Nuclear Anxiety of the Wild Fields: On the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant

Documenting Ukraine

“Actually, the whole uproar about the Russians taking Zaporizhzhia NPP is just the latest in a long line of Russian efforts to muddy the waters. This fear of a second Chornobyl is distracting people from the really important things.”

I heard this argument a few months ago in a Western European capital during a public event dedicated to documenting the Russian war against Ukraine. It came from a Western European intellectual, for whom what was “really important” was not the energy or migration crises, to which Moscow was trying to divert the West’s attention back then, but the threat that Russia might use a tactical nuclear weapon against the Ukrainian army. I was speaking to an ally of Ukraine. But the comfortable distance from the frontiers of the Russian invasion allowed him to speculate about my native city, Zaporizhzhia, being turned into a new exclusion zone.

My childhood was spent fifty kilometers from the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe, without that sort of comfortable distance. My first nightmares about radiation poisoning came when I was around ten after finding a brochure about the effects of the Chornobyl disaster. Later I learned that my aunt took part in the workers’ parade in Kyiv on 1 May 1986. As adults and children marched down Khreshchatyk Avenue, around 110 kilometers to the north the fourth reactor at the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Station was lying flat on its back, open to the sky, its guts torn apart, breathing its radioactive fermentation into the air.

Nuclear anxiety was woven throughout my teenage graphomanic poetry, and I mentally turned our school trip to Enerhodar, where the power plant is located, into a psychological thriller about overcoming childhood trauma. But Enerhodar and Zaporizhzhia NPP failed to live up to my expectations. The city turned out to be totally orderly and dull. The most powerful nuclear power plant in Europe ran like clockwork, and the nuclear specialists in their crisply ironed, short-sleeved shirts radiated rationality, consistency, and drudgery, which is what I—the daughter of Zaporizhzhian engineers—associated with any of the hard sciences. My most vivid memory from the trip is the many hours we spent standing in the wild fields next to our broken-down bus, as forty teenagers flirted, talked, stared into the melting horizon, while the most daring of us smoked practically right under our teachers’ noses.

Today the most daring of us are at the front lines. The wild fields have been mined by the invaders. The nuclear specialists are terrified, tortured, or driven out of occupied Enerhodar by the Russian army. And the once orderly and dull nuclear power plant has become the site of an unprecedented military occupation of a civilian nuclear infrastructure site and the backdrop against which nightmares play out—and no longer just my own.

As I write this text, Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukrainian military intelligence, tells the New Statesman that the plan to commit an act of terrorism on the Zaporizhzhia NPP is already finalized and approved, and the people who will carry it out are just waiting for their orders. As I write this text, Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko is promising that the level of background radiation will go down by about eighty percent within 24 hours after any attack. It seems I have been writing this text my whole life.

In late February 2022, a prestigious British newspaper commissioned a column from me about waiting in Lviv for my parents, who evacuated from Zaporizhzhia and made their way from east to west along with hundreds of thousands of their fellow Ukrainians, spending their many hours in traffic jams monitoring the trajectories of enemy rockets. As in most of my op-eds since 2014, I included a warning about the foolhardiness of artillery battles in the vicinity of the six nuclear reactors in Enerhodar. On the day the article was published, the Russians shelled and occupied Zaporizhzhia NPP, and my editor had to change my speculative future tense into the present perfect. The catastrophe has happened. It brought to mind lines by Serhii Zhadan: “Something has to happen to you, / Something has already happened and is still happening.”

Something happened in April 1986, and, as Oksana Zabuzhko concludes in her essay “Planet Wormwood,” it stripped Ukrainians of fear of the totalitarian system, which had been instilled in us by the previous catastrophe, the Holodomor. “No analogies are adequate here, and this is precisely what I call horror—or you could even write it with a capital H, Horror: the sense that the end of the world has already arrived, but we just found out too late.” Having lived through the end of the world, Ukrainians were able to imagine the end of the Soviet Union. When Chornobyl’s fourth reactor exploded, it started the timer on the collapse of the Soviet empire. The present perfect tense is used for actions that began in the past but have yet to be completed, and the results of which can be seen in the present. The collapse of the Soviet Union continues, and along with it the present perfect catastrophe. Unimaginable horror—from the Holodomor and Chornobyl to Bucha and the Kakhovka dam—has stripped us of the fear of those who came to destroy us. The outside world, which has been frozen in contemplation of the catastrophe, in inaction, has left many of us no room for hope. But hoping for a happy future while living in a present perfect hell is not the best way to be faithful to your own experience and to the memory of those who did not survive it.

“It is in the retirement of hope that we are forced to return to, and remember, who we are and where we are from,” writes Chelsea Watego, an Australian Aboriginal rights advocate, in her essay “Fuck Hope.” The hope of the colonized often plays into the hands of the colonizers, because it encourages people to push the need to act off into the future. Watego speaks of how those who have been uprooted for centuries find rootedness in their own experience, and of the power of hopelessness that emerges when there is nothing left to lose.

The unbounded Zaporizhzhian steppes, mined by the occupiers, are a space where for centuries people had nothing to lose but their freedom. The wild fields, where future Cossacks fled to escape serfdom, where former slaves became sovereign, where they learned to coexist with the openness of the horizon and the emptiness of space, were labeled Campi Deserti—desert, unpopulated fields—on Baroque cartographer Guillaume le Vasseur de Beauplan’s maps. Russia is trying to turn this 18th century mythopoetic image into present-day reality.

For our Western European allies, the prospect of southern Ukraine being turned into a depopulated desert may not top the list of “really important things” in this war. For those who grew up on this land, it is our home, for which we must answer before eternity. Looking at the bombed-out forests and fields of the deoccupied territories in the east of Ukraine or trying to grasp the scale of the Russian ecocide in the Kherson region, we again felt that “burn of guilt, of the stronger species vis-à-vis the weaker,” which Zabuzhko recalls as she writes of sweeping a pile of insect corpses off of her windowsill every morning in Kyiv in 1986. “The fact that they did not understand and I did, made me feel ashamed in front of them: in front of everyone and everything, the living, the dead, and the unborn.”

We, those who understand that the Russians have come to our land to kill all living things, bear the responsibility for making sure that this is understood from London to Canberra. For making Western European intellectuals feel the hopelessness that draws them out of their contemplation of the horror and unties their hands. The catastrophe is ongoing. That means that we have a lot of work to do.

Text originally published (in Ukrainian) by Suspilne Kultura as part of a collaboration with Documenting Ukraine. 

Translated by Katherine Younger