At first, of course, the main victims were those who were initially exposed to extreme doses of radiation. After the first responders were felled, the Soviets deployed robots to put out the fire, but radiation levels were so high, the machines went berserk. The government then sent in a phalanx of human beings, dubbed liquidators, the translation of a Russian word that can also mean “cleaner.” Thousands of young soldiers were strong-armed into volunteering by being presented with the following choice: Spend two years on the bloody Afghanistan front or two minutes shoveling radioactive matter off the reactor complex. Most of them took a shot of vodka and the latter. They stopped a fire that, had it spread, could have caused the other reactors to explode, leaving parts of Europe uninhabitable. Most of these men are now dead, dying or disabled. But they weren’t the only liquidators that beautiful, tragic spring. The term also refers to the hundreds of thousands of women and men throughout the region who took part in the cleanup and support effort.
Galina Konyushok, now 71, was called to duty as a liquidator almost immediately. She worked in a nearby bread factory at the time of the accident and was charged with driving to the town of Chernobyl every day to pick up wheat so the government could feed the people working the disaster. Of course, the wheat itself was highly contaminated. Sitting today with three babushka neighbors in a kitchen bright with the reflection of the snow outside, Galina, who has thyroid cancer, looks strong and healthy; she’s talkative, and her thick eyebrows dance with almost every word. Her friend Nadezhda Tislenko, 71, has been bent over at a right angle by osteoporosis, yet she is outstandingly gracious. “Please, please have some cake,” she offers. (“Nyet spasiba,” I say, deploying my standard response so as to avoid potentially contaminated food.) Galina’s house is located in the town of Zirka, a few hundred yards outside the Exclusion Zone, whose boundary is demarcated by a chain-link and barbed-wire fence. Her small village “used to have 76 cows but now only has two,” she says. The arbitrary process by which Zirka came to be considered a “normal” village despite high contamination levels is a common tale of misguided bureaucracy.
“All the villages around us were evacuated when the reactor blew. But a special strain of potato had just been planted in the fields [of Zirka’s collective farm], so they said our village shouldn’t be evacuated,” recalls Galina, adjusting her purple head scarf around her ruddy face. “They haven’t checked for radiation here in 15 years.”
Although it wouldbe a stretch to call the babushkas a sisterhood, a deep camaraderie connects these women who have spent their entire lives in the area. They help one another at slaughtering time. They visit one another’s homes (on foot; they do not have cars) to play cards and gamble. “But not for money. I keep telling them, the more you play, the more your brain works,” Galina says, laughing. The women joke about moving in together if heating-gas prices get too high (they are on fixed, modest government pensions), but emotional attachment to their homes runs too deep for that; home is the entire cosmos of the rural babushka. They have electricity, but most villages in the zone have a single phone; nobody has running water. Those with a TV might sit down with handwork to watch a soap opera after the chickens are fed and the wood is chopped. When asked about the dearth of men, Galina responds, “The men died, and the women stayed. I wish I had a husband to quarrel with!” The old ladies crack up when Galina tells a gallows-humor joke about a woman being gang-raped by Nazis. (The babushkas are unfazed by how I squirm at the joke; they also ignore the click-click-click of my dosimeter, which is measuring ever-fluctuating background radiation levels.)