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Goodbye Brains .. See You Tomorrow! Eating what they produce in their gardens, singing with shots of vodka, and keeping the memories of parents, husbands, and children alive are essential to their collective nostalgia. In a small house in rural Ukraine, three old women gather together, having a blast. They dig in to a spread of home-cooked dishes and share less-than-sentimental reflections on their late husbands (“Now he’s gone and I have everything”). The Babushkas sing, and clap, and dance a little, as much as their aging limbs allow. They also drink. A lot. “Goodbye brains!” one of the women crows as she downs a shot of vodka. “See you tomorrow!” It is an endearing scene, complicated somewhat by the fact that it unfolds in one of the most toxic places on earth: the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

Goodbye Brains .. See You Tomorrow! Eating what they produce in their gardens, singing with shots of vodka, and keeping the memories of parents, husbands, and children alive are essential to their collective nostalgia. In a small house in rural Ukraine, three old women gather together, having a blast. They dig in to a spread of home-cooked dishes and share less-than-sentimental reflections on their late husbands (“Now he’s gone and I have everything”). The Babushkas sing, and clap, and dance a little, as much as their aging limbs allow. They also drink. A lot. “Goodbye brains!” one of the women crows as she downs a shot of vodka. “See you tomorrow!” It is an endearing scene, complicated somewhat by the fact that it unfolds in one of the most toxic places on earth: the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

The Babushkas of Chernobyl

A Group of Elderly Women Whose Fierce Attachment To Their Homes Could Not Be Broken — Even By The Infamous 1986 Nuclear Explosion

In the radioactive Dead Zone surrounding Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4, defiant communities of Babushkas (in Russia, it means an old woman or grandmother) scratch out an existence and cling to their ancestral homeland.

While their neighbours have long since fled and their husbands gradually died off, this sisterhood of women labour to cultivate land deemed uninhabitable. Ignoring government orders and health warnings, the Babushkas of Chernobyl continue to forge an existence in one of the most toxic environments on earth.

The Ukrainian government allows the Babushkas to live in the exclusion zone semi-legally; long past the age of child-bearing, they pose no risk of passing radiation-induced defects on to future generations. But by and large, they are left to fend for themselves.

“People always ask me: aren’t you afraid of radiation? – I ain’t afraid of anything darling”, grins Maria toothlessly. At 80 years old, her entire family has either died or moved away, and she lives alone in the heart of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. And yet she is happy. “This is all mine.. .all mine!” she exclaims, gesturing to her deserted surroundings, “thank god I returned home to my Motherland”.

There are approximately 100 returnees like Maria who live inside the exclusion zone, almost all of them are women. Having been evacuated after the reactor explosion, these Babushkas trekked up to 70 kilometres to illegally return home, climbing through bushes and digging under barbed wire. “When I came back I knelt down, grabbed a handful of soil, put it in my mouth and said ‘I will never leave here again'”, recounts Maria tearfully.

Cut off from the rest of society and with their husbands long dead, the elderly Babushkas are now an almost entirely self-sufficient community, fishing and farming on some of the most toxic land on earth. Having survived together through the famines of Stalin and the brutality of the Second World War, these women are inextricably bonded to one another and to their land. “I won’t go anywhere… even at gun point”, explains Valentyna defiantly. “We’ve been friends forever”, grins Hanna.

The authorities have permitted the Babushka’s to remain in their homes as it is thought they will die of old age before any radiation can take its toll. “They’re so committed to their homeland even though its contaminated…it’s amazing”, remarks one scientist.
Surviving off homegrown crops and moonshine, the Babushkas are living out their days defiantly, and happily, in a region unperturbed by modern civilization. As Maria explains, “I don’t regret anything, I’m still so happy that I’m in my own house and I’m not dependent on anyone… every person should live where their soul desires.”

 They share this hauntingly beautiful but lethal landscape with an assortment of interlopers—scientists, soldiers, and even ‘stalkers’—young thrill-seekers who sneak in to pursue post-apocalyptic video game-inspired fantasies. Hanna Zavorotyna, Maria Shovkuta, and Valentyna Ivanivna, are three of the women who chose to return after the disaster, defying the authorities and endangering their health. It is a remarkable tale about the pull of home, the healing power of shaping one’s destiny and the subjective nature of risk.

