By Fred Pearce
Did you watch the Emmys? HBO’s historical drama miniseries Chernobyl won awards for Outstanding Limited Series, Outstanding Directing, and Outstanding Writing out of its nineteen nominations! Environmental journalist Fred Pearce also wrote about the Soviet Union’s infamous nuclear disaster and the ensuing cleanup efforts in Fallout: Disasters, Lies, and the Legacy of the Nuclear Age. This excerpt from his book goes beyond the end of the series, showing how life went on when people known as self-settlers returned to their homes in the exclusion area after their forced evacuation. How safe is it to live in all that radiation? Apparently safe enough to enjoy vodka.
The exclusion zone that has stretched for twenty miles around Chernobyl’s stricken nuclear reactor since the 1986 accident is not quite the inaccessible dead zone often portrayed. Thousands of Ukrainians commute there every day to work on making safe and dismantling the plant and managing the zone itself. Yes, I needed an official permit to pass through the guarded gates on the road north from Kiev and a radiation scan before I could leave. But the scientists I was with had no trouble arranging my entry—and thankfully I was allowed to go home afterward.
First on my list was meeting some of the people who defied the government and returned to live in the exclusion zone in the months and years after their forced evacuation. Many live off the land in their old homes or have simply moved into abandoned buildings. After checking into Chernobyl’s only hotel, I headed down the road to a high door that opened onto a small yard. It was opened by Markeyevych Federovych, one of the tribe of aging authority-defying returnees known locally as self-settlers. It was several hours before we were allowed to leave, a little unsteady on our feet.
Federovych, you see, is an effusive host and serves good vodka. He flavors it with herbs picked in the exclusion zone. Who knows how radioactive it is. He certainly didn’t care, as we sat in his cozy front room, emptying his bottle and discussing his three decades of life as a radioactive outlaw. He was, he said, one of almost two thousand self-settlers who snuck back to their villages after the accident because they didn’t like life as evacuees. They grew vegetables in radioactive gardens, hunted radioactive animals, gathered radioactive herbs in the radioactive forests, and sometimes drew water from radioactive wells. They were getting old now, but many were hale and hearty. It was good evidence, he insisted, for their claim that life was good in the radioactive zone.
Many of the self-settlers had been outlaws once before, he said, as members of the resistance movement fighting the Nazis in the Second World War. So when they went on the run in the early days of the exclusion zone, they knew where to hide to evade police and guards. Some, in their advancing years, spend the winter in cities but return in summer to live in their radioactive dachas. Some, like Federovych, live permanently in Chernobyl town, cheek by jowl with the workers and scientists maintaining the exclusion zone. Others live in distant parts of the zone; somewhere out there is a monastery of self-settling monks.
All self-settlers live in a shadowy world, officially tolerated in recent years, but outside the normal rules of state law. Some scavenge radioactive scrap metal and barter it for meat and potatoes from the clean world outside. I read before my trip that “the Chernobyl landscape is a space of exception.” A research paper by sociologist Thom Davies, of the University of Birmingham, England, argued that “the sense of abandonment is matched by an intensification of social networks, unofficial risk understandings, and informal activities, making possible life within this nuclear landscape.”
Federovych laughed at such language. His life was not governed by academic abstractions. When the accident happened, he told me, he was a handicraft teacher at a school in Chernobyl. He joined the evacuation, taking his nine-year-old son on his motorbike to Kiev. Like many other evacuees, he took a summer break to the Black Sea, awaiting events. “But I was curious,” he said. “I just wanted to see what was going on. So I visited. It was illegal, but I had a friend who was a captain on a small boat that went up and down the River Pripyat, past the power station. I borrowed a policeman’s uniform and hopped off the boat when nobody was looking.”
Somewhere he seems to have lost touch with his wife and children. Perhaps there were hidden motives behind his return, but if so he wasn’t letting on: “I came back to my old house here in Chernobyl. It is a hundred years old and was built by my grandfather. It was sealed up. There was no water or light. So for a few months I lived in hiding, just with a few candles. But I felt at home. I soon realized there were quite a few of us doing this, both in Chernobyl and out in the villages.” The police patrols guarding the exclusion zone knew about them, he said, but didn’t know what to do.
The critical time for the self-settlers was 1989, three years after the accident. The government decided to clear a cadre of them out of a small, remote village called Ilinci. The police turned up en masse. But close to the village there was a military camp, and the commander there was friendly with the self-settlers. He intervened. There was a standoff, and the military won. “After that, the government’s attitude changed and we became ‘officially registered self-settlers,’” Federovych said, raising his glass to celebrate the triumph. “We got some electricity in our old homes.”
In the early 1990s, there were an estimated 1,800 self-settlers. “But we are getting old. Now we are down to about two hundred, with fifty of us in Chernobyl town,” Federovych said. “Some villages are empty again.” He had no intention of departing “except in a box,” he said, his clipped mustache twitching at the absurdity of his own mortality. Until then, he will take on anyone who tries to stop him living his life as he wants. Such as the policeman who had recently accosted him as he sat on the bank of the Pripyat River and told him to stop fishing because the water was radioactive. “I just told him that my father and grandfather fished here and I have fished here since I was a boy. He had no right to stop me. He went away.”
Wasn’t he afraid of the radiation in the fish, wild mushrooms, and berries that all the self-settlers ate? Not to mention the herbs in our vodka. No, he said. Chemical additives in the food eaten by outsiders were far more dangerous. “Anyway, look at me; don’t I look healthy?” he asked. “There’s nothing wrong with my fitness.” He called his new wife from the kitchen and embraced her in a bear hug to reinforce the point. She seemed a little startled.
“Of course I know a lot of people who have died of radiation,” he said. “But they were people cleaning up the contamination. The liquidators handled highly radioactive material. The rest of us have done fine. We only die of old age.” Was this bravado? I don’t think so. All the evidence is that the self-settlers are living longer and often healthier lives than the many evacuees who languish unhappily in distant towns—free of radiation but often consumed by angst, junk food, and fear. As Federovych leapt from his chair to bid me goodbye with another bear hug, I could not deny it. After three decades consuming the radioactive produce of a radioactive landscape, he looked remarkably well on it.
About the Author
Fred Pearce has reported on environmental, science, and development issues from eighty-five countries over the past twenty years. Environment consultant at New Scientist from 1992 to 2018, he also writes regularly for the Guardian newspaper and Yale University’s prestigious e360 website. His many books include The New Wild, When the Rivers Run Dry, With Speed and Violence, Confessions of an Eco-Sinner, The Coming Population Crash, and The Land Grabbers.