Philosophy is really homesickness, an urge to be at home everywhere.
Where, then, are we going? Always to our home.
THE EXPLOSION WAS THE BEGINNING of the end of the USSR. Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, first launched in the fall of 1977 during the sixtieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, blew up on April 26, 1986. A helicopter pilot, a “liquidator”—the colloquial term for military and civil personnel who cleaned up after the explosion—described the scene as a volcanic eruption: red-hot earth, a cone of crimson smoke glowing over it. He dropped sand, clay, and lead into the burning crater. Wind blew radioactive dust particles west, contaminating the land, turning it against people. An 18.6-mile radius around the reactor was evacuated, placed under military control, and designated the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation, or simply zona. The name evokes the Gulag reality of the Soviet Union, where zona is the slang term for prison camps.
Zona was later expanded to a thousand square miles, but as radiation levels dropped in the mid-90s, tourists began to visit the area. By 2002, an average of two thousand people a year came, seeking thrills, mutant goatsize fish, and double-headed wolves. Frozen in time, unchanged for almost twenty years, zona became the subject of postapocalyptic computer games, sci-fi horror flicks, and urban legends. Roaming around abandoned swimming pools and Soviet beauty parlors was fashionable, and Instagram selfies next to the radioactive Ferris wheel got many likes. Trends aside, writers and filmmakers flocked to the zona time capsule, driven to capture the tragedy, seize the intangible grief permeating the strange space, put it in words and images. In fall 2022, I was asked to investigate whether the Russian Army dug trenches in the radioactive zona during the invasion.
FEBRUARY 2022: THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine to help fulfill Putin’s desire to restore the Soviet Union, home and prison to millions. Chornobyl was the first destination of the Russian Army. After the Russians left, access to zona was again restricted to the public. Postapocalyptic tourism was banned. Journalists were not allowed—with a few exceptions.
Not a soul. No life. “No one was there to witness this noisy arrival,” writes Luke Harding in Invasion, his firsthand account of the war. “The bridge across the Pripyat River led to a densely forested zone, strangely devoid of life.” Before the Russians occupied Chornobyl, “once a year, around Easter time, relatives were allowed in to visit the graves of their loved ones, located in villages and towns where residents had once lived full and busy lives,” Harding writes. “Now, they left flowers and promptly departed.”
I’ve seen those graves with plastic roses and rushniks, Ukrainian linen towels decorated with embroidery. In Ukrainian folk culture, rushnik is a bridge across the river of life, a return to the world of ancestors. Worn at weddings and funerals, a rushnik accompanies a person from birth to burial and decorates every home. The hidden symbolism of the ornament takes the material object to the spiritual dimension.
I inherited a few frail linen rushniks, blood-red poppies blossoming on thin fabric. Poppies, abundant here, protect the household and symbolize the blood of soldiers fallen on the battlefield. One of my would-be life storylines is encoded on this rushnik. In 1986, my teenage love and I stole gentle-petaled poppies near Chornobyl, and in a nearby village, we made heroin and plans to get clean and build a home. We knew nothing of radiation. The Soviet authorities kept the explosion a secret for as long as they could to avoid panic and to support belief in the Communist Party. Two years later, I gathered the strength to leave my adolescent heroin romance—and fiancé—behind. I stumbled upon his name on the list of missing prisoners of war in 2022.
I NEED A PERMIT TO VISIT CHORNOBYL. I wait and wait, turn to other projects, travel around Ukraine, speaking to anyone who had worked and lived in zona. During a long blackout in Odesa, I meet Gennady Nechaevsky, an engineer turned entrepreneur. As we sip red wine, he recalls the free red wine of Chornobyl—a bottle a day for anyone working in zona. The Soviet authorities believed the wine broke down radiation. In the dim light of a sushi place called Cosmos, to the humming of a generator, Gennady tells Chornobyl jokes and describes Chornobyl’s reality—sometimes it is hard to distinguish one from another. At age twenty, Gennady was put in charge of all transport at the liquidation. He looks back without regret or nostalgia but with an Odesan’s deadpan humor.