Hanna Zavorotnya and her sister/ Yuli Solsken. The Babushkas of Chernobyl reveal the deep suffering of an old generation, and their struggles to overcome the pain from losing their loved ones. It’s a testimony of love, compassion, solidarity, and proof of our ability to be self-sufficient despite our age.

Hanna Zavorotnya and her sister/ Yuli Solsken. The Babushkas of Chernobyl reveal the deep suffering of an old generation, and their struggles to overcome the pain from losing their loved ones. It’s a testimony of love, compassion, solidarity, and proof of our ability to be self-sufficient despite our age.

Hanna Zavorotnya (78 y.o.) survived the great Ukrainian famine during Stalin's blockade of 1932 - 33 and subsequent military occupation of Ukraine by Nazi Germany. During Stalin blockade, when Hanna was only 6 months old the people in her home village of Kapavati had resorted to cannibalism to survive in the famine and almost butchered her for food. After the nuclear accident in Chernobyl in 1986, the residents of her village were forced to leave. She however chose to go back and resettle 2 months after the accident. Kapavati village, Chernobyl, Ukraine. December 2010

Hanna Zavorotnya (78 y.o.) survived the great Ukrainian famine during Stalin’s blockade of 1932 – 33 and subsequent military occupation of Ukraine by Nazi Germany. During Stalin blockade, when Hanna was only 6 months old the people in her home village of Kapavati had resorted to cannibalism to survive in the famine and almost butchered her for food. After the nuclear accident in Chernobyl in 1986, the residents of her village were forced to leave. She however chose to go back and resettle 2 months after the accident. Kapavati village, Chernobyl, Ukraine. December 2010

An Babushka who lives in the officially abandoned village of Rudnoye feeds cats near her home close to the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Cats didn't survive the initial radiation of the disaster in 1986, but feral cat populations have been moving back in and steadily building back up since there's plenty of radioactive little critters to snack on there. Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images.

An Babushka who lives in the officially abandoned village of Rudnoye feeds cats near her home close to the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Cats didn’t survive the initial radiation of the disaster in 1986, but feral cat populations have been moving back in and steadily building back up since there’s plenty of radioactive little critters to snack on there. Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images.

It is now 30 years after the Chernobyl disaster and about 100 or so women fiercely cling to their ancestral homeland inside the radioactive “Exclusion Zone.” These stubborn women hanging on — even, oddly, thriving — while trying to cultivate an existence on toxic earth.

Why do they insist on living on farms that the Ukrainian government and radiation scientists have deemed uninhabitable? How do they manage to get by, isolated, in an abandoned landscape guarded by soldiers, and rife with wild animals? How has the radiation affected them these past three decades?

At her cottage, Hanna Zavorotyna brews homemade moonshine and slices thick chunks of salo, raw pig fat – though it is strictly forbidden to eat local food. “Starvation is what scares me, not radiation,” she says. That stark choice reveals an incredible journey the women have travelled: from Stalin’s enforced famines in the 1930s, through Nazi occupation, to nuclear disaster. Like the wolves, moose, wild boar and other wildlife not seen for decades that have come back to the abandoned forests around Chernobyl, the women of the Exclusion Zone, too, have an extraordinary story of survival, and offer a dark yet strangely affirming portrait of life post-apocalypse.

Why they chose to live here after the disaster, defying the authorities and endangering their health, is an inspiring tale—about the pull of ancestral lands, the healing power of shaping one’s destiny and the subjective nature of risk.

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.

Hanna Zavorotnya (78 y.o), helped to scrub and gut a pig that was butchered by her visiting son for the New Year holidays. Kapavati village, Chernobyl, Ukraine. Hanna Zavorotnya, 78 “The main thing is that we have pig fat and vodka,” says Hanna, dismissing concerns about the difficulties of life in the radioactive zone. Most of the homes in her village were abandoned after the explosion, leaving space plentiful for those who returned. Now Hanna’s pigs have a barn, and her root vegetables have an entire cottage to themselves. December 2010.

