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Why Is There Still So Much Nostalgia for Nuclear Apocalypse?

The popularity of nuclear apocalypse is nostalgia for a time when our worries were wrapped in a single nuclear package, and all we needed was a bunker and a dream.

Apocalypse Ready: The Manual of Manuals; a Century of Panic Prevention
Taras Young
Thames & Hudson
July 2022
Stalking the Atomic City: Life Among the Decadent and the Depraved of Chornobyl
Markiyan Kamysh
Astra House
April 2022

It would be hard not to have noticed that pop culture these days (not to mention climate science) is obsessed with the end of the world. Since thermonuclear weaponry introduced the idea of global destruction at the push of a few buttons or the punch of a code, there’s been a good reason to be concerned. What’s changed in the 30 years since the end of the Cold War “ended” is that the obsessions have diversified. There’s the climate emergency and all its destructive drivers. There’s the global pandemic. There’s the fear of mass migration and violent uprisings driven by rising sea levels, drought, and rapidly growing inequality. There’s the rise of right-wing authoritarian movements and governments.

In pop culture, there is a plethora of science-fiction/horror refractions of those fears, from the regular threat of cosmic destruction that drives most plots in the Marvel and DC comic universes to the more allegorical apocalypse of zombies, meteor strikes, collapsing multiverses, and what have you. All that, and don’t forget that the threat of nuclear cataclysm has never gone away, as current events in Ukraine and Taiwan have again served notice. One way to understand the perennial popularity of Cold War relics and disaster tourism is as nostalgia for a simpler time when all your worries could be wrapped up into a single nuclear package, and all you supposedly needed to assuage those worries was a bunker and a dream.

The Cold War wing of what academics term the dark tourism industry takes two primary forms, one textual and one physical: picture books and popular histories of the craziness that was the Cold War shelter society, on the one hand, and physical visits to sites still redolent of that craziness, on the other. Edinburgh-based nuclear-war specialist and researcher in weird, hidden, and forgotten history and culture Taras Young has recently published Apocalypse Ready: The Manual of Manuals; a Century of Panic Prevention in a profusely illustrated, coffee-table-ready example of the former. Writer and Chornobyl explorer Markiyan Kamysh’s memoir Stalking the Atomic City: Life Among the Decadent and the Depraved of Chornobyl, translated from Ukrainian by Hannah Leliv and Reilly Costigan-Humes, joins a growing collection of books devoted to the most radioactive and extreme of the latter.

Young’s and Kamysh’s respective attitudes towards their material could not be more divergent. Young approaches disaster preparedness literature as a sensible and necessary institutional response to cataclysmic threats. Kamysh writes in the live-fast, die-young tradition that runs from the Romantic poets through the Beats: cynical, despairing, and obsessively searching for authentic experience whatever the cost. Nevertheless, they share a tacit understanding that the apocalyptic conditions in which each in his own way participates are also a broader diagnosis of the condition of the contemporary world.  

Any picture book lives and dies by the strength of its visual program. Young’s collection of disaster preparedness ephemera is noteworthy in its temporal, linguistic, and geographic range as well as in its variety of visual program and design within the basic constraints of the disaster preparedness form. The hundreds of images include advertisements, archival photos, cartoons, posters, and film stills; maps, charts, and graphs; and public and private instruction booklets, guides, and pamphlets. The US, UK, and Commonwealth countries like Australia, Canada, and New Zealand may dominate in Apocalypse Ready, but Young has also sought out, translated, and reproduced materials from Belgium, China, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Hungary, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Sweden, Switzerland, the UN, the USSR, West Germany, and Zimbabwe. A lot of people have given a lot of thought for a long time to preparedness. It’s what responsible governments do, or at least an important way that governments perform responsibility for their citizens or subjects.  

Apocalypse Ready begins with hands-down—especially in today’s moment—the most credible form of preparedness: Pandemic. The opening section covers over a century of pandemics, from Tuberculosis and the Spanish Flu to the more recent Asian Flu, Hong Kong Flu, and HIV/AIDS to COVID-19. Along the way, it reminds the reader that xenophobic misnomers are no newer than anti-Asian bias. “HONG KONG FLU IS UNAMERICAN!” shouts a Des Moines, Iowa, billboard in 1968. “Catch Something American”, it continues.

