In Memory of Mary
Zones of Alienation… and Rebirth
Story by Mary Mycio
Illustrated by Maryna Lutsyk
This story was originally published in The Arc on April 26, 2022, two months into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, when the situation & the future looked grim. The Zones of Alienation have now expanded physically into places like Russian-occupied Mariupol and Melitopol and psychologically into millions of Ukrainians displaced from their homes. The battle to recapture and revitalize the Zones is still ahead, and the lessons of Chornobyl’s rebirth can help guide the process.
The story has been updated with data available as of the end of March 2023.
I am too far away from what I love and my distance is without remedy.— Albert Camus
Rare is the bureaucracy that speaks poetic and profound. But the name “Zone of Alienation” bestowed by Ukraine’s government on the radioactive no-man’s land surrounding Chornobyl was inspired. It is an evocative word for withdrawing or separating a person’s affections from an object or former attachment, estrangement. In the 1970s the Dictionary of the Ukrainian Language defined it: “To cause the termination of a close relationship with someone; to make someone alien, distant.” What could more provoke a desire to stay very far away than what remains today — even after Fukushima — the worst civilian nuclear disaster in the world?
Originally, when this story was written in April 2022, it was going to commemorate the 36th Chornobyl anniversary by comparing the original zone of alienation with the zones created after Putin’s “hybrid” war in 2014, especially the “republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk. There is no poetry in their name: Separate Regions of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, or the Ukrainian acronym ORDLO. Unlike the Crimean Peninsula, whose population didn’t change all that much — with Russians replacing any Ukrainian citizens who fled — the occupied lands in the east seemed like Chornobyl’s writ large.
But when, in one of the first acts of the war, Chornobyl became a key axis for the invasion of Russian troops from Belarus into Ukraine, zones of alienation have acquired entirely new realities and meaning. After Russia captured Chornobyl and “the Zone,” it seems even more symbolic that “alienation” is also the legal term for taking property away from someone. War is alienation in the extreme.
In 1986, when the Soviet Union’s V.I. Lenin nuclear power plant exploded and burned near the obscure town of Chornobyl about 100 kilometers north of Kyiv, invisible, deadly, and frightening radiation spread around the globe. But the worst contamination was in the areas immediately around the plant in what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as well as Belarus, and, to a lesser extent, Russia. Over the earliest days and weeks, 116,000 people were evacuated from the immediate area, leaving their lives behind forever. Typically for the paranoid and secretive U.S.S.R., everything was kept top secret. The evacuated area didn’t even warrant an official name. Instead, it had numbers.
There was a 30-kilometer outer zone, for the radius of the rough circle drawn around the ruined reactor building, still smoldering and highly radioactive. Informally, people called it the trydtsiatka meaning “the thirty” and sometimes Zona (meaning Zone) — though in Soviet parlance, the word referred to prison camps. In the early years, the area was like a prison, enclosed with barbed wire and bristling with watchtowers. Further inside “the thirty,” a ten-kilometer zone surrounded the most highly radioactive areas including the plant itself and the city of Prypyat. In those days, radioactive dust covered everything, and many measures were taken to keep it from spreading around or leaving the Zone. The first time I visited in 1996, we had to change vehicles when entering “the thirty.” When entering “the ten,” we not only changed cars, but had to change clothes, too, to make sure we carried no radionuclides — radioactive atoms — out of the Zone when we left. Those restrictions have long been eliminated, though removing anything radioactive is still prohibited. A friend once had to leave his sneakers because he couldn’t wash off the mud which was setting off the alarms.
From that first trip to this day, the Zone moved me in its emptiness. Perhaps it is because it echoed my own ancestral homeland, Lemkivshchyna in the distant Carpathians. Like the isolated Polishchuky who lived in the forests of the Prypyat swamps, Lemkos (people from Lemkivshchyna) also spoke an archaic Ukrainian dialect that survived in their isolated mountain tops. Their lands also became zones of alienation after the joint Polish and Soviet Communists’ brutal ethnic cleansing of the Lemkos in the notorious 1947 “Action Wisla.” It seems churlish to even mention such ancient history when Russia has been forcibly deporting Ukrainians from the lands it occupies, while Poland has generously welcomed the refugees and supported Ukraine. But this complex history also makes it all the more remarkable. Most of Lemkivshchyna has long gone fallow and feral, with only the orchard trees and Cyrillic writing on some gravestones mutely testifying to the former residents. The Chornobyl Zone of Alienation is full of such abandoned cemeteries, too.
