The pictures on the wall of the library at the Slavutych elementary school are vivid and richly colored—and startlingly postapocalyptic. A mournful ghost appears in front of an ashen city. The fins of a beautiful goldfish reach out and lightly touch the chimneys of a nuclear plant. An atom, its orbits laid out like petals, is on fire, and trees and buildings emerge from the flames. In the back of the room, three large posters repeat the same story, but the colors are bland, the plain charts and graphs government-sanctioned, and the blocks of text fail to capture the magical moment that the children have grasped intuitively. There was a disaster. A city was lost, another built in its stead. It’s a horrific story—and any seven-year-old here could tell it to you.
This is how the day begins for first graders. They change their shoes, they exercise for five minutes, waddling like ducks around the room, and then they open their books for today’s lesson. A brief history refresher. What is the name of the country you live in? Ukraine. What are the colors of its flag? Blue like the sea and the sky, and a golden yellow like the sun and the wheat in the fields. What is the name of the capital? The beautiful city of Kiev. What city do you live in? Slavutych. When was it built? In 1988. Why? Because there was a nuclear explosion. The teacher nods after each answer.
Before it became a history lesson, this was a lived reality for their parents and grandparents, a lot of whom were awake that night in Pripyat, watching from rooftops and balconies as beautiful blue flames rose from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the early hours of April 26, 1986. A few days later, they were told they had to temporarily evacuate the city. They packed some documents and a change of clothes and never returned. A violent explosion in the fourth reactor of the plant had thrown toxic debris into the surrounding area and sent radioactive clouds that travelled farther than any regular citizen of the USSR was allowed to. Pripyat, a prosperous city well-loved by its citizens, and many other villages in the region became uninhabitable, hidden in a new blank spot on the map: the exclusion zone. Two years later, Slavutych was carved out of the woods just outside the zone— a replacement for Pripyat, a resurrection of the atomograd, the atomic city.
I ask Tanya, who was born in Slavutych and is now an eager member of her first grade class, about the early morning history lesson. Isn’t it unusual? She dismisses my question. She is more concerned with being ready for the spring concert at her school, which is planned for the following Friday and kicks off several busy days in Slavutych. Sunday is Easter, and Monday night is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the accident at Chernobyl. The whole town has to shift between joy and grief, a difficult task at any age. The first step is to get the first graders to face the right direction while dancing.
Tanya interprets my imperfect Russian as a sign that I need help finding my way around town, so she leads me from the school. First she shows me her favorite playground, recently installed and still graffiti-free. Then she explains some basic rules. “You can walk anywhere during the day, but maybe not at night. Sometimes people drink outside at night, and they get very loud. And there are very few cars.” She looks both ways then escorts me across an empty street on the way to her home.
Tanya lives with her mother Aleksandra and her mother’s second husband, Dmitri Stelmakh. Aleksandra and Dmitri are both attractive, ever-smiling thirty-somethings. They work together in the strategic planning department at the Chernobyl plant, which Dmitri now leads after starting his career as an operator in the central room twelve years ago. He grew up in Pripyat, a mere two miles away from the plant, and he was always fascinated by its high chimneys, always trying to sneak a closer look. His father Anatoliy was deputy chief of police when the accident happened, and he stayed behind in the empty city while his family was evacuated along with everyone else. Later, Dmitri came to Slavutych when his father was offered an apartment large enough for his family. Once again he found himself surrounded by Chernobyl engineers.
Now Dmitri is in charge of transforming the plant, looking for a way out of its dire state of affairs. In 2000, the last operating reactor of the Chernobyl plant was shut down. Dmitri, like most of the plant’s engineers, believes its decommissioning was a political decision meant to please the international community, necessary only because other people used Chernobyl’s name as a shorthand for all the reasons man should fear nuclear energy. “I compare the fear people have of radiation and nuclear energy to the fear of flying in airplanes,” Dmitri says. “Many people are afraid of flying, but few are aware that airplanes are the safest way to travel. Many are afraid of atomic energy, but very few think about the fact that the usual means of producing electricity, like fossil fuel extraction, are significantly more harmful than a nuclear power plant.”
Dmitri is too practical to be afraid, but the international community has written off Chernobyl. “When any other nuclear plant is decommissioned,” he explains, “the rule is to return its area to the state of a ‘green lawn’—clean enough to build a kindergarten there. Chernobyl is surrounded by a large contaminated area, but we’re not cleaning the plant site until it’s possible to build a kindergarten; we’re only cleaning it until it’s about as contaminated as the exclusion zone.” Because of the lower standards, the site can be used to develop potentially dangerous technologies, like handling waste and spent fuel from other plants, free of the constraints that would have been in place if the area were still populated. Dmitri is aware of the irony of the situation. “It’s a rare case in which our biggest misfortune becomes a competitive advantage.”