The next section tackles “Natural Disaster” and incorporates extreme weather, earthquakes, wildfires, and “survival in the wild” as its four topics. While Young does note the “exacerbating effects of man-made climate change”, he consistently underplays the degree to which human activity has affected the so-called natural world, just as the account of pandemics passes in silence over the genocides caused by often intentionally transmitted disease in colonial times, especially in the Americas. Although the term “Anthropocene” does not appear anywhere in Apocalypse Ready, Young does include a page of posters from the radical environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion.

More typical is the section’s concluding topic of so-called “wilderness survival manuals”, which unironically presents military manuals for surviving in “inhospitable surroundings” such as the jungle or the frozen north that have been stably populated for millennia. Young passes over without mentioning the fact that some of the techniques reproduced in these manuals are drawn directly from Indigenous adaptations to harsh environments. For instance, Inuit peoples have from time immemorial been known to fabricate “eye protection” from snow blindness out of “wood, bark, cloth, or paper,” as UK airmen were instructed in the 1953 manual Arctic Survival.

Apocalypse Ready’s final two sections—“Nuclear War” and “Alien Invasion”—conclude a progression from widely accepted to highly debatable forms of disaster preparedness. Young is to be applauded for avoiding the facile mockery that typically accompanies such surveys of prior eras’ obsessions that we now believe to be beneath us. Nevertheless, the matter-of-fact presentation of upbeat government advice that carries over from the previous sections leaves unquestioned and unanalyzed the ideological forces that drive otherwise well-meaning measures for the protection of citizens. Unequal protection of marginalized populations is easier to glimpse in the extremities of preparation for nuclear war than in pandemic preparedness. However, the last few years have shown the many ways in which unequal conditions equally obtain in what should be the universal protection offered by pandemic or disaster preparedness.

Young’s presentation often assumes a neutral attitude towards Apocalypse Ready‘s visual media that belies how deeply embedded these media are, for better or for worse, in the dominant values of the cultures that produced them. You can tell a lot about a nation’s culture from its civil defense (CD) pamphlets, as Young does observe at several junctures. In the US, depicted subjects are invariably white nuclear families in suburban settings (unless they’re on vacation in Yellowstone) and invariably include two children as symbols of the future. In the USSR, settings are urban, outdoors, and collective. In China, they’re equally collective but rural. CD in New Zealand and Japan concentrates even-handedly on individual preparedness and community responsibility: “In a Disaster, Give a Thought to Your Neighbors”.

Form and design equally vary from country to country and decade to decade. Savoir pour Vivre (Know to Live) announces a 1960 French Civil Defence manual, knowingly exchanging the very different quality of savoir-vivre, or knowing how to enjoy and get on in life, for the far more physical tools of survival. The guide is illustrated like a Gallic Richard Scarry word-book, with individually named objects grouped according to categories like “Personal hygiene”, “Combustible heating and lighting”, and—lest we worry that all joie-de-vivre has been extinguished—“Leisure” (178-9).

A 1964 West German Civil Defence (Zivilschutzfibel) booklet chooses instead a series of emblematic images overlaid with color blocks and duplicated figures like an Andy Warhol silkscreen (170-71) as if aiming for a youthful, hip populism. In contrast, the UK’s notorious 1980 “Protect and Survive” campaign confronts the prospect of utter annihilation with a troubling combination of DIY handicrafts and stark realism. Young argues that the mocking reception of the public release of what Margaret Thatcher’s government had intended for internal use only “marked a turning point in public attitudes to civil defence” (210-11). This is almost certainly overstated, but it’s true that “Protect and Survive” prompted some of the Cold War’s most inspired antinuclear satire.

Apocalypse Ready works hard to stress the rational processes that Young argues underwrote what appeared then to some and today to many as the craziness of prepping for nuclear disaster or alien invasion. Disaster preparedness may be necessary, but its basic requirements remain luxuries for most of the world’s inhabitants. Not coincidentally, these inhabitants are the ones seldom, if ever, protected by, able, or willing to participate in most forms of preparedness. Even the range of nations Young covers is dominated by former or current imperial powers: the US, the UK, and its anglophone former colonies Australia and New Zealand, Japan, China, and the Soviet Union.

