A Criminal Niche

By: Ian Phillips

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, many of the facilities that came to represent the country during the Cold War were abandoned. While still remaining in the files of government buildings, the structures of socialist realism and relics of life behind the “Iron Curtain” fell into disrepair. From the ruins of these institutions rose a niche hobby comprised of criminals who roam these facilities in search of wealth and wisdom. Commonly, these people are called stalkers.

For context, the word stalker comes from a popular Soviet movie Сталкер, or stalker in English. The movie, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, follows a group of three men who trek through an ambiguous abandoned “zone”. The zone does not abide by the laws of physics and frequently exhibits supernatural and extraterrestrial anomalies. Inside this zone is a place called “The Room”, an odd space that fulfills the deepest desires of all who enter. The movie expresses profound themes of existentialism, ethical dilemmas, and exploration of the self. Modern stalkers have even aligned themselves with the themes and characters in the movie, naming their culture after the titular “stalker.”. 

While the meaning of the word stalker is not completely agreed upon, the majority of stalkers have defined themselves broadly as people who enter the ruins of abandoned soviet architecture and buildings. One group of stalkers, the Saint Diver Team Diggers, describe stalking as the “process of knowing the world by visiting ground-based man-made structures.”. Essentially, stalkers are a broad group of people who infiltrate long-decommissioned Soviet infrastructure for various reasons, be it to steal copper and technology, graffiti the structures, drink, or generally explore the architecture. In the United States, there is a similar hobby known as “Urbex”, which is like stalking, but more reminiscent of industrial tourism, in which people visit the notable structures of certain industries. 

The criminal aspect of stalking arises in the trespassing part of it. While many of the structures stalkers explore are technically abandoned or decommissioned, they tend to be guarded by Russian military personnel who shoot and ask questions later. Examples of these structures include an abandoned submarine base in the Pavlovsk region, a lighthouse powered by a nuclear battery, an abandoned proton collider facility in Protvino, the entirety of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, etc. All of these facilities are strictly off-limits to civilians, let alone tourists looking to explore. The risk of death, prosecution, or radiation/chemical poisoning all contribute to the allure, but so does the pure thrill of exploration. Unfortunately, the oral tradition of the hobby has largely obscured stalking and what it stands for. To many Russians, stalkers are drunk teenagers and thieves who exploit and steal from old Soviet structures, but to many practitioners it’s a passion, allowing people to experience a bygone era of socialist culture and immerse themselves in a liminal atmosphere akin to the solitude and mindfulness found in nature. 

It is interesting to examine how a kind of spirituality can be found in the ruins of a civilization. The lack of any people in a place that was once made to house so many exhibits an inherent contradiction, yet the ambiance created by this dynamic is oddly tranquil. In the film Сталкер, the main character is overcome by this spirituality of liminal space. He struggles throughout the film to maintain the serenity of the zone, resorting to violence and groveling to keep his companions from destroying this fantastical kingdom. This is the main arc of the stalker: as he comes to terms with what the zone has turned him into, he struggles to maintain it and considers what it stands for to everyone else. 

Similar to how Fyodor Dostoevsky sees the necessity of suffering in the world, so do stalkers. To stalkers, these decaying structures symbolize suffering and destruction, but more importantly the hope that emanates from the horrors of the past.  Stalking, then, is a kind of immersion in suffering. Like bungee jumping, it brings those who do it as close as possible to death and annihilation. It brings them so close, in fact, that when they emerge they can only be left with sheer admiration for the potential of the world around them. The contrast between these structures and the world people live in leaves them with the realization that society survived whatever it was that brought down the grand monuments of the Soviet Union, so it can surely survive the status quo, however grim.

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