By John Ruberry

Twenty minutes into the first episode of a new Netflix series, Dark Tourist, not only did I ascertain what dark tourism is, I realized that I am a dark tourist. After all, I’m someone who has vacationed in Detroit. Twice. I’ve visited the most dangerous neighborhoods of Chicago. I’ve been to Gary, Indiana. Those jaunts are known as urban exploration.

Seeking out similar dangerous and notorious locations outside of cities, such as the radiation hot zone surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, the personality cult-driven capital of Turkmenistan, and the ghost resort town of Famagusta in Cyprus, where the Turkish army bans visitors–is what rounds out dark tourism.

Dark Tourist stars David Farrier, a nerdy journalist from New Zealand who nonetheless is, for the most part fearless, or perhaps I should say foolish. After all, Farrier, during his visit to the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan, swims in Lake Chagan, also known as “Atomic Lake,” which, as you can guess by its name, is radioactive. And he takes a bite from a fish caught there. Afterwards he at least has the good sense to down a shot of vodka.

Ferrier is a darn good reporter who asks what a cosmonaut calls “a profound question” about space travel at a pre-launch press conference.

There are dark tourism tours right under my nose. Several times a year my day job brings me to Milwaukee. But it never occurred to me to search out sites connected with cannibal serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. When Farrier was in Wisconsin’s largest city he connected with Dahmer devotees. Weird? Yes. What makes this situation very weird is that most of these fanatics are women. What do they see in this gay man who ate his murder victims? Why are bachelorette parties drawn to Dahmer?

The same episode sees Farrier in Dallas where there are Kennedy assassination tours, including one that employs a Jackie Kennedy impersonator.

How do you top these Dahmer and JFK tours? Why with a Charles Manson trip, of course.

Medellin, Colombia has a thriving Pablo Escobar dark tourism industry. As far as I know there are no Jeffrey Dahmer impersonators driving cabs in Milwaukee, but there is an Escobar reenactor cabbie who threatens to kill Farrier’s loved ones. Also in on the drug lord vacation racket is John Jairo Velásquez, whose nickname is “Popeye.” He claims to have murdered 257 people, including his girlfriend, who was recorded speaking with the DEA. Popeye has gone from killer to charismatic YouTube star.

One episode takes place in Africa. Predictably there is a voodoo sojourn in Benin. Then Farrier visits white nationalists in South Africa. They direct him to a group of Afrikaner survivalists.

There are plenty of disturbing and macabre bits, was well as some humorous ones, including Farrier embedding himself with a group of British men impersonating the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army participating in the world’s largest World War II reenactment, a dinosaur robot checks Farrier into a Japanese hotel, and Farrier is followed by his “guide” in Naypyidaw, the capital city of Myanmar.

The other Asian capital Ferrier treks to in Dark Tourist is Ashgabat in Turkmenistan. Both cities are beautiful–Ashgabat has been called the place where “Las Vegas meets North Korea”–but both are largely devoid of people. Turkmenistan is a dictatorship that has had two cult-of-personality leaders since the Soviet Union collapsed. Myanmar’s capital was founded in 2005 when that nation, now a struggling democracy, was a despotic state.

Blogger on a dark tourist trip in Detroit last year

Autocrats love buildings but not people. That’s a dark truth I learned while watching Dark Tourist.

Warning! There are unpleasant images and scenes in Dark Tourist. I dropped my plan to include the official Netflix trailer in this post because even that clip was too disturbing for a mixed audience. Dark Tourist is rated TV-MA.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Latvian Freedom Monument
Latvian Freedom Monument, Riga

By John Ruberry

After seizing the Crimea and invading Ukraine, Russia-watchers wonder which former Soviet republic is next on Vladimir Putin’s expansion list?

Latvians fear it could be their nation.

Yesterday parliamentary elections were held in the small Baltic state. Ethnic Russians with Latvian citizenship–not all of them enjoy this benefit–mostly lined up as predicted behind the Harmony Party, which is led by Nil Ushakov, the mayor of Riga, Latvia’s capital and largest city, the population of which is about half Russian.

In an attempt to water-down ethnic minorities that began during the tyranny of Josef Stalin, Russians were moved into Soviet republics such as Latvia to replace people deported to Siberia.

Latvian speakers, proving in a way that they belong in Europe, traditionally split their vote among a dozen or so parties, and yesterday was no exception.

Harmony won about one-quarter of the seats in the 100 member Saeima, the Latvian parliament. more than any other party. Another pro-Russian party, For Latvia from the Heart, may end up with a couple of seats, but the Russian-bloc, with no other feasible coalition parties, will fall far short of a majority. In fact, Harmony will probably have fewer seats in the new parliament.

Saturday was a good day for the ruling center-right coalition led by Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma. Her Unity Party, along with the Union of Greens and Farmers and the National Alliance, received about 60 percent of the tally. Straujuma favors the current NATO build-up in Latvia and is getting credit for her nation’s economic turnaround after the 2008 recession.

Harmony’s Ushakov, while favoring Latvia’s membership in NATO and the European Union, raised eyebrows when he said on Russian television that Putin was the best leader for Russia from the Latvian perspective.

Riga's Old City
Riga’s Old City

For now, it looks like Russia has been checked in Latvia. But Putin can look at a half-million Russian speakers as potential partners to destabilize the small nation. Or he can look  to the north of Latvia at Estonia. Over ninety percent of the population of its third-largest city, Narva, which sits across a river from Russia, is Russian-speaking.

Or perhaps Putin can cast his gaze to the south and Kazakhstan, the northern part of which is heavily Russian. Kazakhstan is not a NATO member.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.  His wife was born in Latvia and he has traveled to the Baltic nation twice.