Decades after a catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor left 31 dead and over 100,000 people displaced, the site has become a destination for bachelor and bachelorette parties. But what are the ethics of celebrating at the site of a tragedy?
For most people, a bachelor or bachelorette party is a well-trodden route that ends with the simple pleasures of public urination. But what if it didn't have to be like this? What if your last night of freedom could take you on a journey, and not just one that left you flecked with vomit?
A journey, say, deep into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone—where over 100,000 people were evacuated in 1986 and 31 people died (although the true death count is expected to number over 4,000) following the worst nuclear power plant accident in history?
"LOCK UP YOUR MUTANT DAUGHTERS," writes Twitter user @snake_moore, on route to a bachelor party in the Ukrainian city. "Stag stag stag #Chernobyl," posts Instagram user epsherrington, accompanied by a snap of him and 12 friends outside the entrance to the abandoned nuclear plant. Another image, taken from inside one of the ruined buildings, reimagines nuclear catastrophe as a fit metaphor for a devastating hangover: "An accurate representation of the morning after #stagstagstag #chernobyl."
"There is that kind of morbid curiosity—you know, people like to do dangerous things—they skydive, and there's this little element of danger to it; like, 'oh it's really radioactive,'" says 24 year old Louisa Naks. Naks visited Chernobyl earlier this year for her 25-year-old sister Emma's bachelorette party.
"Our family are from Poland so we've got a bit of a fascination with weird communist Eastern Europe," Naks explains, showing that nothing—not even the humble bachelorette—is safe from that post-Soviet Vetements aesthetic. "My sister's the first one in our group of friends who is getting married so we thought we'd do something completely crazy! We wanted to kind of make a splash."
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone opened its gates to selfie-seeking tourists in 2010, and today thousands are drawn to the area every year. Visitors have to obtain a day or multi-day pass from the Ukrainian government (or a multi-day ticket for those who fancy overnighting at the new on-site hotel.) On the way in and out, they're screened to keep their clothing and possessions free of awkward radioactive particles.
I ask Naks whether there are any rules inside the Exclusion Zone. "So, I don't think it's one of those kind of places you go to mess around," she says; "I mean, it's kind of crazy, but at the same time you've got to think about where you are. You can't drink there. They won't let you into the Exclusion Zone if you're drinking."
Which isn't to say that some tour groups don't get drunk the night before. Thirty-seven year-old Christopher Doggett from Hampshire, UK, nearly didn't get to walk the streets of abandoned Pripyat because the groom-to-be was too wasted to get on the tour bus. "We had to pull over [the tour bus] so he could dry heave on the pavement," Doggett reminisces. "It was a little bit embarrassing, as I'm sure you can imagine."
Luckily, the screening of a documentary about Chernobyl's tragic history on the bus ride to the site gave the group a welcome opportunity to catch up on some much-needed sleep.
Once there, the ten-strong bachelor party wandered the streets of the exclusion zone. "The guide kind of let us off the leash a little bit so we were allowed to go into the areas where you shouldn't really have been and stuff," Doggett explains. "What brought it home was the kindergarten," he says somberly. "It had children's toys and stuff—all sorts—scattered everywhere."
With this in mind, I ask Doggett where he would draw the line. How about a bachelor party in Auschwitz, or the site of a natural disaster? "That would be totally different wouldn't it?" he replies.
"This was a place where an accident happened and you know, that's tragic but… you know, I never really looked at it like that," he says, trailing off.
I put the same question to Naks. "In Auschwitz the emphasis is on the people who were killed there, whereas in Chernobyl less people died in the immediate vicinity," she says, "so there's less of an emphasis on death, which is I think why it's a bit more socially acceptable."
But if context is so important, is a trip into the heart of the Exclusion Zone an appropriate locale for celebrating your upcoming nuptials? "I think it's fine for a day trip," Naks replies, "but we also had a few days in Kiev as well, which was more the uplifting side, I guess."
