If your home were condemned, would you leave it? That’s not a question of whether you would want to leave or not, but of whether you would ultimately decide that your safety, and that of your loved ones, is more important than material possession, more important than property.

It’s probably a safe bet that most people would choose to leave. Even though we live in a material culture, and the things we own tend to hold a special place in our lives – whether that’s healthy or not is immaterial at the moment – we generally are aware that things can be replaced. Property can be reclaimed, homes rebuilt… it’s all a matter of money.
Some of us though, place a higher value on such things, while not necessarily buying into the materialist culture we so often lament. That’s not to say that there aren’t good reasons to cherish heirlooms and familial property, not at all. There’s something laudable about honouring the memory of loved ones passed on, by protecting the things they themselves valued. It provides a sense of continuity between the past and the present.

It’s seems to be a uniquely human thing, to be able to derive such satisfaction from holding an object in our hands that once belonged to someone long gone, or to stand in a space where historical figures we venerate once also stood. It doesn’t make a great deal of rational sense, but since when are emotions rational?

That’s an important point to keep in mind as you read the following.

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A distant view of Chernobyl from Pripyat (Photo by Jason Minshull)

On April 26, 1986 a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power station in Ukraine suffered a catastrophic explosion and meltdown. It’s a feature of our past that remains one of the most dangerous events humanity has ever witnesses. That meltdown resulted in a huge amount of radioactive fallout that spread across Western Russia and Europe, and that poison is still there.

The Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster (as it’s officially known) is one of two level-7 nuclear events in our history (the maximum classification under the International Nuclear Event Scale) – the other event was Fukushima.

The resulting fallout at Chernobyl is delineated by what’s known as the exclusion zone – an area of some 2,600 square kilometers in northern Ukraine. You’ve no doubt seen the iconic pictures of the deserted city of Pripyat, which embody the haunted nature of the entire zone. Homes, businesses, entire regions were abandoned as people were quickly evacuated for their own safety, though the death toll is still as yet unaccounted, since the effects of serious radioactive exposure are long acting and sometimes difficult to attribute. As it stands, experts estimate that 4,000 of the roughly 5 million people effected will succumb to radiation related illnesses.

But, strangely, there are some people who have demonstrated a surprising resilience to the nuclear poison spewing forth from that reactor. As mentioned, the mass evacuations that took place just days after the event, compelled everyone to leave their homes for safer ground, but some refused.

Nearly 1200 of the 160,000 people ordered to evacuate defied the government and remained in the Zone of Alienation (as it’s known officially). Many more went along with the evacuation and soon thereafter went back to their homes, sneaking past military border forces. What’s doubly surprising is that they survived. Not only did they survive, but it could be said that they thrived in conditions that, to all common sense, should have been deadly.

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Matrena Olifer, 72, lives alone in her house in Gornostaypol village. ‘Why should I be afraid of radiation? It does not bite!’ she jokes. Photo: RENA EFFENDI/ INSITUTE

The Babushkas of Chernobyl are an astounding group of people.

As you may already know, ‘babushka’ is the anglicised Russian word for ‘grandmother’, though that word may give the wrong impression of this bunch, they are far from helpless. Roughly 200 of them still live in the Exclusion Zone, but there were once many more, and they were not alone. These were the mothers and fathers of northern Ukraine, their cultural identity is tied very strongly to the land they live on. And ultimately, their love of the land was greater than the danger posed by this modern radioactive menace.

To give you a mental picture of what these people have endured; imagine living without government oversight, without utilities, without store-bought food, without medical services, and without law… all for nearly three decades, and all while fighting against a relentless poison that permeates the very air you breathe, the water you drink, and the land you love.

Some of the more libertarian or anarchistic among us might see the first bit of that as something to aspire to, but no one can deny that living in radioactive fallout for three decades isn’t exactly an ideal existence.

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Nadejda Gorbachenko, 80 Photo: RENA EFFENDI/ INSITUTE

An odd aspect of this is that those currently surviving in the Chernobyl wasteland are all women. There were at one time happily married couples and some families, but all of the men have passed on. Though it’s not certain that radiation poisoning had anything to do with their deaths, in fact, it’s believed that alcoholism and cigarettes were the main culprit. Not surprisingly, researchers are reluctant to enter the exclusion zone to study this, and the babushkas are obviously unwilling to leave their homesteads; indeed, not even the threat of death was enough to remove them.

The Babushkas of Chernobyl are now a cultural force. In 2010, documentary filmmaker Holly Morris ventured into the reclaimed wilds of northern Ukraine in search of the legendary babushkas. She spent several years interviewing and filming the survivors, and getting an intimate look at not only their lives as they are today, but as they had been prior to the disaster.

Her 2014 film, The Babushkas of Chernobyl, is a moving testament to the will of a people who have been oppressed and ignored alternately throughout history. Her film shows that they are resilient, resourceful, and most importantly, passionate about their homes.

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Nadejda Tislenko, 71. When this widow met up with the reporter and photographer she immediately called a neighbour, saying, ‘Hurry, quick, come over. There’s interesting people here, and they’re not missionaries!’ Photo: RENA EFFENDI/ INSITUTE

You might be asking why a person would choose to face almost certain death by poison rather than leave their home, and that answer, though simple, provides much to think about.

“Are they unaware of the risks, or crazy enough to ignore them, or both? It’s hard for us — especially Westerners with deeper connections to our laptops than any piece of soil — to understand. But these women see their lives in a decidedly different way.

When I asked Hanna about radiation, she replied: “Radiation doesn’t scare me. Starvation does.”

It’s all about context.”

Morris describes a wasteland, populated by sickly animals, under-formed crops, and a people who refuse to give up on what they consider their mother earth. It takes only a bit of reading to learn that rural poverty and self-sustaining people are nothing new to the region. To these women, and to their dead families, the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster changed nothing.

If you’re interested in learning more about The Babushkas of Chernobyl, visit the official website and the Facebook page. Also check out Holly Morris’ TED Talk which can be found on the same website. Holly Morris can also be found on Twitter @hollymorris.

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Maria Urupa, 77, on her porch in Parishev village. When the authorities evacuated the village days after the accident, Maria’s first thought was to hide in the basement with her cow. On her return to Parishev after a few months, all the animals had been killed. Photo: RENA EFFENDI/ INSITUTE
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