Chernobyl as a space of tourist practices in the field of ‚Dark Tourism‘ and ‚Heritage Tourism‘

Some reflections on Darmon Richter’s approach in ‚Chernobyl: A Stalker’s Guide

The Chernobyl disaster

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred on April 26, 1986, in reactor block 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near the city of Prypyat. It was the first event to be classified in the highest category of ‚catastrophic accident‘ (INES 7) on the seven-level international scale for nuclear events. The simulation of a complete power failure, which began on April 25, 1986, resulted in an uncontrolled power increase, which led to the explosion of the reactor and fire on April 26 at 1:23 a.m.

Control Room 4, the panel where the disaster originated – Reactor Hall 3, visitors are taken on an official tour – Golden Corridor, provides access to control rooms for Reactor Blocks (Photography by Darmon Richter)

Within the first ten days after the explosion, several trillion becquerels of radioactivity were released into the Earth’s atmosphere. The radioactive substances thus released into the atmosphere mainly contaminated the region northeast of Chernobyl as a result of radioactive fallout, as well as many countries in Europe due to wind transport. After the catastrophe, so-called liquidators began to decontaminate the most affected areas. Under the direction of the Kurchatov Institute, a temporary protective shelter made of reinforced concrete was erected by November 1986, which is usually referred to as a „sarcophagus“. For years there has been controversy about the long-term health consequences worldwide. In a report prepared jointly with the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the WHO considers a total of about 4000 deaths worldwide to be possible, mainly from cancer. According to this report, there have been fewer than 50 deaths directly attributable to the disaster, mostly due to acute radiation sickness.

Chernobyl as a tourist destination

A visit to Chernobyl and the ruins of the ghost town Pripyat is for many tourists today an integral part of a trip to Kyiv. There is hardly a hostel in the capital of Ukraine where tour operators do not offer a day trip to the Chernobyl zone. Kyiv, like Prague, is often visited by groups of young men as part of stag parties for the duration of a weekend. Flights offered by providers such as Wizzair are cheap. The three key programme items there have been tank driving, Kalschnikov shooting and a visit to Chernobyl now for a decade.

‚Stalkers‘ (Photography by Darmon Richter)

Thus, the visits to Chernobyl can be attributed to a phenomenon that has been attracting increasing attention in tourism research since the early 1990s – the phenomenon of ‚dark tourism‘ and ‚thanatourism‘. Foley & Lennon (1996, p. 198) defined these phenomena as „the presentation and consumption (by visitors) of real and commodified death and disaster sites. There are of course large and significant differences between the two subphenomena, which are discussed in a differentiated manner (for an overview, see Light 2017), and the position is also taken that these are only varieties of cultural tourism as a subgroup of heritage tourism. Essential for us here in the following should as well the ethical debates associated with these forms of tourism (cf. Foley & Lennon 1997):

The identification of dark tourism and thanatourism was accompanied by extensive commentary and debate about the ethical dimensions of such tourism […] For some scholars, tourism at places of death and suffering raised issues about the acceptability and propriety of presenting places associated with death for tourism […] and the broader question of whether it is acceptable to profit from death or the macabre […] Other debate focused on visitors themselves: Ashworth and Hartmann (2005a, p. 12) rehearse the argument that atrocity tourism ‚may anaesthetize rather than sensitize visitors, and increased contact with horror and suffering may make it more normal or acceptable, rather than shocking and unacceptable‘ […] There was a tendency to be critical of visitors to dark places, assuming them to be illinformed, likely to see such places as little more than entertainment, or likely to behave inappropriately or disrespectfully.

(Light 2017, 282)

‚Chernobyl: A Stalker’s Guide

An author who presents a volume on Chernobyl will inevitably have to be measured against the discourse on ‚heritage‘ or ‚cultural tourism‘, ‚dark tourism‘ and ‚thanatourism‘. As the web is flooded with pictures of visitors to Chernobyl, it will not only be the quality of the photographs that will be examinedDarmon Richter, of course, has enormous experience with post-Soviet countries and the photographic exploration and archiving of their architecture. For me, his photography is not a stereotypical photography of abandoned and decaying places, as we encounter it many times and as it can be easily reproduced. It changes, sometimes you think you see an archivist at work, sometimes a police photographer who takes in all traces of a crime, and sometimes even a romantic landscape painter who follows a mood that cannot be precisely captured.

