For them, environmental contamination may not be the worst sort of devastation. It turns out this holds true for other species as well. Wild boar, lynx, moose, they’ve all returned to the region in force, the very real, very negative effects of radiation being trumped by the upside of a mass exodus of humans. The dead zone, it turns out, is full of life.
And there is a kind of heroic resilience, a kind of plain-spoken pragmatism to those who start their day at 5 a.m. pulling water from a well and end it at midnight poised to beat a bucket with a stick and scare off wild boar that might mess with their potatoes, their only company a bit of homemade moonshine vodka.
And there’s a patina of simple defiance among them. “They told us our legs would hurt, and they do. So what?” I mean, what about their health? The benefits of hardy, physical living, but an environment made toxic by a complicated, little-understood enemy, radiation. It’s incredibly difficult to parse. Health studies from the region are conflicting and fraught. The World Health Organization puts the number of Chernobyl-related deaths at 4,000, eventually. Greenpeace and other organizations put that number in the tens of thousands. Now everybody agrees that thyroid cancers are sky high, and that Chernobyl evacuees suffer the trauma of relocated peoples everywhere: higher levels of anxiety, depression, alcoholism, unemployment and, importantly, disrupted social networks.
Now, like many of you, I have moved maybe 20, 25 times in my life. Home is a transient concept. I have a deeper connection to my laptop than any bit of soil. So it’s hard for us to understand, but home is the entire cosmos of the rural babushka, and connection to the land is palpable. And perhaps because these Ukrainian women were schooled under the Soviets and versed in the Russian poets, aphorisms about these ideas slip from their mouths all the time.
“If you leave, you die.”
“Those who left are worse off now. They are dying of sadness.”
“Motherland is motherland. I will never leave.”
What sounds like faith, soft faith, may actually be fact, because the surprising truth — I mean, there are no studies, but the truth seems to be that these women who returned to their homes and have lived on some of the most radioactive land on Earth for the last 27 years, have actually outlived their counterparts who accepted relocation, by some estimates up to 10 years.
How could this be? Here’s a theory: Could it be that those ties to ancestral soil, the soft variables reflected in their aphorisms, actually affect longevity? The power of motherland so fundamental to that part of the world seems palliative. Home and community are forces that rival even radiation.
Now radiation or not, these women are at the end of their lives. In the next decade, the zone’s human residents will be gone, and it will revert to a wild, radioactive place, full only of animals and occasionally daring, flummoxed scientists. But the spirit and existence of the babushkas, whose numbers have been halved in the three years I’ve known them, will leave us with powerful new templates to think about and grapple with, about the relative nature of risk, about transformative connections to home, and about the magnificent tonic of personal agency and self-determination.