When Reactor No. 4 blew up, roughly 30 percent of the initial fallout hit Ukraine and parts of western Russia, and 70 percent landed downwind in Belarus. The gamma radiation was death dealing: Some 30 first responders were incapacitated immediately and expired within weeks. But the explosion’s long-term effect on the surrounding area was harder to quantify. “Unlike the ground zero fallout from a nuclear bomb, which can be measured out circularly with a compass, radiation from a nuclear fire such as Chernobyl lays waste in a spotty, inconsistent manner,” explains Anna Korolevska, scientific director of the National Chernobyl Museum. Which villages got doused? Which did not? Dosimeter readings, which indicate accumulated radiation exposure, varied wildly, and sometimes the authorities accepted bribes to alter them. Confusion, bravery and corruption marked the postexplosion weeks and months, and hardly anyone on the ground fully understood the dangers. A secretive Soviet bureaucracy added to the cloud of misinformation.
what is clearabout nuclear contaminants (cesium,strontium, plutonium and others) is that they enter the food chain through the soil, that they spread via wind and fire and that their effects are cumulative and linked to, among other things, increases in fetal mortality and cancer. In some cases, the contaminants stick around for thousands of years. After the accident, cows ingested grass tainted with radio-active iodine-131 (radioactive milk largely accounts for today’s sky-high thyroid-cancer rates in the area). As the “invisible enemy” enveloped the spring countryside, the babushkas may or may not have noticed that the birds fell silent and the honey-bees ceased flying, but they were alarmed when emergency workers made them dump their cows’ milk.
Maria Urupa, 77, was thinking about her cow when the soldiers arrived to evacuate her village of Paryshev. “I planned to take my cow and hide in the basement,” she says. Instead, she and her neighbors were relocated to a hurriedly constructed housing project outside Kiev (renamed Kyiv in 1991 after Ukraine became independent), on land where many people had died in the 1930s during the Holodomor, the massive genocide-by-famine that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin instigated in order to subjugate Ukraine and move peasant farmers onto state farming collectives or into factories. According to recent estimates, between 3.5 million and 5 million Ukrainians died during this period, and many of the babushkas lost their fathers. Some almost died themselves, since during the Holodomor, starving villagers sometimes resorted to cannibalism, slaughtering one child to save the rest. Half a century later, the site where Maria and her family were relocated still held grim reminders of the Holodomor. “People’s legs were sticking out of the ground,” she remembers. Three months after moving there, Maria and her family returned to their home in the Exclusion Zone.
When I meet her, in December 2010, she’s standing on her porch in subzero weather, looking healthy and stout, wearing only a cotton housedress and a threadbare sweater. With a small sled in tow, she’s on her way to gather wood for her stove—“Would you like some soup with mushrooms?”—but she doesn’t mind stopping to talk. Maria recalls the day Soviet troops under orders from Stalin marched onto the Urupa family farm. “They took away two bulls, two pigs and all the potatoes,” Maria says. “My father was working for the church, and that was not allowed then.” When her father asked if he could keep a few potatoes, the soldiers threatened to kill him if he tried, saying, “Your soul will fly away, and we’ll wrap your guts around the telephone wire.”
After Stalin came the Nazis, who slashed their way across Ukraine in the 1940s, raping and killing. About 10.5 million Ukrainians died during World War II. Having survived all that, the babushkas were not inclined to cut and run after the Chernobyl explosion created invisible threats in the air, soil and water. Hanna, who as an infant was nearly eaten by her family during the Holodomor, says it succinctly: “Starvation is what scares me. Not radiation.”