Hanna Zavorotnya (78 y.o), helped to scrub and gut a pig that was butchered by her visiting son for the New Year holidays. Kapavati village, Chernobyl, Ukraine. Hanna Zavorotnya, 78. “The main thing is that we have pig fat and vodka,” says Hanna, dismissing concerns about the difficulties of life in the radioactive zone. Most of the homes in her village were abandoned after the explosion, leaving space plentiful for those who returned. Now Hanna’s pigs have a barn, and her root vegetables have an entire cottage to themselves. December 2010.

In the absence of humans from areas around Chernobyl, some species have thrived. The White-Tailed Eagle with it's massive six to eight-foot wingspan is another that's making a comeback near Chernobyl after being absent from the area since the nineteenth century. The big bird of prey is similar to the American Bald Eagle, now filling the same ecological niche in the nuclear disaster zone. Scientists fear the resurgent eagle population will become radioactive as radiation works its way up the food chain. Credit Sergiy Gaschak/Associated Press.

In the absence of humans from areas around Chernobyl, some species have thrived. The White-Tailed Eagle with it’s massive six to eight-foot wingspan is another that’s making a comeback near Chernobyl after being absent from the area since the nineteenth century. The big bird of prey is similar to the American Bald Eagle, now filling the same ecological niche in the nuclear disaster zone. Scientists fear the resurgent eagle population will become radioactive as radiation works its way up the food chain. Credit Sergiy Gaschak/Associated Press.

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 neighbours have—against all odds and any reasonable medical prediction.

Three decades 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 about the 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’s house. 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 there, in what is now known as the Exclusion Zone, or Zone of Alienation, are among the most heavily contaminated on earth.

Today 100 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.

Babushkas_Valentyna with Raspberries. “Life never stopped here, nature just took over.” Nurse and Herbalist Valentyna Ivanivna (72) was a first responder the night of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Photo credit: Chris Bairstow.

Babushkas_Valentyna with Raspberries. “Life never stopped here, nature just took over.” Nurse and Herbalist Valentyna Ivanivna (72) was a first responder the night of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Photo credit: Chris Bairstow.

From left, Hanna Zavorotnya, Maria Zagorna and Maria Shovkuta are among the women who chose to return to the Chernobyl exclusion zone after the 1986 nuclear accident. Credit Yuli Solsken.

From left, Hanna Zavorotnya, Maria Zagorna and Maria Shovkuta are among the women who chose to return to the Chernobyl exclusion zone after the 1986 nuclear accident. Credit Yuli Solsken.

An affectionate portrait of a group of women living inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Amid the environmental devastation, the human story of Chernobyl is often lost. That story is embodied in an unlikely community of some 130 people, known as “self-settlers”, who defiantly live inside the exclusion zone. Almost all of them are women. About 116,000 people were evacuated from the zone at the time of the accident, but about 1,200 of them refused to stay away. The women who remain, now in their 70s and 80s, are the last survivors of those who illegally returned to their ancestral homes shortly after the accident.

An affectionate portrait of a group of women living inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Amid the environmental devastation, the human story of Chernobyl is often lost. That story is embodied in an unlikely community of some 130 people, known as “self-settlers”, who defiantly live inside the exclusion zone. Almost all of them are women. About 116,000 people were evacuated from the zone at the time of the accident, but about 1,200 of them refused to stay away. The women who remain, now in their 70s and 80s, are the last survivors of those who illegally returned to their ancestral homes shortly after the accident.

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 post explosion 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 clear about 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 neighbours 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.

Maria is 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.

A Babushka living in one of the world’s most toxic landscapes. Radioactive contamination from the accident has been deadly, but the trauma of relocation is another fallout of Chernobyl. Of the old people who relocated, one Chernobyl medical technician, whose job is to give annual radiation exposure tests to zone workers said: “Quite simply, they die of anguish.” Other babushkas have said: “If you leave you die”; “Those who left are worse off now. They are all dying of sadness”; “Motherland is Motherland. I will never leave.”Photograph: Yuli Solsken.

A Babushka living in one of the world’s most toxic landscapes. Radioactive contamination from the accident has been deadly, but the trauma of relocation is another fallout of Chernobyl. Of the old people who relocated, one Chernobyl medical technician, whose job is to give annual radiation exposure tests to zone workers said: “Quite simply, they die of anguish.” Other babushkas have said: “If you leave you die”; “Those who left are worse off now. They are all dying of sadness”; “Motherland is Motherland. I will never leave. ”Photograph: Yuli Solsken.

