The black grass of Chernobyl: the history of the city of death


by Francesco Battistini


Black grass. Few names contain a destiny like Chernobyl: in Ukrainian, literally, the “black grass”. That species of mugwort that hallucinates, gets sick, becomes covered with soot. Before Chernobyl became Chernobyl, its grass was famous for its abundant primroses and well-kept flowerbeds that grew two kilometers from the nuclear power plant, in Prypiat, in the capital straddling Ukraine and Belarus which in Soviet times called everyone the City of Flowers and which saw a renowned children’s hospital flourish, a large shopping center, two hotels, quite a few bars and restaurants, cinemas, theaters, multipurpose centers …

Where there was black grass, there is now a ghost town. The ramshackle Ferris wheel, which immediately stopped spinning. The silent playground. The empty and chipped pool, with the sunbeds left where they were. The houses abandoned and looted by jackals, unconscious fools who still today enter the forbidden area to steal contaminated souvenirs and radioactive metals to be sold to who knows who. If in these months of Covid we have all learned what lockdown is, in those years of cesium the world discovered how to survive a meltdown: the collapse of a radioactive core, the fusion, the catastrophe that worsened even then for a series of errors from inexperience, censorship from stupidity, lies from criminals, delays from dictatorship.

At 1:23 on the night of April 26, when the reactor number 4 “Lenin” exploded and to tell the world it was not the USSR authorities, but the American spy satellites that photographed a strange cloud rising from Chernobyl, that marked 1986 our first environmental and global emergency. A radioactive bomb, 500 times more powerful than the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. With the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the communist party, which from Moscow denied and downplayed and remained silent. With the poor and unsuspecting inhabitants of Prypiat who on the first evening immediately went to the railway bridge – now remembered as the Bridge of Death – to gaze at that wonderful and frightening atomic rainbow that rose up to the stars, to let themselves be invested unaware of the radioactive breeze that in a few weeks he would kill them. With the nuclear experts of that time, like the virologists of today, very good at explaining everything and the opposite of everything, but essentially unable to face an unprecedented disaster and to avoid a chain of death that after 34 years we have not yet measured.

Photographer Roland Vernant at work (Ipa Agency)
Photographer Roland Vernant at work (Ipa Agency)

According to unreliable official accounts, there were 65 deaths and 4 thousand thyroid cancers. To count well, it was an incalculable massacre: at least 30 thousand victims, in the immediate and subsequent decades, 400 thousand displaced people and five million people forced to undergo special medical checks, three million children sent for years to seek treatment abroad (the famous ” Chernobyl children ”, which filled our summer colonies), thousands of malformed infants (in Germany only, for every thousand parts, the average number of Down syndrome cases jumped from 1.35 to 46), an impressive increase in all of Europe bifid spines, anencephaly and cancers caused by radioactive cesium and iodine …
To extinguish, buffer, decontaminate, rescue, transport, evacuate and anything else, 850 thousand were hired among firefighters, litigers and “liquidators”. They were professionals, or volunteers often in spite of themselves, at first sent out of control and with bare hands, then instructed to wear special suits and to clean up the graphite and not to remain in place for more than 40 seconds, under penalty of death by radiation; a 2004 research found that the children and grandchildren of many of those “liquidators” still carry serious ailments and congenital diseases in the body.

In the Chernobyl woods, teams were sent with the order to kill all the stray dogs and animals left without a master. Since then – and to the amusement of the one hundred thousand tourists a year who wear special shields from Kiev, they measure themselves with a geiger and then leave on guided tours of the explosion – – horror fantasies are circulating in these parts (see the film “ Chernobyl Diaries “, 2012) on genetic mutations caused by the cloud. Mostly these are urban legends, even if the signs left on nature are profound. The nuclear plague anointed the Russians, the Belarusians and the Ukrainians, then touched Scandinavia, Holland, Belgium, Great Britain, then turned to Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the northern Mediterranean, hit Austria hard , Switzerland and Bavaria: in 2014, almost thirty years after the meltdown, wild boars, deer and reindeer were found in Sweden as well as on the border between Italy and Slovenia with concentrations of radioactivity up to ten times the norm. In Italy the cloud dominated us for four days, from April 30 to May 3, there was a long bridge and people enjoyed the first sun outdoors. Nobody imposed a cloister by Covid, only the consumption of fruit and vegetables and little else was banned (except for the referendum which, the following year, would have canceled all nuclear power plants from our energy heritage). In 2013, the Prosecutor of Vercelli opened an investigation into the anomalous contamination of certain agricultural fields, which can still be found in the subsoil over ten centimeters. According to Greenpeace, the Chernobyl Alienation Zone – a thirty kilometer belt where it is forbidden to live and carry out any activity – will remain uninhabitable for the next three thousand years: someone is going to predict twenty-four thousand.

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