“Chernobyl. There’s no better place in the world than here.”
Transcription, translated into English:
[00:00] [Two women in their 90s sing a song from their youth]
[00:17] Zhenya: Over 33 years ago, on April 26th, we all learned Chernobyl existed. The biggest nuclear accident in the history of humankind turned it into a gruesome ghost town within just a few days.
[00:38] Presenter: There’s been a major accident at the Chernobyl power plant.
[00:42] Presenter II: For the first time ever the Soviet Union admits it has had a nuclear accident… and it’s clearly a major one.
[00:53] Zhenya: The radioactive cloud moved north causing substantial damage to the territories of Belarus and then kept hovering over Europe frightening its citizens, haunting their imagination. In many Eastern European countries people started drinking Lugol’s iodine, usually used for disinfection. They tended to stay at home, trying to limit their exposure to the radioactive cloud and its radiation.
[01:08] Zhenya: A myth was born, a new invisible threat moved into Eastern Europe.
[01:16] Presenter II: The soviets may have been fairly quick to acknowledge the accident because of the evidence. In the form of mild nuclear radiation it already reached beyond the Soviet Union, to Scandinavia.
[01:27] Zhenya: 30 years later, I meet Wojtek Oleksiak. We immediately realize that Chernobyl is the shared memory from our childhoods, even though they were separated by a border and a decade. I spent my early years in Berdychiv, Ukraine…
[01:44] Wojciech: I was born in Warsaw in Poland. We both heard kids and adults telling all sorts of legends about three-headed cows, mutant people, poisonous rain etc. They’d explain every disease, bad crop or whatever anomaly with the Chernobyl fallout.
So, we don’t even have to talk about it, we already know. We’re going to Chernobyl.
[02:14] Zhenya: That ‘walking into the belly of the beast’ sensation, that was more than enough for us to ignore the forest fires that were happening there at the time and all the warnings of people who tried to put us off.
[02:51] And here we are, driving from a checkpoint to the former city of Chernobyl.
[03:00] Wojciech: First realisation: the Zone is now a jungle.
[03:06] Zhenya: It’s very calm. Empty. Nature took it back. Everything that wasn’t made of concrete or metal fell apart. We were told there are lots of animals there, and that they roam the streets during the night. But during the day it was... still.
[03:35] We spent hours and hours visiting abandoned places...
Walking through rubble, climbing empty apartment blocks, walking through thick bushes only to discover we were in the middle of an ex-town, ex-playground or an ex-stadium. Everything was covered with a thick layer of suspicious looking dust. It was gruesome. It was hollowed out, truly depressing...
[03:58] Wojciech: After two days of this, it was obvious that it was going nowhere. We talked to several people who live or work in the zone but what we heard was very predictable: hardship, abandonment, living in an excluded place.
We were supposed to stay here for two more days but we were having a hard time figuring out what to do next. Perhaps a one-day trip from Kiev to Chernobyl could have been a fun experience, but for us... the place had really started weighing on us.
[04:37] Zhenya: But then, on our way back to the hostel on the edge of the zone, my phone rings. A friend of a friend was calling and he had a friend whose grandpa has lived in the zone for a long time…
We take a u-turn and five minutes later we’re knocking on the gate of a little cottage.
[05:02] Hearing that we’re friends of a friend’s friend is enough for its owner. He heartily welcomes us into his blossoming garden and starts telling us his story…
[05:13] Evgeny: Evgeny Fyodorovich Markevich. Oh, I’m a former teacher at the Ukrainian School No.1. Later, just after the accident, I found a job as a dosimetrist.
[05:30] Zhenya: How old are you?
[05:32] Evgeny: Oh... That’s tricky. I don’t quite remember. If I live through August, I’ll be 81. If I make it... (laughs) there’s still a lot of time until August – June, July… oh, and half of August. Two and a half months. Yes, a little less than two and a half months. A long time until my birthday.
[05:53] And this is my grandfather’s house. My mom was born here, aunts, uncles, all of whom are dead now. All of them. But I feel best here. There’s no better place in the world than here.
Zhenya: Than Chernobyl?
[06:12] Zhenya: ‘There’s no better place in the world than here’... Fifteen minutes earlier we couldn’t have imagined anybody wanting to live here, even though we knew there were people like him. They’re called ‘Resettlers’, people from the zone who managed to return to their homes after the disaster, despite a very strict ban. We even talked to a few of them but…
We couldn’t really understand why they decided to return to a place that was doomed? What was so precious to them that they were willing to risk their lives? And, how on earth did they manage to survive over three decades living in a place said to be lethally contaminated?
And here was Evgeny, emanating some sort of inexplicable youthful joy. He was our chance to finally understand it all.
[06:56] Evgeny: It was unexpected. In 1986, nobody expected it.
There used to be a sovkhoz, a state-owned agricultural enterprise. They were sowing. It was April. That Saturday, we had to go help them. The management of the sovkhoz asked us to sort the potatoes kept in storage clamps, those meant to be planted.
We came there while the accident was already happening, as we found out later. We didn’t know anything.
[07:30] We were sorting the potatoes with the kids. And in the meantime, sovkhoz workers were planting their own potatoes, independently from us. They had a tractor running and were throwing potatoes in the ground.
[07:41] Archival material: The recording of incoming phone calls at the Chernobyl fire department, on April 26th, 1986.
[08:05] Evgeny: The people knew nothing. When I was working, my brigadier said to me, “Tell those sovkhoz workers not to sit around and have lunch on the grass.” But they were already having lunch: the women had put their scarves down on the ground like they do in a village, with food and stuff – getting their energy back.
[08:29] He said, “You go tell them!” I said, “No, I won’t. If I do, I’ll be thrown out of the [communist] party tomorrow.” (laughs) Yes, that’s how it was. People were totally unaware, nobody had told them about the disaster. So we finished working around 3pm, with those kids.
[09:02] I come back home with my son, and I see cars driving on the main street, there were mostly children and seniors sitting in them. You can see the driver, mother, father, grandfather, grandmother, and little kids. And my daughter with my newborn grandson also got on the bus and left Chernobyl. Then I understood how bad it was. (laughs)
[09:55] My son was still with me. I had a motorbike with a sidecar. I told him to get in it. I covered him in a blanket, gave him a helmet with a visor, so that he could see. And hey, off we went to Bucha. A friend of mine from the army lived in Bucha. ‘Lived’. He’s dead now.
I drove to Bucha, I dropped him off, gave him to my friend and told him to take him to my niece.
[10:30] I spent the night there, woke up at 5, and at 8 am on Monday was back to work at the school.
[10:45] There weren’t many kids, but there were some. There were normally around 800 students at this school, or even more, then it became 600, then on the second day 500. It was obvious to the eye there were fewer students.
[11:01] The physics teacher Ivan Mikhailovich turned on his dosimeter, “Let’s see if there’s any radiation.” There were no other devices, except for the meter in the physics class. So the physics teacher turned it on.
It made a sound, “Tik, tik, tik.” On Tuesday, we come to school again, and the meter goes much faster “Tok, tok, tok, tok, tok, tok.” On Wednesday, the third day…
[11:30] On the third day, the meter was hissing, it wasn’t “tok”-ing anymore. Pshhhhhhhhhh, like that. That was the reaction. That meant it was everywhere.
[11:52] For three days, officially there had been no disaster. I listened to Swedish radio. I had a radio, a good one for that time, and I heard them say there had been an accident in Chernobyl, and what should people do.
[12:12] On the 4th day, the police came by the house, the patrol. “Anybody there?” they yelled into the bullhorn. They were calling me, while I was working on my bike. I was working on the sidecar slowly, I didn’t know anything. I thought, “It’ll be fine.” I packed my rifles, both of them. I packed clothes because I didn’t know where I was going to be, where I was going to spend the night, where I was going to live.
[12:42] Nothing was clear. I packed a pillow, a blanket. Warm clothes in case it got colder. That’s what I had.
[12:57] What else? I left Chernobyl. Our evacuation center was in Borodyanka. It was similar to Chernobyl. A small town. We lived there. Doctors who worked at the station in Chernobyl came there. One of them, I remember, was a young female doctor. Each time she came from Chernobyl, she was all red.
[13:27] Those were beta-burns, I only later understood what it was. She had burned her hands and face. They were basically of a burgundy color. I later met more of those people. Guys like that worked with me. A beta-burn isn’t direct, but it looks like you’ve been burned by fire.
