Technology is the future. Everyone knows that. Or knew it. Certainly, everyone in what used to be the Soviet Union did. Schools, party leaders and banners on every street corner proclaimed the promise of electrified, technologised Communist bliss. Its much-sung harbingers included electric light bulbs and tractors on every collective farm, but most of all, "the peaceful atom" - nuclear power.
On April 26, 1986, the future ground to a halt. One of the Soviet nuclear reactors malfunctioned, blew apart and then burned in the single worst nuclear disaster in history. Since that day, a fair chunk of Europe has measured its health by its distance from Chernobyl. "The entire country is falling out Chernobyl-like," a prominent Soviet writer recorded in his journal four months after the catastrophe. "Matter is disintegrating uncontrollably, and spiritual substance is dissipating." He meant that no matter what the authorities did to stem the leaks of radiation and information, the country would grow sick with the devastating news stripping it of its faith and its future.
The man who brings me into the disaster area, a youthful police major who oversees the region's security, is angry, like a man whose faith has been ripped away. "The peaceful atom wipes towns off the face of the earth," he growls, stopping the car on a burned-out patch. "Make sure you write about that."
He has brought me to the area immediately surrounding the reactor. It's the "Estrangement Zone": an area supposed to be dead, deserted, a vast memorial to the catastrophe. But the land refuses to lie in silent testimony. Instead, it has become a haven for all those whose future has been taken away - by the Chernobyl disaster or by war, age, illness, or their own demons.
People started trickling back almost as soon as they were evacuated. One old woman stayed with friends at the border of the zone and snuck in every day for a year to tend to her garden; the soldiers guarding the zone finally let her move back to stay. Slowly the area started to come to life - a new and different life, a life conscious of its opposite, a life of refugees and survivors. Alongside villagers returning to their homes came new people fleeing death or cruelty or uncertainty. They have run from civilisation to a place where civilisation has fled. Most of them will tell you they lead futureless lives; tomorrow - the day after radiation - is thousands of years away, which, in human terms, is never. But these are people who don't need a future so much as they need a present that's better than the past. Confined in time and space, they are remaking life in the absence of the beliefs and conveniences that might prop it up. Their rewards are the barren freedom that follows disaster and the eerie peace left in the wake of the peaceful atom.
The Chernobyl nuclear-power plant sits right next to the border between Ukraine and Belarus, two former Soviet republics. After the explosion, radioactive particles covered the immediate area; winds carried radiation clouds to more distant parts in Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, the Baltics and other parts of Europe. The worst of it fell on Belarus, one of the smallest and poorest of the former republics. Of its total area of 80,200 square miles (205,000km2), almost 10,000 square miles (26,000km2) have been contaminated. In the Gomel region in southern Belarus, which includes the area just around the reactor, approximately 800 square miles (2,000km2 - nearly the size of Luxembourg) have been turned into what officials call simply the Zone.
The year following the disaster, officials moved people out of 212 villages to apartments in "clean" parts of Belarus. Then, in 1990, they suddenly discovered a radiation "stain" almost 100 miles north of the reactor, and another 46 villages were evacuated. Altogether, according to the Belarus Ministry of Internal Affairs, 15,804 families - 37,231 people - left their homes behind.
That left 14,923 homes abandoned. Mostly, these were wooden village houses built tens or hundreds of years ago. They did not look dangerous - not like the reactor. They looked like lived-in homes with windows low to the ground, fruit trees growing up around them, picket fences out front and elaborate roofed gates traditional to the area. They did not look left - no boarded-up windows or double-locked gates or fruit trees wrapped for the winter - but forgotten.