Simply by being “nuclear,” the Chornobyl disaster touched on all the apocalyptic fears of the Cold War. It was easy to confuse with The Bomb, but it was nothing like it. For all the fears of mass deaths, the disaster killed dozens at the outset, and perhaps a few hundred over the following weeks from radiation illness. Still, it became the defining catastrophe of a generation, especially in Ukraine.
In the earliest months after the nuclear disaster, when it was a massive emergency, over 600,000 “liquidators” were sent from all over the Soviet Union — but mostly the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic — in tours of duty to “eliminate the consequences of the disaster.” It meant to clean up the aftermath, which actually was impossible to do except for the promzona or industrial district closest to the reactor building, where nearly all the concrete and asphalt was excavated and replaced. But outside those areas, once man-made radiation is released into the wild, it gets into the food chain and can’t really be eliminated. The best thing to do is keep it from spreading and keep people away from it. This is why, over the years, the Zone has turned into a radioactive wildlife sanctuary. Human activities are far more dangerous for wildlife than radiation, at least at the levels in Chornobyl.
Not to deny the genuine sacrifice of many, as the months wore on, hundreds of thousands were exposed to various degrees of radiation without accomplishing much at all. But it let the Kremlin pretend it was heroically “doing something.” Early efforts to keep it all secret gave way under glasnost to glowing reports in Soviet newspapers presenting it as a battle like World War II. Someday, histories will be written to explain how those metaphors and symbolic battles from 1986 turned into real warfare in 2022 when Russian military convoys invaded the Zone in a spearhead pointed south at Kyiv.
After Chornobyl unleashed glasnost during the late Soviet years, it blew the lid off decades of secrets and lies, becoming a dramatic symbol of Soviet deceit and mismanagement. With the completion of the Ukrytia — also known as the Sarcophagus — to cover the reactor’s lethally radioactive ruins at the end of 1986, the formal emergency had ended. But the blame of Chornobyl as the cause of many ills had only begun. When I first visited the Ukrainian S.S.R. in 1989, nearly everyone I met had a health problem they blamed on the disaster. However, except for a real explosion of thyroid cancers, few maladies could be traced directly to radiation. The generally dismissive attitude towards health and safety which led to Chornobyl plagued all of Soviet society, and especially men.
Perhaps because of the obsessive focus on Chornobyl as a problem, it seemed Ukrainians never really accepted it as svoye, meaning their own. It is genuinely an alienating place in the Ukrainian psyche and identity. I shared this feeling myself in always distinguishing ChErnobyl with an E to refer to the disaster, which I considered the result and fault of Russia’s policies. It was actually strange because “chErnobyl” isn’t even a Russian word. I called the town and the place by the Ukrainian name ChOrnobyl. But it is a distinction without a difference now. The war has unified them. Now, I use “Chornobyl” to refer to both.
For most of my generation of post-war diaspora, the entire U.S.S.R. was a “Zone of Alienation.” Though our evenings, after school, and weekends were filled with Ukrainian choir, bandura, dancing, and Ukrainian history and language classes, few of my generation ever traveled to Ukraine. Partly, no one wanted us there. Visas were regularly denied. Besides, we were raised to see the Ukrainian S.S.R. as illegitimate. The Communists were killing Ukraine and it was our job in the diaspora to keep the language and culture alive. Applying for a visa meant recognizing its validity. So, when Chornobyl exploded, it was completely hidden from us by the Iron Curtain.
I had just moved from the homeland of my childhood, New York, to Los Angeles, where I was working as a lawyer, when the world learned of a mysterious nuclear accident in the U.S.S.R. With little news from the Soviet Union, the American press was filled with alarming speculation about dead, irradiated lands around Kyiv and a poisoned Dnipro River. It was like contemplating a moonscape, a dead zone where nothing could live. Gloomy shades of black and grey colored my mental images. The Soviet Union had killed a piece of the earth — a piece of Ukrainian earth — before I ever had a chance to see it.
Fortunately, the most horrible scenarios turned out to be exaggerated. Ten years later, when I first went to the Zone to write a story for the Los Angeles Times in 1996, I was shocked to find the dominant color wasn’t grey. It was green. Amid the abandoned villages and the ghost town of Prypyat, the land had begun an extraordinary renewal — from Soviet pine plantation and potato farms to the natural wildlands of Polissia. Healthy wild boars ate apples in abandoned orchards and populations of wolves, moose, and roe deer exploded. Chornobyl’s transformation into this unexpected wilderness was so surprising, most people still don’t believe it to this day — especially most Ukrainians.
Indeed, after writing a book about Chornobyl and traveling there many times during the sixteen years I lived in Ukraine, I noticed foreigners expressed far more interest in the subject than Ukrainians. “Why do I need it?” was a response I heard often from local friends and colleagues when I asked if they wanted to join me on my journeys into the fascinating, abandoned region. Chornobyl was a black hole. They had no attachment to it. It was a negative: a place to avoid and ignore. It barely appeared in Ukraine’s culture, except for official commemorations. There weren’t even many news programs or documentaries about it. HBO’s award-winning and wildly popular Chornobyl miniseries in 2019 was as much a revelation in Ukraine as in the West.
Such observations seemed interesting before February 24th, 2022, yet seem so banal now when cities like Kharkiv are in ruins, bombed pitilessly into rubble and ash. At the end of March 2022, Kharkiv was still far from becoming a ghost city like Prypyat, whose 50,000 people were evacuated just three days after the disaster in 1986. But half of Kharkiv’s people are still there. At the end of March 2022, an estimated 700,000 people remained in the city, sheltering at home, basements and deep in the metro stations. Luckily, like the Kyiv metro, they were built to withstand nuclear attack.
Before Russia launched the new, brutal stage of its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, this article was going to compare the long-ago Chornobyl disaster and its depopulation of a vast territory, with the same processes in the ORDLO, where war had also driven people away, though not as completely as radiation did. Even now, however, it is not merely theoretical. The war will also leave empty and destroyed pockets of villages, towns, and cities — some temporary, some permanent.
Of course, by nearly every measure, the war has dwarfed anything that happened during Chornobyl. The scale of suffering is incomparable. The nuclear disaster officially killed 32 people and caused about 4,000 thyroid cancers, with fewer than 10 deaths. As of late March 2023, the war has killed and wounded around 22,600 civilians according to official UNHCR figures, though the actual numbers are likely much higher. Chornobyl forced the resettlement of 116,000 from the 30-kilometer zone. The war has displaced an astonishing 13 million people, including more than eight million refugees who have flooded into Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. Nothing like this has happened since World War II. Unlike Chornobyl evacuees, the vast majority of those refugees will be able to return home when hostilities end — if they find their homes are still standing. As of March 12, 2023, Russian artillery and bomb attacks had destroyed more than 152,000 residential buildings according to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry.
Even the size of Chornobyl is small compared to the ORDLO. Just the demilitarized “Grey Zone,” the 400-kilometer contact line between Ukrainian armed forces and the rag tag Russian proxies they were fighting the last eight years since 2014, was much longer than anything in the “Zone of Alienation.” Oddly, however, the width is also 30 kilometers. The previous front line would fit just over thirteen Chornobyl Zones lined up next to each other. However, the actual interior of the so-called LNR and DNR combined is more than 16,000 square kilometers — three times the size of all of the depopulated lands around Chornobyl. Despite the differences in size, nature is likely to take over large parts of the depopulated ORDLO no matter how the fighting ends. Though it seems impossible to consider now as war rages on, when peace returns, new zones of alienation may also appear.
This may include new “Grey Zones” of constant military vigilance on Ukraine’s border with Russia, perhaps with new demilitarized zones. Like the rules and regulations of the Chornobyl Zone preventing the spread of radiation into the rest of Ukraine, those boundaries will hopefully block the spread of the psycho-Soviet ideology of Russkiy Mir (Russian World), resurrected like a zombie in the Russian-occupied lands since 2014. For most of the following eight years, the tragic costs of keeping them from spreading into Ukraine were the deaths of several soldiers a week on the contact line. But after February 24, 2022, the price became national survival.
Now, the beautiful forests and wetlands north of Kyiv that were part of Chornobyl lore — like Borodyanka, where some Prypyat evacuees were first taken — have become places of horrors thought forgotten in the 21st century. Soviet propaganda presented Chornobyl as a metaphorical war against an invisible enemy. Tanks were used to bury cottages coated with radioactive dust which might — or might not — give someone cancer in future decades. Today, it is a real war, the enemy has a face and tanks are used to kill and destroy, leaving visible wounds and scars which will last lifetimes.
The Battles of Chornobyl
Few details are known about how the Russian troops invaded the Zone from Belarus. Its radioactively contaminated “Pollisia Nature Reserve” doesn’t have many roads. But there were enough to drive an army through it. You can walk to the border from the towns of Chornobyl or Prypyat. Aside from being a very direct route to Kyiv, the border had long been only minimally defended and ignored as a security issue for decades. It didn’t even warrant border guards because their agency wouldn’t give them extra pay for their exposure to radiation risk. “Who would go there?” was the prevailing attitude about security. “Stalkers,” or trespassing daredevils who went bushwhacking and avoided the necessary permits, posed the biggest problems.
In February 2022, Ukraine suddenly made a show of beefing up defenses there and practicing urban warfare in the abandoned ghost town of Prypyat. More worryingly, it closed the Zone to tourists for two months. Evidently, U.S. government eavesdropping on Russia’s Chechen mercenaries revealed the Zone’s coming role in the war. It was truly hard to believe. But at the time, I didn’t believe Putin would invade further, which worried me because I had been equally convinced — and equally wrong — he wouldn’t invade in 2014. It’s not clear how Ukraine prepared to defend the Zone.
According to Zone expert Denis Vishnevsky’s post on Facebook, the February 24, 2022, invasion came in two columns. One of them took a small road from Belaya Soroka on the Belarus side of the border into Benivka, northwest from the ghost town of Prypyat in Ukraine. The road was paved but very narrow and there were no physical barriers at the border. Video showed military vehicles driving off the road to pass each other in the forest. From there, it was a short route to the Chornobyl plant itself, which the invaders captured that night, taking the plant personnel and some Ukrainian National Guards hostage.
Reportedly, a stalker who had been in one of the Prypyat high rises saw the military columns and heard explosions the first night of the invasion. Based on satellite maps of small fires and radiation spikes probably caused by explosions, there seems to have been fighting. If so, the Battle of Chornobyl was one of the first ground battles of the Russian invasion. Immediately afterwards, no information emerged from the Zone or its surroundings. It was deep in the enemy’s rear. My Chornobyl friends on social media went silent, posting little. The military occupation of a radioactive zone could only bring bad news.
Rumors emerged the Russians might be digging trenches in the Red Forest, one of the most contaminated places on the planet, raising radioactive dust way above safe levels. Certainly, the road they took from Belarus took them right into this area. Reportedly, the troops — many from Chechnya — didn’t understand the radioactive risks at all and knew nothing about Chornobyl. That made them all the easier to manipulate with scare stories about busloads of Russian soldiers being sent to Belarus with acute radiation illness. The tales were not true. Radiation levels simply are not high enough. But it may have been part of a very successful psychological operation.
Three days after the invasion, on February 27, 2022, during Ukraine and Russia’s first negotiations somewhere on the Belarus-Ukraine border, the Kremlin prepared its attack on Kyiv. On Twitter, a video showed a column of armored vehicles driving down a road past the Red Forest. The distinctive white stela for the town of Prypyat stood far in the background. A soldier wearing no protective gear against radiation waved at the vehicles, as though to move more quickly. The invaders were probably heading for the Dytiatky checkpoint on the southern boundary of the Zone, in the direction of Kyiv.
Battle groups seem to have gone directly to the Hostomel airport, where they were to meet up with Russian paratroopers. Instead, Ukraine repelled them in a battle which reportedly killed Chechen Major General Magomed Tushaev. The same day, another video showed the traffic circle north of Ivankiv with the large sculpture of an egg familiar to anyone who has traveled to Chornobyl. In the distance, an armored vehicle burned and smoked while a victorious Ukrainian soldier carrying an NLAW anti-tank weapon is filmed by his brother-in-arms who is shouting, in Russian: “Russian pederasts, die! Fucking Russian beasts. Die! For every tear drop… For every tear drop, die you fuckers!” and then, after a short pause: “I fucking swear after this fucking war I will never speak Russian again, fuck! You beasts, go fuck yourselves!”
It is unclear how many troops and equipment were deployed in the Zone. It seems many of them ended up in the mysterious convoy of armor and trucks northwest of Kyiv made famous by the commercial satellite company Maxar. The column began right outside the Zone’s Dytiatky checkpoint to the north and stretched south as far as the village of Zdvyzhivka, where half a dozen armored vehicles were shown parked in early March 2022. Though it regularly seemed to change its length as vehicles moved closer and further apart, the front of the column didn’t move much at all. Were they poised for the victory Putin had planned three days after the invasion? Or did someone realize Chornobyl was a radioactive place and decided it was better to leave, even if it meant burning up fuel and food as a sitting target for Ukrainian drones?
Reportedly, about 1000 troops were in the Chornobyl plant itself, holding the workers hostage, with another 500 in the town of Chornobyl, where they looted everything, including the high-tech lab for studying the unique environment. On March 9, 2022, the lights went out due to unspecified “combat actions.” While the plant has been decommissioned since 2000, ventilation and other safety systems need power to protect the workers who keep the systems stable. Nuclear reactors don’t just go away. More worryingly, spent fuel rods were stored in pools on the sprawling promzona or industrial park surrounding the reactor buildings. Spent fuel is the dirtiest part of the civilian fuel cycle, far more radioactive than fresh rods and if power is lost to their cooling water, they would burn from the residual heat. The resulting cloud could be lethal up close and spread future cancer risks with the wind in all directions — including to Belarus and Russia. Perhaps that danger made the Kremlin see sense. But somehow, without much fanfare, Ukraine reportedly restored power a few days later. Presumably, it must have been a part of the negotiations with Russia.
In the meantime, while the Russian battle groups left death and destruction in their failed assault in the Bucha–Hostomel–Irpin triangle to push into Kyiv, the mysterious Chornobyl convoy kept standing still. Was this what the Russians meant when they announced on March 23, 2022, they never planned to fight for Kyiv? They just made a giant traffic jam instead? By the end of March 2022, satellites showed trenches alongside the road, suggesting the Russians were digging in. In some places, they went into the woods. But mostly the vehicles couldn’t leave the roads. Not only because of the early spring mud. The meandering Prypyat River system, created after the last Ice Age, is the largest wetland in Europe. The lands on either side of the asphalt are dominated by forests, swamps, bogs, and rivers — even in dry weather.
Polissia never had good farmland. On the eve of the nuclear disaster, it was the least populated region of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, had the lowest density of roads and, to be honest, never produced much of note in history, politics, industry, or the arts. No one particularly famous came from Polissia — except Ukraine’s fabulous naïve painter, Maria Prymachenko. In the medieval times, its inhabitants were known as Derevliany — people of the woods — and among the founding tribes of Kyivan Rus’, the eastern Slavic empire. In a 12th century chronicle, Chornobyl merited one mention as a hunting lodge. After that, little of note happened.
But it was still the center of the universe to those who lived there, who came to be known as Polishchuky. Though actually that’s what outsiders called them. They called themselves “nashi” — our people. Protected by their swamps, where only experienced pilots could navigate, the Polishchuky resisted Sovietization the longest in Ukraine. They even escaped the worst ravages of the Holodomor by surviving on the fruits of the forest. They spoke an archaic dialect that they called po-nashomu (in our way), a seemingly vague ethnic identity that nevertheless had strict boundaries. Oddly, my Lemko ancestors also referred to their dialect of Ukrainian as po-nashomu, though they lived hundreds of miles away, perhaps reflecting a pre-modern self-designation before the rise of nations.
The surrounding landscapes of old forests and pine plantations made the area popular for hunting, fishing, and camping when Chornobyl’s first nuclear reactor went online in 1977. Leonid Brezhnev was the U.S.S.R’s increasingly incoherent General Secretary. When the ill-fated fourth reactor was completed in 1983, Soviet spymaster Yuri Andropov was in charge, and when it exploded in 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev — the U.S.S.R’s last leader — had been General Secretary for one year. The city of Prypyat, founded in 1970 to house the plant’s workers, stood just a few miles from the plant.
Standing amid the forests like a high-rise alien ship, Prypyat was a colony of Soviet people amid the native Polishchuky in villages around them. By then, the swamps and bogs had been drained and the rebellious Polishchuky were finally cowed and collectivized into potato and dairy farms.
Moscow killed millions and then moved millions more around the vast country arbitrarily, mixing ethnic groups. Prypyat was a perfect example. Its 49,000 inhabitants were not native to the area but were sent there on komandirovky or secondments, which were job assignments you couldn’t refuse. To this day, the older generation of Ukraine’s nuclear industry is made up of the same multi-ethnic mix. These include the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant workers held hostage by Russian invaders for weeks.
Soviet citizens were very diverse and included Europeans and Asians as well as Africans who moved there from the U.S.S.R.’s client states. It was all very inclusive, so long as everyone spouted the same Communist dogmas and acknowledged Russians as the superior caste. The purpose of Soviet diversity was to destroy native ethnic groups and cultures to forge everyone into the same homogenized and Russian-speaking Homo Sovieticus, regardless of skin tone. In regions like Donetsk, Moscow used huge, forced population transfers from throughout the U.S.S.R., in part to replace the Ukrainians Stalin starved in the Holodomor.
The criminally atavistic return to those Stalinist methods was first signaled in the days leading up to the full-scale invasion, after Putin recognized his fake “republics,” the occupied lands in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts on February 21, 2022. Waiting to see what the Kremlin would do next, the world watched with growing foreboding as Kremlin forces demonstratively “evacuated” busloads of women, children, and the elderly from the ORDLO into the Russian interior. The men were ordered to stay and be conscripted. Billboards on the streets compared the upcoming battles to World War II. Just a few weeks later, after the war began, a modern wave of Stalin-style deportations began in places like Bucha, where occupiers tried to force residents to evacuate to Belarus, or Mariupol, where by end of March 2022, 40,000 have reportedly been kidnapped and taken either into the ORDLO or Russia. Over a million people are said to have been forcibly deported to Russia. And the list of war crimes grows daily. After Ukraine liberated the small suburban town of Bucha, they found streets filled with dead civilians. The invaders murdered men between the ages of 16 and 60, and raped women and girls. They stole computers, clothes, jewelry, cash and even appliances like washing machines, then reportedly sold them in Belarusian markets or shipped them home.
Before Putin’s brutal war on Ukraine, Russia’s crimes against its neighbors were always hidden. The Kremlin controlled the territory where the worst atrocities occurred, like during the Holodomor and Stalin’s Great Terror. There are no photographs from the Gulag like there are from the Holocaust because Nazi Germany was vanquished and occupied by the Allies while Russia never was. This is the first time the world can see Russia’s brutality directly. It is one of the paradigmatic shifts of this war.
Over thirteen million people — mostly women and children — have fled their homes. Over 8 million of them left the country, mostly traveling to Ukraine’s neighbors like Poland, Moldova, Hungary, and Romania. It has been the largest movement of refugees in Europe since the end of World War II. Back then, few Ukrainians had the language skills to tell of their horrors. Today, they do and are able to tell their stories of death, destruction, and brutality.
In the fourth decade after the Chornobyl disaster, on the eve of Russia’s ruinous and murderous invasion of 2022, the “Zone of Alienation” had become a beautiful, eerie, and radioactive sanctuary. By alienating humans and their activities, radiation made it safe for wildlife. You can barely see evidence anymore of the once-cultivated fields for the wild grasses, shrubs, and trees which have taken over the fields. It showed us how nature will renew itself and cleanse the land from what seems to be terrible injuries by humans.
Perhaps something similar will happen in some of the destroyed towns and cities after the war. I hope they all rebuild, and their people return to them to start their new lives. Maybe Russia’s frozen assets in the West can be used to pay for reparations and reconstruction. But rebuilding will take time. Some places may remain depopulated ghost towns for years. The ruins of Mariupol, Kharkiv, and Chernihiv and small towns like Bucha and Ivankiv will long remind us of what had been lost, like the empty high rises of Prypyat. We may see new “Zones of Alienation,” where people won’t go, at least for a while. But they will also symbolize what has been gained as “Hero Cities” and monuments to Ukraine’s own Patriotic War.
Wartime destruction takes years to renew, like the very strange scheme Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced in late March 2022 to cut down all the trees in the ORDLO — soon before suffering a heart attack which almost proved fatal — and fated. It can take but a season to regrow meadows and fields. But trees take decades and completely natural landscapes, like the steppes in Ukraine’s Donbas, take even longer.
If areas like the Crimean Peninsula and the ORDLO remain occupied, their populations are likely to remain far lower than in 2014, before the wars began. The enclaves will be closed, like Stalin’s Soviet Union. In such emptiness and desolation, nature is sure to return. It takes enormous effort to keep human spaces civilized. Otherwise, roots buckle the roads and forests grow between the cracks. Prypyat’s high-rise buildings disappear amid the thick forests now enveloping them.
Before Putin’s full-scale invasion, similar processes were beginning in the ORDLO. In September 2021, the video of a herd of wild boar running across a broad boulevard in Donetsk caused a minor social media sensation. It was impossible to verify, but entirely believable. In Chornobyl, wild boars were the first large animals to repopulate the Zone. Everyone there seems to have a story about meeting the wild pigs in unexpected places. But some strange species never returned, like the rusalky of myth and folklore. The powerful water nymphs are warded off by the herb wormwood, sometimes known as Chornobyl or, in Ukrainian, polyn. If radiation is like wormwood, rusalky won’t return for the 24,000 years needed for plutonium to decay.
But large animals that had disappeared from Polissia for a century have filled the depopulated wildlands, like wolves, moose, and even brown bears, creating new folklore and legends. One was the story of the deadly and hungry Korohod Bear, which was what some Zone experts told the Russian invaders. Also, those soldiers who dug trenches in the Red Forest? They were already dying of radiation sickness in a Belarus hospital. There was even a mysterious Black Stalker in the woods. None of these fables were true. But they spread among the Russian occupiers. They may also have played a part in Russia’s swift retreat from the northwest part of Kyiv Oblast amid rumors the troops were rebelling against remaining in the radioactive area. Chornobyl — and the Korohod Bear — may have helped stop the invasion of Kyiv.
Because by March 31, 2022, with shocking speed, Russia retreated from Chornobyl. Reportedly, 10,000 vehicles drove through the Zone as they fled from the northwest part of Kyiv Oblast into Belarus, taking with them some troops of the Ukrainian National Guard captured in the first night of the war. Though there were unclear rumors of some Russians remaining on the site, on April 2, 2022, the Ukrainian flag was raised again in the Zone. The next day, Ukraine announced it had retaken control of Prypyat, and parts of the border — probably, the Benivka area. Now it is in full control of the Zone, though it remains dangerous. Radiation picked up in some areas from getting churned by Russian invaders. But mines and unexploded ordinance are bigger problems.
Soon after the Chornobyl disaster, when I was living in Los Angeles, I had a dream. In my parents’ brightly lit kitchen the nuclear reactor core sat in the middle of the linoleum. It wasn’t big, and didn’t look very special, but I knew it was emitting deadly, invisible rays. We went about our business, pretending it wasn’t there. But I knew it was dangerous and told my mother: “We have to get rid of this thing!” In my diaspora upbringing, America was the world outdoors, but Ukraine was in the house, and the kitchen was its center. And my mother’s very sensible response was: “But where are we supposed to put it?”
There is no place to put Chornobyl, and won’t be for many thousands of years, until the most dangerous radioactive atoms decay. By that time, our languages won’t even be intelligible to anyone left on earth and no will be able to read the “Danger! Keep Out!” signs we might leave there today. Its stewards will always have to be vigilant. The 2022 Battles of Chornobyl showed the dangers of too much alienation from a big part of Ukraine’s landscape. With the Crimean Peninsula or the ORDLO, it has been, since 2014, forgivable these last eight years. They are closed to Ukraine by its enemy. But perhaps losing Chornobyl to the occupier in the invasion showed its importance now Kyiv has won it back.
For the people closest to them, Chornobyl and the “Zone of Alienation” seemed to have a certain sacral quality, kept at a distance from sinful humans. It is why no one in the rest of Ukraine really thought much about it — even as a matter of national security. And perhaps this is why it was so vulnerable to invasion. The only dangers Ukraine perceived from the Zone came from radiation, not tanks. Not until it was too late. But it exploited those radiation fears ably. Someday, we will learn more details about the Korohod Bear. Not about the animal. The brown bears exist. But how such Chornobyl scare stories were concocted and spread. This may be one of the most successful psychological operations of the war.
Until then, we all wait for clarity of when this war will end and how Ukraine will renew its destroyed areas and rebuild a unified homeland. It is worth remembering Chornobyl is not only a story of alienation, imposed by the criminal negligence of the Soviet system. It is also the story of the land’s rebirth and renewal in independent Ukraine. Yes, it is dangerous and a money pit and will be radioactive for longer than any of us can even imagine. But it is also beautiful, inspiring, and magical — and will deserve a place in the Ukrainian Pantheon of Heroes after this war.
This story first appeared in The Arc on April 26, 2022. It has been updated with data available at the end of March 2023.
Other stories written by Mary Mycio
Other stories illustrated by Maryna Lutsyk
Mary Mycio (1959–2022) is the author of Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl (2005). Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Natural History, Newsday, Salon, Slate, Politico and Tablet. She is also a lawyer specializing in freedom of expression during war.