Old lady looks out the window in Chernobyl

Anthropology: The Cultural Fallout of those Impacted by Chernobyl

Chernobyl reactor number four from afar, blue sky in background, and tall nuclear tower protruding above
Credit: Britannica

Many people know Chernobyl for the horrific explosion that took place. And they’re right, it was a terrible accident that killed thousands. But when we look at the event with an anthropological lens, we see there is more to the story. Of those who survived, there was an even deeper chaos. A “cultural fallout”, as author Krista Harper refers to it.

Chernobyl No. 4

Chernobyl is a nuclear power plant, near the city of Pripyat, Ukraine. On April 26th, 1986, the No. 4 reactor exploded. Leaving debris for miles, the disaster left something far worse: radiation. The radioactive reactor core of the plant, designed to create energy, was flawed. The reactor core reached 4,650 degrees Celsius (8,402 Fahrenheit). In comparison, the surface of the sun is 5,500 degrees Celsius.

The explosion not only have enough strength to demolish the roof of a 20-story building, but there was also a deadly fire. Two weeks the fire burned, releasing radioactive gases into the atmosphere.

Some chemicals released, such as iodine-131, begin decaying in eight days. Others take much longer, such as plutonium-239, which is estimated to take 24,000 years.

While only two humans died from the explosion, many more had to pay the price. 28 people passed in the following weeks, and still some 5,000 other suffered thyroid cancer from the event. These number only reflect those in Ukraine, near the explosion site. Beyond Pripyat, many more have been impacted.

Map of land surrounding Chernobyl, Ukraine with color coded areas representing the spread of radiation shortly after the explosion
Credit: World Nuclear

When we take a step back, we see that the radiation fallout reached many surrounding cities, even making it’s way to Russia and Belarus. The map above shows us how many areas in close proximity were impacted shortly after the explosion.

Two maps of Chernobyl and radiation spread; left map indicates spread of radiation from Ukraine to Portugal. Right map indicates spread of radiation directly around Ukraine.
Credit: British Broadcasting Corporation

Stepping even further back, we see that the radiation expanded well beyond those borders. The image above indicates how how far the radiation fallout spread. As the wind patterns changed, so did the fallout. Reaching as far as Portugal, the spread was horrific.

It is reported that this event released 100 time more radiation than what was released from both atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With such a deadly impact, can it be a surprise that there are deeper affects?

Direct Cultural Fallout

Classroom of Chernobyl school; papers and books scattered on the floor, chairs overturned, paint peeling from walls, Andrade don’t portrait sitting on chair
Credit: The Guardian

This fallout occurred in both extraordinary and mundane ways. Part of the lost-lasting impact of this disaster is due to this radiation. While a bomb itself destroys lives and land, it is confined to one period of time. Walls can be rebuilt and mourning can proceed. Radiation, however, does not allow for such closure.

As it continues to permeate the land, it also permeates the people. Radiation greatly impacts daily routines. Daily routines then turn into yearly practices. Next thing you know, an entire culture is altered from a chemical.

In some ways, society and culture are living bodies of their own. They exist beyond a single person, but are also greatly impacted by each individual. Victor Turner describes it as “…the culture of any society, at any moment is more like the debris, or “fall-out”, of past ideological systems, that it is itself a system, a coherent whole.” 

When we look at culture this way, we can see how easily it is impacted. Politics, jobs, economy, activism – all elements of a culture that are both separate and whole.

Life At the Scene

Ukrainians woman closing the door to her home in the Exclusion Zone
Credit: National Geographic

The areas closest to Chernobyl, of course, have been the most impacted. While many of the nearest towns, including Pripyat, were evacuated, not everyone was able to be protected. Towns within 30km (98,000 feet) of Chernobyl were not evacuated in time and never will be.

Remember that radiation penetrates, it is absorbed by the things that it touches. Buildings, plants, and yet humans, become radioactive when exposed. As people were not evacuated prior to the event (how could they have been?), they absorbed the chemicals. Radioactive themselves, they are not able to live elsewhere for the harm they pose to others.