In stark contrast, Stalking the Atomic City is not only about what its subtitle terms Life Among the Decadent and the Depraved. It’s a snapshot of what life looks like for the lion’s share of the world whose circumstances do not afford the luxury of preparedness, who have already survived an apocalypse, or for whom disaster is an ongoing condition, and whose lives model survival better than even the best-prepared preppers might do. “You don’t need any advice” (44), Kamysh insists. No guides, pamphlets, or prepping—it’s all there in the doing.

Kamysh chooses to embrace marginalization and celebrate the divergent pleasures offered by everything unexpected and unpredictable in the postapocalyptic. This is not to say that he articulates any common feelings with women, the formerly enslaved, Indigenous peoples, postcolonial subjects, or the world’s poor. Still, in wholeheartedly rejecting every piety and nostrum embraced by the documents in Apocalypse Ready and the cultures that produced them, his uncompromising voice creates space to see who and what has been excluded by the disaster preparedness industry. Kamysh, in other words, identifies as a situationist or an anarchist, not as a prepper.

“Normal people have no business in a radioactive dump,” he reminds his readers. “Remember this.” Once inside the Chornobyl Zone, he never fails to “acknowledge the utter absurdity of these visits into this hole, into this bitter cold, into this slow, sullen death.” One might argue that anyone this invested in prose that reads like incantatory free verse and illustrates his memoir with artfully framed and beautifully lit high-resolution black-and-white photos has an aesthetic agenda far exceeding the nihilism it espouses. But credit Kamysh for fully inhabiting the persona and voice his memoir crafts despite the contrary indicators.

This persona is too cool, or too degenerate, as Kamysh might phrase it, even to consider himself an urban explorer or to “think of clichés like ‘postapocalyptic’ or ‘industrial.’” Instead, he includes himself among those “people who forget their email passwords, who don’t follow political news, and if they have to choose between going to the movies or the sauna, always chose the latter.” Stalking in this context is simply the logical extension of the meaningless, empty life available to a discarded population. “We do all this for the sake of one experience: hanging out on a rooftop, drinking beer, eating snacks, and smoking”.

Kamysh is a natural descendant of the Ramones or the Medellín punks in Víctor Gaviria’s 1990 film Rodrigo D: No Futuro, riffing repetitively on a few dead-end choices that nevertheless produce something more. They may not do anything to change the equation, but the wasted spaces of the Exclusion Zone intensify the emptiness and enable nihilism. The world is over everywhere, but at least near Chornobyl, no one can have any illusions about it. As Kamysh philosophizes, “The way you spend New Year’s Eve is the same way you’ll spend the rest of the year, as they say in Ukraine. I guess I’m screwed.”

Those who know the Zone as well as Kamysh have long been named after Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s uncategorizable 1979 masterpiece Stalker. It’s not just that Tarkovsky’s premise imagined the not-yet-existing spaces of the Chornobyl Zone so perfectly it’s scary. It’s that he already understood that the perils and rewards of a shimmering nuclear wasteland perfectly allegorized the only forms of escape available to those living under the Soviet or American hegemonies. The stalker’s world is the bunker fantasy for those who could never afford a bunker.

“I really wish all this would pass into oblivion as soon as possible. So I could look at my old photos and remember those times with a sense of happiness,” Kamysh writes. The Zone offers the promise of apocalypse—a space of remembered happiness for those who never knew it directly—without the necessity of actually living through its horrors. The experiences it offers, Kamysh could credibly argue, are simply what is achingly familiar to anyone already living the effects of genocide, environmental racism, or marginalization.

Consequently, he displays grudging respect, if not sympathy, for the police and the looters whose livelihoods depend on the Zone. But he consistently distances himself from the thrill-seeking tourists he periodically, if reluctantly, shuttles through the requisite photo-op sites he otherwise avoids. Thrill-seekers have other options; the locals do not.

Kamysh is not drawn to what’s exceptional about the Exclusion Zone but to the ordinary that has been made special simply because it’s been lost. Having made well over a thousand trips into the Zone, he’s disinterested in “the central squares and popular tourist destinations”. Instead, “I always search for the most remote spots and go straight there.” What compels him to return is filling in the “blind spots” on his laminated map and revisiting the special sites that only he can appreciate. “I head for Novoshepelychi. An unremarkable village, Novoshepelychi is my Mecca, my El Dorado, my you name it—there’s a makeshift stove there. And only jackals go there, besides us. It’s quiet there.” Kamysh’s Zone is the kind of place where a “huge mother lynx” is raising her cubs in the attic of the house where’s he’s camping.

