Most of the babushkas share the belief that “if you leave, you die.” They would rather risk exposure to radiation than the soul-crushing prospect of being separated from their homes. “You can’t take me from my mother; you can’t take me from my motherland. Motherland is motherland,” says Hanna. Aphorisms slip matter-of-factly from the lips of the babushkas. “Replant an old tree, and it will die,” says one woman. One refrain I heard often was, “Those who left are worse off now. They are all dying of sadness.”
What sounds like faith may actually be fact. According to reports by the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Children’s Fund, many of those who were relocated after the accident now suffer from anxiety, depression and disrupted social networks, the traumas of displaced people everywhere. And these conditions seem to have health effects as real as those caused by radiation. “Paradoxically, the women who returned to their ancestral homes in the zone outlive those who left by a decade,” says Alexander Anisimov, a journalist who has spent his career studying the self-settler community. No health studies have been done, but anecdotal evidence suggests that most of the babushkas die of strokes rather than any obvious radiation-related illnesses, and they’ve dealt better with the psychological trauma. Toxic levels of strontium and cesium in the soil are real, but so are the tug of the ancestral home and the health benefits of determining one’s own destiny. East or West, pig fat or organic almond butter, few would deny that being happy helps you live longer.
For these women, environmental contamination is perhaps not the worst form of devastation. And that is proving equally true for some of Chernobyl’s wildlife. The mass exodus of human beings has been a boon to some species. Storks may have dropped dead from the skies over Sweden days after the accident, but 25 years later, their massive nests of sticks, hay and feathers are perched atop telephone poles around Chernobyl, and wild animals roam the Exclusion Zone. Their return illustrates the controversy among scientists and laypeople about exactly how living creatures cope with radiation. Do they adapt (as some scientists—and babushkas—claim people do)? Is survival of the genetically fittest at work? It’s likely to be decades before we know. Scientists have discovered DNA mutations in the species that have returned, and a few physiological anomalies (one example: Bird brains are smaller).
In the Zone of Alienation and in designated nearby areas, it is officially forbidden to hunt or eat wild animals, which can be highly contaminated. But that is the sort of edict people tend to shrug off in a country experiencing acute economic crisis and corruption, where there is a deep connection to the soil. “I often collect berries and mushrooms to eat,” says one babushka, mentioning the two most infamous carriers of radiation. “It’s forbidden, but I go anyway. When I see the police, I hide in the bushes.” Hunters also sneak into the zone, and the contaminated meat from animals they poach has been known to end up in the restaurants of Kyiv. Police generals, charged with enforcing the rules, are rumored to shoot wild Przewalski horses and other game from helicopters. Contaminated meat isn’t the only dangerous item to slip out of the zone. Pilfered metal from machines and vehicles used during the cleanup makes its way to China. Irradiated toilet seats looted from the evacuated ghost town of Pripyat—where background radiation levels are a whopping 100 (my visit there was brief)—are now scattered throughout Eastern Europe. Twenty-five years after the accident, Chernobyl’s legacy lives on.