The story of a Ukrainian man in charge in the Chornobyl exclusion zone under Russian occupation


The abandoned town of Pripyat and the new safe confinement over the 4th Reactor of the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Photo by Wikipedia user Konung yaropolk (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Translated from Ukrainian by Svitlana Bregman

This story is part of a series of essays and articles written by Ukrainian artists who decided to stay in Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022. This series is produced in collaboration with the Folkowisko Association/, thanks to co-financing by the governments of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia through a grant by the International Visegrad Fund. The mission of the fund is to advance ideas for sustainable regional cooperation in Central Europe. 

Fifty-year-old Vasyl Antonenko left home for a typical 12-hour work shift on February 23, 2022. He was on his way from Slavutych to Pripyat — relatively new Ukrainian towns built during Soviet times to support the needs of the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Until the 1986 disaster, when the plant's nuclear reactor melted down and exploded, Pripyat was a town of power engineers, and Slavutych became that town after.

Travelling by local train, as usual, Vasyl crossed the Belarusian border (in this part of Polissia, Belarus edges into Ukrainian territories) and re-entered Ukraine. The shortest way to get from Slavutych to Chornobyl is through Belarus. It takes less than an hour. If you take a detour, it’s six hours at best.

Vasyl works in Pripyat at a water utility plant, which used to supply the new town with water. Now, it only supplies water to Chornobyl for cooling the nuclear fuel. “What would happen if you stopped supplying water? We’d better not find out,” Vasily says, laughing.

There were media reports that Russian troops were stationed in Belarus. There was also the assumption that Russians would advance on Kyiv through the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone, which is some hundred kilometers away. It seemed crazy, but Russia did invade Chornobyl on February 24, despite the radiation levels that are still dangerous and in some places several times over the safe limit. Some troops moved toward Kyiv, while others seized the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, once again, violating international law. Over a hundred employees of the plant, along with the National Guard officers that provided security, were taken hostage.

The occupiers ordered the Chornobyl Shift Supervisor to summon the water utility staff. Vasyl was asked to stay, however, because the power plant still needed an uninterrupted water supply. Their top priority was to prevent the melting of the reactor's shelter structure, which would cause a release of radioactivity.

That is how Vasyl found himself all alone in a ghost town. He could hear explosions in the distance, and the uncertainty was frightening and depressing. Vasyl was religious and was active in the church in his religious community, so he decided that he just needed to trust God and do his work as usual. An anxious voice on the phone conveyed instructions from the power plant to increase or decrease the water supply, and Vasyl did his best to prevent another nuclear disaster.

The Russians soon showed up at the water facility because the shelling in the first week caused an electric outage at the plant. It wasn't just the pumps that weren't able to pump water; all other equipment stopped working, too. Vasyl was getting stressed because the water supply had to be continuous. There were only a few days until the situation would become critical. “The plant has a reserve of water, but it can only last for so long. After that, the fuel will start to overheat and melt the shelter structure.”

The shift supervisor explained to the Russians that the electric outage would cause a disaster. The plant was equipped with power generators, but there was no fuel for them. Fortunately, the supervisor convinced them. The Russian military began to drain the diesel from their machinery that was advancing on Kyiv. Every day, for five days, Russians gave almost half of their diesel to maintain the generators, which resulted in some tanks not becoming stuck. The Chornobyl staff certainly see this as their contribution to defending the capital city.

For some time, Vasyl's food was delivered from the power plant by a driver named Volodia. It was someone with whom Vasyl could have brief conversations and get updates about the situation at the plant, but he couldn't stay for too long for fear of annoying the Russians. Later, the general there ordered that Vasyl be brought to the power plant's canteen for lunch.

That is how Vasyl started coming to Chornobyl once a day. “It was dirty, with their garbage lying around, their dirty clothes. People were sad and tired. I saw the National Guard officers, the young women and men who were guarding the power plant. The Russians took them all captive, and they had a feeling that they wouldn't be released so easily. I'd walk up to some of them and say quietly, ‘Listen, I'm praying for you. Everything will be all right.’”

