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Research Corner: Chernobyl after Chernobyl


Maria tells stories about her life before, during, and after the evacuation, while her chicken feeds nearby, June 2018. IMAGE/ Elise Hunchuck

“The orchards were blossoming, young grass sparkling joyfully in the sun. Birds were singing. Such a profoundly familiar world. My first thought was: everything here is as it should be and carrying on as usual. Here was the same earth, the same water and trees. And their shapes, colours and scents were eternal. But on the first day, I was warned: don’t pick the flowers, don’t sit on the ground, don’t drink the water from the spring.” — Svetlana Alexievech, on her first journey into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone1

There are 25 rules listed in the Instructions Letter for Visitors of the Exclusion Zone and the Zone of Absolute (Compulsory) Resettlement. We are told that every foreign and Ukrainian national must read this document and sign it upon entry to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The first rule instructs us to “maximally protect body, head, hands and feet” while “strictly comply[ing] with all instructions from the envoy officer”; rules number four and five on the “totally prohibited list” tell us not to consume liquor or food in the open air.

On April 26, 1986, Reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant experienced a series of explosions, releasing 50 million curies of radioactivity into the atmosphere. In just over seven days, radiation would be dispersed around the globe; background radiation levels rose on April 29 in Austria, Germany, Poland, and Romania; a day later, in Italy and Switzerland; by May 2, in Belgium, Great Britain, France, Greece, and the Netherlands; and, by May 3, in Israel, Kuwait, and Turkey. Other materials ejected into the air were detected in Canada, China, India, Japan, and the U.S. by May 6.2

In the aftermath of the disaster, the Soviet government put in place a 30-kilometre-radius exclusion zone around the plant as the designated area for evacuation and military control. Embedded within that were three subzones: the area immediately adjacent to Reactor No. 4; a 10-kilometre-radius exclusion zone that would come to be known as the Zone of Absolute (Obligatory) Resettlement; and a further 20-kilometre zone extending beyond that, the Exclusion Zone. This changed in 1991 when the newly independent Ukraine passed a law entitled “On the Legal Status of the Territory Exposed to the Radioactive Contamination resulting from the Chernobyl accident” that, based on the continuing monitoring of radionuclides in soil, updated and expanded the borders of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone to cover a total of 2,600 square kilometres of contaminated land.3

Across the road from the village cemetery is this full and meticulously tended farming plot. IMAGE/ Elise Hunchuck

In the early hours of June 15, 2018, a group of researchers – nine of us in total – gathered at the edge of Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv to travel north on a three-day incursion into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. During the trip, we went from Chernobyl to Chernobyl-2, from the Chernobyl Power Plant to Pripyat to the edge of the Red Forest. We entered abandoned villages, witnesses to the disappearance of schools and churches and post offices into growing forests. The temperatures were in the high 20°s C and low 30°s, and the heat, in the sun, could be unforgiving, as we were instructed to dress fully covered, from head to toe. The shade of the forest presented other concerns: swarms of mosquitos would drive us back out into the sun, and the thick underbrush was relentless. Walking anything resembling a straight line was impossible. We met Simon, the YouTube-famous red fox, up close, and saw an exceptionally large Eurasian wolf, from afar. At night, we would leave the zone for Ecopolis, the “radioactive-scientist-meets-Twin-Peaks” compound for researchers (in one of the participant’s, Lindsey Freeman’s, perfect description of the place) where we washed off the day, shared stories, and tried to remember (or forget) things we had seen or felt.

If the initial concerns following the explosion were direct inhalation, external radiation, and deposition of radioactive materials onto skin or clothing, it soon became clear that, after the initial clean-up efforts, the most widespread and dangerous contamination came from the deposition of radionuclides on water bodies, plants and crops, and topsoil. In water bodies, the Caesium-137 and Strontium-90 released by the core could contaminate sand, sediment, aquatic plants, and animals, easily moving up the food chain and into drinking water. Contaminants in topsoil and subsoil could be absorbed through plant roots and fungi in the forest floor. Once consumed or absorbed by animals–including humans, as mushrooms are a plentiful food staple in Ukraine–caesium spreads throughout the muscles and can be metabolized by the body. In cases of prolonged exposure, it can cause cancer.4

“I was born during Stalin’s enforced famine. Radiation doesn’t scare me. Starvation does.” — Hanna Zavorotnya5

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was built in Polissia, a natural and historic region that straddles the border between Ukraine and Belarus, stretching from Poland in the west to Russia in the east. One of the largest forested wetland areas on the Eurasian continent, it is now home to the Exclusion Zone and its Belarusian counterpart, the Polesie State Radioecological Reserve. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Polissia saw its human population grow and its wetlands drained to expose the organic peat soils just below the surface for farming. However, the extensive draining and farming soon depleted the soil, making it one of the least fertile areas in Ukraine. The nutrient-poor soils of Polissia had so little natural iodine that its population suffered from endemic goiter. This would later be critical, as in the immediate aftermath of a radiological emergency, potassium iodide pills must be consumed to protect the thyroid gland from radioactive material released into the air. However, in the hours following the accident at Reactor No. 4, only the people of Pripyat were given iodine pills; it took days and weeks to get to those who lived in nearby villages.