Both Naks and Doggett booked their tours independently, but at the time of writing tour operator Maximise also offered Chernobyl as part of their Kiev weekend package.
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"Since the Orange Revolution in 2004," the company's website boasts (the page has subsequently been deleted), "Ukraine has been in a state of personal freedom and governmental transparency. What this means for you and the lads, is that people in Kiev are up for anything!"
And when you're done visiting Chernobyl's ghostly streets, holidaymakers can enjoy varied pursuits including limo transfers with strippers, dolphin swimming, and tank diving (not at the same time).
Maximise didn't respond to repeated requests for comment, but other providers promise to give you the best weekend you'll ever have in a post-nuclear exclusion zone. "If you get a nice spring weather then it's a really enjoyable tour and you don't really believe that this is a catastrophe place [sic] until you enter the empty houses or the empty school," says Richard Mistik of StagForYou, a bachelor-party provider based headquartered in Bratislava, Slovakia.
"The Chernobyl tour really is the highlight for tourists in Kiev because it's a unique thing and very popular programme," he enthuses, "even if it is a little bit strange."
I ask Mistik whether the idea of bachelor and bachelorette groups descending on the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone presents a moral issue for him. "There might be a moral question, but I don't see it as a very important matter," he replies. "It's a tourist tour."
Not everyone shares Mistik's laissez-faire attitude. "There is nothing to be gained in terms of knowledge from a trip to the zone except excitement and an extra portion of radioactivity," says historian Dr. Melanie Arndt of the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies. For her, disaster tourism represents a "rather eccentric longing for the dark side of our post-modernity and an ever-growing longing for authenticity."
"Come and see that people left but the nature survived."
But authenticity isn't to be found in the Exclusion Zone. "Going to the zone doesn't explain anything unless you are an expert such as an biologist or the like," she asserts. "Visits are extremely orchestrated and staged. People will make the same pictures everyone else took—the doll with a gas mask in an abandoned kindergarten, old Soviet posters, the Ferris wheel."
Born and raised in Kiev, 48-year-old Sergei Ivanchuk cleaned up radioactive leaves in the cemetery as a teenager. Now he's a Chernobyl-based tour guide. "Frankly we don't really keep track of how many stag people go with us," he says. "Last year we had 30,000 people in total, and this year we've had 25,000 already."
Many of these numbers are made up of groups in their 20s and 30s, Ivanchuk informs me. He welcomes the bachelor influx, even if it is gross and a bit gauche. "[They] maybe think it's some kind of morbid experience or something to brag about after, then they come on the tour and they settle down and they realize it was something worth seeing."
"I can only hope that during the tour he will change his mind and feel ashamed."
"It's immoral not to let them in," he goes on. "You can't say these people have the right to go in, these do not. You have to come and then you will see the importance of this—it's all about nuclear energy. Come and see that people left but the nature survived."
Arndt remains unconvinced. "It's important to get people interested in Chernobyl," she writes, "but going there for a stag or hen night is only a sign of how uninformed and ignorant people are. It's not some kind of artificial Disney world or computer game reality. It's the site of an ongoing disaster, which impacted millions of people."
Meanwhile Ivanchuk is busy working on his next business venture: taking tour groups to North Korea. But there's no room for bad behaviour here, unless you want to end up like this college student sentenced to 15-years-hard labor after a drunken prank gone wrong.
"North Korea trips are definitely not for stag activities as misbehavior is seriously punished there," he confirms.
Finally, I ask Ivanchuk what he thinks of "lock up your mutant daughters" tweet? He pauses. "Of course this upsets me very much. I can only hope that during the tour he will change his mind and feel ashamed about what he tweeted."
Failing that, Ivanchuk could contrive to teach this mouth-breather a lesson he won't forget.
"Maybe they will lose him somewhere in Pripyat [the abandoned village within the Exclusion Zone.] It's very easy to scare a person there," Ivanchuk says.
"So it's better not to say something like that to our guides."