Despite Putin, Ukraine’s traditions live on – as does the threat from Chernobyl

A man visits the grave of his soldier relative in the northern city of Slavutych, home of most of the workers in the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Photograph: Celestino Arce Lavin/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock
A man visits the grave of his soldier relative in the northern city of Slavutych, home of most of the workers in the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Photograph: Celestino Arce Lavin/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

Odesa is being shelled from the sea and from the territory of Russia, but people do not panic. They live almost normal lives. Like all Ukrainians, they have just celebrated grobki, or “little graves”. These are what we call the special days in spring when we honour the memory of deceased relatives and friends. At this time, all Ukraine dedicates itself to the care of graves in the cemeteries. Some people from Odesa will have removed the old foliage from the graves and also repaired monuments and fences destroyed or damaged by Russian missiles.

Many cemeteries in Ukraine have been destroyed or damaged by Russian troops, including Kyiv’s Berkovtsy Cemetery, near Tupoleva Street, where I grew up. Some cemeteries have been bombed; others have been run over by Russian tanks and armoured personnel carriers (APCs). Russian sappers have also left booby-traps in many of them. The authorities tried to persuade Ukrainians this year not to visit those cemeteries that were, or are still, being occupied by the Russian army. However, Ukrainians are used to doing not what they are told but what they consider necessary.

They still went to tidy the graves of their relatives. The church has often asked Ukrainians not to bring plastic flowers to the graves and to bring live ones instead, but still many Ukrainians bring plastic ones. Because they don’t fade. Some Ukrainians will surely have tried to visit cemeteries in the closed Chernobyl zone. There are dozens of cemeteries near the villages and towns that were evacuated after the disaster of 1986. Previously, former residents of these places and their relatives visited from all over Ukraine to mark the anniversary of the disaster, and on “little graves” days. But this year, visiting the Chernobyl zone was strictly prohibited.

The Russian army captured the Chernobyl station and the area around it for more than a month. During that time, they paved a road to Kyiv through the radioactive territory, and about 10,000 tanks, APCs and other military equipment travelled along it, carrying thousands of soldiers towards what they hoped would be their triumphant entry into the capital.

Now the Russians are gone and only the radiation is left. Russians returned through Belarus, and from there they shipped home to towns and villages all over Russia the things they had stolen from Ukrainian homes – washing machines, computers, scooters, even children’s toys.

Perhaps this would have been forgotten by now, had it not been for Chernobyl. Shortly after the Russian military left the Chernobyl zone for Belarus, there were reports that some soldiers began to feel ill. Several people went to doctors. An investigation showed that they were all suffering from exposure to radiation. After that, the Belarusian KGB launched its own investigation – which will, no doubt, lead nowhere. After all, Belarus is already a territory that is de facto controlled by Russia. The International Atomic Energy Agency says it is aware of the reports that Russian troops may have been exposed to radiation, but so far it has been unable to verify them.

For Russia now, it’s not important how much radiation its soldiers brought to Belarus, or how much they sent in parcels to their relatives. It’s also not important that military equipment that has twice passed through the Chernobyl zone could have become a source of radiation affecting Russian soldiers in action. For Russia, the lives of these soldiers are not important either. In all likelihood they will die on the battlefield, not in hospital from radiation sickness.

If this equipment remains on Ukrainian territory, it will become a dangerous source of radiation for people living there, who will be its next victims. And again the number of fresh graves will increase in Ukrainian cemeteries. And even more people will come to the cemeteries between late April and the beginning of May to remember their dead on “little graves” days.

Ukrainians will come to the cemeteries with picnic baskets and bags, sitting on the ground near the graves or at special tables dug into the ground next to the fences around the graves. They will make commemorative toasts and drink. These traditions are stronger than shelling and occupation. War or no war, they must go on. The war may even strengthen such traditions.

Putin would like to kill Ukrainian traditions. Then it would be easier for him to say that Ukrainians do not exist – that they are just Russians who were deceived, who were told they were not Russians but Ukrainians. But war kills only people. Traditions remain, and they cement national identity.

Andrey Kurkov is a Ukrainian novelist and author of Death and the Penguin.

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