Whenever Dmitri and Aleksandra have time off, they work on solving more practical problems. They bought an unfinished house just outside Slavutych’s outer ring road, and now they spend long hours doing construction work in hard hats and old jeans. If you look past the dust, the house is really close to being finished. It is a three-story commitment to Slavutych that they are not hesitant about. After all, the town was built for people like them—young families who want to raise their children in a safe environment. Slavutych is that green lawn—right outside of the zone, full of schools and kindergartens, working hard to make up for whatever dangers might lie right outside of it.
The whole story of Chernobyl remains veiled. The explosion at the fourth reactor happened beyond the outer edges of continental Europe, shrouded by the proud secrecy of the Soviet Union, which it helped to unravel. To this day, there is no conclusive version of what went wrong the night of the accident. We know only that the fire was the result of a chain reaction of human error and uncontrollable nuclear fission. The crime scene is buried under atomic lava and a cracking sarcophagus, formally and euphemistically called the Object Shelter. It awaits its second cover, the so-called New Safe Confinement, which should be completed by 2013 and is supposed to last one hundred years.
The building of Slavutych, a planned community for all the workers who had to go back to the plant but could no longer live in Pripyat, was an exercise in Soviet teamwork—and its success was a matter of pride amid the otherwise scattershot disaster relief efforts. Location scouts armed with maps and Geiger counters picked a spot on the railway line equidistant from the plant and nearby Chernigov, and close enough to the Dnieper River that materials could be delivered by water. Architects from all over the USSR were asked to collaborate in the design of Slavutych. Now each neighborhood bears the name and style of a different city—Moscow, Kiev, Tallinn, Baku, and Tbilisi. Most consist of clusters of tall apartment buildings (straightforward and stern in the Slavic-Soviet neighborhoods, pastel-colored and adorned with ornaments in the Caucasian-designed areas) that keep a close watch over green patches and playgrounds, but the large Baltic neighborhoods bring you back to a more human scale of small cottages with lush gardens.
The economic history of Slavutych means that the bruises and embellishments of post-Soviet capitalism are rarely seen on its streets. Walls remain clean of gaudy advertisements or dripping air conditioning units. The clean lines and spaces of Soviet architecture look preserved in a past that barely happened here. The most common graffiti are declarations of love painted in white along the walkways and announcements of proud paternity in large letters on the street outside of the hospital’s delivery rooms. Most of the billboards in Slavutych show mayor Volodimir Udovichenko, in office for twenty-one years, posing with happy schoolchildren.
Everything in Slavutych is about the children, the promise of a bright future made real. After the explosion at the plant, eighty percent of the workers were replaced by young people who moved to Slavutych and started families, contributing to a high birthrate at odds with the demographic crisis of the whole country. Now, almost thirty percent of the town’s population is under eighteen. This makes Slavutych the youngest town in Ukraine—both by its own age and by the median age of its inhabitants. It also makes a significant portion of its population too young to remember the disaster commemorated in the open heart of the Slavutych, the main square in front of the city hall. The square feels too vast for a single person, too empty for leisure, better suited for parades and other events that can hold the rapt attention of many. You have to walk to the periphery of the square for the comfort of flowerbeds, trees, and benches, and to find the company of toddlers and old ladies.
The memorial used to have two sets of wings: an inner pair of gray marble showing the faces of the first thirty victims of the explosion, and an outer pair of two large plaster murals that combined the insignias of nuclear science—sparks, chimneys, and masked men in dull textbook colors—with an ongoing promise in Russian and English: “From the ashes of the old we will build a new world.” A week before the twenty-fifth anniversary of those ashes, the monument began to transform. The murals were torn down, and the ground underneath them was lined with fresh grass and crocuses poised like candles. The memorial became a place to mourn, offering no excuses and no promises, and no languages other than the few words in Ukrainian remembering the sacrifice of countless workers.
