Chernobyl in Your Travel Plans?

Chernobyl: Wolves Eat Dogs
Destination: Russia

Book: Wolves Eat Dogs, an Arkady Renko Novel by Martin Cruz Smith (2004)

Here is a fitting horror story for Halloween in the 21st century. Death by radiation poisoning. Life in a dead zone.

Martin Cruz Smith
Martin Cruz Smith

When we were fortunate enough to meet Martin Cruz Smith last March, and accompany him around Tucson during the Tucson Festival of Books, I asked him many questions, and he entertained me with honest and illuminating and some very very funny anecdotes and opinions.

Naturally, one of the things I wanted to know, was which of his books I should I should buy for Ken, who loves thrillers, but had never read any of Cruz Smith’s books. Cruz Smith unhesitatingly recommended Wolves Eat Dogs. He thinks it is his best book.

If you play word association with the writer’s name, most people will identify him with Gorky Park .  That demonstrates both the lasting appeal of that book, and the power of the motion picture.  William Hurt played the lead and the 1983 film was a big hit.

Martin Cruz Smith started the Arkady Renko series when he visited Russia and found it endlessly fascinating.  “Nobody was getting it right,” he says. He first traveled to Russia during the Cold War when the information that Americans received was filtered through government sources and through our own fear, as well as being thoroughly distorted by a Soviet government trying hard to put on a powerful face while the society was disintegrating. (Cruz Smith did NOT say any of those things. It is my own conclusion.)

Abandoned doll, edit I
Doll Abandoned outside a kindergarten in the Zone. Arkady notices abandoned dolls in several scenes.

Arkady Renko is in some ways typical of police procedural detectives.  He is the smart but self-effacing police detective who is independent and therefore annoying to his superiors–always on the edge of being pushed out the door.  He has serious character flaws and his personal life is a mess, but his innate honesty and devotion to justice keeps us on his side.  On the other hand, the Arkady novels differ from most anything else you have read because they are drenched in Soviet culture and politics. That is what makes them a particularly good addition to the traveler’s library.  By the way, these novels are not stuck in the cold war period. One of the most fascinating things about them to me is that Arkady reflects the massive adjustments that Russians had to make as the Soviet government disintegrated.
Chernobyl crystallizes that disintegration, and provides Arkady’s boss an opportunity to get him way out of Moscow.  Siberia is not bad enough for Renko–he gets sent to the countryside of the Ukraine where radiation is so high from the nuclear plant explosions that he begins to turn off the dosimeter he carries with him because it makes too much noise. The plot is complex and loaded with creepy, well-developed, characters in a setting of desolation that Cruz Smith describes like an artist. Which, although he denies it, he is.

Russia | Kremlin
The Kremlin, Moscow

The author as tourist in communist Russia learned that an American on the streets with a camera or a notepad could attract suspicion.  But sketching seemed harmless, so sketching became his principle notetaking method. (You can see some of his sketches along with photos of Russia from his visits at the Gallery of his website.)

Do you recall the 2006 case of the Russian who was poisoned by a radioactive pellet slipped into something he ate or drank? That case must have carried the germ of the idea for Wolves Eat Dogs. Although the police would prefer that a millionaire’s plunge off his high-rise balcony in Moscow be written off as suicide, Renko suspects murder when he discovers piles of salt and traces of radioactivity. And then the body of a friend of the first victim shows up at a graveyard near Chernobyl, and we’re off to the breath-taking races.

Right from the beginning, the author lets us know that things are out of kilter. He describes a Moscow that is nothing at all like the picture postcard onion domes in our mind. At the same time, we meet the first victim, Pasha Ivanov:

“Moscow swam in color. Hazy floodlights of Red Square mixed with the neon of casinos in Revolution Square…Gilded domes still floated around the Garden Ring, but all night earthmovers tore at the old city and dug widening pools of light to raise a modern, vertical Moscow more like Houston or Dubai.  It was a Moscow that Pasha Ivanov had helped to create, a shifting landscaped o tectonic plates and lava flows and fatal missteps.”

Once the action moves to Chernobyl, we are in a land that seems more mythical than real, a feeling that Cruz Smith underscores by having Arkady make up stories about the Russian fairy tale character Baba Yaga for a child back in Moscow he has befriended. Baba Yaga’s odd fantasy life comes closer and closer to the reality that Renko sees around him, as he stays in the Zone of Exclusion for weeks. Like everything and everyone in the novel, the child is not normal. He does not speak. He is a chess genius. He refuses to take off a heavy winter jacket even in hot weather. Nothing quite makes sense in this book. Least of all the lives of the squatters that insist on living in Chernobyl and the village of Pripyat that is even nearer the devastation and therefore even more irradiated.

Прип´ять // Prypiat // Prypjat
Pripyat (or Prypiat)

To answer the question in the title of this post: ‘Is Chernobyl in your travel plans?’…Well, I certainly would never have thought it belonged there. And it’s clear I would not go there for the lush scenery, but on the other hand….Martin Cruz Smith has made it sound so intriguing, that I might just consider packing my dosimeter and heading off to the Zone of Exclusion. And here’s a tour that will take me to Chernobyl and Pripyat. And here is another Chernobyl tour, that warns, “You will NOT see zombies, three-head horses, and other monsters.”

Well, darn!

The Photo of Martin Cruz Smith is my property, all rights reserved. The other wonderful photos are from Flickr, used by Creative Commons license. It is worthwhile to click on them to see more about and by those photographers.  If you click on a link on this blog that leads you to Amazon, we make a few cents, even though it does not cost you any extra. THANKS!

Would you go to Chernobyl?

Question of the day…Would you plan a trip to Chernobyl?

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

4 thoughts on “Chernobyl in Your Travel Plans?

  1. I had not really thought about people going to Chernobyl until I saw a television segment recently where they did just that. While the show was interesting and maybe serves a purposes as a cautionary tale, I see no need to go, and I rather wish the crew on that shoot had not, for the sake of their own health.

  2. St. Petersburg is as close as I’d care to venture. Hidden art, white nights…

    I, too, saw Cruz Smith at the book fest. Good to know that Tucson is considered an important enough stop on the circuit to attract authors of his stature.

  3. Great review. I’m not sure Chernobyl is on my hit list just yet. I think I’ll wait until my half-life is up.

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