Photography by Darmon Richter

Let me say in advance that I myself had decided against a visit to Chernobyl when I had the opportunity in 2010. I had been 16 years old at the time of the Chernobyl event and it seemed unethical for me to wander like a ’stalker‘ or a visitor to a zoo through a cityscape where people had experienced so much suffering. However, this ethical question doesn’t have to interest us at Darmon Richter, so much to begin with. His photo and text book is free of any kind of sensationalism. It may be that one buys it out of this motif, but the book is far too multi-layered, too complex in structure, for someone who is only interested in the experience of the thrill to occupy himself more deeply with Richter’s book.

And I have to admit that I myself am unable, in writing, to even begin to outline Richter’s approach in a short text like this. Therefore the previous and the following reflections are only to be understood as a small collection of impressions as they came to me within the first three days I approached the book.

Photographs of a search for traces (Photography by Darmon Richter)

On the very first page of his book, Richter distinguishes between two ‚Chernobyls‘ – the place or space and the event. While tens of thousands of tourists, whom he calls ‚disaster tourists‘, trace the shudder that the event still evokes today, he is interested in the change that has taken place in built and unbuilt space with the departure of people:

[…] [Those] images of desaster burnt into the public consciousness bear little resemblance to the Chernobyl of today […]. Chernobyl today is a place of greenery and life, of branches sagging under overripe fruit, and of wild animals that in the decades of our absence have begun to loose their distrust of humans. Foxes will eat bread from the palm of your hand, while all around, ponderous symbols of the former regime give ways to flowers, berries and ants. It is a place where the humble might find inexhaustible beauty, and where the curious may glimpse nature’s future order in a post-human world.

Richter (2020, p. 12)

While reading the book, one immediately gets the impression that Richter traces the failure of the promises of modernity – the promises of security, predictability, rationality, transparency. In this respect, the Soviet culture did not differ from the Western, Fordist culture of mass production and consumption. The spaces that Richter roams through reveal the emptiness of these promises. After all, regaining control over these spaces in the sense of the promises of modernity is eternally blocked for humans.

In the first of his essays ‚Nightmares and Premonitions‘, he explores the promise of total control over the supply of all the machines and technologies invented in industrial modernity with a never-ending source of energy – nuclear power. Here he reflects on the one hand on the contradiction between total control and the worst possible loss of control, both in nuclear accidents and in war-induced nuclear destruction, which in its totality ultimately affects the whole world. Since both Soviet industrial modernity and its capitalist counterpart turned production and consumption into mass events, Richter consistently discusses here the mass staging of both sides of the totality of nuclear energy in the mass culture of comics and film.

In the following chapters, he gradually approaches both the various spaces of the former nuclear power plant and the spaces of the abandoned city of Pripyat. Richter makes it easy for the interested reader to find his way around, because he provides a comprehensive set of maps at the beginning of the book, with the help of which it is possible to follow the traces even from a distance.

Above all, the author lets us participate in his search for traces. He takes us on a journey of his examination of the many questions he has about the space and which have captivated him so much that he has returned there for so many years. Above all, Darmon Richter allows us to participate in the multiple transformations of space through the practices of the various stakeholders in the cultural construct of ‚Chernobyl‘: tourists, tour operators, returnees, adventurers, gamers, poachers, mushroom pickers, etc.

The boundaries between spectators, actors on the stage of a play and stagehands, who will never see the whole play but make their living from its performance, become fuzzy.

