Editor’s Note: Sasha Dovzhyk is a special projects curator at the Ukrainian Institute London and Associate Lecturer in Ukrainian at School of Slavonic and East-European Studies, University College London. She has a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Birkbeck, University of London. She divides her time between the UK and Ukraine. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
What enemy did you fight in your nightmares as a kid? Mine had no shape, no voice, no smell or taste, but it could creep under my skin and erode me from the inside.
Since the age of 10, when I stumbled upon a book about the consequences of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster, I had regular nightmares about radiation poisoning. My best friend and writing partner had to suffer through my renditions of those nightmares in prose and verse throughout our school years.
Growing up in Zaporizhzhia, the south eastern Ukrainian city some 50 kilometers (30 miles) away from the largest nuclear plant in Europe – now the site of Russia’s shelling and mounting fears of nuclear disaster – we were no strangers to atomic anxiety.
Afterall, the Chornobyl catastrophe, which had happened just two years before I was born, popped up regularly in the school curriculum.
Textbooks aside, my aunt was among those Soviet citizens who marched unknowingly in central Kyiv during the May Day parade in 1986 while, some 110 kilometers (68 miles) to the north, Chornobyl’s Reactor 4 was breathing radiation into the sky.
While the western world is mourning the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, Ukrainians remember the last Soviet ruler for those festivities in irradiated Kyiv and his Chornobyl cover up.
In our last year at school, we went on a trip to Enerhodar, a small town which houses the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. I was secretly disappointed by the orderly dullness of the station. Throughout the 2000s, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reportedly rated the plant as one of the best-run in the world.
The station looked neat, well-organized, and so did the thousands of employees in charge of its six nuclear reactors. My strongest memory from that trip was the bus breaking down in the fields on our way back home.
Now, two decades later, those fields are on fire, my hometown is in the grip of war and the neat professionals of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant have been taken hostage by the occupiers and work under huge physical and psychological pressures.
I wonder how orderly the station looks with nearly 50 items of military equipment stored at the site from which Russians regularly shell the nearby Ukrainian city of Nikopol, launching up to 120 rockets per night. I doubt the IAEA commission that is about to cross the frontline and inspect the station will rate it among the safest in the world again.
The Russian army captured the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in March, with staff reportedly operating at gunpoint. It happened on a rare night that I spent alone in a rented flat in Lviv. During those first weeks of the full-scale invasion, it was normal to share accommodation with many friends and strangers: Ukrainians from the east, south and north of the country were moving westwards, fleeing from the invading troops and bombings.
Among them were my parents who had just left for Germany. My best friend, the loyal recipient of my nuclear-inspired teenage writing, was on her way from Zaporizhzhia to Lviv together with her young family. A news alert woke me up after half an hour of anxious sleep. I watched a video of the Russian military shelling the nuclear power plant that had cast a shadow over my childhood. In my nightmares, people were smarter than that. This was no dream. Reality turned out to be way more ominous.
The Russian servicemen shelling the reactors could be suicide bombers. Or, they could lack basic schooling on radiation hazards that an average Ukrainian child experiences no end of. The same lack of knowledge was on display in the invaders’ decision to dig trenches in the Red Forest during their aborted mission on Kyiv. Situated in the heart of the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone, the forest is one of the most contaminated nuclear sites in the world. It is impossible to imagine a Ukrainian disturbing this burial of radioactive waste.
The tragedy of Chornobyl is part of the collective memory in Ukraine. It has seeped into national literature and driven politics. Documenting the experience of the survivors, Ukrainian writers such as Ivan Drach and Volodymyr Yavorivskyi turned anti-nuclear activists, founded grassroot political organizations and campaigned for independence from Moscow – which had allowed the worst nuclear disaster in history take place on Ukrainian soil and downplayed the consequences.
Indeed, the Kremlin’s cover up of the disaster became a powerful cause that enabled Ukrainian environmentalists and dissidents to shake the foundations of Soviet rule. Five years after the catastrophe, Ukrainians voted themselves out of the Soviet Union. The independence of the modern Ukrainian state has a nuclear birthmark. This political association makes nuclear energy the topic of remembrance in Ukraine – and the site of amnesia in Russia.
In March, I hugged my best friend who was about to cross the border and seek safety for her children in western Europe. As a keepsake, I gave her my favorite book of poetry. It is with words as well as arms that Ukrainians are used to fighting their foes.
In case we faced an enemy that couldn’t be fought with either, my friend gave me four iodine pills. I’ve carried her goodbye gift in my wallet throughout the six months of Russian nuclear terrorism.
Now my aunt, who 36 years ago was summoned to march under Chornobyl’s radioactive cloud, is one of the residents queuing for government distributed iodine in Zaporizhzhia. If the occupiers cause a radiation accident at the occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, our hometown will likely end up in a new exclusion zone – and radiation spread does not stick within zones and borders.
For the eight years that Russia has waged its war against Ukraine, Ukrainians have been warning the international community about the dangers of active fighting in the vicinity of Europe’s largest nuclear plant. Their warnings have not been heard. The aggressor has been appeased.
It is now the job of the international community to return control over the objects of civilian nuclear infrastructure in Ukraine to those who treat them with the knowledge of history, respect for the past and responsibility for the future: to Ukrainians.
The writer uses the Ukrainian spelling of Chornobyl.