MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the world's worst, brought death, misery and radioactive contamination. Thirty years later, it has become the unlikely inspiration for Russian weekend gaming enthusiasts.
As the anniversary of the catastrophe approaches, people in affected areas in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia are still coming into daily contact with dangerously high levels of radiation from the April, 1986 explosion at the nuclear plant.
But in Moscow and other cities across the former Soviet Union, others spend their weekends pretending they live in Chernobyl's "dead zone" for fun, part of an unusual legacy the accident spawned including films, books and computer games.
The Moscow gamers can be spotted running around the Russian capital's abandoned construction sites, hiding in dark stairwells, and navigating obstacles as they try to outsmart rivals in a quest for what they call magic "artifacts".
According to the game's scenario, the artifacts possess special qualities and can also be a cure for the various diseases the players contract.
Dressed up as mutants, zombies, and warriors, the gamers cut an unusual figure in urban Moscow and its outskirts. Split into teams and given nicknames, they come from all walks of life.
During the working week, they toil as bar managers, computer designers, cameramen, artists, lawyers, and mathematicians.
At the weekend, they imagine they inhabit the irradiated "dead zone" around the infamous power plant after a new Chernobyl nuclear disaster which occurred in 2006, 20 years after the real thing.
Gamers generally pay small amounts of money to organizers who run the game, known as S.T.A.L.K.E.R., after a popular computer game of the same name.
Players say it is not just light entertainment for bored city dwellers, but an intellectual challenge which forces them to use their brains to solve impossibly difficult riddles.
For some, the exercise is also a dark reminder of the dangers of nuclear power.
"They keep adding fantastical elements to this and similar games each year," 'Nicolas,' one of the players, told Reuters. "The games reflect the danger posed by the uncontrollable use of nuclear power."
Images of the game and players can be seen at reut.rs/2446qOJ
Another player, Nikolai Gorshkov, was just one year old when Chernobyl's reactor number four blew up. His grandfather, Vasily Mikhalin, was a policeman in Ukraine at the time and like many others was sent to the disaster-hit area to evacuate people.
For him, there was no magic cure of the type the gamers search for. He later died of cancer.
Writing by Dmitry Solovyov/Andrew Osborn; Editing by Dominic Evans