View over the abandoned city of Prypiats. As a result of the nuclear accident and the subsequent radioactive fallout the entire population of Prypiats had been evacuated and never returned home. Chernobyl, Ukraine. Pripyat, the largest town in the exclusion zone. The now-ghostly and highly radioactive company town of Pripyat is three kilometers from reactor no. 4. Contaminated scrap metal, and toilet seats looted from the buildings here, find their way to china and eastern Europe. Since 1999 it has been possible to tour the area on structured visits, with a guide. December 2010

View over the abandoned city of Prypiats. As a result of the nuclear accident and the subsequent radioactive fallout the entire population of Prypiats had been evacuated and never returned home. Chernobyl, Ukraine. Pripyat, the largest town in the exclusion zone. The now-ghostly and highly radioactive company town of Pripyat is three kilometers from reactor no. 4. Contaminated scrap metal, and toilet seats looted from the buildings here, find their way to china and eastern Europe. Since 1999 it has been possible to tour the area on structured visits, with a guide. December 2010

Maria Urupa (77 y.o.) on the porch of her house in Parishev village. When the authorities came to evacuate the village in a few days after the accident, Maria's first thought was to hide in the basement with her cow. When she returned back to her village after a few months, all the animals had been slaughtered. Chernobyl, Ukraine. Maria Urupa, 77 “My dream? To live long and have good health,” says Maria. “so far i have it. I can walk. Last year i could walk better.” in 1986 a doctor told her she’d be dead in two to three years. December 2010

Maria Urupa (77 y.o.) on the porch of her house in Parishev village. When the authorities came to evacuate the village in a few days after the accident, Maria’s first thought was to hide in the basement with her cow. When she returned back to her village after a few months, all the animals had been slaughtered. Chernobyl, Ukraine. “My dream? To live long and have good health,” says Maria. “so far I have it. I can walk. Last year I could walk better.” In 1986 a doctor told her she’d be dead in two to three years. December 2010.

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, then 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 often heard is, “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).

Galina Konyushok butchered a chicken to cook a broth. The food chain has been contaminated with radiation, especially animals that consume local food, such as grain and vegetation from the zone. Zirka village, Chernobyl. Ukraine. Homegrown—and radioactive? Once a week, the government provides a bus to drive exclusion zone residents to a town where they can shop for uncontaminated provisions. The babushkas eat homegrown food as well, but visitors to the zone are advised not to do so. (They are also warned not to breathe deeply while there.) December 2010

Galina Konyushok butchered a chicken to cook a broth. The food chain has been contaminated with radiation, especially animals that consume local food, such as grain and vegetation from the zone. Zirka village, Chernobyl. Ukraine. Homegrown—and radioactive? Once a week, the government provides a bus to drive exclusion zone residents to a town where they can shop for uncontaminated provisions. The babushkas eat homegrown food as well, but visitors to the zone are advised not to do so. (They are also warned not to breathe deeply while there.) December 2010.

Maria Vitosh (86 y.o) at home in Guben village. My years are my fortune!? - she said. On April 26, 1986 Maria was planting potatoes in the fields when the accident happened. They continued working in the fields even after the word got around. Maria did not want to leave her home: A pigeon flies close to his nest... Those who left are worse off now? all dying of sadness?. Chernobyl, Ukraine. Maria Vitosh, 86 “A pigeon flies close to his nest. I would never leave my home,” says maria, who receives a monthly pension of 800 hryvnia (about $100) from the government. Her son, now 60, who lives in a neighboring village, worked in Chernobyl for 12 years after the accident, planting new trees after the radioactive ones were removed. December 2010.

Maria Vitosh (86 y.o) at home in Guben village. My years are my fortune? – she said. On April 26, 1986, Maria was planting potatoes in the fields when the accident happened. They continued working in the fields even after the word got around. Maria did not want to leave her home: A pigeon flies close to his nest… Those who left are they worse off now? all they dying of sadness?  “ I would never leave my home,” says Maria, who receives a monthly pension of 800 hryvnia (about $100) from the government.