“The Communist Party said it was our duty to fix it,” says Gennady. “It was USSR, and everything was falling apart. I demanded to improve the logistics and avoided being arrested for anti-Soviet propaganda only because my boss was fired for stealing and selling fuel.”
He talks about living in tents in the radioactive forest, getting to the worksite before dawn, as if it were an internship at a corporate office. From the end of May to the beginning of August 1986, his team built two hundred houses—mainly for young people who fled the town of Pripyat on the day of explosion. Older people from Chornobyl, who were also forced to evacuate—with only thirty minutes to gather their belongings—returned to their empty houses between 1987 and 1989, after the first sarcophagus over the reactor was built. Gennady swirls the red wine in his glass, looks through it at the blinking lightbulb. Air raid sirens howl, but the café is still full. Bomb shelters in Odesa are few; everyone eats sushi and waits for the raid to end.
“I remember the wheat taller than me, giant, monstrous apples, and raspberries,” says Gennady. “The radiation dose was so high that the dosimeters went off the scale. All of us had sore throats. I lost my hair then, at twenty: I would wake up and find handfuls of hair on my pillow.”
As I leave Cosmos, I see a parked car with a sticker: WHAT IS MY SUPERPOWER? I AM UKRAINIAN.
LATER I SPEAK ABOUT THE FORCED evacuation from Chornobyl with Olga Dmitrienko, an ecologist and author. We sit in a small café next to a charred and destroyed residential building. A typical Soviet apartment block, it looks as if Godzilla took a bite in its middle: a slide of kitchen walls and curtains, cascade of sofas and blankets, with torn wires and cables sticking out like nerve endings. Olga had lost friends during the Russian overnight air bombing at the beginning of the war. Her son is at the front. She is helping to look for mass graves in her town and assists with exhumations. Remembering Chornobyl is a hard switch, and her bright blue eyes fill with tears. She pours homemade sweet cherry drink in a plastic glass she brought from home and places it next to my coffee. Chornobyl means love to her: a couple of months after the explosion, Olga met and married her husband in the zona. In 2022, they both survived the Russian occupation. I want to tell her about my Chornobyl love, but I don’t find words, so I just drink the dense cherry lemonade and ask about her story.
Olga worked twenty miles from the nuclear power station, testing the soil, grain cultures, potatoes, and beets and delivering samples to the lab. When the harvest started, her job was to determine the level of radiation. All this produce was then destroyed or processed for animal food. The dosimeters’ constant high-pitch squealing, scars on her fingertips from daily blood tests, and love—that’s Olga’s Chornobyl.
“We lived in the only village with people in it—left, probably, for experiments—and worked in empty villages,” she remembers. “As we were walking down the streets, firefighting trucks sprayed houses and yards with water hoses. Helicopters poured chemicals from above in the hope of eliminating the radiation. It was everywhere. You didn’t see it. You saw it later, with all the oncology diseases, but at the time, when evacuation workers came to remove locals from around Chornobyl, some hid in the forest, and others returned later.”
Outside the café, a young couple lays white flowers by the monument to Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian poet. The bronze bust stares mournfully at the ruins in front of him, a bullet mark in the forehead.
A rubber ball, abandoned thirty-five years ago, cracked in two, the top part slightly shifted over the bottom, a black crack yearning.
AFTER WEEKS OF WAITING, I finally have a permit to report from the radioactive war zone—and my personal guide, Luda. I think of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker. A guide—a stalker—leads tortured travelers on a quest through zona, an apocalyptic murderous landscape, to fulfill their innermost desire. Like an original stalker, Luda is in love with zona. She is polite, with a shiny black bob, a bit aloof at first, and lives in a nearby village with her husband and daughter.
The sun is blazing as we drive through a wild thicket to the ghost town Pripyat, and the inside of the car smells funny, like an old attic. Luda points at a wooden crucifix leaning into an acacia bush, a faded rushnik tied up around the Savior. We drive along Lenin Prospect, a central street eaten up by forest, mined on both sides by the Russian military. We can’t walk to abandoned grocery stores and cafés to see the preserved Soviet mosaic and stained-glass windows; we could be blown to pieces.