Something had to be done with these vacated towns. At first, teams of police and relief workers, sent here from all over the Soviet Union, tried to hide every remnant of life gone awry: they buried thousands of head of cattle, two trains full of contaminated meat, equipment, vehicles, whole villages. The reactor itself was encased in a white concrete housing known as "the sarcophagus." Relief teams raced looters who snuck in to steal people's abandoned belongings and use materials from houses to build radioactive structures elsewhere. At first, workers erected signposts or crosses to mark the spots where homes had vanished, now dismantled and hidden underground. Then they stopped. The unmarked burial sites today are overgrown with grass 1.5m high; only fruit trees linked in circles around empty patches indicate there were houses there once.
Then the relief teams stopped burying altogether: they ran out of money or energy or, perhaps, faith, because the line between life and death - the buryable and the unburyable - grew fuzzy. Those who were doing the digging started dying and had to be buried along with their tools, while the land they were covering up started itself coming to life. Authorities put up a ring of barbed wire around the reactor, placed 13 checkpoints along the borders of the Zone and left the place to invent its own life on the ruins.
Acouple in their 50s, their son and his wife and year-old daughter live in the village of Bartolomeyevka in the house where they have always lived - dark, wooden and filled with the smell of burning wood and dried apples. Cows have staked out the house across the street; they probably like it for its large dark-red gate and comfortable, well-worn yard. One of the cows likes to lie by the gate, with its enormous black-and-white head draped over the threshold. A rusty-coloured chicken leans over to peck flies out of the cow's ears. A reddish-brown horse is just going out for a walk when my photographer friend and I arrive. The horse acknowledges our presence (or maybe the presence of flies) with a wave of his luxurious tail and wanders off down the street. The dogs - small, nameless, bowlegged specimens of indeterminate heritage - are catching some sun on the pavement: cars don't come down this country road more than once a week, thanks to the police checkpoints.
In 1990, after the stain was discovered, interior ministry soldiers came to take an inventory of Bartolomeyevka and the neighbouring villages, painting numbers on every house and every shed on every street, cancelling out civilisation's street addresses. Police came to dig up lampposts, disconnecting electrical, radio and television cables. Then 6,200 people left for new city apartments, and only a handful of mostly old people - none in some villages, half a dozen in others - refused to move. The elders in this house - they introduce themselves only as Baba Anya (Grandma Anya) and Ded Ivan (Grandpa Ivan) - saw their son, Sasha, a tractor driver, leave with his wife for the small city of Svetlogorsk only to return about a year later, after the young people were laid off from their jobs.
Now life is simple, simpler even than it ever was before - which is not to say that it's easy. Baba and Ded live off the land: they grow potatoes and squash, wheat and rye, apples and even grapes. They sometimes hitch a ride to the nearest populated town, about 15 kilometres away, to get bread; for the most part, though, they use a flail - a length of heavy chain tied to a stick for threshing - and make their own. Before the accident, bread was baked at factories and sold at stores. But in a time long ago, before mills, and certainly before motors, peasants used to lay ripe wheat out on a piece of hard, compressed soil and beat it with a flail to separate the grain from the chaff. Baba and Ded have discovered that blacktop pavement makes a better surface. Sasha and friends who come from their new "clean" towns all over Belarus go fishing in a nearby river, though fish, according to scientists studying the area, collect the greatest amount of radiation, along with mushrooms and blueberries. Their boots - a motley collection of about 20 misshapen pairs - dry on the fence of the cows' house.
In the city, life is impossible, Baba and Ded know: just ask their son, or any of the friends who've moved and now complain of misery. But here life is simple, if hard. The supposed harm - radiation - has no look or taste or smell, while the benefits - the fruits of familiar labour - look and taste and smell like plenitude. To me, the vegetables even seem bigger and more colourful than elsewhere, just as the sun here seems brighter and the air drier, though all that, probably, is an illusion, spawned by fear and the absence of people.
"Here, take some apples," Baba Anya offers, in keeping with the local tradition of giving gifts to guests. My friend and I demur, but Baba forms a pouch with the bottom of her apron and frantically fills it with apples and grapes. "They came and checked, and the apples are clean," she says. We back up into the house in a panic. "Thank you, but we're afraid," my friend musters even as Baba Anya fills his camera bag with fruit. Only after we had disposed of the gifts do I learn that, for some reason, apples in the Zone do keep coming up radiation-free. No one knows why.
