The Babushkas of Chernobyl screens as part of Sewanee’s interdisciplinary globalization conference

By Lawrence Rogers

Junior Editor

On April 20 in Gailor Auditorium, the Mellon Globalization Forum hosted a screening of The Babushkas of Chernobyl (2015) about Chernobyl’s technically unauthorized civilian population as a part of the second Annual Interdisciplinary Conference “A Sense of Space and Place: Global and Local Perspectives.” The screening was preceded by several contextual videos and followed by a discussion session moderated by Dr. Yuliya Ladygina of the Russian department.

The disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant took place on the night of April 26, 1986, during a botched safety test that resulted in a steam explosion and subsequent graphite fire that took ten days to extinguish. The meltdown leaked four hundred times more nuclear material than the bombing of Hiroshima. The initial blast killed two plant workers, and twenty-nine firefighters and plant workers died within the following months from acute radiation syndrome. Some peer-reviewed estimates predict that the total number of deaths to reach four thousand, including eventual cancer deaths. However, despite the danger and due to energy shortages in Ukraine, the power plant operated for another fourteen years, until it was decommissioned in 2000.

The film primarily follows three babushkas: Hanna Zavorotyna, Maria Shovkuta, and Valentyna Ivanivna. These women, now in their seventies, had been evacuated during the aftermath of the disaster but chose to return to their hometowns within the thirty-kilometer-radius Exclusion Zone, or “Dead Zone,” around the power plant. They defied the Soviet government and the dangers of radiation to live in their childhood homes and to be around the graves of their loved ones. Moviegoers watch as these women draw life, albeit contaminated, from their gardens and the forests that surround their homes, as they interact (almost always amiably) with government officials and members of the Chernobyl scientific community, as they celebrate holidays and get their moonshine blessed at the Easter midnight service (the only one held within the Exclusion Zone). They sing the songs that their ancestors had sung for generations. They discuss their lack of regret about returning home and their friends who never returned home and who are “dying of anguish.”

The Babushkas of Chernobyl also follows the thrill-seeking twenty-somethings called “stalkers” who, inspired by the first-person-shooter video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, break into and explore the Exclusion Zone. The film includes footage taken by the stalkers of their rummaging around in abandoned houses, interacting with the returnees, and even drinking the very contaminated water that runs through the Exclusion Zone.

Though it spends much more time on the babushkas than the stalkers, film focuses a great deal on the dichotomy between these two groups: the one desperate to return to their motherland, despite the radiation and cancer risk, and the other recklessly disregarding the risk to their health and breaking laws just for the thrill of breaking laws.

Ladygina, who was seven years old when reactor four exploded and grew up about forty miles away from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, led the discussion that followed the screening. She mostly answered questions about her experience as a Ukrainian during the aftermath of the meltdown. She told the audience about the friends she made in college who came from Kiev who remember being forced to march in the Labor Day parade only five days later on May 1 as a part of the Soviet government’s attempt to maintain the illusion that nothing had gone awry. She reminded the audience that, while the camera showed almost exclusively a story of hope and the importance of home, we must not forget the dangers of returning to such a contaminated area.

Two events remain in the Mellon Globalization Forum’s conference: Dr. Lucia García-Santana’s lunch lecture My Place is the Space in my Suitcase: Reflections on Galician Cultural Heritage in Argentina on April 25 at noon in McClurg room 206 and a screening of the documentary Fire at Sea in Gailor Auditorium at 4:30 p.m. on the same day.