Shadows of Chernobyl

LONDON, England -- Martin Cruz Smith, the author of Gorky Park found an eerie, empty world in research for his latest work. Here he gives an interview to The Observer.

When did you first visit Russia?
I went for 15 days in 1973 to research Gorky Park. I went on a package deal to Leningrad, Kiev and Moscow and I was very fortunate that 17 people had been rejected from getting their visas so there were only four of us on the trip. It meant that we did not have a full-time guide so I was pretty free to come and go as I wished. When we arrived in Moscow I just took off. Everything was fascinating, everything was information. It was so different to what I had read. I didn't see it as this dread empire - the place was falling apart. It's such a great way to travel where you don't just let things happen, you get out there and move and are ready for any kind of encounter. I've been going in and out of Moscow ever since.

Your most recent trip was to Chernobyl; why did you go there?
I was interested to find out what it was like now and had decided to write a book largely set there. I had also heard that some people had moved back which struck me as totally insane - I wanted to see who they were. They were very nice, but all slightly mad. They were warned that in 25 years they would be dead of cancer, but most of them are in their seventies - so another 25 years would be great! These pensioners much prefer living in their cosy house with great fishing to a dingy apartment starving on the dole. In the case of one couple, their daughter had emigrated to Brazil and had invited them to come too but they chose Chernobyl over Brazil. The authorities used to try to keep them out, but they acknowledge them now.

Is there much to see?
You can get scared to death walking around the sarcophagus which is the shielding which they put over the reactor with steel and concrete which is about four stories high. It is actually falling apart and could collapse at any time. It's full of radioactive fuel and 90 per cent of the core is still there and it's leaking out into the ground water all the time. There is a town right across the street which was built for the workers. It had 40,000 people, but today it is empty. It is very eerie; a real end of the world scenario. You can walk into any of the apartments which were all abandoned in an afternoon.

What about in the surrounding countryside?
There are the black villages. They have been there a thousand years and are now abandoned. All these beautiful little houses which were a variety of pastels - blues, greens, white - are all black from the radiation. Some old people, against the regulations, have gone back to their homes. Then there is nature itself. The Chernobyl area has become the richest wildlife reserve in middle Europe because man has pulled out. The grass is as high as your chin, the berries are heavy on the bough, the fish seem huge, but they're just full-sized. Wild boar abound, but they are very dangerous to eat because they live off mushrooms and nuts which become radioactive. Wolves are taking over and there are no more dogs around because wolves eat dogs. It's a fascinating contradiction, or at least seems a contradiction to us.

Were you nervous before your trip?
I got a radioactivity meter of my own and carried it with me at all times. Caesium is particularly nasty stuff: it's hard to see and is water soluble. There is an interesting phenomenon ocalled the red forest or the magic forest. All these fir trees near the reactor turned red overnight and died so there are all these dead, red radioactive trees which look kind of magical.