"Look," Baba Anya says, standing on a piece of wooden planking to show me the luxuriously colourful garden extending for more than 100 yards behind the house. "Everything grows in radiation," she exclaims, her worn angular face suddenly animated. "Pumpkins and beets and potatoes and wheat and apples and grapes. Everything grows and blooms in radiation."
If Ded Ivan and Baba Anya's preference for an off-the-land lifestyle is instinctive and heartfelt, former mathematics teacher Arkady Nabokin's is highly rational and meticulously articulated. Nabokin lives in a neighbouring village, where only two homes at either end of one street are occupied; between them, about 20 houses are silently sinking into the ground. Nabokin, an 84-year-old widower, explains his philosophy of life and work as he herds his 30 cows.
Why would one man need 30 cows? "I am conducting a study," Nabokin explains. "I am researching the problem of raising productivity among cattle growers. You see, you say now that machines should do the work. But no. Divide the number of machines by the number of head of cattle, and you see that I have greater productivity than a machine. Furthermore, I have no concept of per-head cost: I pay nothing to anyone. Mechanised farmers cut the grass with machines and pay for the fuel, the cost of which keeps growing. Then they must transport and warehouse the straw, and they pay for that, too. They transport manure. I don't have any of that. My product is competitive with anyone's, including the Americans'."
During his lifetime, which spans the Soviet Union's industrial revolution, Nabokin has collected excessive amounts of data and opinions. He was born on a small farm just outside the Zone, on the other side of a level, straight-edged evergreen forest planted by local authorities on scientific recommendation. Nabokin stands erect and fragile, con-temptuously stretching a bony arm in the direction of an asphalt factory blowing black smoke where the family's farm used to stand. "Stalin's goal was to build a military-industrial machine, so he destroyed all that," he says, indicating that the black smoke is the symbol of industrial violence. Rather than labour on a collective farm - which he sees as an industrialist plot against true farming - Nabokin worked as a schoolteacher for 40 years. Only the collapse of the collective farm system, which coincided with the depopulation of this area, allowed him finally to launch his study into small farming. The potential of man unencumbered by machine, he says, is unlimited.
"I don't plan to stop at this number of cows," he declares. "I must continue the exploration." He brushes off with utter disdain the idea of moving like the rest of his neighbours. "The scientists who tell us to leave are amateurs," he asserts. "Look, those who were at Chernobyl during the fire are dead. Whereas being here, I feel wonderful. I challenge you to find a man my age in America who keeps this many cows. Moving would be harmful to my health: the change in climate, the psychological stress."
In Nabokin's garden my Geiger counter stops at more than 10 times the acceptable level of environmental radiation. Still, scientists who study the area agree that he is right: a person his age is better off exposing himself to the dangers of radiation than to the stress of uprooting. This may be the only idea that meets with agreement among virtually all scholars of the area.
Researchers of the Chernobyl disaster fall into two distinct schools: those who share the government-approved position that the contaminated lands should be "rehabilitated" - that is, resettled - and the mavericks who obsessively collect proof of the high-school-level-physics axiom that radiation produces mutation. The state-funded Institute of Radiation Medicine continues the work started by officials sent to the area 10 years ago to tell residents that they were in no danger and even stood to benefit from "low doses of radiation." Post-Soviet scientists have since admitted they knowingly broadcast lies to stem spreading panic. Now their goal is different: to bring back to life some of the best land in impoverished Belarus.
