Outside Hanna Zavorotnya’s cottage in Chernobyl’s dead zone, a hulking, severed sow’s head bleeds into the snow, its gargantuan snout pointing to the sky in strange, smug defeat.
The frigid December air feels charged with excitement as Hanna, 78, zips between the outlying sheds wielding the seven-inch silver blade that she used to bring the pig to its end. “Today I command the parade,” she says, grinning as she passes a vat of steaming entrails to her sister-in-law at the smokehouse, then moves off again. In one hand she holds a fresh, fist-size hunk of raw pig fat—there is no greater delicacy in Ukraine—and she pauses now and then to dole out thin slices to her neighbors. “I fly like a falcon!” says Hanna, shuttling at high speed back toward the carcass. Indeed, falcons—as well as wolves, wild boar, moose and some species not seen in these environs for decades—are thriving in the forests and villages around Chernobyl. One particular falcon, however, has not fared so well. A large gray and white specimen, it is strung up, dead, chest puffed and wings outspread against the slate sky, above Hanna’s chicken coop as a warning to its brethren. “He came and ate my chicken, so I beat him with a stick,” she says. But if this falcon has not survived, Hanna and her neighbors have—against all odds and any reasonable medical prediction.
Twenty-five years ago this month, on April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s Reactor No. 4 blew up after a routine test, and the resulting fire lasted 10 days, spewing 400 times as much radiation as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The government (then Soviet) declared the surrounding 30 square kilometers uninhabitable and immediately resettled 116,000 residents with a pension, an apartment and sketchy information aboutthe health risks that lay ahead. In the ensuing months and years, these first resettlers were followed by a few hundred thousand more, all displaced, most from the land where they’d grownup. But Hanna, who had been forced out in the first group, did not accept that fate. Three months after being relocated, she returned with her husband, her mother-in-law and a handful of other members of their collective farm, the main building of which now lies like a carcass, silent and overgrown, its sunken roof collapsing, a half-mile down the road from Hanna’shouse. When government officials objected, she responded, “Shoot us and dig the grave; otherwise we’re staying.”
Hanna was among some 1,200 returnees, called self-settlers, most over the age of 48, who made their way back in the first few years after the accident, in defiance of the authorities’ legitimate concerns. For despite the self-settlers’ deep love of their ancestral homes, it’s a fact that the soil, air and water here in what is now known as the Exclusion Zone, or Zone of Alienation, are among the most heavily contaminated on earth. Today 230 or so self-settlers remain, scattered about in eerily silent villages that are ghostly but also somehow charming. About 80 percent of the surviving self-settlers are women in their seventies and eighties, creating a unique world of babushkas, to use a Russian word that means “grandmother” but also refers to “old countrywomen.”
Why would the babushkas choose to live on this deadly land? Are they unaware of the risks, or crazy enough to ignore them, or both? These are reasonable questions for Westerners who might stand in a grocery-store aisle debating whether to pay the extra $3 for organic almond butter. The babushkas see their lives, and the risks they run, decidedly differently.