[13:49] Meanwhile, we had nothing to do. You couldn’t go on vacation because work wasn’t over, you can’t quit, you can’t find a new job.
[14:00] Later one time, I was missing Chernobyl terribly, my soul was burning with desire to see Chernobyl. So we secretly went back a couple of times under the pretense of a work trip.
[14:17] Together with the chemistry teacher, it was as if we had a work trip – to see if the school was intact, if all the equipment was there, if the classrooms were okay. So we went like that. Once I even put on a police uniform. (laughs)
[14:37] Zhenya: You put on a police uniform to get to Chernobyl?!
Evgeny: Yes. There was a police captain there who I knew from Chernobyl, Vasily Vasilievich. He said, “You need to get to Chernobyl.” He gives me his cap and a jacket and says “Here take these, go with the car to get fuel, oil and stuff. You tell them you are one of the helpers.” That’s how I got in!
[15:13] Soldiers were washing the buildings, roofs, and fences. They were writing with chalk what the level of radiation was on those fences, roofs and so forth. They were measuring it with a DP-5 [Field Dosimeter-5], a military device that dated back to World War I. And they were going around and washing buildings with fire hoses.
[15:39] Zhenya: They came here, right?
Evgeny: Here. They lived here, across the street, in this 4-storey building. The entire regiment, 1,200 people. They were clearing out the forest next to the station, removing fir-needles with rakes.
[16:03] I saw that the guys were almost unprotected. Some kept the mask on their face; others didn’t. They were raking those needles. I thought, “My God! They’re breathing death itself!” They were sent there, they had no idea. It would be them who would later cover Reactor 4 with concrete…
[16:50] The guys who lived here, it was interesting how they argued with each other. “Van’ka! Where were you last night?” They were all Russian, mostly from Russia. From the Far East to the Urals and to here. All Russians.
(Evgeny imitates Russian accent)
“Van’ka! Where were you last night?” “I was there, next to that spot.” “So today, you’ll go to the place where I was yesterday, and I’ll go to the place where you were yesterday. There’s a lot of roentgens where you were; so you’ll reach your limit sooner and get to leave, while I’ll be stuck here messing around.”
They didn’t understand. They tried to get to the spots where radiation was higher so that they could get their 25 Rem limit sooner and go on leave.
[17:43] Evgeny: Here’s something interesting. The newspapers later wrote that there were no documents confirming any soldiers had taken part in the disaster clean-up.
Nothing! They had a piece of paper that this person “was assigned a task.”
I came into their office – I was looking for some plywood. They’d already left by that point, once the reactor was closed. The regiment was dismissed, and everyone left.
[18:19] I found the plywood there. I moved it and a heap of badges fell out. Hundreds of them. Here they were. If someone had had this pass, it would always prove he was there. But they didn’t give them to any of them.
[18:54] Wojciech: In order to stay in Chernobyl for longer than a few hours, Evgenyi had to look for a job there. And he found one. He became a dosimetrist. It allowed him to pass through roadblocks and checkpoints after the zone was sealed and shut. Sneaking in and moving around the zone without it, would be absolutely impossible.
[19:14] Evgeny: I didn’t officially return. The thing is we lived on white ships on the river nearby. No one was allowed to live in Chernobyl. It was absolutely forbidden.
Zhenya: You could only come in to work...
[19:26] Evgeny: Yes. Passenger ships from the entire Soviet Union were transferred there. We lived on them. We had to get up very early because it’s a long way to the station… You had to wake up early, sleeping was difficult, you could hear all the steps on the deck – boom, boom, boom, boom! Someone would go have a smoke; someone’s nervous... And it’s 3, 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning and you still needed to sleep. In a couple of hours, you would wake up, have breakfast and get on a bus to the station. I decided: “I’ve got a house here. I’m not living on that ship.”
That’s why I quietly, secretly and illegally moved into my house.
[20:02] Zhenya: Unlike most of the resettlers, Evgeny knew exactly what he was doing. Essentially he was putting a death sentence on himself. He was a dosimetrist. He knew the levels of contamination, he knew Chernobyl as the central part of the exclusion zone was never going to be inhabited again. Most of the resettlers moved into distant parts of the zone almost untouched by the disaster. Evgeny returned to a deserted land. No people, no doctors, no supplies or even running water.
