Sasha Dovzhyk knows what it’s like to live with the fear of nuclear poisoning. The tragedy of Chornobyl, she writes, is part of collective memory in Ukraine. If the Russians cause a radiation accident at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, his hometown will suffer and the spread of radiation, he warns, will not stay within zones and borders.
Editor’s Note: Sasha Dovzhyk is Curator of Special Projects at the Ukrainian Institute of London and Associate Professor in Ukrainian at the School of Slavonic and East-European Studies, University College London. She has a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Birkbeck, University of London. She divides her time between the UK and Ukraine. The opinions expressed in this comment are her own.
What enemy did you have to fight in your nightmares as a child? Mine had no shape, voice, smell or taste, but it could crawl under my skin and eat me from within.
Since I was 10 years old, when I came across a book about the aftermath of the Chornobyl* nuclear disaster, I’ve had regular nightmares about radiation poisoning. My best friend and writing partner had to suffer from my interpretations of these nightmares, in prose and verse, throughout our school years.
Growing up in Zaporizhzhia, the city in southeastern Ukraine some 50 kilometers from Europe’s largest nuclear power plant – now the site of Russian bombing and growing fears of nuclear disaster – we were no strangers to atomic anxiety.
After all, the Chornobyl catastrophe, which had happened just two years before I was born, appeared regularly in the school curriculum.
Schoolbooks aside, my aunt was among the Soviet citizens who marched incognito through central Kyiv during the May Day parade in 1986, while, some 110 kilometers to the north, Reactor 4 at Chornobyl breathed radiation into the sky. .
As the western world mourns the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, Ukrainians remember the last Soviet ruler for those festivities in an irradiated Kyiv and what camouflaged over Chornobyl.
In our last year at school, we took a trip to Enerhodar, a small town that is home to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. I was secretly disillusioned with the orderly monotony of the station. During the 2000s, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ranked the plant as one of the best managed in the world.
The station looked clean, well-organized, as did the thousands of employees in charge of its six nuclear reactors. My strongest memory of that trip was the bus breaking down in the fields on our way home.
Now, two decades later, these camps are on fire, my hometown is under the sway of war, and the workers at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant have been taken hostage by the occupiers and work under enormous physical and psychological pressures.
I wonder how the station with around 50 items of military equipment stored at the site from which the Russians regularly bomb the nearby Ukrainian city of Nikopol will be ordered, dropping up to 120 rockets per night. I doubt the IAEA commission that is about to cross the front line and inspect the station will again rank it among the safest in the world.
The Russian army captured the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in March, with personnel allegedly operating at gunpoint. It happened on a rare night that I spent alone in a rented apartment in Lviv. During those first weeks of the full-scale invasion, it was normal to share accommodation with many friends and strangers: Ukrainians from the east, south and north of the country were moving westward, fleeing invading troops and bombing.
Among them were my parents, who had just left for Germany. My best friend, the faithful recipient of my nuclear-inspired teenage writing, was on her way from Zaporizhzhia to Lviv along with her young family. A news alert woke me up after half an hour of anxious sleep. I saw a video of the Russian military bombing of the nuclear power plant that had overshadowed my childhood. In my nightmares, people were smarter than that. This wasn’t a dream. The reality turned out to be much more sinister.
The Russian military bombing the reactors could be suicide bombers. Or they could lack the basic schooling about radiation hazards that the average Ukrainian child learns to no end. The same lack of knowledge was evident in the invaders’ decision to dig trenches in the Red Forest during their aborted mission to Kiyv. Situated in the heart of the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone, the forest is one of the most contaminated nuclear sites in the world. It is impossible to imagine a Ukrainian disturbing this burial of radioactive waste.
The Chornobyl tragedy is part of collective memory in Ukraine. She entered national literature and pushed politics. Documenting the survivors’ experience, Ukrainian writers such as Ivan Drach and Volodymyr Yavorivskyi became anti-nuclear activists, founded political organizations and campaigned for independence from Moscow – which had allowed the worst nuclear disaster in history to occur on Ukrainian soil and played down the consequences.
Indeed, the Kremlin’s camouflage of the catastrophe became a powerful cause that allowed Ukrainian environmentalists and dissidents to shake the foundations of Soviet rule. Five years after the catastrophe, Ukrainians voted themselves out of the Soviet Union. The independence of the modern Ukrainian state has a nuclear birthmark. This political association makes nuclear energy a subject of remembrance in Ukraine – and a site of amnesia in Russia.
In March, I hugged my best friend, who was about to cross the border, and sought safety for her children in Western Europe. As a souvenir, I gave him my favorite poetry book. It is both with words and with weapons that Ukrainians are used to fighting their enemies.
In case we faced an enemy that couldn’t be fought with any of them, my friend gave me four iodine pills. I carried your parting gift in my wallet during the six months of Russian nuclear terrorism.
Now my aunt, who 36 years ago was called to march under the radioactive cloud of Chornobyl, is one of the residents in line for government iodine distribution in Zaporizhzhia. If the occupants cause a radiation accident at the occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, our hometown will likely end up in a new exclusion zone – and the spread of radiation does not remain within zones and borders.
During the eight years that Russia has waged its war against Ukraine, Ukrainians have been warning the international community of the dangers of active fighting in the vicinity of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. Their warnings have not been heeded. The aggressor has been appeased.
It is now up to the international community to return control over the objects of civilian nuclear infrastructure in Ukraine to those who handle them with knowledge of history, respect for the past and responsibility for the future: the Ukrainians.
Note: the author uses the Ukrainian spelling of Chornobyl and Kyiv.