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Chernobyl Copes with Fallout, 20 Years Later

Lydia Savenko, 53, and her 6-year-old daughter, Maria, who was born inside Chernobyl's exclusion zone.
Gregory Feifer , NPR
Lydia Savenko, 53, and her 6-year-old daughter, Maria, who was born inside Chernobyl's exclusion zone.
A photo album left behind in a Pripyat building.
Gregory Feifer, NPR /
A photo album left behind in a Pripyat building.
Empty village houses inside the ghost town of Chernobyl's exclusion zone.
Gregory Feifer, NPR /
Empty village houses inside the ghost town of Chernobyl's exclusion zone.

The concrete-slab town of Pripyat was built in the early 1970s to house workers from the Chernobyl plant. A day after the explosion at the plant on April 26, 1986, Pripyat's 50,000 residents were evacuated within two-and-a-half hours. Touring the town today is like visiting Pompeii.

Inside the main hotel, water from melting snow drips down a stairwell onto the rubble-strewn floor. Dolls, games and photo albums lie abandoned on the floor of a nursery, along with gas masks local officials say looters dragged out of the school's storage.

In nearby villages, 20 years' growth of vegetation has enveloped houses. Time has also stopped in most of the exclusion zone's countryside, with wild boar and other wildlife thriving as if on a nature reserve.

Yet only days after the 1986 evacuation, some residents began sneaking back in, and have resisted pressure to leave ever since.

Six-year-old Maria was born in the exclusion zone, in her family's isolated house near a large pond. Maria's godmother, 56-year-old Nadezhda Udavenko, says the slow pace of life has been interrupted only by the hordes of journalists recently visiting Chernobyl.

Udavenko says she doesn't believe the area is contaminated. "So many people now say they're sick and unhappy, that they've suffered. They're blaming everything on radiation. But where were they all these years since the accident? My father still lives here and he's 87 years old."

But others disagree. Irina Boyarchuk was a top Communist Party official in Pripyat who says many former residents she knew died because of Chernobyl.

Now 70, Boyarchuk says she couldn't believe her eyes when she stepped onto her balcony that long-ago April day and saw glowing flames at the reactor.

"We all thought the nuclear power station was the safest kind in existence," she recalls. "The town was built so close because the reactors were supposed to have been so well outfitted. We thought nothing dangerous could happen."

Residents were told to shut their windows, but party officials from Moscow ordered residents to leave only the following morning. They were told they'd be away three days. Most took almost nothing with them.

Pripyat residents were actually lucky. They would have suffered far worse radiation if the wind had been blowing in their direction. Officials today insist almost none of Pripyat's evacuated residents suffered from radiation exposure.

The accident's most prevalent long-term effect was the spread of thyroid cancer, especially among children. Government estimates include a total of just over 100 cases of thyroid cancer among children attributed to Chernobyl.

But Liudmilla Kamagortsova, a legislator in Russia's nearby Briansk region, says the real number is actually much higher. Kamagortsova says hundreds more thyroid cancer cases have been registered in her region alone because the government hasn't taken measures to deal with the disaster's long-term effects.

"It was an atomic bomb -- I can't call it anything else -- that spewed radiation over 74,000," she says. "And it's all still there, untouched, except for the most minimal measures."

Irina Boyarchuk, who was evacuated from Pripyat and now lives near Kiev, says it's impossible to ignore the impact of the disaster, even today.

"There are very many invalids. We former residents just aren't the same as we once were. I'm not the same anymore. I haven't been able to work for a long time," she says.

Boyarchuk, whose husband died of cancer, says the ailments afflicting those still alive include weariness, aching bones and the psychological scars of a cataclysmic disaster.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gregory Feifer
Gregory Feifer reports for NPR from Moscow, covering Russia's resurgence under President Vladimir Putin and the country's transition to the post-Putin era. He files from other former Soviet republics and across Russia, where he's observed the effects of the country's vast new oil wealth on an increasingly nationalistic society as well as Moscow's rekindling of a new Cold War-style opposition to the West.