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The Trauma of Chernobyl

Why our collective memory of disasters tends to fade with time

Wikimedia Commons

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. The event recedes ever further into the past, but the legacy of the trauma it caused endures. That stress produced trauma, and the trauma became part of Russia’s collective memory. Sociologists Yulia Belova, Margarita Muravitskaya and Nadezhda Melnikova of HSE’s Institute for Applied Political Research and Laboratory for Studies in Economic Sociology researched what this means for people who lived in the radioactively contaminated zone around the reactor and why the collective memory of the accident might disappear. The results of their research were presented at the XXII April International Academic Conference on Economic and Social Development organised jointly by HSE and Sberbank. 

In the Risk Zone

From October 2020 until March 2021, the researchers conducted 39 in-depth interviews with people who had lived for an extended period in two small Russian cities affected by the Chernobyl accident — Novozybkov in the Bryansk Region and Plavsk in the Tula Region. 

Some of them survived the disaster and remained in these cities; some moved into the area and learned about the accident only from the locals; some left the area and actually returned later. They all spoke about how the accident affects the local residents and shared their views regarding the risk of radiation. 

The researchers had good reason to choose Novozybkov and Plavsk for their study: they are located in the two regions most affected by radiation. Orel and Kaluga are the other two of the four regions most affected. 

As of early 2020, the Bryansk and Tula regions had the most towns polluted by elevated levels of Caesium-137 and had among the country’s worst indicators (case numbers, growth rates and mortality) for oncological diseases. 

At the same time, official figures suggest that radiation levels in both regions are declining. 

As a result, the list of areas ‘located within the boundaries of zones of radioactive contamination’ has been reduced. Some localities are no longer listed as zones for resettlement, zones of residence with the right to resettle or as areas where people can reside with preferential socio-economic status. Accordingly, social assistance measures have also been cut back. 

Thus, in addition to the fact that Plavsk and Novozybkov, which have a combined population of more than 55,000 people, lost their status as historical cities of Russia in 2010, Novozybkov was reclassified in 2015 from a ‘resettlement zone’ to a ‘zone of residence with the right to resettle’. 

Wounds and Memories

The researchers note that this duality creates ambivalence about the Chernobyl disaster. Those residing in the radiation zone live for the present and make plans for the future in light of what happened there. And all the residents — whether or not they lived through the accident themselves — are carriers of the collective memory of what happened. 

Collective memory: a societal understanding of the past that is embodied in traditions. 

Collective trauma: the memory of a wound that has not received the proper response and place in the collective memory. 

According to the theory of German cultural specialist Jan Assman, on which the research is partly based, collective memory is comprised of two parts: communicative and cultural. The communicative component (informal, unstable) consists of memories of the recent past: they appear and disappear along with the group that carries them. 

The cultural component (sacred, stable and shared by the majority) bears the imprint of significant historical events. It ‘relies on “symbolic figures to which the memory is attached”’. It is preserved in the public consciousness over generations with the help of commemorative sites and special rituals. 

The Chernobyl disaster is both a traumatic experience and a memory. The former, as the interviews showed, remains true for those living in the danger zones — including even those who deny the risks of radiation and who should not, therefore, experience any trauma. The latter grows weaker with time and its transmission from one generation to the next gradually breaks down. 

The Muting of Memory

Signs that the cities were polluted zones gradually disappeared over time. Measuring background radiation and conducting laboratory studies took on the character of anomalies. Local newspapers and special information displays no longer provided regular updates on background radiation levels. Medical examination facilities specialising in radiation were shuttered. As one scientist who was interviewed said,

‘[Previously,] the newspapers constantly publisher the [radiation] levels. They gave an address, for example, the southwestern part of the city, the woods…such and such a suburb and how much [radiation] was there…Then we went to individual houses and measured [the radiation levels] on the plots of land — where and how much. Many people had their own [measuring devices], and many people knew in which parts of the forest you could go to collect something, and in which you couldn’t.’ 

‘Concerning the Chernobyl accident, cultural memory — that retains a record of the past in rituals, monuments and events — is gradually becoming more muted, losing its significance and in danger of disappearing,’ the researchers conclude. 

The same ‘muting’ is seen in events held on the date of the accident. At the city level, eyewitnesses of the disaster are usually the ones to initiate activities. 

‘[Former Chernobyl] first responders decide to meet at such and such a place but, unfortunately, there are very few in the city.’ 

Not only are their numbers small, but many have suffered early deaths. 

‘Our neighbour two apartments away was a first responder. He was one of those who went on the roof and collected the…pieces of graphite. He lived for another 12 years. He had three types of cancer.’

As the ranks of eyewitnesses dwindle, the recollections that are important for preserving collective memory disappear or change from ‘living memories’ to ‘indirect accounts’. They tend less toward factual history and more toward myth. Because of this, as well as the secrecy that still surrounds much of the clean-up effort, people increasingly say, ‘I can’t prove it, but I’m sure this is what happened.’ This is how one local resident recounted the alleged ‘shooting of a radiation cloud’ over Plavsk.

‘When the last cloud [of radiation] from Chernobyl floated over Moscow, it had to be put somewhere, or else they would have had to move Moscow. And so, everyone says that — I have never read this anywhere, and it would probably never be printed, but everyone without exception agrees — they shot this cloud over us. That is, they brought it down on us.’ 


