Outside Hanna Zavorotnya’s cottage in Chernobyl’s dead zone, a hulking, severed sow’s head bleeds into the snow, its gargantuan snout pointing to the sky in strange, smug defeat.
The frigid December air feels charged with excitement as Hanna, 78, zips between the outlying sheds wielding the seven-inch silver blade that she used to bring the pig to its end. “Today I command the parade,” she says, grinning as she passes a vat of steaming entrails to her sister-in-law at the smokehouse, then moves off again. In one hand she holds a fresh, fist-size hunk of raw pig fat—there is no greater delicacy in Ukraine—and she pauses now and then to dole out thin slices to her neighbors. “I fly like a falcon!” says Hanna, shuttling at high speed back toward the carcass. Indeed, falcons—as well as wolves, wild boar, moose and some species not seen in these environs for decades—are thriving in the forests and villages around Chernobyl. One particular falcon, however, has not fared so well. A large gray and white specimen, it is strung up, dead, chest puffed and wings outspread against the slate sky, above Hanna’s chicken coop as a warning to its brethren. “He came and ate my chicken, so I beat him with a stick,” she says. But if this falcon has not survived, Hanna and her neighbors have—against all odds and any reasonable medical prediction.
Twenty-five years ago this month, on April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s Reactor No. 4 blew up after a routine test, and the resulting fire lasted 10 days, spewing 400 times as much radiation as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The government (then Soviet) declared the surrounding 30 square kilometers uninhabitable and immediately resettled 116,000 residents with a pension, an apartment and sketchy information aboutthe health risks that lay ahead. In the ensuing months and years, these first resettlers were followed by a few hundred thousand more, all displaced, most from the land where they’d grownup. But Hanna, who had been forced out in the first group, did not accept that fate. Three months after being relocated, she returned with her husband, her mother-in-law and a handful of other members of their collective farm, the main building of which now lies like a carcass, silent and overgrown, its sunken roof collapsing, a half-mile down the road from Hanna’shouse. When government officials objected, she responded, “Shoot us and dig the grave; otherwise we’re staying.”
Hanna was among some 1,200 returnees, called self-settlers, most over the age of 48, who made their way back in the first few years after the accident, in defiance of the authorities’ legitimate concerns. For despite the self-settlers’ deep love of their ancestral homes, it’s a fact that the soil, air and water here in what is now known as the Exclusion Zone, or Zone of Alienation, are among the most heavily contaminated on earth. Today 230 or so self-settlers remain, scattered about in eerily silent villages that are ghostly but also somehow charming. About 80 percent of the surviving self-settlers are women in their seventies and eighties, creating a unique world of babushkas, to use a Russian word that means “grandmother” but also refers to “old countrywomen.”
Why would the babushkas choose to live on this deadly land? Are they unaware of the risks, or crazy enough to ignore them, or both? These are reasonable questions for Westerners who might stand in a grocery-store aisle debating whether to pay the extra $3 for organic almond butter. The babushkas see their lives, and the risks they run, decidedly differently.
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.”
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.
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.)
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.
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.