[20:26] Evgeny: We had electricity, but then they turned off the electricity, the water. I would come to the soldiers, into the regiment, to get water. I would burn dry alcohol at night because I needed some light in the apartment. I would use one tablet of dry alcohol, and it would burn for half an hour. And I would shave like this: I would put a pot on a tablet, it would boil, and I would shave. Then I would take the bus to Pripyat or to the reactor.
[21:20] My house, like all the houses here, was sealed. There were tags on all of them. Everything was under the control of the local police station. I would tear off this tag, come in at night, light a fire, and in the morning, I would brew myself some tea, attach this tag again and go to the reactor together with the soldiers.
[21:49] Zhenya: Did they try to evict you after 1986?
Evgeny: Yes. There was a patrol. “If I see you just one more time, I’ll take your pass! I’ll arrest you!” It was the captain. Then later, thanks to Kuchma, when he became president, Leonid Danilovich... he issued an order not to bother people who had already returned on their own, but to help them so that they could live in their houses.
[22:44] Zhenya: Did other people try to come back? Why did they do it?
Evgeny: One day I saw a man approaching. He had a bag, he was dressed in civilian clothes and I could see that he didn’t work in the zone. He obviously snuck in. I passed him and said, “Good afternoon.” “Good afternoon.” “Where are you going?” “Home.”
[23:07] And then I said that, “Yesterday, I heard the radio say that whoever wants to, can come back and live here.” He just stood there. Completely shocked. And then he said (in Ukrainian): “If I’d known that, I would’ve crawled home on my knees.” That’s how much people wanted to come back. Are you asking me about this?
[23:33] Zhenya: So how was it for you?
Evgeny: I’m not sure how to explain it... Explain a bird who comes back to the same nest after there was a fire a year ago. Explain the animal who runs away or flies away, but comes back to the place where it was born. This is a biological process, that’s the only way I can explain it.
[23:55] But people are leaving, they are leaving. Some because they die, others because they’re sick...
You walk down the street and there’s no one. It’s Very quiet. I always remember there was some Belgian or Danish writer... Palle... The book was called “Palle...” That’s the name of a boy. “Palle Alone in the World.” He wakes up, eats some ice cream, he goes outside, and everything is the same, but there isn’t a single person. And it was good.
[24:25] A little book. I used to read it to my son. I always remember Palle. I am just like that Palle. My wife and I go together to the church or fishing in the morning, with our fishing rods, and there’s no one. No cars, no people. It’s just great. (laughs)
[24:57] Zhenya: So what do you do now?
Evgeny: I go fishing. And I prepare the firewood. That’s my morning exercise. An ax in my hands – and off I go. I have to repair the boat, weed the potatoes, help here and there, whitewash and paint the house. I’ve got so much work – I barely have enough time to do it.
[25:24] Zhenya: Are you happy with your life?
Evgeny: Well, I am happy with my life... When I feel well, I am very happy. And when my heart starts aching, it’s rather shitty. (laughs) When there are no women around, I may swear a bit (laughs). Everything’s great. My wife is a wonderful person. She is very good.
[25:48] When I was a settler, when I started being a settler, I wasn’t even 60. Now, after all these years, I’m an old person. (laughs) When the disaster happened, I was 49. I was still a man in his prime; I was doing fine. Now, I’m in my 90s, can you imagine that? I would never have thought.
[26:10] Ah! The Japanese were making a lot of predictions about us. [They said that] Kyiv and especially those who were in the zone – they would live 5, maybe up to 15 years. That these people were all doomed.
And you see? 32 years have passed. I don’t think anyone here among the resettlers died from radiation, except for the firefighters and miners. Those were heroes, unfortunate people. (sighs) They didn’t know anything…
[26:50] Zhenya: What would your life have been like, had you not come back here?
Evgeny: No, I can’t imagine. I wouldn’t be alive right now. I simply wouldn’t have survived without Chernobyl.
Yes, yes. I didn’t even know I could love Chernobyl so much and have such nostalgia for it. I could not live anywhere else. And I didn’t want to. I don’t want to. All is well.
[27:17] I have no regrets. I feel fine here.
No. I don’t want to. I don’t regret it. Chernobyl is Chernobyl.