There are more than 7,000 people in the surrounding towns who will never live elsewhere. Pripyat, the closest town to Chernobyl, has remained a ghost town since the explosion. Other towns have residents who stayed, returned, or even moved there on business.

Exclusion Zone

Rusting boat half sunken in river near Chernobyl
Credit: CNN

The area of residents who have had the most exposure is referred to as the “Exclusion Zone”. This includes the people who live within those 30km. Here, only adults who have had prior exposure can be residents. They are not able to have connection to outsiders and visitors aren’t allowed. Anyone under the age of 18 is forbidden from entering.

Part of the issue with living inside the Exclusion Zone is that there are continuous fallouts. All resources have absorbed the radiation, and as the resources are used, they emit further radiation. For example, residents rely on gardens and forests for their food. The radiation from those vegetables is transferred to their bodies, but they don’t have grocery stores to visit.

Fires in the fireplace emit further radiation from the trees that absorbed radiation to long ago. It becomes a cyclical problem as the people cannot leave but new resources cannot easily be brought in. Some resources have been Despite such dangerous living situations, these residents have learned to make a life for themselves.

Chernobyl Liquidators

Old picture of Chernobyl Liquidator cleaning radioactive material from the roof of reactor number four
Credit: Bustle

For those who remained close to Chernobyl, and those assigned to clean it up, they were assigned the position of “liquidator”. The official clean-up plan was titled “Liquidation of the Consequenes of the Chernobyl Accident”, hence the title “liquidator”. In this position, they were required to get rid of radioactive material. Except there is one big problem – radiation particles cannot be destroyed.

Instead, liquidators worked to seal or coverup such deadly particles. As radiation is absorbed by literally everything, liquidators worked to seal everything as well. Burying forests, pouring concrete, and laying new soil were all tactics for sealing radiation.

The worse plant of thos job came shortly after the explosion as people worked on the explosion site. Radiation is so deadly in these areas that liquidators faced lethal amounts in minutes. The actual number of liquidators is unknown because official records weren’t kept, but it is estimates well over 500,000 people.

Cultural Fallout Beyond Ukraine

Abandoned amusement part near Chernobyl
Credit: Daily Sabah

Thousands of lives have been altered from the explosion in 1986. Death, cancer, and isolation are extreme examples of these impacts. Smaller changes have been forced as well, such as diets, activities, and daily routines.

Despite such differences in the severities, the smaller changes also have a long lasting impact. Anthropologists have studies these longer affects in multiple countries and found that cultural fallout is a deep issue.

Economic Fall-Out

Ukrainian money laid flat on a table
Credit: Russian TV Program News

Anthropologist Sharon Stephens describes how the Sami people of Norway lost their economy and their identity due to Chernobyl. As an ethnic group, they were granted certain protections for their way of life. Herding is a primary source of income and nutrition for the Sami people. Particularly with reindeer, the Sami’s lives revolve around their herding.

Chernobyl’s radiation fallout greatly impacted them. As the radiation swept with the wind, it contaminated plants and livestock. In protecting their citizens, Norway banned the sell and consumption of reindeer meat. No longer selling or eating that which they herded, the Sami people were forced to change a lot.

Eating habits, economic exchanges, and symbolism were all affected. Forcing a herd based, migrant community to rely on processed food greatly altered their way of life. They no longer had the means to support themselves or a system to continue their traditions. Sami people were losing much more than their economic practices. A lifestyle that gave meaning to their ethnic identity was gone.

Political Changes

Multiple Ukrainian flags lined up blowing in the breeze
Credit: Euromaidan Press

Adriana Petryna, another anthropologist, describes how much politics have been impacted from the radiation. Many parts of Ukraine’s political life expereinced a shift after the explosion. Following the accident, people’s priorities began to focus on victomhood and state compensation. It wasn’t just a question of what the government can do, but what it should do to make amends.

The system that many accepted previously was no longer meeting people’s needs. Information was shared too little and too late. Part of this is due to the Cold War at the time, which greatly impacted Ukraine and surrounding countries.