Anatoly Skriabin, a laboratory head and former director of the Gomel branch of the Institute of Radiation Medicine, has been covering the ill effects of nuclear disasters his entire professional life. Before coming to Gomel - the largest town in southern Belarus, and one which is still fully populated, though much of the surrounding area is in the Zone - he was posted to an area in Siberia devastated in the 1950s by nuclear weapons tests and radioactive waste-disposal accidents. Over the last few years, as the facts of what was called the Kyshtym Tragedy have come to light, some scientists have claimed its scope exceeds every catastrophe before or since, including Chernobyl. Yet, Skriabin points out, "People have been living there just fine." In fact, he says, they've had fewer illnesses than their Chernobyl-affected counterparts, because they have not been overwhelmed with information about the harm of radiation. The institute's working hypothesis is that all the new illnesses in the Zone are psychosomatic. "They are told, 'You and your children are doomed,'" Skriabin explains in the tone of the Good Doctor, which corresponds neatly with his gray hair and white lab coat. "Then a hub forms in the brain, and it affects all systems, including the immune system."
On the opposite end of the radiation-hysteria spectrum are rumours, validated by numerous media reports, of hideous mutations in the Zone: crocodile-headed pigs, eight-legged calves and the like. Oddly, the root of both interpretations of what has happened to this land is probably the same: each offers a sort of comfort. Reality, it appears, is more insidious: illnesses of all sorts are on the rise in the Zone, including thyroid cancer among children (400 cases in the last four years, up from next to zero), immune-system disorders (up 875 per cent since 1986), tuberculosis and diabetes.
Women give birth not to monsters but to weak, slow-to-develop children; men in their 30s suffer strokes. Instead of showing itself in frightening disfigurements, the danger lurks everywhere: in the soil, the water, the food. It hits at random: of three tractor drivers working contaminated land, one dies while two remain healthy.
Grigory Goncharenko brings the concept of random danger down to the level of the lab which he heads up, the Molecular Genetics Laboratory, at the Forest Institute in Gomel. "At my lab I have about ten scientists," says Goncharenko. And with a circular nod of the head, he presents his youthful team: half a dozen bespectacled, bearded nerds and a couple of pale, long-haired young women. "At the time of the accident, they were all young, and most of them had no children. So now they want to know, 'What are their chances of having mutant babies?' " The nerds smile politely and nod.
Goncharenko is not talking about purple frog babies or similar nightmares of the irradiated imagination. He means what he calls "the usual stuff": Down's syndrome, urinary-tract abnormalities that lead to retardation, inborn auto-immune disorders. "To figure this out, I would have to take sperm from each of my boys, eggs from each of my girls, isolate the DNA and analyse gene mutation so that then I can say, 'OK, you have a one-in-ten chance of having a mutant baby.'" Barring that - and the technical level of the lab does bar the complicated procedures required to carry out such a study - Goncharenko and his boys and girls have been studying evergreens, whose susceptibility to radiation happens to match that of humans nearly perfectly. They collect samples of evergreen seeds in the Zone, isolate 30 genes from their DNA and - over and over again - keep finding some genes knocked out entirely, others disfigured beyond recognition.
Of course, they could have learned that much from a high-school textbook. But, because officials kept saying that the accident would have no influence on future generations, Goncharenko rushed to Moscow as soon as the lab got its first results. He was ridiculed for proving what every scientist learned as a kid. "They told me, 'Of course we know this,'" he recalls. "'But it's classified information.'"
Goncharenko continues to tell me about his work after we leave the lab and walk around Gomel. Or, not walk around exactly, but in circles and zigzags, with the esteemed scientist occasionally grabbing me by the sleeve to pull me in a new direction. "They still monitor the intelligentsia here," he explains in a stage whisper. "There is a young man with an umbrella behind us." There are a lot of young men with umbrellas around us, because it's been raining all day. Still, every time Goncharenko spots a male with an umbrella, we lurch onto a bus or into an archway. Perhaps because I am female or maybe because I am thoroughly soaked, Goncharenko trusts me with the story of his life. In the late 1970s, he was harassed by the KGB for minor transgressions: signing a letter in support of a dissident scientist, reading samizdat literature. He was terrified. To be allowed to defend his first dissertation, he had to write letters renouncing all dissident affiliations. Then he ran away from the large city where he was living and settled in quiet, backward Gomel. Even now, lauded with virtually every honour in his field, including election to the US National Academy of Sciences, Goncharenko remains in this woefully under-equipped lab, prisoner to his fear of the world. Like everyone else I meet here, he has made a clear-cut deal: to flee his demons and to do his life's work in a place where the very presence of an elusive peril offers peace.
