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.