Toxic Ruins: the Political & Economic Cost of ‘Ruin Porn’

April 5, 2013

In the radioactive debris of Chernobyl, a new type of safari has sprouted, led by ‘urban explorers’ obsessed with so-called ‘ruin porn’, a phenomenon propagated by architecture magazines & websites worldwide. But what is really at stake?

Above: A digitised Chernobyl forms the setting for the video game inspired by the film, ‘S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl’

On my first visit to Ukraine in 2010, when I bumped into some friends working as art curators, the first thing they asked me was: ‘Are you going to Chernobyl?’ They obviously were, no doubt with the same enthusiasm as they would visit a New York art gallery. Even back then the ruined ex-Soviet Union had already become a tourism industry, still a bit ‘frightening’ (watch out for ex-communists and radioactivity!) but popular among so-called ‘urban explorers’: internet-bred, geeky danger fans, paying decent money to risk their health a little and experience the thrill of ‘the Zone’. Today, they’re scavenging some of the USSR’s darkest places and their Holy Grail is Pripyat, a city in northern Ukraine near Chernobyl, where the reactor in a nuclear power plant erupted in 1986, causing widespread devastation.

This post-industrial geek safari was made possible not only by Ukraine opening up the former dead zone as a tourist attraction, but also by the popularity of so-called ‘ruin porn’, which is a direct effect of the fall of traditional industry and the rise of the ‘creative industries’. Everyone knows the omnipresent photographs of abandoned, depopulated cities such as Detroit, or New Orleans destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, transformed into beautiful coffee-table books, turning tragedy into visual delight – that’s ruin porn. But the fascination with urban exploration (or ‘urbex’) also, not accidentally, focuses on places of great historical importance. The ongoing fascination/repulsion that the capitalist west had with the ex-Soviet Bloc started during the Cold War and prepared the ground for the flourishing of all sorts of urban and political myths, confirmed by photos circulating in magazines such as Life or Time, which varied between critique of, and fascination with, Soviet life.

That trend was consolidated by a film from the most popular Russian director in history, Andrei Tarkovsky, a man with an extraordinarily distinct vision. The film was Stalker (1979), in which a man, known as a ‘stalker’, guides a professor and a writer to a cordoned-off military zone, where the normal laws of physics have been suspended (whether this is due to radioactivity, alien intervention or a government experiment gone wrong is never made clear), apparently granting innermost desires to anyone who visits. Despite being made in 1979, Stalker is commonly perceived as a ‘Chernobyl’ film for its uncanny nuclear-reactor prophecy, which has been endlessly reproduced in popular culture – like the video game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, where, instead of involving yourself in philosophical debates, as do the characters in Tarkovsky’s ruined zone, you become an amnesiac, an urban explorer, trying to kill a villain called ‘Strelok’.

A scene from Stalker (1972).


Ruin porn, though, is not new – it’s over 200 years old. When the romantics discovered freshly rediscovered Roman and Greek ruins – Pompeii, for example – nothing was trendier than pensive ruin contemplation. English gardens had randomly scattered ‘ruins’, faux-ancient architectural fragments purposely left around for trysts and meditation. Architects relished in plotting architectural riddles around ruins, such as Étienne-Louis Boullée, an eerie visionary pioneer of neoclassicism, or Claude Nicholas Ledoux, inventor of ‘architecture parlante’, where classical ruins were usually incorporated into the project; Sir John Soane built the Bank of England and his famous house this way. Such visions inspired painters as different as Poussin, Canaletto or Piranesi. Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, infamously bastardised the aesthetic with his concept of ‘Ruin Value’, where buildings were designed to look good in their afterlife – as ruins – forming a longing for a lost past, for a Golden Age that never came.

Tarkovsky probably also believed in the idea of a Golden Age, being famous for three-hour films full of contemplative scenes fixated on nature, elevating the rural and antiquity over industry, cities and modernity. Yet despite this obsession, something quite modern emerges. Two of Tarkovsky’s most quoted films – Solaris (1972) and Stalker – are starkly modern and futuristic, being adaptations of SF literature.

