Life in the Hot Zone

For “The Babushkas of Chernobyl,” the human spirit lives on in the aftermath of a nuclear disaster.

January 04, 2016

When a massive fire erupted at Ukraine’s Chernobyl Power Plant reactor #4 in April 1986, highly radioactive smoke sparked the evacuation of some 160,000 Ukrainians and sickened unknown numbers of emergency responders and nearby residents. During the disaster, the radiation level reached an estimated 400 times that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and nearly 20 years later, the roughly 1,600-square-mile area around the nuclear plant is still considered uninhabitable.

But there are about 100 peasant women who disagree, finding some of the most toxic land on earth quite habitable indeed.

In the haunting yet surprisingly light-hearted 2015 film The Babushkas of Chernobyl, directors Holly Morris and Anne Bogart dive deep into the lives of three elderly women who have returned to the “exclusion zone,” defying orders to abandon their homes and farms. Here in the contaminated forest, they wish to live out their lives as they always have, picking berries, growing vegetables, raising chickens, and singing songs bolstered by homemade moonshine.

“Radiation doesn’t scare me,” says Hanna Zavorotyna. “Hunger does.”

The babushkas, or “grandmothers,” remain in their homeland, but they must submit to regular tests by scientists and government officials who monitor the women—along with their food, water, and extended environments—for radiation. Background radiation levels are currently 60 times above normal, but the babushkas don’t seem to fear their fate; they say they have no regrets about returning to the hot zone. “Each person should live where their soul desires,” says one. 

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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