One of the main reasons that memory of the disaster is fading is the lack of ‘definite, clear communication practices’ in the local community and the migration of the population. Regarding the former, the problem is that such communication ‘is carried out only in small social groups’ — from meetings of former first responders to conversations among neighbours.

‘It sometimes happens among neighbours when you go out in the evening…I live in a house. You go out and might stand around talking’. 

The latter refers to people settling in areas polluted by radiation without knowing of the problem. This is especially true of Plavsk ‘that, on the one hand, is deceptively distant from the epicentre of the disaster, and on the other, is close to Moscow and attracts summer residents.

‘In the past, Muscovites didn’t want to come here because of the radiation, but now they have occupied all the surrounding areas and, of course, are buying up all the homes to use as summer cottages.’ 

Defence and Denial

The weakening of cultural and communicative memory does not mean that the event itself has lost significance. People are still concerned about the consequences of radiation exposure, but they view it not so much as a collective problem as an individual one. For many people, the main aspect of the disaster is the effect it has on their health and the health of their loved ones. 

They are less concerned about distancing themselves from the trauma than with protecting themselves from the effects of radiation, and they perceive a lack of support from the authorities and injustice towards them as victims (the discontinuation of benefits, etc.). But some hold the opposite point of view.

‘No one is running around with hooves or horns or two heads. Everything is fine….These are questions they really asked me: “Don’t you have any [strange] animals running around?” Maybe they read Stalker , maybe they’re hoping to see some curiosities, get some impressions. I tell them, “There’s nothing here”. I don’t know, they were looking for some kind of fog here…something like that. Again, these are legends…No, nothing is glowing, no one is glowing. That’s it. Everything’s fine with us.’ 

But ‘everything’s fine’ does not mean there is no trauma. The stress isn’t forgotten, and the denial of the radiation risks is just one way to cope with it by blocking the memory of the trauma, removing it from view and creating a sense of security.

A third type of response falls somewhere between the two: simultaneous denial and self-protection. For example, someone agrees with experts who claim that radiation levels are within the normal range, but after collecting mushrooms in woods with ‘normal’ levels of radiation, he is careful to boil them twice, just in case. 

‘They don’t acknowledge the trauma’, the researchers explain, ‘but it manifests itself in the subconscious desire to protect themselves from the effects of radiation’. Another response, researchers note, is when people simply adapt to the stressful situation. ‘They change their habits to fit the circumstances (by no longer drinking contaminated water or, conversely, by no longer worrying about how contaminated it is), or else they become less sensitive to the changes in the environment (by getting used to the water’s “new” taste)’.

The Trusting Sceptics

Like other means of protecting against stress, adaptation turns a critical situation (radiation risks) into an ordinary occurrence. This transformation (what the authors refer to as ‘routinisation’) satisfies the need for cancer security by giving people the feeling of order, that life is on track and that they can consider the world and their future without stress. 

For this to happen, there must be a place for trust amidst the stress of everyday life. They might place their trust in impersonal ‘expert systems’ or in a specific person who deals with the issue of radiation safety. 

‘My mother usually checks [the radioactivity of food]. She makes sure her loved ones are okay’.

Once people place their trust in expert assessments of the level of radiation, they feel compelled to trust in them even more over time. The further the disaster recedes into the past and the less people understand the subject (and, of course, ordinary citizens do not have specialised knowledge of the field), the more people trust the experts. However, this also leads to a certain ambivalence and the desire to double-check, just to be sure.

‘According to the official version, that is, specialists from the Moscow radiological centres came here and measured the radiation level in locally-grown food…then in forest berries and mushrooms, the soil and water…And they concluded that radium — that [normally] takes more than 100 years to decompose — has decomposed here in 30-something years and the level of radiation has fallen….To somehow process all that, we took a [radiation] meter on our walks through the woods and would start gathering. When we were done, Dad would put the meter in the basket, and if it didn’t beep much, then we would take the mushrooms and go home. But if it beeped a lot, we would turn around and go to some other woods.’ 

Rituals of Silence

Residents generally believe reports that the situation is improving. However, they don’t completely rule out that some risk still exists, and the fact that they continue to take precautions indicates an enduring trauma.

On the one hand, they do it consciously, but on the other, ‘they do it more out of habit or family tradition’. As for foods, ‘no one has checked for a long time’ in any official capacity, but people sometimes take what they bought in the stores to the laboratories, and they use household devices for measuring radiation to test reservoirs, drinking water, and mushrooms and berries they gather in the woods. 

‘Such an unconscious observance of rituals to protect oneself from the effects of radiation indicates the latency of trauma and an individual’s attempt to treat it,’ the researchers believe. They argue that this method of risk management appears most often in accounts by Novozybkov and Plavsk residents. ‘It reveals the problem of trying to conceal the trauma and stems from its being reflected inadequately in the cultural and communicative memory.’ 

The sociologists are certain that with individual therapy alone, it is impossible to solve the problem and ‘break the line of trauma running through generations’. ‘It is important that the fact of the trauma is acknowledged at the level of public and political discourse,’ they said.

Author: Svetlana Saltanova, July 05, 2021