Detail from a film poster for ‘Solaris’ (1972)


In Solaris, when the characters have a videophone conversation, one is sitting in a bucolic hut in green, paradisiacal forest surroundings. The other is in a car on a high-speed highway, snaking around a grim, menacing metropolis. The ensuing sequence is one of the most mysterious in Tarkovsky’s career. Wrenched from the heavenly greenery, we’re taken on a crazy ride through never-ending flyovers and tunnels, Brutalist skyscrapers, slabs and blocks, accompanied by uncanny noise from Eduard Artemyev’s cult soundtrack. What is this city? Is Tarkovsky looking at it with fascination or repulsion? Probably both – that’s what makes it such a thrilling scene today.

Stalker’s universality derives from its images of decaying, post-industrial civilisation, the cost of industrialisation in terms of people and climate, where the happiness and comfort of some is paid for by the poverty and decaying lives of others. Tarkovsky was neither a liberal intellectual, nor purely a yurodivy – the Russian version of a shaman or Holy Fool, living only on spiritual values. He was an uncanny mixture of both, applying his westernised doubt to the incurably ‘crazy’, irrational part of the Russian soul that is in love with despotism, tsarism and nationalism; simultaneously, his fanatically spiritual side couldn’t see anything positive in late western civilisation. Importantly, this wasn’t a stance in the SF novels he adapted. Stanislaw Lem, author of the novel Solaris, famously rejected Tarkovsky’s interpretation, while the novella Roadside Picnic, the basis for Stalker, written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, is significantly more rigorous and less inclined to existentialism than Tarkovsky’s film version.

A scene from ‘S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’


It’s interesting that Tarkovsky has become a patron saint of hipster land explorers, because, paradoxically, his essential duality – westernised/spiritual – provides a coherent worldview in his films where neither is true. In Stalker we see this clearly: neither the cynical, self-pitying, hollow-poet’s reasoning of the stalker himself nor the fanatical belief of the professor is authentic. The stalker, an incurably melancholic, unhappy creature, has been likened by many to a gulag prisoner. Famously, he says the enclosed zona of the film is nothing in comparison to the ‘prison that is the world’. Geoff Dyer, an English essayist, wrote a book-length interpretation of the film, Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, which adheres to the gulag interpretation by offering a quote from Anne Applebaum’s book Gulag: A History on the never-ending ‘zone behind the barbed wire’. Dyer’s shot-by-shot analysis, despite over 200 pages, seems strangely abortive in how little of the essence of the film it delivers. Everything becomes obvious: the Zone is the USSR, stalker is a victim of the regime, the regime is eternal, there’s no escape…

And yet the Zone fascinates not only the film’s characters, but also today’s scavengers, who want nothing more than to be there. Why? Slavoj Žižek suggests that the Zone’s popularity is prompted exactly by its prohibition – its properties are augmented by the fact they are somehow wrong, bad for you, a Lacanian interpretation of ‘the real’ as an area of exclusion prompting its power. The ex-communist region, possessive of dark forces, is, precisely for that reason, popular among westerners. But what they do, and the money they pump into the ex-Bloc through ‘toxic tourism’, is based on this place remaining forbidden, radioactive, sick. And the guarantee that this place can remain sick only arises if the place where we come from, the west, remains safe and healthy. Macabrely, the film produced its own victims. It was shot in Estonia, near Tallinn, at two deserted power plants at the Jagala River plus several other lethal locations, including a chemical factory pouring toxic liquids. At least three people involved in the film, including Tarkovsky himself, died of cancer afterwards.