In a sense he is not much different from Vladimir Kondakov, a 38-year-old resident of the Zone. Kondakov has a blond beard and hair that reaches down just past his ear on one side and to the bottom of his chin on the other. He wears a sort of wraparound shirt, and a suit of an indeterminate colour whose fly is held together by a safety pin, and otherwise looks like the kind of man who could be sitting in a puddle of his own piss in the underground of any city in the world. Instead, he has been living in the Zone since 1989. How did he get here? "Generally speaking," Kondakov answers in his educated, almost bureaucratic way, "I entered."
There was once a time when Kondakov lived in Ukraine and worked as a welder. He had some family, though this part of the story gets tricky for him: "Well, in other words, that's a different world that bears no relevance," he says. "At first, I possessed cash. Then it became more difficult to get work, and money ran out. Additionally, I had no residence. And generally speaking, I had seen it on television, this disaster. So I came here. Here everything had been conducted on an emergency basis, which is to say, urgently, so a portion of the groceries had been abandoned here. Therefore, I would pick them up and partake. I would examine the hermetic seal, then the expiration date and then the taste qualities. In most cases, it was apparent that the product was suitable for consumption."
At first Kondakov was regularly detained by police, who would take away his documents. But as police became scarce and he went farther into the Zone, he was left alone. Eventually, though, he ran out of food and last year resurfaced on the Belarussian side, on the territory of the Radiation Ecology Preserve, where 700 workers prevent forest fires and monitor the effects of contamination. His new home is a lonely white-brick structure on the side of a road. Kondakov is now considered a "labourer," which, to him, means that he lives in the house and gets food delivered once a day - a magnanimous gesture made by workers on the preserve who pass his house on their daily route.
Kondakov's droning description of the workings of the preserve sheds much light on why life didn't work out for him in the outside world. What do the people in the preserve do? "Oh, they work," he explains self-importantly. And he? "My responsibilities range from the jurisprudential, such as writing an application to the director expressing my desire for employment, to the humanitarian, meaning having contacts with the bosses. And here you have to watch out, because not everything is spoken and some signals are communicated on the biological level in the form of endo-messages." In other words, it's hard for Kondakov to tell what other people want from him.
Fortunately, here they don't want much, which - as Kondakov can explain in hours of run-on educatese - makes the Zone a kinder place than the civilised world.
The civilised world on this part of the planet has grown only more chaotic and cruel during the last 10 years. Hundreds - possibly thousands - of people have fled from it and come here, to the quiet and predictable Zone. In the wake of the worst that technological culture has wrought, they've taken up ownership of the remnants and given new meaning to the notion of adaptation.
In the village of Strelichevo alone, 84 refugee families from various conflict areas in the former Soviet Union have settled into homes left by Belarussians who fled the danger of radiation. Strelichevo is in the part of the Zone that was not buried or forcibly depopulated; it is wedged between the preserve and the populated rest of the world, which means it enjoys some of the conveniences of civilisation, such as electricity. Residents here were told they could leave if they wanted to and that they would be given housing. They trickled out, disabling the local farm and wine factory, a quaint turn-of-the-century architectural ensemble that looks like a monastery or a tiny white fortress. Eventually, the head of the local administration placed newspaper ads inviting working people to come to the emptied Strelichevo, where he had jobs, apartments and services for them. They came - and only after they arrived did many of them learn what had driven out the former residents.
