Twenty-seven years have passed since the Ukrainian city of Chernobyl endured the worst nuclear power plant accident in history. In 2005, the United Nations predicted 4,000 people could eventually die from the radiation exposure, although different estimates exist. In a recent presentation at Aquinas College, Father Oleh Kindiy, a Ukrainian Catholic priest and visiting Fulbright Scholar, and Luba Markewycz, a photographer and member of the education committee at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, shared insights on the current state of Chernobyl and what can be learned from the tragedy. All images in this post are copyright of Luba Markewycz.
Kindiy’s reflections on the situation include the following:
1) “No matter how grave the technological disaster, human solidarity and support reveals the vulnerability, interconnectedness, and dream for the better in us.”
2) “Since the times of the Enlightenment of the 17th century, the Western Civilization has believed that all problems can be solved by science and technology, but in fact besides them, there is faith, tradition, and moral responsibility that need always be taken into account. Without them, technology by itself is a loose cannon that can explode at any time.”
3) “The healing and restoration of the Chernobyl area is a long process (perhaps hundreds of years) and it is possible by joint efforts of people from all over the world, which include international aid, resettlement of hundreds of thousands of people, medical treatment of cancer-ill people, especially children, additional research of technology, environment, social life, construction of the New Safe Confinement, etc., but it also engages, prayer, conversion, a call for the true Christian way of life and forgiveness.”
Markewycz has traveled to Chernobyl and surrounding cities, photographing her findings and sharing the stark reality of the area with others. She described present day Chernobyl as a “ghost town.” The city remains saturated with radiation and most of the former residents have evacuated. But a small minority still remains. There are about 300 people currently living in Chernobyl, all over seventy-years old. About 1,500 still work at the nuclear reactor, ensuring the containment of the nuclear material, but do not reside in the city.
Most of the people who remain are women, and according to Markewcyz, “they are the keepers of the hearth of the fire of the entire region.” They tend an environment which most have left behind and desire to remain connected with an area they know so well. The only trips made outside the home are to attend church.
Outside of this small circle of life, much of Chernobyl is abandoned, as evidenced in Markewcyz’s photo presentation. “The buildings are a symbol of life existed,” Markewcyz says. Nature has grown to take over much of the area. She describes nature as enveloping old buildings in a “deathly hug.” The earth is taking back Chernobyl.
This desolation can also be witnessed in Pripyat, a neighboring city which had a much larger population than Chernobyl. Once home to nuclear plant employees before the disaster, Pripyat is now abandoned. “It is as if there is no oxygen, no air; there is absolute silence,” says Markewycz. Classroom chalkboards still bear writing transcribed before the disaster, shoes can be seen scattered about house floors, and an abandoned amusement park adorns the horizon of the city.
The chilling post-apocalyptic-like images of these cities, seemingly stuck in time, represent a drastic change from once thriving hubs of life. The observations of Markewycz and Kindiy offer a rare look back, reminding us that while life goes on, it is important to bear in mind lessons from the tragedy.