The Zone, Life after death in Chernobyl

Pierpaolo Mittica

2014 - 2019

Ukraine

After the Chernobyl nuclear accident, which occurred on 26 April 1986, the Soviet government created a 30 km exclusion zone around the plant and evacuated the 116,000 residents. The area thus became a dead zone. Yet the area around the plant, despite being one of the most contaminated places in the world, is far from deserted.

For the last 6 years, Pierpaolo Mittica has dedicated himself to documenting what happens inside the area known as “The Zone.” In his long-term project he has collected the stories of those who gravitate to this place: those who have always refused to leave, those who have returned to live there or the 2,000 people who continue to work there to keep the plant safe. There are the tourists, the smugglers of radioactive metals, the young people who practice extreme trekking, along with the pilgrims who come to visit the tomb of Menachem Bochum Twersky, the rabbi founder of Hasidism, buried here in 1787.

“Before the 1986 accident, the people of Chernobyl talked about space exploration and the triumph of communism around the world” says Yuriy Tatarchuck, former manager of the Chernobyl Information Center. “Pripyat was the city of dreams: today it is a desolate urban landscape, where the inhabitants burn firewood to keep warm. But I still think it is a damn fascinating place, which can be of inspiration for every one of us.”

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  • the foot of stalker Sasha with injuries due to the long journey to reach Pripyat. There’s a brand new trendy activity going on among Ukrainian youngsters: some of them in fact have recently started to illegally enter the Chernobyl Zone of Exclusion – in the centre of which there is the infamous Reactor 4 that exploded in 1986, making the area one of the most contaminated of the whole world – to play survival games. Those guys are mostly in their thirties (or even younger) and represent the latest Chernobyl generation. They are referred to as “Stalkers” a name coming directly from Andrei Tarkovski’s film “Stalker”, a cult movie dated back in 1979 – and from a survival-horror videogame released in 2007 and set right into the Zone named S.T.A.L.K.E.R..

    Chernobyl’ Stalkers have lately developed a proper veneration for this specific area, which they consider it as a post-atomic private home. They seem to be organized in paramilitary groups with names, symbols and rituals, while enjoying a dangerous trip to reach their final destination: the ghost town of Pripyat.

  • An abandoned village inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone. An exclusion zone was created by the Soviet government after the Chernobyl nuclear accident on April 26, 1986, of 30 kilometers radius around the exploded power plant. At the time, 116 thousand people were evacuated and transferred to the outskirts of the big cities. The area was too contaminated to allow the population to live there. But some, about 1200 people, decided that life in cities was not for them, too difficult to survive with poor wages and without the products of the garden. And above all too strong the bond with their land to abandon it forever.
    After few months of forced evacuation they came back to live in their homes, challenging the ban of Soviet government. Some of them even never went away. Today less than 200 people remain of the 1200 returned to live in the area shortly after 1986, time and radiations have taken them away.

  • Maria Shovkuta, 89, in her home in the village of Opachici, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Maria died on 2020 at the age of 92 years old. Now they are less than 200. They are the last illegal inhabitants of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the so-called samosely, resettlers. Like Hanna Zavorotnya, 83 years old, or Maria Shovkuta, 89 years old. Most of the survived elders are women, traditionally called babushkas, grandmothers, but there are also men like Viktor Petrovich Lukanjenko, 75 years old, or Ivan Ivanovich Semenyuk, 82 years old. They live scattered in the semi-abandoned villages of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, surviving as they have always done, with the products of the garden and what nature offers them, but virtually in almost total isolation. No infrastructure, no transports connect them to civilization, only some officials of the exclusion zone who occasionally check to see that everything is in order for them. And their sons who live outside the area and who periodically come to meet them.

  • An abandoned house in the village of Paryshev, inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Today the last survivors are very elderly. When the last of them will die, the culture of the villages of the province of Polessie, with their history, traditions and customs will end forever. Memory will disappear because radiation does not just erase life, but also history. They are the last witnesses of the lost places, lost forever.
    The few inhabited villages of the exclusion zone will disappear permanently, and homes and personal belongings, which have accompanied them all their lives, will be swallowed up by vegetation and destroyed by time. Like the house of Nikolai and Anastasia in Parishev. Nikolai died two years ago and his son took his mother Anastasia away from the area to live with him in Kiev, to not leave her alone. Now their home is abandoned, the vegetation and time is consuming everything. What remains is a picture hanged on the wall, a faded portrait of Nikolai and Anastasia, sitting side by side on the bed, the only remaining memory of their lives in that house,

  • The forest burns behind the ghost city of Pripyat. One of the greatest dangers existing in the exclusion zone are fires. Fire burns trees raising radioactive ash that is spread in the air, causing a new nuclear fallout. The town of Pripyat is located three kilometers from the Chernobyl nuclear plant. 50 thousand people lived there, and were evacuated two days after the explosion. The people were forced to leave behind everything except for their documents. Today Pripyat is a ghost town and will remain forever a ghost town.

