Just where is the Zone, anyway? In the film, a caption says that it’s in a small country, surrounded by barbed wire. But this was just a ruse to keep the censors at bay. To a Soviet audience, a forbidden area surrounded by barbed wire naturally conjured up a big swath of countries surrounded by lots and lots of barbed wire. Dyer points out another meaning: the very word ‘zone’ would call up the Gulags. To prisoners, the world outside was known as the bolshaya zona, the big zone, as opposed to the little one of the camps. At the time, it could also refer to other forbidden zones in the Soviet Union, such as the secret research complexes like Arzamas-16 and Chelyabinsk-40, where the components of the Soviet atom bomb were produced — secret cities that didn’t appear on any map. Now, the word seems to refer prophetically to the exclusionary zone around Chernobyl.

more from Jacob Mikanowski at the LA Review of Books here.