The world’s worst nuclear disaster, unfolding only a few miles away, did not force Halyna Voloshyna, 74, to abandon her home in Chernobyl in 1986.
So when marauding Russian soldiers showed up at her door a little over a year ago, she was not about to let them scare her away, either.
Instead, during the month that Russian forces occupied this polluted patch of earth known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Voloshyna was such a thorn in their side that they began referring to her as the “furious babushka at the end of the lane”.
“They said they were here to liberate me,” she recalled. “Liberate me from what?” she asked before cursing them.
Voloshyna is one of 99 longtime residents who still live in the zone, an area that covers roughly 1,000 square miles of some of the most radioactive soil on the planet.
The disastrous meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant blanketed the region with a hundred times more radiation than that released by the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
Chernobyl was also one of the first areas Russian tanks rolled through as they swept out of Belarus in the hopes of seizing Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, around 120km to the south. It was one of the first places from where they were driven out, forced to withdraw at the end of last March.
Visiting the zone a year later, past calamity and current tragedy intersect in strange and fascinating ways.
The meltdown in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, has tainted the land for hundreds of years to come and laid bare the dangers of a political culture built on lies. It contributed to the demise of the communist system and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Before the war, the ghostly city of Pripyat, once home to tens of thousands of atomic workers before it was abandoned, had become a dark tourist attraction for those drawn to post-apocalyptic desolation. The Soviet-era apartment blocks crumbled as wolves prowled the hallways. A Ferris wheel in an amusement park that was scheduled to open on May 1, 1986, gathered more rust with each passing year.
Visiting the villages around Chernobyl offered a chance to step into a moment frozen in time, with everything left where it was more than three decades ago. Children’s toys sit in yards thick with brush. Tattered clothes are strewn in bedrooms where residents left them as they fled. A dusty cradle glimpsed through a broken window pane offers a reminder that in a now-dead place, there was once new life.
Now, with cities across Ukraine obliterated, the ruins of Chernobyl feel less otherworldly than grimly familiar. Distant explosions set off by animals stepping on mines laid by the Russians are a reminder that this land from the past is very much part of the present.
The confinement building and the hulking sarcophagus built to entomb the remains of Reactor No. 4 — where two enormous explosions blew the 2,000-tonne lid off the burning core — have long served as an object lesson in what can happen when politics is allowed to interfere with the scientific endeavour of producing energy by splitting the atom.
Now it is taking place again.
Russian forces in southern Ukraine occupy Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, and that facility in Zaporizhzhia has come under repeated shelling, raising fears of a disaster there.
In Chernobyl itself, Russian soldiers displayed reckless behaviour early on in the war. On the February 2022 night that the Russians invaded Ukraine, a drastic increase in radiation levels — from two to eight times more than usual — was recorded in different parts of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, said Serhiy Kirejev, the Ukrainian official responsible for environmental monitoring there.
“This is the time when over 5,000 Russian military vehicles entered the zone, drove along the ground roads, and then soldiers started digging the trenches,” Kirejev said. “They churned up the radioactive dust that was in the upper layer of the ground.”
Villagers warned the Russians about the dangers.
“They were digging trenches right close to the reactor,” recalled Halyna Markevych, 82. “We told them to stop. They said: ‘Come on. What kind of radiation could there be?’”
Even a quick look at the bunkers the Russians carved out in the most contaminated parts of the zone made clear how careless they had been. The soldiers also set fires and cooked on dirt so radioactive that it made a Geiger counter leap off the charts when tested on a recent visit. There are conflicting reports about whether Russian soldiers fell sick from radiation poisoning.
For the small band of ageing residents who remain in the zone, the Russian invasion and the nuclear disaster are catastrophes that bookend their lives.
They recall both events in intimate detail.
Visitors are rare these days, but Voloshyna was a bundle of energy as she set out a spread of food for her visitors and grabbed a bottle of vodka infused with local herbs.
Three shots, she said, were customary for visitors.
Before the meltdown, Voloshyna said, Chernobyl was a company town known for its great natural beauty. She was 36 and the director of the local kindergarten when the night sky lit up before dawn on April 26, 1986. In the days after the meltdown, she joined other residents in shovelling sand into sacks that were flown by helicopters and dumped in the reactor.
Two plant workers died within hours of the meltdown, and in the months that followed, 28 more people died from radiation poisoning. Though estimates of the total fatalities to date vary widely, thousands have died from cancers and other radiation-associated illnesses.
The evacuation orders came in May, and ultimately around 200,000 people were relocated, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency — but Voloshyna was not among them.
She hid inside her house after the police ordered residents to leave, even as the authorities sealed her home from the outside.
The next day, she watched as police officers shot all the dogs. Then the power and water were cut off. But Voloshyna was determined to stay in the home built by her grandfather more than half a century earlier, nestled on the banks of the Pripyat river.
Unlike when the meltdown happened, the danger from the Russians who stormed in last winter was immediately clear.
That night, one resident, Evgen Markevych, 86, put his thoughts down in his diary.
“Sorrow came,” he wrote. “They are shooting. Putin is like Hitler. Russian troops captured the Chernobyl nuclear station.”
Voloshyna was determined to stay. “It was crazy,” she said. “They were going for days: a flood of tanks, helicopters and all kinds of shooting all the time.”
One morning, she said, she heard the Russians shouting at a neighbour and ransacking the house. She stormed out to confront them.
“There were 15 of them with machine guns,” she said. “I did not let them into my house. I started shouting at them.”
Two days later, her neighbour warned Voloshyna that her two adult sons were in danger. One of them had earlier served in the Ukrainian military and so would be of particular interest for Russians.
So under the cover of darkness, the two men crept down to the river bank behind the house, loaded two bicycles onto two little motorboats and set off. They hid for more than a month.
“Only when the area was liberated by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, were they able to come back home,” she said.
The younger of her sons soon left again to join the army. Over the past months, he was fighting in Bakhmut.
Voloshyna swept a tear from her eye and said she hoped to see him at home again one day.
The New York Times international news editor Marc Santora and photographer Emile Ducke were granted rare permission to travel across the vast zone around Chernobyl that has been off-limits to most humans for more than three decades.
New York Times News Service