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 rumoured 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—are now scattered throughout Eastern Europe. Thirty  years after the accident, the 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, it is 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. 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.”

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.

Nadejda Tislenko (73 y.o.) in her home in Zirka village. She lives alone, since the death of her husband. She also lost her son in a car accident three years ago. Chernobyl, Ukraine. Nadezhda Tislenko, 71 When this widow met up with more’s team—reporter, photographer, translator— she immediately called a neighbor, saying, “hurry, quick, come over. There’s interesting people here, and they’re not missionaries!” December 2010

Nadejda Tislenko (73 y.o.) in her home in Zirka village. She lives alone, since the death of her husband. She also lost her son in a car accident three years ago. Chernobyl, Ukraine. Nadezhda Tislenko, 71. When this widow met up with a —reporter, photographer, translator— she immediately called a neighbour, saying, “hurry, quick, come over. There’s interesting people here, and they’re not missionaries!” December 2010.

Galina Konyushok, formerly a liquidator of the Chernobyl nuclear accident is now living alone in her home in Zirka village. To keep herself busy, she occasionally knits making traditional folk patterns and images of Jesus Christ on Ukranian cotton fabric. Chernobyl, Ukraine. “People who left have a lot of problems. When you live outside your village, you leave your soul,” says galina. After the accident, she helped collect and transport contaminated wheat out of Chernobyl to feed the cleanup workers; now she has thyroid cancer. Her exquisite needlework, seen at right, employs traditional folk patterns and images of Jesus Christ. The biblical verse in the frame reads, “I give you a new command: love one another.” December 2010. © Rena Effendi.

Galina Konyushok, formerly a liquidator of the Chernobyl nuclear accident is now living alone in her home in Zirka village. To keep herself busy, she occasionally knits making traditional folk patterns and images of Jesus Christ on Ukranian cotton fabric. Chernobyl, Ukraine. “People who left have a lot of problems. When you live outside your village, you leave your soul,” says galina. After the accident, she helped collect and transport contaminated wheat out of Chernobyl to feed the cleanup workers; now she has thyroid cancer. Her exquisite needlework, seen at right, employs traditional folk patterns and images of Jesus Christ. The biblical verse in the frame reads, “I give you a new command: love one another.” December 2010. © Rena Effendi.

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, they also ignore the click-click-click of the 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 colour 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 neighbours 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 group indicates her liquidator status and her -thyroid-cancer diagnosis. She waves away the table of meds, as if to shoo off its significance, and shows 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 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 labour 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” decades 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.

Goodbye Brains .. See you Tomorrow! Eating what they produce in their gardens, singing with shots of vodka, and keeping the memories of parents, husbands, and children alive are essential to their collective nostalgia. In a small house in rural Ukraine, three old women gather together, having a blast. They dig in to a spread of home-cooked dishes and share less-than-sentimental reflections on their late husbands (“Now he’s gone and I have everything”). The Babushkas sing, and clap, and dance a little, as much as their aging limbs allow. They also drink. A lot. “Goodbye brains!” one of the women crows as she downs a shot of vodka. “See you tomorrow!” It is an endearing scene, complicated somewhat by the fact that it unfolds in one of the most toxic places on earth: the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

Goodbye Brains .. See you Tomorrow!. The Babushkas sing, and clap, and dance a little, as much as their aging limbs allow. They also drink. A lot. “Goodbye brains!” one of the women crows as she downs a shot of vodka. “See you tomorrow!” It is an endearing scene, complicated somewhat by the fact that it unfolds in one of the most toxic places on earth: the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

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 30, 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. 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,” holding up a chunk of thick, white pig fat. “We are going to party.”

Chernobyl’s legacy will live on for hundreds of years: physically in its radiation as it continues to affect the world, and in the lives of the animal and human populations that settle there, and emotionally through its displaced peoples and the policies of the governments that turn their eyes to it. What Chernobyl’s wildlife park and its Babushkas show us is that, even in all of this difficulty and hardship, and in this uncertainty for the future, life will find a way.

Moose are another brand of beast that had once vanished from the area around Chernobyl, only to see a population boom again after people left. Scientists haven't been able to test the moose now in the exclusion zone, but Swedish moose were found to be radioactive with the fallout after the disaster in the 1980s. It's a safe bet these guys living at ground zero are pretty radioactive too.