“A home for the nuclear power plant’s fifty thousand staff, Pripyat was evacuated the day after the accident,” says Luda. “No one has lived here since.”
Pripyat is homelessness in re-verse: homes without people. Homes that kill.
An uninhabited block of flats looks identical to the building I grew up in. A toxic yellow telephone booth at the entrance has no phone inside. I dial into the void: 126-8513. My home doesn’t exist anymore. My parents are dead. The beep fades away.
In the uncanniest dream I have ever had in my life, a slice of cold cod fillet lay on a porcelain plate. Each time I peeled a layer of firm, flaky flesh with a fork, our old rotary telephone rang in the distance as if from underwater. Each fatty, beige, slimy slice stayed silent and dead while the ringing got louder and louder, closer and closer, calling for me. Layer by layer, I dug into the state of nonbeing.
“A slogan—Glory to Lenin! Glory to the party!—was here,” says Luda. “But it is now gone.”
Underneath the Ferris wheel, by the side of the path, two white enamel toilet seats glisten like dead fish, swollen bellies up. Luda walks around, explaining that during the invasion the Russian military, notorious for stealing sinks, washing machines, and refrigerators, tore the radioactive household appliances out of the abandoned apartments to take back home. They ran out of space in their trucks, and toilet seats became a new feature of the most murderous amusement park in the world.
Through the trembling leaves, a USSR coat of arms stares at me: a see-through hammer and sickle etched in the lead sky, a bloody cherry of a red star on top. Flaming ruby apples hang off a tree and roll over the grass and moss, deadly and beautiful.
“Don’t step on the moss,” says Luda. “Radioactive.”
MY LIFE, LIKE THE LIVES of many immigrants, is split in halves. But like on a rushnik, I can trace the repeating motifs and constellations in it: nineteenth-century photographs of my ancestors from a studio in their town of Uman; the dusty sun-filled Odesa summers of my childhood; teenage drawings of the Chernihiv’s old churches; heroin delirium and love of Chornobyl petals; the oil- and resin-tasting healing water of Carpathian spa towns; and gentle language, like a lullaby and the Black Sea murmur. Living in California, I kept coming back to Ukraine in my writing until the writing finally brought me back to Ukraine. I wrote a novel about Odesa and a novella about Chornobyl. I collected and translated memories of Chornobyl survivors. I wove my writer’s rushnik into a magic carpet that transported me back.
A RUBBER BALL, ABANDONED thirty-five years ago, cracked in two, the top part slightly shifted over the bottom, a black crack yearning—this might be the eeriest thing in Pripyat yet. I think of the silent jingle bells, strange orbs of surrealist painter René Magritte’s The Voice of Space. He called them “dangerous plants at the edge of an abyss.” Surrealists have nothing on Pripyat though. Marcel Duchamp and his iconic urinal? Again, Magritte? Not a chance. Symbols and objects, devoid of purpose, do not just take up layers of new, absurd meanings. Toilets torn out of homes would turn you into glowing pillars. Mundane, private objects could kill. In 1986, residents’ personal items were buried in a place called Sandy Plateau for a reason. Life turned into waste. The land turned into a wasteland. An empire turned into a mass grave.
Both familiar and distant, alien and deeply ingrained, Pripyat images float by like the horrid death fish of my dream. A post-Soviet hiraeth is a dangerous kind. Raging homesickness and nostalgia for the ancestral country, an illusory prison-home, drove hordes of Russian soldiers to zona. I feel nauseating emptiness, the inability to find my own home in this world.
