Think "Chernobyl" and images of derelict buildings, overgrown streets, and a certain rusting, yellow ferris wheel might fill your mind. Now, more than 30 years after one of the greatest environmental catastrophes occurred on April 26, 1986, Chernobyl is still viewed as the ultimate time-out for humanity, a 20,000-year radioactive punishment for screwing up in one of the worst ways imaginable.
This view of Chernobyl as a post-apocalyptic shell of its former self is exactly the kind that Holly Morris was expecting when she visited the site on the 25th anniversary of the disaster. As the movie director described in a TED talk, her intention was to film the reactor site as quickly as possible and leave, a sentiment only strengthened by the radiation dosimeter clicking excitedly in her hand. And then, in the distance, Morris noticed smoke rising from a farmhouse.
"And I'm thinking, who could be living here? I mean, after all, Chernobyl's soil, water and air are among the most highly contaminated on Earth," she said, noting that Chernobyl's dead zone is a tightly regulated site. "The point being, no human being should be living anywhere near the dead zone," she added. "But they are."
As Morris discovered, some 200 to 300 people still live around Chernobyl, remnants of the more than 120,000 who once populated the 1,000 square-mile Exclusion Zone. In the documentary, "The Babushkas of Chernobyl," Morris focuses on a sisterhood of elderly women who despite the health risks, loneliness and encroaching wildlife, boldly defend the only homes they've ever known.
“The exclusion zone is not a prison,” Valentyna Ivanivna, 75, says in the film, championing the wild around her. “In Kiev, I’d have died long ago, five times over. Every car releases the whole periodic table into the air, and you inhale that into your lungs.”
Ivanivna's statement hints at one of the surprising twists in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster: Those who relocated appear to have a higher mortality than those who returned to the contaminated exclusion zone, writes Morris in a story for CNN.
"Could it be that those ties to ancestral soil, the soft variables reflected in their aphorisms, actually affect longevity?" asks Morris in her TED talk. "The power of motherland so fundamental to that part of the world seems palliative. Home and community are forces that rival even radiation."
These babushkas (Russian for "grandmothers") — oddities to an outside world wary of Chernobyl's dangers — continue to farm the soil, raise farm animals and enjoy the occasional get-together over a shared bottle of homemade moonshine.
"Radiation doesn't scare me. Starvation does," says one grandmother in the film. You can see more about what it's like to live there in the video below:
As the three decades have shown following the disaster, there's still much to learn about how Chernobyl's fallout is impacting the surrounding environment. Whereas wildlife was once thought irrevocably doomed from the immense radiation, 400 times as much as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, scientists now rank the event as a net positive. A long-term census of Chernobyl animal populations published in 2015, discovered a dramatic uptick in elk, roe deer, wild boar and wolves.
“Radiation is a matter of increased potential risk," professor Nick Beresford, an expert at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Lancaster told The Telegraph. "But when humans are around, animals are simply shot or lose their habitat.”
While the wildlife is flourishing, the number of human residents are slowly losing their battle with time. Once the last person passes away, the authorities who manage the exclusion zone will not permit others to take their place.
"In the next decade, the zone's human residents will be gone, and it will revert to a wild, radioactive place, full only of animals and occasionally daring, flummoxed scientists," adds Morris. Check out the trailer for the documentary in the video below: