‘Monumenteering’ – An Excerpt from ‘Chernobyl: A Stalkers’ Guide’

Back in 2018 I spent five days in the company of a local looter-turned-tour guide – Leonid Demchenko – exploring the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in an effort to document all of the WWII memorials left abandoned in the region’s evacuated villages. That trip forms the basis of a whole chapter in my upcoming book, Chernobyl: A Stalkers’ Guide. The book will be released at the end of September, but for now, here’s an excerpt from that chapter – introducing some of the characters who still populate the rural villages of the Zone today.

 

In Demchenko’s company, the Zone takes on a different character altogether. We skip the usual tourist hotspots. Keeping mostly to back roads, we drive through forests and fresh green wilderness, pastures where deer skip between ruined farm buildings, and around marshes where storks circle looking for frogs. All the while, the large, aggressive, and insatiable mosquitoes follow us in swarms, hungry for blood.

It will take five days to see every monument in the Zone. We spend the first day in the south-east corner, where Demchenko seems to have a lot of friends. In almost every village, he stops to deliver food packages to the locals. Apart from a regular food truck that comes every two weeks, traffic is rare, and any that passes through a village like Gorodishche doesn’t do so by accident. Baba Ganya hears us arrive, and immediately comes shuffling out to investigate, her eyes popping with excitement from under her blood- red shawl. ‘Lyonya, Lyonya!’ she cries. Her small hand closes like a talon around my wrist, and suddenly I’m being dragged into the house, where a pan full of fox mushrooms is sizzling on the stove. She insists that we eat, and we wash the mushrooms down with shots of bitter walnut vodka.

We see the village monument and another in Opachychi too, before stopping for lunch with Baba Sofia in Kupovate. Sofia’s home is only 9 kilometres from Demchenko’s. Both remember a time when they were neighbours, before the arbitrary line of the Exclusion Zone was drawn between them. Kupovate was evacuated, and overnight the official route from village to village became a 50-kilometre detour through the Zone’s policed entry point at Dytyatky Checkpoint. Sofia has cooked us lunch – chicken wings and grilled fish, pickles, bread, and soup with sour cream. Many of the ingredients came from her own garden and while Sofia pours shots from an unlabelled plastic bottle, Demchenko explains how soil, crops, and produce from occupied parts of the Zone are sent to a lab for testing every three months. He assures me that Kupovate has never shown anything above normal background levels.

Stopping that afternoon in Chornobyl town, Demchenko buys ice cream, beer, and water in the market. We then deliver these treats to the police at various checkpoints. ‘This way, they always owe me a favour,’ he says, flashing his gold teeth.

Demchenko’s wife cooks rabbit stew that night, while he insists I sample four varieties of his homemade vodka. After a few drinks, I ask him how he got involved with the Zone. ‘It’s my home,’ he answers plainly. ‘I was never not involved.’ Demchenko worked in a factory, making cheese and other dairy products. When they evacuated the Zone he lost his job. After a spell as a liquidator, he began looking for other income. Initially, he looted scrap metal, selling it to a buyer in Kyiv. ‘They caught me in the end,’ he grins. ‘It was big trouble. But then the stalkers and tourists started coming… And that was even better money.’

The next morning we go looking for monuments in the north-east of the Zone. We have barely passed the power plant before a sudden boom rings out – something between a trumpet and synthetic thunder, so loud it seems to tear the heavens asunder. I nearly jump out of my skin, but Demchenko simply shrugs, explaining it’s just the power plant’s cooling system kicking in. We see monuments in Starosillya, Zymovysche, Krasne, and Masheve. Passing a railway crossing, I stop to take a photo down the tracks. Suddenly the metal begins to ping with distant power, and moments later a train rattles past at high speed. I see the faces of hundreds of power-plant workers staring out of the windows at me. I guess it’s not every day they see somebody out here in the overgrown wilds. ‘Most of the tracks were replaced after ‘86,’ says Demchenko. ‘It still gets a lot of use. Not just the workers’ train – clean-up crews too. They use trains to move dirty stuff to storage.’ He tells me how a new track, still under construction, will be used to take the worst waste from the highly contaminated vehicle graveyard at Buryakivka, to the Zone’s newest disposal site. ‘Good luck to the buggers doing that job.’

At Chapayivka we reach the northernmost part of the Ukrainian Zone. Here the road is bordered to the north by a fence, made from a single strand of barbed wire hanging from worn-out wooden posts. ‘Past that is Belarus,’ says Demchenko. I ask if I can cross, and he shrugs. ‘Don’t go too far or their patrols will get you.’ Guided by a map on my phone, I traverse the field to the north and step into Belarus.

If I expected it to feel any different, I am disappointed – the Zone seems to recognise no borders but its own, and it’s only the device in my palm that, against the judgement of all my senses, insists that this grass here is any different from that patch of grass back there. I don’t stay long before heading back to the car.

We visit a man named Grisha who lives alone in a cottage in Teremtsi. Beyond the iron gate, fecund apricot trees spill their fruit in sticky heaps across his yard. Grisha comes out to greet us with a wide, sad smile, and immediately begins pouring shots of walnut vodka for us at a garden table. His wife died the previous January and he seems glad of the company. Located at the confluence of the Pripyat and Dnieper Rivers, Teremtsi once had 500 citizens and a busy fishing industry. The water is strictly off-limits now, but Grisha remembers how the passenger boat used to stop here on its way from Pripyat to Kyiv. However, Teremtsi had always had it hard. In Soviet times, even when the catch was good, there might be no food in the shops. ‘Everything was sent back to Russia,’ he says, while Belarus, a couple of kilometres away, would always have food in stock. ‘We made better money selling our stock over there.’ Grisha laughs wistfully as he recalls how they would row pigs across the river to sell at Belarusian markets. We finish our drinks and leave him to his memories.

The war memorial in Teremtsi has a rough-spun, awkward quality to it, with its various elements struggling to come together into a coherent unit. The style of its central panel is reminiscent of a Modernist wood- or linocut, with semi- abstract human figures surrounded by a kind of oppressive heat-haze. They suggest a sense of affliction, a common theme for Soviet memorials to wartime sacrifice, only here the rendition feels far more Expressionistic than most Soviet Socialist-realism. As I admire it, two women come out of their houses nearby. Baba Sonya and Baba Vanya have been neighbours here all their lives, staying put through both war and evacuation. ‘There were partisans hiding here,’ says Vanya, remembering the events that inspired the monument. ‘But two boys from Teremtsi joined the Nazi police force. They gave up the partisans and the fascists came and shot them.’

‘Right here,’ agrees Sonya, standing on the patch of scrub where once a house had briefly served as a political prison. The old women continue to scold the wartime fascists as if these events occurred a week ago. Once again, I get the distinct impression that time works differently inside the Zone.

 

Chernobyl: A Stalkers’ Guide releases on 24 September, and you can pre-order it now through the publisher’s website.

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