Luda and I walk the cement path to the Polissya hotel, named after the land here, derived from lis, forest. The forest is everywhere, a bizarre northern jungle. A lone Christmas glass ball hangs off the fir tree, swaying in the summer breeze. Time stands still, the worms of time gnawing on zona in silence. No, time doesn’t just stand still—it is obsolete here. April 26, 1986, stalled. I heard the same about February 24, 2022. Many in Ukraine said it never ended. In Chornobyl, in Pripyat, this interruption, this time glitch, is multilayered like everything else. An edge of a chemise sticking from underneath an old skirt. Space frozen in time; time imprinted in space. Frailty of being in the quietest place in the world.
I pass a rusty metal box that used to be a water dispenser, an empty glass that sits upside down on a small shelf, and feel tiny bubbles of carbonated water tinged with cream soda syrup, three kopeks a pop, bursting on my palate. A mini-sarcophagus for a bygone era, a crystal coffin for a failed dream, imprisoned love.
A FOX RUNS OUT OF THE poplar jungle, unafraid of people, begging for food. Luda tells me lynx, wild boars, wolves, and also Przewalski’s horses live in zona. Fellow travelers in space, Nikolai Przewalski first encountered these horses in Central Asia in 1879. They have faced extinction in the wild since 1969. Short, stocky, fiery, the horses made zona their home in 1988, when thirty-one were brought to Chornobyl. Since then, they have multiplied and wander around empty villages and overgrown fields, known for their fierce temper. They attack wolves, says Luda.
We drive through the Red Forest, the most contaminated area in zona, and along the rusty railroad track. Farther on, through the pines on the other side of the road, I see a sarcophagus, the arch, covering the melted reactor like the carbonated water glass sheltering nothingness. The painful landscape is at its best here: unfinished cooling devices stomp the land like an invisible elephant’s legs. Monstrous transmission towers, giant daddy longlegs, crisscross the skies. In many folk fairy tales, the forest is the portal to the world of the dead. The Red Forest is no such thing; it is dead. In 1986, radioactive dust stuck to the pine needles, killing the trees. Soviet bulldozers buried the infected forest in ditches, pouring a layer of sand on top. The new trees growing here are saturated with radionuclides: killer trees. That did not stop the Russian military from making the Red Forest their home in 2022.
“CHORNOBYL,” SAYS MY STALKER. “A town founded in 1193 on a hill over the Pripyat River. In 1986, before the accident, Chornobyl’s population was approximately fourteen thousand.”
Once a military outpost, the town still has the aura of an old fortress. The remaining boxy buildings feature Soviet bas-reliefs with “peaceful atoms” and robust workers. We drive past cherry and plum orchards turned into thickets. Deserted houses stare with shattered windows. The strong smell of something old makes me gag, and I recognize it: our car has the same faint odor. Living in Chornobyl permanently is prohibited. Yet, drowning in poplar, birches, chestnut, weeping willows, firs, and high grass, the town is not empty. It is populated by the police, as well as forestry and station service staff working here on rotation. And some call Chornobyl home.
“Samosely, squatters, live in zona illegally, and authorities evict them in vain,” says Luda. “As of 2016, a hundred samosely lived in the town of Chornobyl. The average age was seventy-six. We will meet some, but for now we are driving by the Wormwood Star Memorial.” Chornobyl—from chornobylnik, literally “black herb” in Ukrainian—means “wormwood.” Many believe that the book of Revelation predicted the disaster. “The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many died from the water, because it was made bitter.”
In the center of the park, the third angel is trumpeting away. Luda is telling me the story of zona. It was home to 188 settlements. Most of them are no more. People were evacuated. Bulldozers dug up pits. Empty villages collapsed into nothingness. Burial mounds rose over them. By the time the vehicles buried it all, they glowed from radiation.
WE BUMP INTO OUR FIRST Chornobyl samosel, Evhen, by the fence of a small white cottage with a bright blue roof and emerald window shutters. Looking suave in his sailor’s shirt and a white hat, silver moustache shining in the sun, he chops wood with an axe and moves heavy pine trunks around with ease. Smiling, Evhen invites us to follow him into the yard. Built around 1915, his grandfather’s house looks sturdy, just like the owner.