But these refugees had seen the face of death, and they opted for danger that was invisible. Tamara Yefimova, a 47-year-old woman with dark eyes and skin that give her away as a stranger to this land of fair blondes, came with her husband, three children and five grandchildren from Tadzhikistan, a former Soviet republic ravaged by civil war over the last four years. An ethnic Russian, she says she lost her ability to sleep in 1991, when enraged mobs travelled the streets of her city beating and stoning Russians to death.
In 1992, she sent her daughter and small grandchild to Belarus. Soon most of the family followed, moving into a small apartment and taking menial jobs. In Tadzhikistan, she remembers, "I had a good job, a good salary, a five-room apartment with hot water and a telephone. Then it all vanished in a single instant, like a mirage." Now a labourer at the local vegetable farm, she learned to use a shovel and a pitchfork to dig into soil where the Geiger counter comes in at about the cutoff point for possibly safe background radiation.
"I didn't know much about this radiation thing at first," she admits, flashing a smile that's half gold and half omissions. "I just knew that that thing blew up and there is - what do they call it? - background radiation. Maybe it's affecting us - I don't know. I can't feel it. At least I can sleep at night."
The old idols of Soviet technology - the tractor on every collective farm, the peaceful atom - promised many things: prosperity through efficiency, justice through plenitude. But they did not promise quiet and the coveted state of being left alone.
Tulgovichi is a village like any other: low houses - similar in structure but each adapted to its owner's needs - hug a road that follows a nonlinear rural logic. Far into the depopulated Zone, Tulgovichi has not been looted like other settlements - though all but three of about 100 families have left. It is the quietest village on earth. Even the power lines no longer buzz; their posts are capped by storks' nests, which throw soft, irregular shadows on the dust-covered pavement.
Arkady Akulenko sits sideways on the cart as he rides down the road, to return not half an hour later walking beside the cart, now loaded with the biggest pumpkins atop the biggest marrows that have ever grown anywhere. He'll need help lifting some, which, he estimates, weigh upwards of 18kg. Some newspaper accounts claim it's the radiation that makes vegetables grow big and beautiful in the Zone; locals say they've always been like this. In fact, according to 61-year-old Akulenko, the only difference between now and before radiation is that there are fewer people, more freedom and a lot more wild boars - "plain herds of them."
Akulenko and his wife, Olga, used to work at the village collective farm. She milked cows, he drove a combine harvester. As the farm packed up and left, they stayed. "I don't know," shrugs Akulenko. "Some people can just up and leave this land; we couldn't." They bought a cow and a horse from the crumbling collective and learned to live off the land. The preserve helped them put up a small mill on the old farm grounds. We set off in the direction in which they point us to look for the mill. The old collective farm is rows of identical gray-brick buildings, doors - rusted garage doors, peeling barn doors - gaping black. In its deserted industrial-age sameness, the abandoned farm brings to mind the remains of Nazi concentration camps just across the border in Poland.
The comparison is not as bizarre as it may seem. To local peasants, the decades of forced collective farming - and the willy-nilly mechanisation that came with it - meant, first and foremost, prison. "It was nothing but serfdom," explains the didactic cow-herding Arkady Nabokin, who survived the birth and death of this Soviet institution. Until the 1960s, collective-farm workers had no right to move off the land, have cash, or keep identification documents of their own. Even after these rules were loosened, peasants were constrained by the ways of living and working prescribed from above. It took the worst nuclear accident in history for rural living to mean freedom once again.
After the peaceful atom, there is a different kind of peace. History once again is short because tomorrow is out of reach. The world once again is small. Every wild boar, every cow and every person has staked out a small piece of this limited world, its own slice of freedom to redeem. The Teacher pursues his study in an abandoned forest; the Mad Scientist retreats to his remote makeshift lab to escape his fears; the Refugee makes home and hearth in a small city-style apartment; and the Village Idiot finds his own house on a stretch of emptiness. And in this time - the time after fear of the future and the alienation it may force - freedom is measured in silence, in separateness, in solitude.
Masha Gessen (email@example.com) is a journalist based in Moscow.