Words: Charles MacNeice
Chernobyl and its neighbouring city, Pripyat, are ghost towns. Pripyat is defined by its famous yellow Ferris wheel; by plaster slowly peeling off the walls of apartments; by faded streets, interrupted only by cracks and vegetation in the concrete, or overturned Soviet vehicles on the pavements. The radiation-tinged pine trees are ginger-brown.
It’s hard to imagine people ever living there.
Despite being one of the worst industrial disasters in history, the political symbolism associated with Chernobyl has become its legacy. It represented the humiliation of the Soviet Union in its power spat with the West: specifically, the disintegration of Gorbachev’s perestroika (the Soviet policy of increasing economic and political transparency). Years later, Gorbachev accredited Chernobyl with the fall of the entire Soviet system. The incident is seen as a watershed moment in the balance of geopolitical power relations.
In other words, Chernobyl is associated with everything but Chernobyl itself. But Pripyat – the town near Chernobyl, situated on the Ukraine-Belarus border – was home to over 49,000 residents when Reactor Number 4 at Chernobyl exploded on 26 April 1986. Many of them were workers at the nuclear plant with young families.
The human effects of Chernobyl live on, in the people who called the area home, but were suddenly ordered by Soviet Officials to put their lives on pause, leave their belongings, and board a bus assigned to them. They had no idea that the evacuation would be forever.
What happened to these people? How did they rebuild their lives?
Katya, from Pripyat, was 6 years old when the Chernobyl Disaster occurred. Svetlana Alexievich interviewed her as part of the acclaimed book Chernobyl Prayer, which sought to give voices to those affected by the accident.
In the course of her monologue, Katya describes an event during her journey from her home in which their bus was held up by a farmer herding his cattle on the road. The drivers gestured angrily and shouted: ‘Couldn’t you have gone through the field or the meadow?’ The herdsman explained that it would be a shame to trample such a promising harvest. He didn’t know that his harvest was now a source of radiation with a half-life of 24,000 years.
Stories like this bring the Chernobyl disaster down to a human level. There was no hope for return, not because of invasion or exile, but because the land itself had become suddenly and violently uninhabitable.
Katya and her family, like many others, were relocated to Minsk. During their journey, she noticed people treating them differently. Their train tickets were three times the usual price; the conductor brought in tea for all the evacuees, but insisted that they used their own mugs and glasses. People would ask them where they were from, and when their answer mentioned Chernobyl, would move quickly away from their compartment, pulling their children in tow.
Chernobyl created a crisis of identity. Pripyat residents had to leave behind everything they knew, but they were also unable to escape the essence which lingered on them like the radiation on the trees. The catastrophe would isolate a generation for decades to come, well after Chernobyl was deserted, and well after the radiation had been contained.
‘My Grandparents used to say they had no childhood, just war. Their childhood was the war, mine was Chernobyl. That’s where I’m from,’ Katya says.
She also describes the heartbreak that the echoes of Chernobyl would cause her. As an adult, she got engaged. Her fiancé was not from Pripyat. When his mother found out where she was from, she asked her: ‘But surely you can’t have children? […] My dear, for some people procreation would be a sin.’
This wasn’t an uncommon experience for the former inhabitants of the area. It was dubbed the Chernobyl hibakusha (Japanese for ‘discrimination’) , named after a similar phenomenon in which those affected by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima could only count on marrying each other. Burdened with guilt, Katya walked away from her relationship.
After the residents had been evacuated, the challenge of shutting down Chernobyl remained. In 1986 and 1987, 240,000 Soviet civil and military personnel, dubbed ‘liquidators’, were called upon to mitigate the consequences of the disaster. In some ways, a unity was found in this group.
One liquidator was civilian Russian photographer Viktor Latun. He was sent to Chernobyl to help construct outbuildings like storehouses and sheds, and spent most of his time shovelling cement in the hot, dusty conditions.
But in Latun’s testimony, he says that the incident quickly disappeared to the backs of the minds of those working there. ‘We Russians are incapable of thinking only about ourselves and our own lives, of not looking beyond that sort of thing. We just don’t think that way. We are made of different stuff.’
Latun goes on to describe a night spent with his fellow liquidators after a day of exhausting and dangerous work, and the collegiality is striking. They drink and talk, first about sentimentality and missing home, and then move on to ‘the country’s future and the nature of the universe.’ They discuss Stalin, Gagarin, the struggle with the US, and sing until the sun comes up.
In their view, Soviet culture was defined by a history of sacrifice. Millions and millions had been lost in the horrors of World War II, and the traumas of Chernobyl were, in that respect, nothing new.
The liquidators saw themselves as part of something much bigger than any one person – a truth overlooked in the peopleless photographs we know of Chernobyl today and the sterile political discourse that surrounds them. The catastrophe, for residents and workers alike, became part of a communal identity, binding them together in their isolation. Our fascination with the abandoned funfairs and overgrown classrooms stems not from their emptiness, but from the lives they once contained. Katya would only be forty now.
- ARTICLE: ‘The Chernobyl disaster: what happened, and the long-term impact’ – National Geographic
- BOOK: Chernobyl Prayer – Svetlana Alexievich
- ARTICLE: ‘What is Chernobyl like today?’ – Scientific American
Charles MacNeice is a second year History undergraduate at Durham University. His areas of particular interest are Spanish Early Modern and Late Modern Russian History.