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Chernobyl: inside the Exclusion Zone

Writer and photographer Darmon Richter exposes a side of Chernobyl rarely seen by tourists in his new book dedicated to ‘redefining and de-sensationalising’ the region.

Residential building, Pripyat outskirts. The city is completely enveloped in a dense blanket of forest, blurring its former perimeters. © Darmon Richter / FUEL Publishing
Residential building, Pripyat outskirts. The city is completely enveloped in a dense blanket of forest, blurring its former perimeters. © Darmon Richter / FUEL Publishing

Richter, who has been photographing the area for the last seven years, wanted to paint a picture of what he describes as ‘the real Chernobyl’, going beyond the tiny fraction of places most visitors to the region see.

‘I think a lot of the tourism to Chernobyl now serves as a kind of “confirmation bias” for the picture of Chernobyl that most people already have in their heads,’ he explains. ‘But for the people who live and work in the Chernobyl Zone today, the place looks quite different.’

To venture outside of the tourist bubble, Richter embarked on an illicit hike into the 1,000-square-mile exclusion zone, journeying through irradiated forests, empty villages and past mega-structures to uncover a less familiar vision of Chernobyl.

Izumrudniy’ (‘Emerald’) Holiday Camp, near Chornobyl. Once a popular spot for summer holiday breaks, these rustic wooden chalets, painted with characters from cartoons and fairy tales, were completely destroyed by forest fires in April 2020. © Darmon Richter / FUEL Publishing
Izumrudniy’ (‘Emerald’) Holiday Camp, near Chornobyl. Once a popular spot for summer holiday breaks, these rustic wooden chalets, painted with characters from cartoons and fairy tales, were completely destroyed by forest fires in April 2020. © Darmon Richter / FUEL Publishing

His images show wildlife frolicking in abandoned ruins – many of which are descendants of deserted pets – communist murals that have barely faded and apartment blocks that seem barely changed. Richter also ventured into the nuclear plant’s control rooms.

‘The number of tourists entering the Zone each day averages less than 5% of Chernobyl’s total human traffic,’ he says. ‘This book is more interested in the other 95%.’

Chernobyl: A Stalkers’ Guide by Darmon Richter is out now, published via Fuel

Control Room 4, the room where the 1986 disaster originated. Now stripped of many of its fittings and cleaned of dust, it has been declared safe for visitors. Since autumn 2019, the power plant authorities have included it on official tours. © Darmon Richter / FUEL Publishing
Control Room 4, the room where the 1986 disaster originated. Now stripped of many of its fittings and cleaned of dust, it has been declared safe for visitors. Since autumn 2019, the power plant authorities have included it on official tours. © Darmon Richter / FUEL Publishing
Mural on a residential building, Heroes of Stalingrad Street, Pripyat. This Socialist-realist mural depicts virtuous citizens (a farmer, a firefighter, a police officer, and a Young Pioneer) under a radiant Soviet crest. © Darmon Richter / FUEL Publishing
Mural on a residential building, Heroes of Stalingrad Street, Pripyat. This Socialist-realist mural depicts virtuous citizens (a farmer, a firefighter, a police officer, and a Young Pioneer) under a radiant Soviet crest. © Darmon Richter / FUEL Publishing
Pripyat Café. This building and its striking stained-glass windows are currently being preserved by a privately funded project. The city is still home to numerous stray dogs, descendents of pets left by evacuees, who are often fed by tourists. © Darmon Richter / FUEL Publishing
Pripyat Café. This building and its striking stained-glass windows are currently being preserved by a privately funded project. The city is still home to numerous stray dogs, descendants of pets left by evacuees, who are often fed by tourists. © Darmon Richter / FUEL Publishing
Playground near Pripyat Middle School No.3. Each microdistrict had its own shops and recreation facilities. © Darmon Richter / FUEL Publishing
Playground near Pripyat Middle School No.3. Each microdistrict had its own shops and recreation facilities. © Darmon Richter / FUEL Publishing

See more of Richter’s photo essays exploring Soviet-era architecture on The Spaces

Up next: Inside ‘Chernobyl:’ how the TV show’s atmospheric sets were created

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