a total of 4,000 deaths linked to the event, including those who died in the initial disaster and cancer cases that have developed and will develop afterward. Other organizations, such as Greenpeace, contend that the health hazards have been wildly underestimated and that eventually the death toll will hit nearly 100,000.
It will be generations before the consequences of Chernobyl are fully understood
The fallout was political as well. The Soviet Union’s inability to deny or control the story of the disaster arguably represented the first cracks in the superpower’s totalitarian myth—cracks that would widen into glasnost and within just a few years shatter the Soviet state. It will likely be generations before the consequences of Chernobyl are fully understood, and we are only one generation into what will be a centuries-long nuclear parable.
As the first generation of Ukrainians born after the Chernobyl tragedy comes of age, a small subculture of them is now doing the unthinkable: defying government prohibitions and illegally entering the highly radioactive Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, or “Dead Zone”—for fun. This group is monitored and pursued by the police and not fond of journalists: They curry in the forbidden, recover meaning from Soviet detritus, and take digital appropriation to new extremes. “It’s a post-apocalyptic romance,” as one young man put it.
V. is standing in front of a barbed wire fence, looking left and right, his head down. He is nervously entering near a militia post, a place where arrests happen frequently. He opens a flask and takes a shot of vodka, as is his tradition, anointing this trip into the Zone. He shimmies under the bottom strand of barbed wire and gets to the other side then holds it up for his friend.
“This is your first time in the Zone, right?”
They get low and trot toward a tree-covered area off to the right.