Little bits of Soviet history have infiltrated the language and landscape in all parts of the former USSR, but Slavutych is a special case. The main square resembles so many other cities built by the same grandiose ideology, yet it lacks other staples of the Soviet aesthetic. The clutter of twentieth-century history—soldiers, partisans, Lenin’s large forehead—is nowhere to be found. Slavutych only concerns itself with a more recent wound, and everyone is fluent in the specific slang of nuclear scientists. It begins with bright promises that reached beyond the plant: mirniy atom, the peaceful atom. Words that ignore almost everything about the people they describe: stalkeri and smertniki, the death-bound workers who dug tunnels under the fourth reactor in order to stop the fuel from seeping into the ground waters. And the general job descriptions: likvidatori, liquidators. Almost everyone in Slavutych is related to a liquidator—any worker who, more or less voluntarily, took part in the elaborate process of cleaning up the area, burying everything from radioactive machines to homegrown potatoes, closing down homes and shooting stray dogs, using Geiger counters as compasses through an uncharted new territory.
Galya Savitskaya’s father Yuri was a liquidator. He died of a stroke last year at age fifty. Was the stroke caused by radiation? It’s hard to tell. He had problems with his thyroid, but he was not the type to complain about his health. A lot of things can cause cancer and cardiovascular disease, and the aftereffects of radiation differ greatly from one person to the next. There is no conclusive diagnosis, just the unofficial statistics compiled by the local Pensioners’ Union. They have noticed that people who were in their forties in 1986 are more likely to be alive today than people who were in their twenties. The Slavutych graveyard offers anecdotal proof; there is an unimaginable number of graves belonging to people born in the sixties, with a Chernobyl badge of honor on each tombstone.
Galya is twenty-two but has the calm demeanor of someone much older. She is a member of the first generation to be raised in Slavutych with no real memories from when the plant was still in operation. Her parents met when Yuri was evacuated from Pripyat. For Galya and her twin sister, Pripyat was never home, and Slavutych was never just a substitute. To them, living there is not dangerous or heroic. It is normal, it is a given, and it is home. “I like the calm, the quiet. People here are very nice. And the air is much cleaner than in other cities.” She looks out the balcony and points to her father’s old van, still used for picnic trips by her friends. The cold April air reminds her of her one complaint with her hometown. “Everything here was built in a rush and they just placed the buildings this way and that, so it gets really windy and cold in the winter.”
A couple of months after her father died, Galya started working at Chernobyl because she needed money to pay the rent. She is a dezaktivator, which means that she cleans the areas that workers pass through on their way into the plant. She hopes to transfer to a different position soon, and her father’s old friends might be able to help her get a job at the heating plant. For now, she is content. Her job pays well, better than any job she could find in Slavutych, and it gives her two days off for each day of work. She spends that time at home, watching movies with her boyfriend or cooking elaborate meals. On sunny weekends, they have picnics in the woods on the soft birch bark and pine needles.
Galya is the only member of her family still living in Slavutych; her sisters moved away and their mother is taking care of their grandmother. Yet her home, a large apartment in Dobrinskiy neighborhood, looks like it’s mostly inhabited by her father. He loved working with wood, and the walls and shelves display all the knickknacks he carved: masks and figurines, spoons and forks. His old workshop, which doubles as a smoking room, is the coziest spot in the apartment. His books are still in the living room, along with an album of pictures he drew, mostly sailors waving goodbye to beautiful women, and pictures of himself as a marine on duty.
Galya’s new extended family is her close group of friends. Some work with her boyfriend at a factory that produces light fixtures. Others are unemployed and unhappy with the limited opportunities in Slavutych. Galya’s unflappable calm seems to settle them down. Her demeanor also helps her balancing act. She would like to work at the plant until she retires and she wants to raise her children in Slavutych. She tries not to waste time worrying about what this might mean for her health. “If you think about it, every place is dangerous; things happen everywhere. Of course, there is some danger, but you have to work somewhere.” The one thing that keeps her aware of the danger of the plant is how much she gets paid to work there. But all the other benefits of living in Slavutych, where parents don’t have to worry about their children walking home from school, outweigh any implied danger.
In that respect, not much has changed. Work at the plant is still very much sought after, and the town has a much higher standard of living than most other places in Ukraine. The danger of radiation was hard to comprehend for the people it affected in 1986. Now it almost feels like an expected part of the landscape for those who have grown up knowing it was there. At first, it was too intangible, too invisible to grasp, and now it is too ubiquitous.
Some of the middle-aged engineers forced to leave Pripyat were healthy enough to return to work after the accident, and many of them still live in Slavutych. In order to keep their memories of Pripyat alive, they formed the Chernobyl Pensioner’s Union.
The union occupies two small rooms in the back of a building, which also houses the Chernobyl Museum. One room serves as an office with two desks and not nearly enough chairs to accommodate the people who stream in and out all day. The other is a social space with a large table worn out by teacups. There are pictures from the plant and Pripyat on the walls, including the famous statue of Prometheus carrying dark flames in his outstretched arms, moved from Pripyat to the memorial site at the plant.