Evhen’s wife cooks borscht outside and doesn’t mind us. Dappled sunlight plays through the foliage. Dogs and cats sit and lie around the yard in the sun, too many to count, between giant sunflowers and pumpkins. An aroma of dense beet soup mixes with the scent of sawdust, and an old attic, dry, sweet hay, mothballs, dog fur, hot dust, and old copper intoxicates. Bees and flies buzz over the enamel pots holding dog food and water. Kuzya the dog settles by a wooden bench and closes his eyes, waking up to snap a fly out of the air. Evhen sits next to him.
“I have lived here since seven, and I am eighty-one now,” he says. “If they make me leave, what do I take? Clothes? Photo albums? This war is terrible, a betrayal by Russia. Son of a bitch, Putin, damn KGB. He makes people abandon everything and leave their homes.”
Evhen, a domestics schoolteacher, first had to leave his home after the power plant exploded. He couldn’t stay away, though. He faked documents and returned to work as a dosimeter operator for twenty-two years.
He pets Kuzya and says, “Last spring, Kuzya ran to the Russian soldiers, and I was afraid they’d shoot him. I went over and spoke Russian—they liked it. Young lads in their early twenties. I saw no aggression overall. Only one, with a face like a beet, looked angry. Every morning, they drove armored vehicles along the street, sitting on top. Going looting. All shops were robbed.”
In 1986, after the nuclear accident, Evhen felt anxious as he didn’t know what would happen, and he feels the same now. Russians have retreated, but for how long? He is also afraid the alienation zone’s current administration might finally push the samosely out.
Evhen gets up to take some firewood to his neighbor, and we follow him. Valentyna, another samosel, invites us to her house, airy and spacious, with wildflower bouquets everywhere, carpets on the walls, and the same thick aroma enveloping everything in Chornobyl. A table is laid out for lunch: salo, a Ukrainian signature dish, salted and smoked pork fat; sliced, steaming dumplings; pickled cucumbers; and bursting tomatoes from the kitchen garden. Valentyna’s cheeks are smooth, almost childlike, and bright eyes shine from underneath her neat pink headscarf. Her dog Dana sits by her leg.
“Forgive the mess. We have so much stuff here from our neighbors. Everyone had to flee because of this war, leave their houses,” says Valentyna. “The war . . . My childhood was stolen by the war, by the German Nazis.”
Valentyna, born in 1939, has clear memories of that war. She remembers bombs flying, howling through the pillow her mother pushed over her ears. The family fled and later returned to Chornobyl on a raft, sailing through the swamp and narrow Pripyat River.
“When we passed by a boat with wounded soldiers, our raft flipped, and all eighteen kids fell in the water.” Valentyna sank straight to the bottom. Everything went yellow before her eyes. She thought she’d never see her mother again, and that’s when her mother pulled her up from the water by the hair. She sweeps invisible crumbs from her apron, smooths her headscarf, and smiles a little.
“‘Thinking of mother is like seeing a God,’ my grandma used to say,” says Valentyna. “This is how we returned home. Once, a huge pike jumped on that raft—we cooked and ate it, we were so hungry. The potatoes on the other side of the river were out of reach—it was all mined.”
“Just like now,” says Luda.
Luda has changed a bit. She’s also smiling and loses her official tone. Valentyna’s daughter is fussing around the table. A ginger kitten is meowing, begging for sausage.
“We had a great life, worked a lot, and sang and danced. Shared everything. Then, the nuclear explosion took my home again.”
The church buried Valentyna’s family house by the river—“like a person”—in 1988. She was born in that house, gave birth to her kids and cared for her grandchildren there. Later, in 1996, her second house was buried too. Then, she buried her husband and, still refusing to leave Chornobyl, moved to a third house. In 2022, Russians came knocking on the door with their machine guns, looking for Nazis.
Water pipes were damaged on the first day of the invasion. Samosely had no power or heat, no communication. All stores were closed. Some tried to climb trees to pick up a cell signal and speak to their family in other parts of Ukraine, but Russian snipers could see them, even in their yards.
