Thirty years ago this week, the world woke up to the worst nuclear disaster it had ever known: on April 26, 1986, Chernobyl’s Nuclear Plant Reactor N. 4 exploded during a routine test and sent a plume of radiation that traveled across Europe for weeks. A radioactive fire burned on site for 11 days, and it released 400 times more radiation than the bomb that dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. To this day, Chernobyl (formerly USSR, now Ukraine) remains one of the most polluted areas in the world, its Dead Zone long declared uninhabitable.
By all means, this is what most people remember about the Chernobyl disaster. What few of us know, however, is that the Dead Zone has been illegally populated for several years by an unlikely community of self-settlers – mostly elderly women in their 70s and beyond, better known as the Babushkas of Chernobyl.
Defying all odds, a group of about 200 women has managed to thrive in their ancestors’ land, raising boars, smoking meats and growing their own vegetables in a soil that is supposed to be barren. As one of them puts it: “Radiation doesn’t scare me, starvation does”.
Journalist Holly Morris has followed the fascinating journey of the Babushkas, and she is quick to point that these women who live in a radioactive Dead Zone have also outlived their relocated counterparts by an average of 10 years. Coincidence? Perhaps.
As someone who is deeply interested in mythology, I can’t help thinking of Hestia in relation to this story. The first-born of Olympian gods Cronus and Rhea, Hestia is the goddess of the hearth and its sacred fire, the source of life and prosperity in every home, and the right order of domesticity. Hestia dwells in the center of human life, and the hearth and fire of every community is her sanctuary. She is also related to food preparation, and the pig was her sacrificial animal.
The Babushkas of Chernobyl have survived by keeping their own fire alive in the frigid tundra, and by raising boar and eating raw pig fat (a delicacy in the Ukraine). Could it be that Hestia, feeling the warmth of their ancestral fire, has blessed their little sanctuary in the most unlikely place on Earth? Has she teamed up with the genius loci as a mighty force that defies even radiation?
Thirty years after the accident, the group of remaining Babushkas is dwindling. Most of them are now in their 80s, and in a few years, these women who have survived Stalin, Nazism, and Nuclear Radiation will be gone. Yet their journey will have taught us so much: in an almost desolate environment, they have seen beauty, ancestry and home, and have honored it deeply. Nature has noticed and reciprocated: in the past few years, wild boar, moose, wolves and falcon have returned to the Dead Zone as well. Hestia’s fire is, no doubt, still burning strong.
Elisa Markhoff is a journalist, author and speaker from Uruguay who has lived and worked in Europe and the US for over 20 years. Her work as a foreign correspondent has appeared in several international media outlets, including radio and TV.