  • Ania, 23 years old with her daughter Roma 6 months, suffering from hydrocephalus. the consequences of Chernobyl are terrible. At the present time nine million people in Belarus, the Ukraine and western Russia continue living in areas with very high levels of radioactivity, consuming contaminated food and water. Eighty percent of the population of Belarus, Western Russia and North Ukraine suffers from various pathologies. After the Chernobyl disaster, in the contaminated areas there has been an increase of 100 times of the incidence in tumours of the thyroid and 50 times in other radiation-related tumours, such as leukaemia, bone and brain tumours. The incidence of malformations due to genetic mutations, of pathologies of the senses, cardio – vascular, skeletal and muscular systems and the connective tissues, as well as diseases of the nervous system and psychic disorders have increased by 30 times. The incidence of premature births has increased by 20 times.

  • The post office in the town of Chernobyl in the exclusion zone. A line of telephone cabins from the Soviet era, no longer in use also due to the advent of mobile phones. After the Chernobyl nuclear accident an exclusion zone was created around the nuclear power plant, 30 kilometers radius. All the inhabitants of the area were evacuated. But the area that was supposed to be an exclusion zone has never been. There is life in the zone and today more than 8000 people are part of the community of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
    4,000 people live in Chernobyl City. They are security officers of the zone and of the reactors still not decommissioned. They do shift working of 15 days in the area and then 15 days of “decontamination” in their homes out of the exclusion zone. But they are not the only ones. Chernobyl looks like a normal town with the main services such as a post office, shops, cafes, 3 hotels for tourists, some canteens and a church with a Pope to celebrate the Mass.

  • A worker inside the damaged control room of reactor number 4. Here everything began. 4,000 people live in Chernobyl City. They are security officers of the zone and of the reactors still not decommissioned. They do shift working of 15 days in the area and then 15 days of “decontamination” in their homes out of the exclusion zone.
    The reactors 1-2-3 continued to work till 2000 when they were shut down and 2,000 workers are involved in the safety of those reactors, until they can be dismantled. This will only be in 2065 when the levels of radioactivity in the core will be decreased and it will be possible to start the decommissioning works.
    Today, after 35 years the condition of working are still very hard, because the levels of radiation, outside the reactors and also inside the buildings, are very high and pose serious health risks for the workers.

  • Inside reactor number 3 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. 4,000 people live in Chernobyl City. They are security officers of the zone and of the reactors still not decommissioned. They do shift working of 15 days in the area and then 15 days of “decontamination” in their homes out of the exclusion zone.
    The reactors 1-2-3 continued to work till 2000 when they were shut down and 2,000 workers are involved in the safety of those reactors, until they can be dismantled. This will only be in 2065 when the levels of radioactivity in the core will be decreased and it will be possible to start the decommissioning works.
    Today, after 35 years the condition of working are still very hard, because the levels of radiation, outside the reactors and also inside the buildings, are very high and pose serious health risks for the workers.

  • Vladik and Igor in the garden of their house, waiting to go to school. Vladik, 7 years old and Igor, 6 years old, live in Radinka, one of the most contaminated village around the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Radinka is a highly contaminated village located 300 meters from the border with the Chernobyl exclusion zone. After the incident in the Chernobyl power plant a 30 km radius exclusion zone was created by artificially dividing the province of Polessie (province of northern Ukraine) and positioning the village of Radinka in zone 4 of radioactive contamination, the area with less contamination, despite the high contamination levels. From the studies carried out by Professor Bandazhevsky 80% of the over 3700 children examined, and who live in these lands on the border with the exclusion zone, have heart rhythm disorders, directly related to the amount of cesium incorporated. Furthermore, 30% have an internal contamination from cesium 137 above 50 Bq / kg, a level in which all pathologies develop.

  • An old USSR poster hanged on stalker Jimmy’s apartment in the ghost town of Pripyat showing USSR astronaut Valery Bykovsky and his GDR colleague Sigmund Jähn, who went together for the Soyuz 31 mission in 1978.

  • A fox in the main square of the ghost town of Pripyat. Nature is always the first to pay the price for man’s impact on planet Earth. But she’s also the first to rise up and reclaim what’s been taken from her. And that is what’s happening right now inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone, considered by many to be a dead zone, 35 years on from the most disastrous nuclear accident in history. Over the last three decades Chernobyl’s ecosystem has come back strongly, although it has experienced a number unprecedented mutations during this process. Plants have taken over the city of Pripyat and the abandoned villages, and wild animals like wolves, foxes, bears, wild boars, horses and moose have repopulated the area. There are also hundreds of stray dogs in the woods, which have multiplied and evolved into a new wild breed. The Chernobyl exclusion zone has, somewhat paradoxically, become a nature reserve, even if it’s completely unnatural.