Preparing the homemade zakuska (snacks): bread, pickles, salo (cured white pork fat), and vodka to wash it down. IMAGE/ Elise Hunchuck

Today, some estimates say that more than 90 percent of the radionuclides that remain in the zone are no longer on the surface of the mostly wood buildings or flora in the form of dust, but that they are in the zone, hiding in the soil, part of the hydrogeology, and embedded in the food chain itself.

On our last day in the zone, we met Maria Ilchenko, one of the so-called samosely, the self-settlers who returned to their homes after the spring of 1986. Greeting us at her home in the Polissia region at the edge of what is still known as the village of Kupuvate, Maria gestured for us to help her set up a seating area under two remarkable elm trees. Benches and stools were quickly occupied as we sat around the table helping to plate the zakuska (snacks) that Maria brought out for us, including homemade pickles, vodka, and salo, a Ukrainian delicacy consisting of cured, white pork fat, served with bread that we had been asked to bring from outside the zone. “This is how we talk in Ukraine,” Maria told us, gesturing to the food and the vodka, and she began to tell us about those early, confusing days just after the disaster, and the years since.

Maria returns back to her daily routine. IMAGE/ Elise Hunchuck

She told us about the days after the meltdown, when 116,000 people were told to gather a few days’ worth of personal effects and their identification papers. Evacuated from the zone in a convoy of buses and settled elsewhere, people were scattered throughout the larger cities of Ukraine. The first to defy the forced evacuation were families from Cheremoshna and Nivetske villages who returned to the zone on June 21, 1986. Approximately 1,200 people would be allowed to settle back in the zone, Maria and Ivan Ilchenko among them, but today fewer than 200 remain. (On the evening of the accident, there were 324 inhabitants in Maria’s village; when I visited in 2018, there were fewer than nine.) Lina Kostensko, the dissident Ukrainian writer and poet, has suggested calling those who have returned to live in the zone povertantsi (returners) instead of samosely: “Don’t call them samosely. It is offensive, because it is their motherland. They grew up here and continue to live in their houses after the accident, though forgotten by the state and God.”6 We sat for a few hours with Maria, eating and drinking in the sun. Eventually, and reluctantly, we had to leave Maria; we were scheduled to catch the worker’s train from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant to Slavutych, the city built in 1986 to house evacuated plant workers and their families. Our time in the zone was up.

There is no consensus in the scientific community as to why it may be the case, but the life expectancy of those who have chosen to live in the zone far outpaces those who never returned. The survival of Maria, Hanna, and others like them suggests that despite an array of circumstances that should prove otherwise, there appears to be a palliative, though perhaps unprovable, power to being home.


See Svetlana Alexievech’s Chernobyl Prayer, translated by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait (Penguin Random House, 2016, page 28).
2 For this timeline and more, see Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident in Belarus (Minsk: International Sakharov Higher College of Radioecology, 1992, page 81).
3 See Oleg Nasvit’s “Legislation in Ukraine about the Radiological Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident” in the Japanese Journal of Health Physics, 33 (2), 1998, page 195.
4 International Atomic Energy Agency’s The International Chernobyl Project: Technical Report (Vienna: IAEA. 1991).
5 Hanna Zavorotnya in “The Babushkas of Chernobyl,” directed by Holly Morris and Anne Bogart, 2015.
6 Lina Kostensko as quoted in “Self-Settlers of–Returning Home” (https://ukrainer.net/self-settlers-of-Chernobyl-returning-home/). Accessed November 10, 2018.

My deepest gratitude to Maria for sharing her stories with us and countless others; she reminded me of what it means to make, to have, and to be, home. Thank you to our guides Oleksander Rybak, Oleksander Syrota, and Denis Vishnevsky for answering our endless questions and showing us their Chernobyl. To my fellow travellers Julian Breinersdorfer, Lindsey Freeman, Margret Grebowicz, Sanem Guvenc, Lyubzja Knorozok, Eldritch Priest, and Oleksiy Radynski: thanks for keeping it wonderfully weird. And, of course, thank you to Jussi Parikka for the introduction to Svitlana Matviyenko, who assembled this group of researchers from around the world to spend three memorable days and nights together in the zone.