Five babushkas bob in single file along a snow-swept, single-lane road, a squat platoon of hunched women swaddled in dark clothing and head scarves, marching home from the funeral. The second one that week. Their figures are all that moves in the frigid, bleak landscape. Lyubov Koval, 84, the mother of the deceased, describes her 55-year-old son’s final days. “He screamed and screamed,” she says, her narrowed blue eyes showing pain for only the tiniest moment. “There was some problem with his kidneys,” she reveals, regarding the cause of death. “They won’t say it was the radiation,” adds his sister Olga Kudla. Six gravediggers sit at a long wooden table, eating wild-goat liver, blintzes and dumplings, and drinking. “He was a liquidator in the zone,” one of them says. “They wouldn’t give him the medicine he needed. He wouldn’t have died if they had.” The babushkas keep bringing piles of steaming food, brown bread and sweet homemade wine—pushing, pushing, pushing food as if it were love and life itself. Refusing is death. A full shot glass of moonshine sits in the middle of the table for the deceased.
After the explosion in 1986, a shelter was built to cover Reactor No. 4 and prevent leakage of radioactive materials. That structure now sits cracked and rusty in the winter dusk. Catfish, some 10 feet long, troll the waters of the cooling pond that served the four now-defunct reactors. According to experts on-site, some 200 tons of nuclear “lava” simmer below the ground. The shelter was intended to last 20 years, not 25, but a mire of bureaucratic shenanigans, politics and economic woes has added up to little action toward the construction of a new one. Part of the problem is that the shelter is leaking so much radiation that nobody wants to work anywhere near it. Collective fingers are crossed that the aging sarcophagus does not collapse and explode, the consequences of which could dwarf those of 1986.
While it has been possible since 1999 for visitors to pass the heavily guarded police checkpoints and enter the zone with a guide, the Ukrainian government recently announced that there would be official tours of the Exclusion Zone, but as we went to press, the rules and procedures for entering the area had not changed (see “How to Visit”). For those who want to experience Chernobyl firsthand, these babushkas could become a stop on an ethnographic tour.
For now, their spirit shines amid the bleak, silent dead zone. A fearless babushka stands watch over a garden at night, poised to bang a gas bottle with a metal bar to ward off attacks from wild boar. Galina recently harvested 20 big bags of potatoes. “All clean. No worms this year!” she says gratefully. Flashing a glint of gold from her lone tooth, Hanna reveals that she has saved another pig to slaughter for Remembrance Day. “I only think of the good things in life,” she says, rolling onto the balls of her feet. “Come back tomorrow,” she tells me, holding up a chunk of thick, white pig fat. “We are going to party.”
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First published in MORE, April 2011.
HOLLY MORRIS is the author of Adventure Divas and hosts the PBS travel documentary series Globe Trekker. The episode “Ukraine” airs in April.