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Radioactive Man: Meet the Outlaw Guide Smuggling Tourists Into Chernobyl

Risk, romance and losing your toes inside the exclusion zone of Chernobyl.

All photos by Kiril Stepanets

This article originally appeared on VICE Greece

Every year, thousands of tourists visit the restricted zone around Chernobyl, where on April 26th 1986 the worst nuclear accident in human history took place. After the accident, the area around the plant was evacuated and authorities declared an elimination zone of almost 20 miles around nuclear reactor 4. That area includes the city of Pripyat, the town of Chernobyl, and dozens of smaller villages. More recently, access to the area is permitted only with special permission and accompaniment of an official guide.

Of course, an official ban won't keep everyone away. There are several guides who'll take you into the exclusion zone illegally and will accompany you wherever you want to go. These guides are called "Stalkers", and 27-year-old Kiril Stepanets is one of them. A few years ago, about 10 to 15 people would illegally enter the area, but according to Kiril, these days that number nears the hundreds.

I spoke to Kiril about risk, romance and losing your toes inside the exclusion zone.

Kiril Stepanets

VICE: How did you start giving tours in the area?
Kiril Stepanets: I took an official tour through the zone in 2009, that was the first time I went. But it was immediately clear that those organised tours don't really offer anything – they take your money and you don't really know where you are. I illegally entered for the first time in 2011 with a group of friends, and never stopped going.

Why do you go there?
I live next door. The drive from Kiev is about an hour and a half. Other people go to the Carpathian Mountains or the Alps to unwind; I go to Chernobyl. For a while I worked as an official guide but they didn't want to work with me any more. There were so many cliques there, and people who seemed almost in love with the area – who didn't really want to share it with others. It was a weird place to work. That's why I decided to take people there illegally.

How do you get in?
We go to the checkpoint by car or bus, and then we enter through one of the illegal entry points. Once we're in, we can go anywhere. You'll need to walk a couple of days to get to Pripyat – the big city in the area. It takes less time to get to the nearby villages. When I go by myself, I like walking around in places where no one has set foot in for 30 years. There's a lot of that, but there's also a lot of tourism. On my way to Pripyat the other day I passed about 40 people on the road.

Do you bring instruments with you to measure the level of radiation?
Not any more, because if I get caught my instruments are confiscated, and they're expensive. But I know where I'm going, so I don't need them now.

Do authorities actively look for illegal tourists?
Yes, I've been caught a couple of times. Nothing much happens: they check your things, they file a case, it goes to court and you'll eventually get a small fine. That's only if you walk around to take a look. It's different when you steal stuff from the area, like iron or timber. Apparently, smugglers can make a killing, but I stay out of that.

What kind of people do you take on your trips?
Anyone, really: corporate types who are looking for some excitement, or journalists looking for a good shot. Or anyone just curious to see the Chernobyl they've heard about for so many years. Of course, 90 percent of the people go to stand on a building in Pripyat at sunset and get drunk overlooking the dead city.

Where do you stay when you're there?
We have some apartments we stay in, in Pripyat and in the smaller villages. There's some supplies there, and some furniture to collapse on after having walked around for 25 miles.

How many stalkers are there?
I have no idea. It used to be about 15 people, everybody knew each other. Now it's much more than that, and there's a lot of rivalry too. This other guy knows the places I stay at when I'm here. He'll break the windows of those places and piss on my bed when I'm not there. Or he spies on me. In general, the zone tends to draw some mentally unstable characters.

Have you met good people, too?
Oh sure, so many of them. I met a girl from Moscow in Pripyat who had illegally entered as well, and I started dating her. We used to go there together, I called it a radioactive relationship. We've split up now, though.

Do things ever go wrong? What kind of accidents happen?
One of my best friends from Russia went there in the winter, got drunk and fell asleep on a building. His feet were wet and in the morning he couldn't feel them any more. He dragged himself to the main road, called the police and gave himself up. Eventually he lost the toes on both feet.

He got overly confident?
Yes, but he was very experienced in Chernobyl. That's not very surprising, though: it's usually the more experienced ones that get in trouble, not the newbies.

More from VICE on Chernobyl:

Inside the Belarusian Institutions for Chernobyl Radiation Victims

Hanging Out With the Only Residents of Chernobyl's Exclusion Zone

Gerd Ludwig Photographs the Effects of the World's Biggest Nuclear Catastrophe