“In Chornobyl, we got lucky. They didn’t kill anyone—not a person, not a dog or a cat. Still, Russians robbed the laboratories in town and dug trenches in the Red Forest. As they were finally leaving, retreating, they didn’t have a map and couldn’t figure out which way to flee. They asked us, ‘Which way do we go?’”
She heads outside to meet her son, still talking, “They tried to remove my birthplace, my homeland. But homeland is everything—the walls are holding you up. I tried to leave so many times, but no!—Chornobyl pulls you back. You can’t leave.”
Standing in a doorway, a light curtain billowing in the breeze, she reads me her poem: “The church stands on guard on the hill. It sees everything—yet it is silent. No one’s here to heal the wounds.”
Not far from Valentyna’s house, the white and turquoise, purple and gold, multilayered St. Elijah Church has an air of bright sadness about it. Come to me all in need and in trouble, and I will give you rest, reads the inscription over the entrance in Old Slavic. Scarlet and white tea roses bloom in the yard.
“A wooden church was built here in 1749, burned in 1873, and a stone one was erected in its place, with local eggs and cow’s milk added to the solution to the foundation,” explains Luda. She is now back to being official, but the visit to Valentyna changed us.
This bitter home, abandoned by most, buried by the river, inhabited by ghosts and dreamers, grabs me by the throat and pulls me back.
We drive to the administrative building. The hallways look like snapshots of a Soviet documentary, with 1970s posters giving step-by-step emergency measures for nuclear accidents. Then, an inverted black swastika graffiti on the door. A new Russian swastika, red “Z” over a mirror. Oleksandr, an engineer who stayed in Chornobyl throughout the occupation, says, “They kicked out the doors, drew their signs, and broke everything. All computers, printers, and equipment were broken or stolen. They put me face down on the floor and threatened me with an AK.” Why? “They came to kill. Invade. Liberate—from life.” Oleksandr stares at the floor, and adds, “My whole family still lives under occupation. I don’t know if they are alive.”
I ASK LUDA TO TAKE ME TO MY final destination: the graves of Chornobyl tsadiks, Jewish saints. One of the major branches of the Hasidic movement was born in Chornobyl. My ancestors were Ukrainian Jews. They were killed by the Nazis, buried in a mass grave. I know little about them.
“In 1566, the first Jews settled here, and by 1898, out of the total 10,800 population, 7,200 were Jews,” says Luda. “Pogroms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries forced many Jews out. A legend goes that tsadik predicted that Chornobyl would be abandoned in one hundred years. The Soviet authorities destroyed Jewish cemeteries and sent rabbis into exile. The Nazis occupied Chornobyl, killing 570 remaining Jews in a mass execution. All that is left here are these two graves, an old cemetery, and one synagogue out of five.”
A lock on the garagelike brick building is broken, and the door is ajar. Inside, it’s dark. The heavy smell and heat almost make me sick. I step off the path.
“Don’t,” says Luda. “Radiation. Mines. You can’t go there. I am sorry.”
Tall grass whispers in the wind. Silence—a requiem for people without a home, in a home without people. “Chornobyl is a mystical city where the past grabs you by the coattails,” said a former Chief Rabbi of Ukraine Yaakov Dov Bleich in 2003.
This bitter home, abandoned by most, buried by the river, inhabited by ghosts and dreamers, grabs me by the throat and pulls me back. Anemoia, the longing for what’s absent, for what can never return, for what had never existed in the first place or was a terrible, murderous, evil opiate-infused fuzzy dream. Human mosaic of murdered ancestors, poisoned and imprisoned love, delirious dictators, soldiers driven by greed, scientists blinded by hubris, and samosely. Poignant, intangible, and elusive essence of Chornobyl, the never-ending quest for the innermost—what? The home we have never built and could never keep? As soon as you name it, the meaning evaporates.
Driving back from zona, through this bare soul landscape, an eternal wandering Jew, I peel off layers of collective and personal history, digging myself a grave in the poisoned forest, looking for the roots. I feel like a pike throwing myself out of the wormwood water on a flipping raft of being. The rotary phone rings fade into the abyss.