The union’s own demigod is Lidia Vladimirovna, a seventy-year-old force of nature with a mischievous expression who makes sure that plans are made and promises kept. All day long, she goes back and forth between the office and her home, where she takes care of her bedridden husband. The union has close to a thousand members whose membership fees go toward paying for funerals, buying small gifts for the sick, and organizing trips for those healthy enough to travel. With only a week left until the anniversary, they were busy planning two trips: one to Pripyat, for a commemoration, and one to Kiev, where a concert would be held to honor their work. Their community steps in where the government has failed, and it fails them a lot; the week before the anniversary, large crowds of former Chernobyl workers gathered in Kiev to protest pension cuts that left them unable to afford the medicine they need.
Lidia can’t fix this national mess, but she can do her best to make sure her old friends and colleagues are remembered. The major ongoing project of the Pensioner’s Union is the so-called Book of Memory, which holds the name, picture, occupation, and cause of death for each passing friend—and might be the only thorough source of information about what happened to Chernobyl employees and how their health deteriorated in the years following the accident. The book might seem like a humble effort, but it goes beyond anything the government has done to compile official statistics.
One of the union’s members—homebound like Lidia’s husband—is Viktor Koshevoi. Viktor can barely stand on his own. His blood pressure is dangerously high. He has the raspy voice of a smoker, halted by long pauses in conversations. His life is now confined to several front-row seats in the apartment. One of them is a large chair by their bedroom window, close to a bookshelf that holds a Cossack mace and a flask disguised as a book about Viktor’s home town. His other favorite spot is a chair on the balcony where he watches workers walk to the station to take the morning train to Chernobyl. He waves to them from among the potted plants. Viktor and his wife Galina are both in their seventies—though she looks ten years younger than that and he much older. “My name is Viktor Sergeevich,” he says, “and I am spent material.”
Galina puts her hand on Viktor’s knee and shushes him; she won’t let him spiral into sadness. American doctors told them they had no more than two or three years to live in April 1986. They recently celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary—half their years together spent under the cloud of that prognosis. She met Viktor in the Komsomol, the youth organization that led to party membership, where he was her group leader, and they got married soon after. In the seventies, Viktor was offered a job, building a plant in Bangladesh. Galina enjoyed their time there, but she never stopped missing her homeland. “The heart knows you are not home. We counted the months, then the days, then the hours until we returned.” When they got back, they were offered prestigious jobs in Ukraine’s first nuclear power plant. They moved to Pripyat.
Because Viktor was a distinguished engineer who had worked abroad, they could shop at the special store in Kiev, open only to people with foreign currency and certificates. They bought expensive furniture for their new home, excited about living in beautiful Pripyat where roses bloomed at every corner. And Viktor got his dream car. “I had the first black Volga in Pripyat. The first black Volga!” It was an incredible luxury at a time when people had to wait for years to get a car. Viktor and Galina lived the Soviet dream. He was the chief electrical engineer at the plant, and Galina’s job was to make sure everyone followed safety and sanitation procedures when entering and leaving the restricted area.
Ten years after they moved to Pripyat, they were evacuated and had to leave behind everything they owned: the black Volga, their home. Viktor’s job made him one of the first people to go into the plant after the meltdown. Galina still sounds proud of him. “He had to make sure there was electricity everywhere, and light, so that people could start working. So much depended on him.” He worked tirelessly, with no time to worry about the possible aftereffects, and so did everyone else. There simply was no other option. “We thought the worst was already over, so why not keep working; we still had energy. We didn’t know how the radiation would accumulate, how it would affect us in our old age.” This betrays a tiny bit of regret, which Galina denies. They would do it all over again, she insists.
After Pripyat was evacuated, they were moved from one temporary home to another. First they were sent to nearby pioneer camps, while their children were taken to camps by the Black Sea. Then they were housed in old ships on the Dnieper. When the ships were judged too contaminated, they set up camp in little Finnish-style cottages by the shore. When they were finally allowed to visit their former home, a year after the disaster, everything was gone—the furniture, the chandeliers, the carpets—snatched by marauders who expected to make good money selling the expensive belongings of rich engineers. The black Volga ended up on the black market. They were forced to start from scratch in an empty apartment in Kiev.