This perception of the former East as a constantly sick place – needing our help/ advice/political intervention – is enduring. It prompts a specific kind of nostalgia after communism: ‘ostalgia’. The neoliberal governments of ex-communist countries such as Estonia and Ukraine are only too happy to exploit this – for them, a perhaps irrational yet profitable interest. Estonia even touts itself to filmmakers and other creative industries as the ‘land of Stalker’. Toxic ruins keep influencing the imagery of natural catastrophe in new generations of films, such as Hollywood blockbusters The Chernobyl Diaries (2012) and The Darkest Hour (2011). Stalker’s deserted, post-nuclear landscapes were even recalled during the recent Fukushima tragedy by at least one journalist at The Guardian, while during the Euro 2012 football tournament in Poland and Ukraine, England fans visited the Chernobyl reactor, as well as Auschwitz. Architectural magazines are complicit, too – see, for example, the Manual of Architectural Possibilities: Map 005 Chernobyl, a pseudo-manual on survival in case of nuclear eruption: and Icon magazine, which, in March 2012, put out a special ‘ruin’-themed issue, including an account of a trip to Pripyat, in which the treatment of this fetishisation was somewhat ambivalent.

Yet there is little western interest in contemporary cultural and political issues in these places. In the situation of civilisational and economical weakening, the ex-Bloc was left with the choice between the manipulation of an oligarch-driven economy or death, the latter in the early 90s, especially. With the economic fall following the collapse of the socialist system, followed by capitalist shock therapy, Russia faced enormous impoverishment and more people died of poverty and alcoholism than during communism. And as Russia ceased to be communist, it became open to western tourism. Pictures of heavy drinking Siberian folk populate the internet – ‘hipsters from Omsk’ – but Ukraine and Russia have, in the eyes of western commentators, had a poor record since the dissolution: jailing liberal west-friendly politicians such as Yulia Tymoshenko or anarchist punk bands such as Pussy Riot for performing anti-Putin gigs in front of cathedrals. As Putin’s Russia strives towards a nationalistic theocracy, its tourism status as a toxic Disneyland ceases to be as innocent as it once was.

This article was originally published in Architectural Review Asia-Pacific magazine #128: New Civic Realms.

  • Juel Briggs April 8th, 2013 10:55 am

    Referring to your last paragraph “more people died of poverty and alcoholism than during communism.”

    An estimate of 9 million people died as a result of political persecution in Communist Russia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Stalin

    Have 9 million people really died of alcoholism and poverty in post Soviet Russia? If so, I would like to see the evidence, and with a “control” reference of how many died of poverty and alcoholism under Communist Russia.

    I ask for the “control reference” because I understand that alcoholism and poverty were a terrible problem under Communist Russia, and I would be surprised if these problems got worse (as a percentage of the populations) in post Communist Russia.

  • Juel Briggs April 8th, 2013 1:29 pm

    Not seeing my earlier comment appear on your site I thought to re-post.
    This article says – “more people died of poverty and alcoholism than during communism.”?
    9 million people died as a result of the violence and coercion of communist Russia. Let’s face it, they were killed, usually directly, by the secret police, soldiers and other thuggish agents of this massively inhumane totalitarian state, often for committing political crimes and speaking out against the State. Just like people were killed in Nazi Germany because of political crimes or their race.
    I very much doubt that more than 9 million people have died of alcoholism and poverty in post Communist Russia. But even if they have, there is no evidence that as a percentage of the population, the incidence of this has gone up. Communist Russia had a terrible problem with alcoholism and poverty. I doubt whether it has got worse.
    Sure, post-Communist Russia has bad problems such as with restrictions on civil rights and on free speech and the presence of powerful mafia type cultures and corruption, but generally, the state and agents of the state do not go out and slaughter millions of people in cold blood. They didn’t execute members of “Pussy Riot” (like they likely would have in Communist Russia), they locked them up. Although their imprisonment was unjust, there IS a difference between death and prison.

  • John Smith April 16th, 2014 11:31 pm

    I think the author meant simply that deaths due to poverty and alcoholism had gone up since the fall of communism, although it is a poorly written sentence and lends itself too easily to that other interpretation.

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