As mentiende above, 30 people died from the accident deirectly. Thousands later became sick as well and felt the government was at least partially responsible. Citizens put more pressure on political leaders to take accountability for the errors at Chernobyl.

Being that many areas were toxic from the radiation, a lot of residents also had to relocate. As people moved cities and borders, it brought up important questions of citizenship. They also asked questions of compensation in this area too.

Environmental Shifts

Decaying forest near Chernobyl; many trees fallen, all leaf-less
Credit: ABC

More directly, the Chernobyl explosion brought environmental issues to light. The far reaching radiation gave examples as to how important environmental caution is. Anthropologist Eeva Berglund wrote about German environmentalists and how deeply they were impacted from this event.

From this catastrophe, many environmentalists began working more directly with politics. Chernobyl also became a poster-child, of sorts, for global environmentalism. Cautioning against potentially similar dangers, environmentalists pushed for more regulations. They were primarily focused on technology, state secrecy, and environmental impact.

Anthropologist Krista Harper explains that many environmentalists came to their calling through the Chernobyl accident. The explosion having such a wide and deep impact, many found a new belief in environmental rights.

Daily Lives

Old Ukrainian couple outside of their home in the Exclusion Zone
Credit: Irish Times

Radiation fallout greatly impacted people’s daily activities as well. Harper explains that even in low-risk zones, there were still many dangers. In some areas, potentially at-risk populations were not supposed to leave the house. For example, pregnant women were advised from spending time outside and they weren’t supposed to eat fruits or vegetables.

This changes people’s lives significantly as they were suddenly confined to their homes for months. Travel patterns, eating habits, and social interaction were all impacted. Questions of compensation were also addressed here because people could not work and protect themselves at the same time.

Celebration and Commemoration

Ukrainins at a candle vigil in remember ace of the Chernobyl explosion
Credit: National Geographic

An event as large as this also created new timed of reflection. The yearly anniversary elicited a ommeration of the explosion, known as Chernobyl Day. This included environmental activism, street performances, and speeches. Chernobyl became much more than a day to remember, but an immediate, almost alive, presence.

Their celebrations are not of the event itself, but of what came after; focusing on the lives lost and a way to shine light to the issue. Such celebration was intended to bring attention to such risks.

Community connection also arose as part of the cultural fallout. Thousands of people lost their homes, loved ones, and ways of life. Together they mourned all that had changed, leaving a deeper connection with their neighbors. Nance Reís, an anthropologist who studied Russian struggles, describes such a connection as “a community of shared suffering.”

Looking to the Future

Construction of the dome coverage for Chernobyl reactor number four
Credit: New York Times

Despite such hopelessness, there is much being done to improve the situation. At the explosion site, Chernobyl No. 4 has been covered in multiple layers to protect against further emission. People are needed fro both the clean-up and study of the reactor, providing many jobs in the area.

For safety, employees must rotate on a regular basis. They work either four days a week or fifteen days a month at a time. Not much occurs on an entertainment level as there are still strict safety regulations.

Chernobyl reactors one, two, and thee are no longer actively producing energy. However, their decommission will take decades. Estimated to last until 2065, there are employees who maintain the reactors on a daily basis.

Concerns arise as the most recent containment facility (built in 2016) is anticipated to last 100 years, leaving plutonium-239 23,900 years to decay. Despite such daunting possibilities, scientists and researchers continue to work tirelessly in the hopes of finding a solution, while still living out their lives.

Anthropology of Chernobyl

Ukrainian woman looking out her window of the Exclusion Zone
Credit: TheMirror

It’s important to study Chernobyl and similar catastrophies through the lens of anthropology because people’ lived experiences are so rich. The explosion is horrific, but it is something that we need to understand. And we must understand it as more than just numbers, but as real situations.

Anthropologists Berglund, Harper, Petryna, Turner, Reís, and Stephens show us how deeply these events impact populations. Fallouts, both radiation and cultural, have long-lasting impacts that we will continue to study.

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