While the machismo of his voice may require danger, degradation, and suffering to articulate the fact, what he’s searching for, “in the middle of this forsaken land, amid depression, syringes, and hundreds of layers of dust, amid the looted hearts of all things abandoned” is “an oasis of joy and happiness, an island of optimism and good thoughts.” The abandoned church in Krasno, with only bees and an owl he will come to call Armavir, recurs as a leitmotif in the later pages of the memoir as Kramysh seeks to unravel what calls him back every time he vows never to return. The Chornobyl oasis is a highly personalized version of the scientific fact that irradiated wastelands and other abandoned spaces are some of the only reserves left for wildlife in the global North.

Kamysh is interested in surreal ordinariness, the only kind that inheres in a deadened world. Yes, he does mention the stubborn returnees that discovered life was even worse as refugees and so returned to their toxic villages, no matter the physical cost. He pays brusque homage to the police, soldiers, engineers, and scientists whose lives, in one way or another, revolve around or depend on the place itself.

Kamysh’s father was “a liquidator—dispatched for six weeks to the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant and Chornobyl at the time when you could still get fried by radiation. A civil engineer from the Nuclear Research Institute who worked with the neutron detection system of the Shater information and diagnostic complex. He went there on his own accord, not like the young soldiers.” Starting with this heritage, Kamysh appears to have played every Zone role available before settling on something like its genius loci, or resident spirit, haunting its ruined spaces just as they haunt him.

Kamysh is compelled most by the quotidian historicity of the Zone itself. We may imagine it dead, a wasteland frozen in its moment of disaster in 1986, but he reminds us repeatedly that this ruin is changing all the time. Kamysh notes of Lubyanka, “the oasis of the old Zone”, that “it still looks like the Zone of the nineties … when you went inside a house and you knew—someone had been living there just yesterday.” He devotes a fair amount of space to assorted looters, like the ones who “drive a crane from Ivankiv every week and tow tons of scrap metal.”

The looters will eventually strip the Zone of anything of commercial value. The illegal tourists will eventually burn every piece of furniture, fence, and other wood for kindling to survive the cold nights. The legal tourists will normalize the Zone and drain it of the mystery or the “alienation” it used to exude. And there’s the new “sarcophagus”, an immense dome of steel and concrete made to cover and seal Reactor No. 4. Kamysh regards it as an “arch-looking pile of puke” that, “in a decade, a new generation will grow up considering … a symbol of the Chornobyl meltdown.” But that recognition of change is also what permits Kamysh to find moments to revel in what will have been lost. “It’s only here that life won’t slip by me,” he tells three German tourists worried about the radiation, “for I’m living it in the most exotic place on Earth.”

Belarusian investigative journalist and oral historian Svetlana Alexievich concludes at the end of her 2005 collection of interviews with Chernobyl survivors, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster that, “These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future.” It’s certainly true, as Kamysh imagines, that this future very likely will resemble the cancer clinic where he imagines being reunited with fellow stalkers: “And I know that we’ll smile at each other. We’ll smile at a life that challenges you and dictates where you should walk, how you should live, and what you should breathe.”

As tiresome as I find the outlaw mythos and the hollow bravado of much of Kamysh’s phrasing, it’s not difficult to understand its appeal against the life contained in the pages of Young’s compendium. The impossible choice between avoiding or embracing risk forms so many of the narratives of the modern world. The Cold War and its legacy simply raised the stakes. It made alternate narratives even harder to see, except in places like the Chornobyl Zone or the experience of those who, as Alexievich puts it, have known the future.

It’s also there, and it always has been, in the stories and lives of the billions of people for whom apocalypse has always been a fact of life. For them, survival is not something they have the luxury of planning for any more than disaster is something they need to seek out as a thrill, whether vicarious or direct. This may not be the immediate moral one might think to draw from Young’s and Kamysh’s deep dives into Cold War insanity.

Arguably, though, it’s what leads Young finally to distance himself at least a bit from the futility of preparing for nuclear disaster or the unknowability of preparing for an alien invasion, and what leads Kamysh to yearn for moments of beauty and oasis despite his hardened posturing. The history they’re telling is not static, and it’s never too late to change the story, to tell it differently, to reject the fantasy altogether, precisely because it remains such a potent fantasy for so many.