In the radioactive Dead Zone surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, a community of some 200 elderly women is defiantly clinging to their ancestral homeland. While most of their neighbors have long since fled and their husbands have gradually died off, this stubborn sisterhood is hanging on — even, oddly, thriving — while trying to cultivate an existence on some of the most toxic acres on Earth. Why they chose to live here after the disaster, defying the authorities and endangering their health, is a remarkable tale—about the pull of home, the healing power of shaping one’s destiny and the subjective nature of risk.
We first encountered this little-known community while filming a travel segment for the PBS series, “Globe Trekker” in the fall of 2010. While in Chernobyl’s “Exclusion Zone,” just a few short miles from a lake of radioactive lava that even now bubbles beneath a crumbling reactor, we and our crew saw a bizarre sight — a small cottage straight out of an ancient folk tale, surrounded by lush vegetable gardens and farmyard animals. Then we saw Hanna, a striking woman in a colorful print skirt, headscarf and rubber boots, making her rounds. Over the next few days we met several more of these “babushkas” – the Russian term for “grandmothers” – making lives for themselves in the Exclusion Zone.
Why do these women insist on living on farms that the Ukrainian government and radiation scientists have deemed uninhabitable? How do they manage to get by, isolated, in an apocalyptic landscape guarded by soldiers, and increasingly rife with wild animals? How has the radiation affected them these past 25 years? At her cottage, Hanna offered us homemade moonshine and thick slices of raw pig fat. We demurred, fearful of the radioactive contamination that permeates the land, air and soil around Chernobyl. It is strictly forbidden to eat local food, though of course the babushkas do.
“Starvation is what scares me, not radiation,” Hanna said. That stark choice was a hint at the incredible journey this woman, and the babushkas like her in The Zone, have traveled in their extraordinary lives: From Stalin’s enforced famines in the 1930s, through World War II, to nuclear disaster. Like the wolves, moose, wild boar and other wildlife not seen for decades that have come back to thrive in the abandoned forests around Chernobyl, the women of the Exclusion Zone, too, have an extraordinary story of survival, and offer a dark yet strangely affirming portrait of life post-apocalypse. As Japan continues to grapple with fallout from Fukushima, and the entire world enters a foreboding era of nuclear threats, driven by geologic, political, and energy-source instability, the babushkas are unlikely bellwethers. Because these women live in The Dead Zone (where few dare to tread) their stories have gone untold and are now a whisper away from vanishing altogether. In 2012, we are capturing them in “The Babushkas of Chernobyl.”