Before the Chernobyl accident, this farming village was much like any other in the rural Soviet Union. Children ran the dirt streets, cows wandered the pastures and residents worked the fields, growing enough grain to send off to the big cities and keep workers at the nearby nuclear power plant fed.
Now living in the dead zone is hardly living at all.
The 104 residents of Ilyntsty have no running water, no cars, no shops, two phones and a once-a-month bus to a market. Bread is trucked in every Wednesday. Milk on Fridays. Water is lifted, bucket by bucket, from wells.
The average age of Ilyntsty residents is 59. There are no schools because there are no children.
“My grandparents lived and are buried here, my parents lived here, and I have always lived here,” says Mikhailo Radkevich, 71. “I know every trail, every path, every tree. I do not plan to live anywhere else before I die.”
Two days after the No. 4 reactor exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, Soviet police and troops sealed off an 18-mile zone around the plant and permanently evacuated 85,000 people. It was contaminated, unfit for human life.
A decade after that explosion on April 26, 1986, 647 determined, elderly residents have sneaked, bribed their way or openly walked back into the zone. They are attached to the land and to their memories, and they find the risk worth taking.
“We have tried every possible way to convince these people that it is not safe to live here but some just won’t leave,” says Nikolai Dmitruk, the Ukrainian government official who oversees the zone. “We could pick them up and force them out, but that would be morally wrong. These are old people. Most of them grew up here. They have family memories. They came home to die.”
Life in the zone may be a shadow of its former self, but it is not empty. Some 11,000 people are bused in to work, including 6,000 at the Chernobyl station, where two reactors continue to operate. Elk and wild boar are common sights. Forests are thick with vegetation.
Residents are what’s missing.
The power plant workers come and go in shifts that are never more than 12 hours, to reduce radiation risks. The air is mostly fine to breathe, but the topsoil and underground springs are heavily irradiated and will be for decades to come. Radioactive fuel and equipment are buried in dozens of spots, turning fields into heavy radiation zones.
Absolutely no one lives within a 6-mile radius of the plant. Another 12-mile-wide belt surrounding that is where the few hundred people have returned to live out their lives. They’re convinced they will die of other causes long before the radiation they are absorbing overcomes them.
Hundreds of elderly returnees have died. Was it their age? Illnesses brought on by radiation, which destroys immune systems? No one knows for certain.
“I love the natural feel of the place, the forests and fields and quiet,” says Galina Ovsienko, 57. “The worst thing is that there are no children. The police won’t let them past the checkpoints.”
Death of a village
Ilyntsty was once an active rural village, typical of the Ukrainian countryside.
The one-street village near a collective farm was home to 2,000 residents. There were shops, a twostory school, plentiful food. It had been that way for decades.
Mikhailo Radkevich met his future bride, Maria, at a town dance nearly half a century ago. They and the village had been through rough times, but in the end it was nothing like living in the shadow of Chernobyl.
The forced farm collectivization and terror under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin played out in the 1930s. Millions of people across Ukraine starved to death. Those who resisted were shot.
“We farmed the land, but the Soviets took all the crops and wouldn’t let us eat,” Radevich remembers. “If you got caught with even a potato, you were shot.”
Then came the Nazis.
In Radkevich’s memory, the Nazis arrived June 22, 1941. There was little fighting; the villagers had only a few hunting rifles. He was 16. The Nazis marched him all the way to Germany, where he was enslaved in a work camp.
After the war, he and Maria happily returned to the chores on the collective farm. Life under the Communists, though hard, provided the basics. They were left in peace in their tin-roofed house.
Then came Chernobyl, which managed to do in an instant what Stalin’s terror and Nazi brutality could not. It killed Ilyntsty.
They heard of the Chernobyl explosion on the radio. But they lived 10 miles from the reactor. Surely, they thought, no harm could come to them being so far away. They never suspected their land and that for thousands of miles around would be contaminated by something you couldn’t see or feel.
Days later, Soviet police ordered everyone out. Warrants were nailed to doors. Houses were padlocked.
The couple, like most others in the village, were taken to a miserable hamlet called Nailivaiko, in central Ukraine. The government hastily built concrete block homes for them on the moors. When the snow melted in spring, the houses flooded. The floorboards buckled.
“We decided home was better than that,” says Maria Radkevich. They decided to walk home.
In April 1987, they turned onto Lenin Street, the only paved street in Ilyntsty, and headed for home. They passed old Tetyana Kornienko, who had hidden in her house and never left. Closer still, they saw Olga Fominenko, their neighbor for decades.
And then they turned one more corner, walked up to the planked fence that surrounded their house and yard, pulled the warrant off the gate and walked inside.
“Not a thing was disturbed,” Maria says. “The covers were still on the bed. The chairs were still here. Shoes were still in the hallway.”
The livestock they’d had was slaughtered, so they started over. They planted a small garden with potato seeds they’d brought along. They got a few chickens. Nine years have passed.
The farm looks like it used to. They have health checkups once a year, but they are not worried.
“We eat radiation every day,” Mikhailo says with a smile. “But we are only going to live another five years or so anyway.”
For the inhabitants of Ilyntsty, the worst is knowing that they are the last.
“When we die, nothing will be here,” says Matryona Radkevich, a distant relation to Mikhailo and Maria. “Our children will not come. The village will pass on with us.”