Reportage. Violent clashes in the contaminated area, but no damage to canisters with radioactive waste. The fate of the samosely is unknown

The battle of Chernobyl: The Russian army now occupies the plant

The Russian army has occupied the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and taken control of all 2,600 km of the Exclusion Zone. The situation now seems to have stabilized, but before the last foreigners in the area were evacuated, employees were given military helmets.

According to the Ukrainian president’s office, there have been violent clashes inside the safety perimeter itself, and there have been some victims, but it does not appear that any containers with radioactive waste have been damaged. Moreover, Russian soldiers are said to be limited to maintaining control of the plant without entering or touching the new sarcophagus that protects what remains of reactor number 4 which exploded in 1986. The risk of a new nuclear disaster remains minimal, unless there is a deliberate intention to destroy the concrete protection that surrounds the reactor and the corium.

The fate of about 180 samosely is unknown, citizens who refused to evacuate the area after 1986, which have been joined by Ukrainians displaced from the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.

In the contaminated area, the fighting destroyed a bridge near an abandoned village, and some families located in the town of Chernobyl, about seven kilometers from the plant of the same name, witnessed the shooting down of a Russian SU-25 plane that allegedly took off from Belarusian territory.

During a visit I had made to the area prior to the invasion, Ukrainian refugees, unlike the samosely, had expressed fears that Putin might order an attack on the Exclusion Zone as well.

Among these insecurities, Ukrainian nationalism, fueled, as it always happens, by the fear of a war coming from outside, has found new adepts: there are many who remember the Holodomor, literally “death by starvation.” The period between 1932 and 1933 in which millions of Ukrainians died of starvation has always been seen as a deliberate political choice explicitly wanted by Stalin to exterminate the Ukrainian people.

Little attention is paid to testimonies and statistics that show that other regions as well, such as Kazakhstan, the Volga region, the Urals and Western Siberia, also suffered the same fate. According to an increasing number of Ukrainians, the designated victim of the Stalinist policy of extermination by starvation was Ukraine alone.

In the same way that the Holodomor was used by the government to distance itself from Moscow, the Ukrainian Church was no less utilized. As is often the case, religion is a formidable tool to gain popular support. In December 2018, a schism occurred between the Orthodox Church of Moscow and that of Constantinople, which recognized the autocephaly of the Church of Kyiv, which until then had been under the leadership of Moscow and its patriarch, Cyril.

In January 2019, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, delivered the decree of autocephaly to the Patriarch of Kyiv, Epiphanius, officially approving the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the other Church in the country, also Orthodox, but subject to the Moscow Patriarchate.

The split, as it was logical to expect, followed an ethnic-linguistic divide: Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk continued to be faithful to Patriarch Cyril, while the central-western regions have, for the most part, chosen autocephaly.

The latter option was also taken by the small church of St. Elijah, the only one still functioning in Chernobyl. Here, the small community working at the former Vladimir Lenin power plant to complete the decommissioning that is scheduled to end in 2065 meets every Sunday. “We are Ukrainians and we want to be 100 percent Ukrainian,” a girl tells me, whose family, originally from Prypiat, was evacuated to Kyiv in 1986 and returns every year on April 25 to commemorate the anniversary of the nuclear accident with a mass. “We don’t want to forget, but we also don’t want to go back to relive the past.”

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