top of page

Lived Experience
in the Fallout


Lived Experience in the Fallout:


Ukraine’s Babushka Problem

       Nuclear radiation is a frightening reality to many people. From the atom bombs of World War II to the more recent reactor meltdowns, humans have dealt with more radiation in the past 80 years than any time in the past. The effect of high dose radiation in the short-term is well documented, but the stochastic effect of long-term, low dose radiation is relatively undocumented. In the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone of Ukraine, a small community of women (known as Babushkas) are challenging the common consensus of radiation’s long-term danger by their own lived experience in the zone.

       Ukraine has used the Chernobyl catastrophe for international aid repeatedly. This strategy in international politics is a savvy one, but requires consistent reminders of the danger of radiation for the UN and other humanitarian aid groups. Petryna elucidates some of these tactics in their article on the biosocial citizenship of Ukraine’s populace. Visiting a neonatal unit, a US embassy worker noted that, “‘It always helps Ukraine when politicians see these [deformed] Chernobyl children up close’” (Petryna, 2002, 8). This shows that Ukraine is self-aware and that the science of radiation risk is directly tied to politics.

       In fact, assessments of  “...the precise figures of damage [to citizens are]...far from complete” (10). Risk and invisible damage are both metrics that cannot be directly measured; thus, Ukraine sensationalizes the cases that do exist. Since 1990, Ukraine’s medical community has been criticized for their “sudden expansion of Chernobyl[‘s] health effects” (32). These include more common ills such as: persistent headaches or insomnia.

       The national government of Ukraine has an agenda that maximizes the assumed effect and risk of Chernobyl. This does not align with the lived experience of the Babushkas who have moved back into their motherland and appear to be thriving in the irradiated wilderness. Valentyna Ivanivna remarks the following, “The exclusion zone is not a prison…. In Kiev, I’d have died long ago…. Every car releases the whole periodic table into the air…. You eat all sorts of chemicals….” (Morris, 2015). Valentyna is making the argument that the radiation (one unhealthy factor) is unremarkable in the face of the dozens that she has avoided by eating well, breathing good air, and living in a healthy, beautiful environment with her friends. This is an alternative assessment of risk that is critically considering every effect of the environment without fear mongering about any specific one.

        Now that we have an understanding of the Babushka’s relationship to their environment, we must understand Ukraine’s governmental understanding of the Chernobyl site. As shown above, Ukraine has a vested interest in ensuring that the exclusion zone is viewed as uninhabitable and deadly. They use the expertise of scientists to accomplish this. A Ukrainian geophysicist stated the following when visiting the Babushkas, “I understand where it’s dangerous and where it’s not. I have special equipment and I know everything” (Morris, 2015). In order for Ukraine to receive aid and provide for its citizens, scientists’ tools must be viewed as progenitors of knowledge that show the answers to the questions about radiation. These “black boxes” beep and buzz incessantly, measuring minute micro-roentgens of radiation.

        The Geiger counter is the main black box that is used for detecting radiation and functions by measuring the number of alpha and beta particles in the air. When walking with government officials who carry these devices, the clicking is incessant and anxiety-producing. Are these devices calibrated correctly? What number of clicks per minute is dangerous? These questions are not answered because of the implicit assumption that all radiation is dangerous. How can we trust these officials, when Ukraine requires aid that stems from the perception that much of their populace is still affected by rampant radiation problems?

        Ultimately, the lived experience of the Babushkas flies in the face of the strategy that Ukraine has adopted for obtaining international aid for its citizens. Ukraine plays up the radiation effect while a whole community can live in the most irradiated part of the known world and still survive. Science and technology are used to obfuscate the reality of people’s lives and emphasize the unproven, anxiety-inducing results of long-term exposure to radiation. A Ukrainian scientist says that, “It’s just their ignorance and simple lack of knowledge” that allows them to stay in the zone (Morris, 2015). The Babushkas are not ignorant, they are valuing a physical, social, and holistic knowledge that is more all-encompassing than just scientific knowledge. 


Works Cited

Morris, H. (Director). (2015). The Babushkas of Chernobyl [Video file]. Video Project. Retrieved March 21, 2020, from Kanopy.

Petryna, A. (2002). Life Exposed: Biological Citizens After Chernobyl. “Life Politics After Chernobyl”. Princeton University Press.

Blob Enjoys a Cigarette.png
bottom of page