For weeks, Russian troops occupied the damaged Chernobyl nuclear power plant. An insider report now describes these weeks between two dangers: enemy soldiers and radioactive waste. The third part describes the coexistence of Ukrainians and occupiers in Chernobyl.

In Slavutych, the families of Chernobyl employees had problems contacting their loved ones at the power plant. Cell phone reception at Chernobyl was blocked (it’s unclear by whom), although climbing onto the roof of the power plant sporadically got a connection. Communication with the outside world was largely limited to a landline connection with the power plant management office in Slavutych.

Semenov told me that he wanted to pass on as much information as possible about Russian maneuvers and overheard conversations. He asked one of his employees to count military vehicles. Unusually, Kutenko had a landline in his office from which he could call mobile numbers. Several members of the Ukrainian National Guard asked him to call their relatives. “Reactions from family members varied,” said Kutenko. “Some didn’t trust me, so they asked trick questions or asked me to pronounce a Ukrainian word. Some cried. Others thanked me.”

The administration of the plant in Slavutych made their landline connections available to the families. Semenov’s wife, Olga, kept her daily calls to the bare essentials. She didn’t want to bother him with reports of food shortages or her own concerns. The couple is about to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. “We’ve never been apart for so long,” Semenow told me.

With every day new problems came. Semenov became the key man in negotiations with the Russians. His space-filling nature and quick-witted humor made uncomfortable situations easier. “Geiko was the head,” he explained, “and I was the hands.”

The line between cooperation and collaboration seemed extremely narrow. Semenov found it difficult to adjust to the mood of the Ukrainians and the Russians at the same time. Again and again Russian soldiers tried to advance into areas which they were not allowed to enter according to agreements with their commanders. “I had to anticipate every change in mood. I always had to think a step or two ahead. But I’m very philosophical about it. And I’ve talked to everyone. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.”

He had to defuse conflicts several times. One afternoon, Russian soldiers began firing in the air, apparently to shoot down drones. Another time, the Russians organized a press junket, bringing boxes full of humanitarian supplies to hand over to Ukrainians in front of TV cameras. The Ukrainians refused to accept the relief supplies. Semenov couldn’t help but suggest that Russian journalists should “ask our civilians if we were waiting for you to come with your good intentions to rid us of radicalism.”

The employees slept in their offices. Semenow shared a cot and two sleeping bags with five colleagues. “Of course you didn’t sleep as well as at home,” said Kutenko. “I don’t know if it was because of the stress or because we slept on benches and chairs. Or it was the noise – the fans were loud, the monitors were flashing and beeping.”

Every day the workers came to the medical clinic. Most complaints were related to stress: cramps, constipation, eczema, hemorrhoids. Kutenko was told his blood pressure was high and he tried to distract himself with a detective story (which didn’t work). Like Semenow, he was constantly aware of the responsibility for the physical and psychological well-being of his employees. “It was a serious situation,” he said. “No mistakes were allowed to be made. We are not a milk factory.”

The power station had enough food for several weeks. Twice a day, employees came to the dining room to eat borscht, meat, coleslaw, buckwheat, and cheesecake. There was everything but fresh bread. After just a few days, one of the three cooks collapsed from exhaustion. The four Highliners who were locked in the basement were called to help. “I can’t say we cooked,” says Kostya Karnosa, an easygoing twenty-something who works in the tech sector when he’s not walking tightropes. “We chopped vegetables and washed dishes.”

During cigarette breaks they occasionally chatted with Russian soldiers, who ate separately. “Their first questions to us were: ‘Where are the NATO bases? Where are the Banderites [right-wing nationalists] who are causing all the trouble?’” says Kostja. The troops boasted that Kyiv would be taken in three days.

As the Russian advance faltered, they argued that they were fighting a fearsome army of American soldiers, French Foreign Legionnaires and criminals whom Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had allegedly freed from prison. “They asked us, ‘Why doesn’t the Ukrainian government just give up? Doesn’t she want peace?’” Some admitted they didn’t know why they were there. The Russians were surprised to learn from the personnel files that many of the employees – the children of the liquidators who carried out the cleanup – had been born in Russia.

The Highliners are entrepreneurs and software developers who belong to a resourceful new generation of Ukrainians. They found the ignorance and hypocrisy of the Russians ridiculous (among other things, the Russians stole their GoPro cameras, power banks and some underpants). One of the highliners told me that in Chernobyl he met a Russian policeman who, upon learning about their hobby, remarked: “I really respect free-thinking people like you!” Another time, like a young soldier, he saw a copy of Read George Orwell’s 1984.

The article first appeared in The Economist entitled “The inside story of Chernobyl during the Russian occupation” and was translated by Charlotte Zink.