In a corner of Galina’s house, beneath a bright window, stands the bed where her husband died 17 years ago (after making her promise never to leave their home). Galina’s exquisite needlework and embroidery, stacked in neat piles and framed on the walls, gives warmth and color to the three-room house (maybe 900 square feet) where she’s lived for 52 years and raised four children, who visit her often—a pleasure denied her neighbors inside the Exclusion Zone. There, adult family members may visit after jumping through several administrative hoops, but children under 18 are allowed in only once a year to see their babushkas and visit the graves of their ancestors, on a spring holiday called Remembrance Day.
On a small table in the same room, a dozen or so medicines, an identification card and a blood pressure machine tell a more somber story. An ID reading disabled, first groupindicates her liquidator status and her -thyroid-cancer diagnosis. She waves away the table of meds, as if to shoo off its significance, and shows me a piece of fabric embroidered with the message bring happiness and health to my motherland. “I’m not afraid of anything anymore. It’s difficult to be old, but I still want to live,” she says.
Galina gives me a tour of her cellar, where the dim light of a single bulb reveals the antler racks of five roe deer. “My son shot them for me,” she says. Local intelligence claims deer are the most contaminated species in the region, but Galina eats the meat from this land, as all babushkas do. The cellar is also heaped with brown eggs, beetroot, jars full of pickled foods and, of course, potatoes: the year-round, hardscrabble labor of the babushkas represented in a single room. “They used to not take potatoes from me, but now they do,” she says of her son’s family, whose vigilance about not eating contaminated food has apparently waned. Thinking of her son perhaps, Galina looks upward, and with a mischievous, proud smile says, “In the attic I have 40 liters of -moonshine that I made. When I die, my family will drink it! They won’t have to buy any.” We climb up to the attic so I can see the stash. A shaft of afternoon light blazes through the attic window, refracting through a dozen hefty glass jugs of hooch; stars of light bounce off the blades of old-school brown leather ice skates, circa 1940, hanging over a rafter.
There is a breed of heroic resilience, of plainspoken pragmatism, specific to those who rise at 5 am and work, with few modern conveniences, until midnight in subzero weather; to those who bury their two-year-old next to their own parents, as Hanna did; to those who’ve earned—the hard and personal way—the right to joke about Nazi atrocities. It’s not as if they wouldn’t want things to be easier. Some acknowledge the radiation and its impact on their health. But as one 82-year-old put it, with a patina of typical, simple defiance, “They said our legs would hurt. And they do. So what?”
Findings about the long-term health effects of Chernobyl are controversial and contradictory. The World Health Organization predicts that more than 4,000 deaths will eventually be linked to Chernobyl, and it reports that thyroid-cancer rates have shot up in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, largely among those contaminated in the weeks immediately following the accident. However, WHO now considers the psychological impact to be at least as detrimental as the physical. Being depressed and unmotivated, pursuing an unhealthy lifestyle and clinging to a victim mind-set, they say, has proved to be the worst fallout for the “Chernobylites” 25 years after the accident. Other organizations, such as Greenpeace, contend that Chernobyl is responsible for tens of thousands of illnesses and deaths, even though these cannot yet be scientifically linked to the accident. All agree it will be generations before the consequences of Chernobyl can be fully understood.
Meanwhile, life goes on. Until it doesn’t.