  • Abandoned cranes in the Chernobyl river port. Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

  • Scrap radioactive metal sandblasting. Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Inside the zone tons of metals lie abandoned, but over the years all this rusty gold has not gone unnoticed, and more or less illegally was recycled and today continues to be. Tons of metal leave the area each month. Since 2007, the Ukrainian government has legalized the recycling of radioactive metals with the blasting method. Half of this recycling is illegally made by smugglers, while the other half is legalized by the state. The recycling method consists first of all in a strong blasting of the metal that effectively reduces the contamination at zero level. Once a complete decontamination is achieved the metal is ready to be sold, usually to Ukrainian companies but also to foreign companies with 30% of the price less compared to the market price.
    In recent years, according to official estimates, about 40 thousand tons of metals were exported. Currently it is considered that still 1 million tonnes remain inside the zone with a value of one billion dollars.

  • Sunk ships in the Chernobyl river port. Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

  • A Jew inside the Chernobyl synagogue. Chernobyl had 5 synagogue, which were destroyed during the pogroms and communism period. Only one is still standing today and under the Soviet period became a military recruitment center. Black shadows wander through Chernobyl, the Ukrainian city that suffered the greatest nuclear disaster in history. They appear against the light before broken windows. They obliquely pass over walls, caressing the peeling plaster in silence. They sigh over sarcophagi covered with unlit candles. And they speak an ancient language which few now remember after the tragic accident of 26 April 1986. But they are not the spirits of those hundreds of men and women who were forced to flee the radioactive cloud produced by the failed nuclear reactors. Their bodies are real. They have long beards. They wear hats with long braids hanging from them. They are the last descendants of one of the most important citizens of Chernobyl who was buried here in 1787: Rabbi Menachem Bochum Twersky, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, the reforming current of orthodox Judaism.

    They come in pilgrimage every year to honour his memory and that of the confreres who lived in the Ukrainian city until 1920, when the anti-Semitic uprisings aided by the tsars transformed into the atheist and devastating hand of the Soviet communists. There is almost no remaining trace of the five synagogues which had made Chernobyl the capital of Hasidic Judaism. Only tombstones hidden in birch forests. Ruined roads that lead to nothing. But in that place where the time and madness of man had no pity for the mortal remains of Chernobyl, a faithful Hasidic song continues to rise up to heaven. Their hands trace the commemorative words on the walls of the once-inhabited homes. Where the confreres come from is unimportant: if from the homonymous town recreated 40 kilometres from New York, or from some remote corner of the world.
    The promised land is here, and Twersky’s children will never leave this place. Whatever tragedy history will want to write.

  • local bar in Radinka. Radinka is a highly contaminated village located 300 meters from the border with the Chernobyl exclusion zone. After the incident in the Chernobyl power plant a 30 km radius exclusion zone was created by artificially dividing the province of Polessie (province of northern Ukraine) and positioning the village of Radinka in zone 4 of radioactive contamination, the area with less contamination, despite the high contamination levels. Thirty years after the worst nuclear disaster in history, Radinka and the other villages in Ivankov province are the example of what there is around the Chernobyl exclusion zone: a highly contaminated and inhabited area, totally forgotten.

    From the studies carried out by Professor Bandazhevsky 80% of the over 3700 children examined, and who live in these lands on the border with the exclusion zone, have heart rhythm disorders, directly related to the amount of cesium incorporated. Furthermore, 30% have an internal contamination from cesium 137 above 50 Bq / kg, a level in which all pathologies develop.

  • Tourist while taking a souvenir photo holding the skull of a cow, chernobyl exclusion zone. Since 2011, the year in which the Ukrainian government has opened the door of the exclusion zone to the tourists' visit, about 90,000 people a year cross the radiation border. There are now dozens of tour operators from Kiev organizing the all-inclusive "Chernobyl tour", a day in the most significant places of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Tourists come from all over the world: US, Europe, Australia, Japan, South America, with the most different reasons: fans of abandoned places, or tourists of extreme places, people interested in history or to see with their own eyes the consequences of a nuclear accident. Or just curious. Today tourism in this new Pompeii has become fundamental. It helps the local economy, 90,000 people a year, are not few for a place that would have to be abandoned and forbidden. Here the nuclear amusement park works well, so well that the Ukrainian government plans to bring the number of tourists to one million a year.

  • Anna, 6 months, hydrocefalus, waiting for the surgery. Anna, 6 months, she suffers from hydrocefalus, one of the most common pathologies caused by accumulation of radioactive particles in the foetus. Here before the surgery to reduce the liquor on her brain in the Pediatric Clinic in Kiev.

  • A souvenir shop at the entrance of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Since 2011, the year in which the Ukrainian government has opened the door of the exclusion zone to the tourists' visit, about 90,000 people a year cross the radiation border. There are now dozens of tour operators from Kiev organizing the all-inclusive "Chernobyl tour", a day in the most significant places of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Tourists come from all over the world: US, Europe, Australia, Japan, South America, with the most different reasons: fans of abandoned places, or tourists of extreme places, people interested in history or to see with their own eyes the consequences of a nuclear accident. Or just curious. Today tourism in this new Pompeii has become fundamental. It helps the local economy, 90,000 people a year, are not few for a place that would have to be abandoned and forbidden. Here the nuclear amusement park works well, so well that the Ukrainian government plans to bring the number of tourists to one million a year.


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