His Russian captors were unpredictable, so Vasyl stashed some food away, just in case. Should the Russians decide to cause trouble, he hoped he would be able to escape unnoticed. In fact, he knew the forests in the area very well. He was born in the village of Stechanka, and his family lived there long before the construction of the Chornobyl plant started in 1970. Growing up, from his yard, Vasyl could see the plant's tall ventilation pipes. New roads were laid, and the houses were connected to electricity, which they had not had previously. Young people from all over the Ukrainian Soviet Republic came to the plant, relocating to Pripyat, the city of the future, built before everyone's eyes, with brand new parks, roads, schools, and spacious apartments. Everything here was in abundance, and everyone was happy, thanks to the “peaceful atom.”

When the disaster struck in 1986, Vasyl was eighteen. At that time, he helped evacuate the horses and cows from the collective farm. “We looked for them, drove them into herds, and brought them to the trucks.” This is how Vasyl remembered those days: horses and cows screaming and crying, the sad eyes of the old people who didn't want to give up their animals and didn't want to leave their homes.

After that, Vasyl served in the army, and when he got back, his native village had already been made uninhabitable by the forest and the radiation, so he settled down outside the “zone.” A new town, Slavutych, was already being built for the Chornobyl workers evacuated from Pripyat. It was similarly clean, bright, and comfortable. It had jobs and they were well-paid. At first, Vasyl worked at the power plant in the turbine equipment section. He was doing repairs, but when the power plant was shut down in 2000, he transferred to Pripyat to work at the water utility, which continued to serve the dormant reactor at Chornobyl.

The longest way back home

Back in 2022, during Russia's occupation, Vasyl rarely had reason to leave his workplace. While at the water facility during the occupation, he acted as a “liaison.” In the first days of the occupation, all communications were disrupted in the exclusion zone, Vasyl used the landline to stay in touch with the people at the power plant, as well as his family. It was a true miracle that he still had an old analogue phone at home, which many stopped using long ago. As a result, Vasyl's wife was able to pass on updates from the power plant to those people who lost all contact with their families. Meanwhile, Vasyl received updates from the Chernihiv Region, which was being bombed by the Russians.

Russian soldiers did not often show up at the water facility. They were not too aggressive, but they behaved arrogantly and spoke in a condescending tone. They said they would bring back the USSR. Vasyl was born in Soviet Ukraine, but to him, these sentiments were completely unrelatable. “My grandparents lived their lives here. Then the Soviet government came and literally took everything away from the people. I couldn't understand that nostalgia.”

He saw and knew that the Russians were entrenching themselves in the exclusion zone, exposing themselves to danger. He could have told them, but no one asked. “The Bible says, when someone hits you, turn the other cheek. But it doesn't say that when someone hits your relatives, you also have to turn the other cheek or hit your loved one.”

On the twenty-fourth day of the long shift under the occupation, the workers were told that some of the staff could go home; someone would replace them. People were loaded onto buses and driven home via Belarus.

In Belarus, the power plant workers were checked and searched, as if everything that the Russians did was perfectly legal. The road home ran across a water reservoir, but the occupying forces did not take good care of the safe river crossing. Luckily, two fishermen from the Ukrainian village of Mniov at the border, Anatoliy and Serhiy, volunteered to help the exhausted Chornobyl workers across. They transported people on an improvised wooden boat at gunpoint, with Russians demanding that the boat remain uncovered, without a tent to protect from the rain, and without lights, although it got dark early in those cold days. Working under these difficult conditions, the fishermen made 25 trips across in one day. They rowed carefully so as not to have the boat capsize in the cold March water in a spot where the Dnipro River runs one and a half kilometers wide.

Vasyl peered into the darkness and felt afraid because the boat was very basic, and if it wasn't for the skilled fishermen, it could have capsized. At the same time, he was also filled with infinite gratitude to God and to other people for being able to leave his prison, where he did his best to keep the nuclear monster asleep.

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