Prior to my visit, I had read an article that described how ‚children’s dolls are scattered about, left where their young owners dropped them in a hurry a quarter of a century ago.‘ I watched my own group wade through the ruins, cameras in hand, constantly rearranging the artefacts to create new and original compositions. I imagined these actions multiplied by thousands of photographers each year, and suddenly the notion of an untouched Pripyat seemed laughably naive. There were moments of plausible truth along the way (miniature, self-contained stories, like the upright piano abandoned on the seventh floor of an apartment building, too big for the elevators, too heavy to drag down the stairs), but for the most part, the interior spaces of Pripyat looked like bad taxidermy. […] I wondered if some of these objects hadn’t even originated from Pripyat. Some of the books and stuffed animals, in particular, seemed far too fresh to have weathered twenty-seven winters here. I asked my guide if the tour companies ever arranged these scenes themselves, but Nikolai dismissed the question. ‚Maybe the stalkers do it,‘ he said defensively. ‚Who knows?‘

Richter (2020, p. 54)

Constructions of ‚Atomgrad‘ (Photography by Darmon Richter)

The city of Pripyat as a cultural project, within which Soviet modernity staged the promise of total control over Soviet man, technology and nature, is itself a highly artificial space. It differs in structure in nothing from its Western counterparts, of whose failure there are already several examples, the most recent being the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. It is interesting to note that the mass cultural staging of failure and decay is also an integral part of modern mass culture, whereby the spaces are subjected to permanent transformation.

The centre of these multiple stagings forms a so-called ‚tourist self‘ in late modernism since tourism as the largest industry of late modernism is dependent on a permanent re-staging of so-called ‚extraordinary‘ or ‚exceptional‘ places and spaces (cf. Urry 1994, Belk & Hsiu-yen Yeh 2011, Reckwitz 2019).

Darmon Richter’s photo and text volume breaks up unreflected stagings and contributes to a contextualisation (cf. Lennon 2017 on the importance of understanding the context of dark tourism spaces) of the cultural construct of ‚Chernobyl‘ – the book is thus neither repeatable nor restagable. In my view it represents both the beginning and the end of any possible reflection on Chernobyl, Richter has staked out the field.

Conclusion

For me, Darmon Richter’s Chernobyl book is more of a cultural studies essay on the social construction of spatialities and temporalities than a photobook about a space that has long been defined in images and narratives. Richter’s approach demands time from the reader or the viewer. He lays stumbling blocks, confronts familiar ones with often opposing interpretations. Richter not only breaks down stereotypes, but he also plays a multifaceted game of deception with them and with the reader. He has found the perfect metaphor in the term ’stalker‘, which changes its meaning from chapter to chapter.

In this respect, this book represents a perfect readable reflection on the phenomena of ‚dark tourism‘ and ‚thanatourism‘ by a theoretically well-versed and practically experienced author who does not need to waste time on scientific cross-references. On the other hand, the book itself is a result of mass tourism practices and therefore, a rich object of study for tourism research.

Text: Stefan Applis (2020)

Photography: Darmon Richter (2020)

References

Belk, R. & Hsiu-yen Yeh, J. (2011). Tourist photographs: sings of self. International Journal of Culture, Tourism and Hospitality Research 5(4), pp. 345-353.

Light, D. (2017). Progress in dark tourism and thanatourism research: An uneasy
relationship with heritage tourism. Tourism Management 61 (2017), pp. 275-301. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tourman.2017.01.011

Foley, M., & Lennon, J. J. (1996). JFK and dark tourism: A fascination with assassination. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 2(4), 198-211. https://doi.org/10.1080/13527259608722175

Foley, M., & Lennon, J. J. (1997). Dark tourism: A ethical dilemma. In M. Foley,
J. J. Lennon, & G. A. Maxwell (Eds.), Hospitality, tourism and leisure management:
Issues in strategy and culture (pp. 153e164). London: Cassell.

Lennon, J. (2017). Dark tourism sites: visualization, evidence and visitation. Worldwide Hospitality and Tourism Themes 9(2), pp. 216-227.

Richter, D. (2020). Chernobyl: A Stalker’s Guide. Fuel.

Urry, J. (1994). Time, Leisure and Social identity. Time & Society 3(2), pp. 131-149.

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