The construction of Slavutych was a blessing. They could move back to the Chernobyl region, and their family was reunited. Their two daughters worked at the plant until it closed. Now one of them lives in their old Kiev apartment, and the other one works at the Slavutych office of the company that operates all active nuclear plants in Ukraine. Their daughters are healthy and so are their three grandchildren—though no one knows how the next generation will turn out. Galina is concerned about them and about people still working at the plant. “The radiation will not go away. It has been there for years, it still is there, and it will remain there for a long time. We have to respect it, to keep studying it, and live with it.” Galina and Viktor are torn between the desire to tell their story to the younger generation and the hope that their suffering will become irrelevant one day. Regardless, they can’t muster enough optimism to imagine Slavutych’s future. “Young people have no real options here.”
Before we part, Galina hands us each a small gift: painted Easter eggs. It is important to her that we celebrate Easter properly. Easter always falls close to the anniversary of the accident, and it carries a special significance in Slavutych. On Good Friday, Mayor Udovichenko says, “If Pripyat represents destruction and defeat, then Slavutych is the resurrection.”
Easter service is a long vigil that ends with an eruption of joy at dawn. Around midnight, a crowd of worshippers in winter jackets starts lighting candles to breathe in their warmth. Until the construction of the big Orthodox church next to the hospital is finished, service is held in a small chapel next door. There is not enough room for everyone, so people fill the street and wait patiently. Each family carries a basket with eggs, wine, Easter cake (a sweet round loaf of bread with sugary frosting on top), and other food to be blessed. Their patience is rewarded when the early northern sunrise is greeted with the deafening clang of bells. Christ has risen, and two men are in charge of letting the whole town know by pulling the ropes and driving silence away.
The priest makes the rounds, sprinkling everything in sight with holy water and bellowing, “Christ has risen.” The crowd yells back, “He truly has!” The slow wave of sleepy voices travels up and down the street, followed by men carrying a large donation box, and a group of old ladies singing hymns. Those who were lucky enough to be blessed first head home. Others, who couldn’t spend the night outside, arrive and take their place. The happiness on the face of the priest is infectious. “He is actually sick. He shouldn’t be spending that much time on his feet, but he can’t help himself,” someone whispers.
As the church-going crowd heads home to catch up on sleep, another group wakes up and readies baskets to go to the forest outside town for picnics and campfire singalongs. Everyone is celebrating spring, and even those who are absent get their share of the feast. Remnants of the blessed food are brought to the cemetery and left on the graves of the dead.
After Easter has passed, Slavutych still has one event left before it can breathe out easy. Everything looks ready. Workers brought in from nearby cities have covered up graffiti and peeling walls with a fresh coat of paint, swept the streets and weeded the flowerbeds. The road to Kiev has been repaved. The city sparkles and expands. The Slavutych mayor hopes to impress the high-profile visitors who are scheduled to arrive: Ukraine’s president Yanukovich, Russia’s Medvedev, and Belarus’ Lukashenko. (In the end, the last will stay home, and the other two will never visit Slavutych—only the plant, where they will give long speeches about heroic sacrifice.)
The twenty-fifth anniversary is a complex affair, much bigger than in previous years. The concert starts after dinner in front of the city hall and people who had been sitting on the far sides of the square move closer. Children play in the grass, while the orchestra plays pieces from Borodin’s Prince Igor and Mozart’s Requiem. After the sun goes down and the evening chill sets in, musicians play acoustic guitar and sing and poets read sad verses, while the screen plays a slideshow of Pripyat in the eighties.
The words dissolve as they spread over the large—and largely empty—square. Only a few words are clear: silence, fire, darkness, grief, loss. The crowd thins out over the hours, but the show continues. Galya and many others have to leave before midnight. They will return here early in the morning, on their way to take the six thirty train to the plant.
Suddenly, there is an instrumental version of Sinatra’s “My Way” blaring from the speakers, announcing the arrival of marathon runners coming from Pripyat. They form a line around the memorial, where they are soon joined by men in the loose white uniforms of the plant. Ghosts with flags and ghosts with masks. At midnight, a line of high-schoolers holding candles emerges from behind city hall. They shuffle into place until they form a large radiation symbol in the middle of the square—an eerie constellation. It’s a bizarre sight: children gathering to embody something they didn’t create and have no choice but to live with. They walked toward the memorial and place their candles in front.
On the far side of the square, the big room in the Pensioners’ Union office is lit. A small group is holding a private ceremony before their trip tomorrow. They all look lost in thought. As we walk away toward the large blocks of Belgorodskiy, we can still hear the music echoing from the walls of apartment buildings standing watch over the square. Along the streets and in the surrounding forest, the trees are one day closer to blossoming.