Moose are another brand of beast that had once vanished from the area around Chernobyl, only to see a population boom again after people left. Scientists haven’t been able to test the moose now in the exclusion zone, but Swedish moose were found to be radioactive with the fallout after the disaster in the 1980s. It’s a safe bet these guys living at ground zero are pretty radioactive too.

 The powerful, and sometimes incomprehensible sentiments that impelled them to return to their contaminated villages lie at the heart of Babushkas, a film which was directed by Holly Morris. The filmmaker and journalist stumbled upon the babushkas while reporting from Reactor Number Four during the 25th anniversary of the disaster. Given the radioactive fallout that has saturated the area, Morris was determined to get out as quickly as possible. But she soon noticed smoke rising from a chimney in the distance and decided to investigate.

What Morris discovered was nothing short of astounding: a widely-dispersed constellation of elderly women, who lived off Chernobyl’s toxic soil and drank its toxic water. Their bodies had absorbed large quantities of radiation. And yet, they survived. They thrived.

Along with her co-director Anne Bogart, Morris spent an additional 18 days in the zone over a period of 18 months. She was required to carry a Geiger counter, which measures ionizing radiation, and was accompanied by a government minder at all times. The film’s crew and transport vehicle were scanned for radiation levels before they could leave the area. It was a laborious and risky shoot, but to Morris, it was a necessary one.

“I felt this sense of urgency … because clearly, radiation or not, the women in the zone were at the end of their lives,” she said “It seemed really important to capture their stories … before they were gone.”

In Babushkas, we see an elderly woman crying because her government pension has not arrived for several months. Another is shown weeping in bed, dying and alone.

The Babushkas’ insistence upon living in the zone in spite of these challenges can, according to Morris, be chalked up to the “subjective nature of risk.” The women featured in the documentary understand that their health is threatened by radiation, but have chosen to end their lives in a place that makes them happy.

Though Babushkas of Chernobyl is peppered with expositions on the dangers of radiation, and though the frenetic beeping of Geiger counters form an unnerving soundtrack to many scenes, the Babushkas’ self-determined pursuit of happiness emerges as the true heart of the film. The documentary often lingers on the abandoned forests and bucolic little villages of the zone, which are lush, serene, and beautiful. The Babushkas, content in their homes, are gregarious and funny. The nearly-toothless Maria explains how her husband wooed her by offering her a sausage: “The sausage was like the magnet he pulled me in with,” she says, and then cracks up. During an Easter church service—the only one to be held annually within the contaminated region of Chernobyl—a grinning Hanna procures a bottle of moonshine so it can be blessed by the priest.

The Babushkas’ humour was, to Morris, one of the most surprising elements of a rather exceptional filmmaking process. “When one is reporting a Chernobyl story, you don’t think you’re going to walk away with something like that,” she said. “It’s all [the babushkas]. They’re high spirits. I want to stress that there is a lot of suffering and misery, but there is also a wonderful, positive spirit that the women have.

“And also, when one goes to do a Chernobyl story, you can assume that it’s really going to be about radiation and the accident,” Morris added. “But in fact, this one is about home, I believe. In the end, it’s about the palliative powers of home.”

Watch the Video: Babushkas of Chernobyl

 Chernobyl’s babushkas – the women who refused to leave …

Babushkas of Chernobyl’ Finds Life Thriving in Scarred Land

The women living in Chernobyl’s toxic wasteland – Telegraph

30 years later, Chernobyl’s searing legacy still crippling and killing

“Exclusion Zone.

The Babushkas’ of Chernobyl documentary 

 


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  • Lux

    When I get the heave ho .. I’m off to join them .. what a wonderful group of Babushkas♥

    • Mark

      If you get the heave ho I could do a lot worse than to have a place in the long queue you skip past :)

  • Mark

    Lux this is one of your best finds,amongst many great ones,outstanding.
    “There is a breed of heroic resilience…” Seems living the life you choose is good for you.
    I have had the joy of knowing a woman from Belarus,I suspect she may have been Chuck Norris’s Mother… Her zest & appreciation for life was inspiring.

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