Above: An abandoned swimming-pool in Pripyat, the ghost-town inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Northern Ukraine. Credit: Kim Hjelmgaard.

Pripyat Tourism

Several news websites have recently mockingly noted a new Chernobyl tourism website. To the average journalist (a hack), and perhaps the ordinary person, the ghost town of Pripyat in Ukraine would be the last place on Earth that would occur to them as a holiday destination given that it was abandoned in April 1986 due to a catastrophic nuclear meltdown at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear powerplant. (For example, Chris Leadbeater, The Independent: "Can there be a more unlikely location for visitors than the corner of Ukraine that was the site of one of the most notorious and disturbing incidents ever to cast a shadow across our planet? Cast your mind back, if you will--and if you are of a suitable age to remember--to the bleakness of the east European spring three decades ago, and ask yourself: Could you ever imagine that the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant would be a tourist destination?")

However, to those interested in critical theory and urbex photography Pripyat has an elevated-and-privileged status, and is a wondrous (and highly attractive) tourism destination. The town is of interest for at least three reasons that come immediately to mind--reasons which no hack reporting on this seems to be aware of.

First, the town is a unique example of a key Ballardian sci-fi motif: the overgrown city. A toxic city abandoned in a hurry. A city in which all man-made intervention ceases on a given day. (Pripyat was rewilded, to use George Monbiot's term.) The crucial enjoyment or pleasure here is that the motif is ordinarily limited to the literary imagination--the abandoned city can be imagined not actually experienced. But now it can be experienced, and that is thrilling. It is particularly thrilling to the urbexer. In the scene of urban explorations of disused and abandoned buildings (such as schools, factories, generating stations, hospitals, asylums, etc.), Pripyat stands as the ne plus ultra. More or less every urbexer would be interested to have a look around inside the 30-mile Exclusion Zone--where for thirty years there has been almost no human intervention.

Second, Pripyat is highly Baudrillardian, in that the abandoned town is real world evidence of his Law of Reversal: the more advanced-and-sophisticated a culture becomes the more it becomes subject to the prospect of a catastrophic inversion. (A concept encapsulated in the English proverb: the harder they come the harder they fall.) Baudrillard was also fascinated by the hyper-banalized empty signs of tourist culture, and in that context--Pripyat-as-theme-park--the Zone is an ironic and perverse destination. (A sort of inverse Disneyland.)

And third, the Exclusion Zone is absolutely Tarkovskian. Many want to make the journey to Pripyat because the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone seems to be a real instance of--the reality of--Tarkovsky's classic 1979 art movie Stalker (based on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic). In that film, certain ordinary persons enter a forbidden Zone in Russia (an overgrown toxic post-industrial landscape) in order to find a certain building in which any visitor's deepest wishes are supposed to come true. Those who want to visit the room are led through the numerous ever-shifting, life-threatening-and-perilous hazards of the Zone by an expert guide known as a Stalker. For many, Tarkovsky's Stalker has taken on the status of a prediction, a foreshadowing, a divinely inspired prophecy.

(6 May 2018)