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 fifth and last part describes the battle for the city of Slavutych and the withdrawal of Russian soldiers from Chernobyl.
Every tank truck that kept Chernobyl running was diverted by the Russian army, which was stuck near Kyiv. Eventually the Russians ran out of patience. A general explained that Chernobyl was draining too much gas from the front lines and informed Geiko that they needed to connect to the grid in Belarus. For Geiko, this was a symbolic defeat, but he had no choice – the risk of resisting was too great. His condition: If Chernobyl were to get electricity from Belarus, this must also apply to Slavutych.
Reports of the stalled Kyiv raid reached the Russians stationed at Chernobyl. A few soldiers wanted to follow the television coverage. They didn’t understand Ukrainian, but the pictures of the burned tanks and the corpses of the Russian soldiers were enough. Some whispered that they didn’t know what to do in Chernobyl.
Even the leaders had doubts. When Semenov, while smoking a cigarette, saw a Russian bomber fly overhead, he raised his fist at it and shouted, “Pederasti!” (“Fags!”). The soldiers nearby asked why he was screaming. “They won’t bombard them with sweets and cookies,” he replied. A Russian officer later confided in him, “I don’t like those pederasti either.”
After two weeks, the Chernobyl troops were sent south towards Kyiv. They got drunk the night before they left. Some complained that they were marching to “certain death.” By the arrival of a new garrison, the remnants of a naval battalion that had fought near Kyiv, the vehicles’ tires were so tattered that Semenov wondered how they were still moving. At the plant, they collapsed exhausted on the meadow. A commander told Semenov not to turn his men against them, they had already lost too many comrades.
In the third week of the occupation, while searching for a depot of cookies and candy, Semenov encountered a drunk officer named Tikhomirov. He turned the chamber of his revolver, aimed the gun at Semenow and pulled the trigger. There was a click, but no pop. Semenov avoided him after this incident, but started laughing as he told the story: first, because this Russian actually played Russian roulette, and second, because “Tikhomirov” means “quiet peace.”
On March 20, after 25 days of occupation, the Russians approved the relief of the majority of Ukrainian personnel in Chernobyl (Semenov did not go, as his colleagues were either under siege in Chernihiv, were parents of young children, or had joined the Territorial Defense Forces). “I was over the moon that I could walk,” said Kutenko. Since the bridge over the Dnieper had been destroyed, the workers had to be transported by ferry. Some of the sailors on the boats viewed this service as collaboration and refused to help with the transport.
The Highliners were among the first to translate to Slavutych. As they waited on the riverbank, a Russian officer began to eulogize that there is neither Russia nor Ukraine, only one Soviet Union, and that the Americans always bring war, but the Russians bring peace. “He drove a Ford pickup that he had captured from the National Guard,” Kostya said. “And just as he uttered the word ‘peace,’ a huge hail of missiles flew overhead towards Chernihiv.”
It was nearing midnight when Kutenko finally arrived in Slavutych. All the street lights were off and it was dark in the windows. Over the past few weeks, Kutenko had grown a beard. His youngest son in infancy did not recognize him. “He hid behind his mother. As if a strange man had appeared.
The Russians were getting closer and closer to Slavutych. On March 22, the Russian forces ordered the place to surrender by 3 p.m. the next day. The city’s 46-year-old mayor, Yuri Fomichev, formed a territorial defense unit in the first week of the war, augmenting the 50 local police officers with 150 volunteers – “basically the number of guns we had”. But Slavutych had neither heavy weapons nor the prospect of military support.
On March 23, the Russians advanced cautiously at first and fired several volleys at the outermost checkpoint on the road to Slavutych. The next day, “the shooting really started,” reports Fomichev. At least three people were killed when both checkpoints were destroyed. Fomichev himself was being held down by Russian soldiers, who struck him as strangely polite. One asked him for a selfie. “My hands were tied and he was pointing a gun at me,” he recalls, “but it seemed like he still respected my authority as mayor.”
During Fomichev’s interrogation, the Russians watched drone footage of a protest in Slavutych. Fomichev offered to help calm the situation. A crowd of 5,000 had gathered, including the four highliners who were not allowed to leave the country. The crowd unfurled a huge Ukrainian flag and shouted, “No to the occupiers!” Some 50 Russian soldiers stood in front of combat and armored vehicles and fired tear gas and bullets in the air to disperse the crowd.
Father Ioan took his large processional cross and joined the protest. He had just received the sacrament and “not afraid of death,” he told me. He rushed towards the Russian soldiers and shouted at them to “Take down your crucifixes, for no Christian would advance on civilians with drawn guns!”
At some point Fomichev got the crowd to retreat to the main square. Her concession seemed to calm the Russian anger. After searching the site for Ukrainian soldiers, the troops agreed to retreat to a nearby gas station. There they pumped out the fuel and plundered the kiosk. The next day they drove on.
As news of the fighting in Slavutych spread to Chernobyl, Semenov and Geiko threatened to stop cooperating with the Russians if the attacks didn’t stop. Increasingly irritated, a Russian general denied that Russian troops were near the city. Semenov’s relationship with him had previously been cordial, after which it deteriorated. Still, he regretted nothing. “That was our only attempt to help Slavutych.”
On March 31, in the face of Ukrainian counterattacks around Kyiv, Russian troops began retreating to the Belarusian border. They took the National Guard soldiers at Chernobyl as prisoners of war. On leaving Chernobyl, the tires of their vehicles kicked up radioactive dust (their venting enabled the highliners to travel home to Dnipro). After the last Russians left Chernobyl on April 2nd, the Ukrainian flag flew again on the main mast. In a back room, Semenow found another flag that was old and worn: he cleaned and repaired it, then raised the flag in front of his building.
Chernobyl managers still face enormous challenges. The radiation monitoring system for the entire Exclusion Zone needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. The extent of the Russian minefields remains unknown. Tattered animals are already lying on the roadsides. The fire brigade will also not be able to fight forest fires this summer because the danger of coming into contact with a mine is too great.
To oversee the influx of new employees, Semenov spent another week in Chernobyl. A photo from that time shows him slim, grey-faced and with a shaggy beard. When I met him four days later, he told me that he had trouble concentrating and a severe headache. “It’s like waking up from a long and bad dream. Emotionally, I still experience it. Like I have to be somewhere and do something.”
I asked him about the worst moment of the ordeal. That was after the Russians withdrew, he said. During the occupation he had worn a commemorative medal commemorating the 30th anniversary of the accident. Someone in Slavutych ripped it off his chest, saying he didn’t deserve it. “His behavior was unfair in my opinion,” Semenow said, “he had no right to do so.”
On April 26, the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, Semenov sent me another photo of himself. He proudly holds a new medal with a blue and yellow ribbon: the “Order for Courage”, awarded for his service in manning the power plant. The award bears the signature of President Zelenskyj.
The article first appeared in The Economist entitled “The inside story of Chernobyl during the Russian occupation” and was translated by Charlotte Zink.