‘They were hooligans’: Chernobyl locals reeling after Russian invasion

As troops leave exclusion zone, Ukraine’s nuclear agency faces huge clean-up task

Ukrainian servicemen walk at the Chernobyl nuclear plant on April 5th. Photograph: Oleksandr Ratushniak/AP

Standing next to a Chernobyl checkpoint, Vasily Davidenko recalled the day Russia invaded. "They were hooligans," he said, pointing to a tourist kiosk shot up and adorned with the words "Chernobyl ice-cream". Next to a pockmarked bus stop was debris left behind by Vladimir Putin's army: machine-gun bullets, cigarette packets and an empty tin of tuna.

“It was a difficult time. People are worried the Russians might come back,” Davidenko said. He added: “I talked to the Russian soldiers as they drove past. They were young guys from Siberia. They asked me: ‘Batya [Dad], how are you living?’ I answered: ‘We are fine here, thanks very much.’”

Russian forces trundled into the Chernobyl exclusion zone on February 24th in the early hours of the invasion. According to Davidenko, they crossed over the Pripyat river from Belarus using a pontoon bridge. They then headed towards the Chernobyl nuclear power station, covered with a giant sarcophagus, the scene of the disastrous 1986 accident.

By breakfast time they had seized the station. Russian troops disarmed the 169 Ukrainian national guards based at the plant and rounded up its technical staff, 103 people. They established a command centre and began digging fortifications including tank shelters, trenches and an underground kitchen. For 1,000 servicemen, Chernobyl became home.


The Kremlin seemed unaware of – or indifferent to – the risks posed by radiation to its service personnel. The bulk of Putin’s invading army kept going. It headed south through the pine forest and along a smooth asphalt road leading to Kyiv, 130km away. The route goes past bucolic mini-lakes and bogs, and past gulls and the odd swan.

“On the second day, 1,700 vehicles went through my village,” Davidenko said. “We counted them. They moved in four lanes. There were combat and Mi-2 transport helicopters flying continuously above us in formation, shaking the windows. The Ka-52 attack helicopters flew extremely low, 100 metres from the ground, dipping up and down.”

Davidenko (68) works as a ranger in Chernobyl’s national park. It is situated inside the 30km exclusion zone, which covers 260,000 hectares of territory. The Russian infantry fighting vehicles arriving every few minutes threw up clouds of radioactive dust. Soldiers, meanwhile, worked and slept in Chernobyl’s prohibited deadly red zone, near the abandoned city of Pripyat.


Historians may describe what happened around Chernobyl as a case of imperial hubris. Speaking on Wednesday, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the Kremlin had expected it could seize Kyiv within 48 hours. It had not anticipated much resistance. "Russia's leadership expected to see a parade on Khreschatyk [the capital's main street] after a few days," he said.

Instead, Ukrainian fighters ambushed the column near the city of Ivankiv, down the road from the Chernobyl checkpoint. Davidenko said he and other locals passed on the co-ordinates of enemy vehicles. This allowed home artillery to target the advance with lethal accuracy. Ukrainian soldiers slipped through the forest on foot or quad bikes, a phantom outfit of partisans.

Enraged, the Russians began hunting for Ukrainian “spies”. Davidenko said they interrogated civilians in his village, Prybirsk, and confiscated mobile phones. “They even searched our clothes in case we had concealed notes,” he recounted. “Five young people had taken pictures of their tanks. They took them away. We don’t know what happened to them.”

Ivan, a Ukrainian soldier nicknamed “the Frenchman”, said Russian troops were taken aback when they came under fire. They expected bread and salt – a traditional Ukrainian greeting – and were instead met with “fire and sword”, he said. He added: “The Moscow plan was blitzkrieg. When we attacked, it quickly became hell for them. Some abandoned their vehicles and ran off.”

He stressed: “We knew the locality. They didn’t know how to orientate themselves.”

Ivan praised his commanding officer for staying cool under Russian shelling. He said he took part in the battle for Kyiv last month around the city of Irpin. “We were under tremendous pressure. We Cossacks don’t go on our knees for anyone, except for our mothers and the national flag. This isn’t merely a war for our independence. It’s for European values,” he said.

Over at the nuclear power plant, the original staff worked for 25 days under Russian supervision. Forty-five volunteers then replaced them. All were unable to monitor radiation levels because the soldiers stole their computer servers. They also took tables, furniture, microwaves and Chernobyl staff uniforms, said Yevhen Kramarenko, head of the exclusion zone state agency.

Kramarenko said the troops would have breathed in radionuclides, especially during physical activity and trench-digging. “We believe they will feel the consequences of the radiation they received. Some sooner, some later,” he said. “This is the first time the world has seen tanks at a nuclear power plant.”


For more than a month the Russians also occupied the villages surrounding the zone. Five of them broke into the farmstead where Yulia Mikhailenko (28), lived with her mother Zoya, and her daughters, six-year-old Karmila and one-year-old Zlata, in Khocheva. The women hid in the forest for several days, cold and hungry, until one of the girls got sick with a temperature.

Mikhailenko went home to get medicine. She found the conscripts living there. They had broken her front door. “The house was a mess. They took everything. Gold, my laptop, flashcards and all of our crockery, including the frying pan. I said: “You can see children live here. Why did you do this?’ They looked a bit guilty and stared at their boots. They also cut our electricity cable.”

On her fridge the soldiers had scratched: “Glory to Russia”. They painted graffiti on an outside wall of a monkey smiley beneath the word “Ukraine”. The monkey had a cross for a mouth – implying, it appeared, that Mikhailenko’s country should now shut up.

“We were very afraid,” she said. “Then on March 31st they suddenly left.”

The Kremlin announced it was pulling its forces out of the Kyiv region in preparation for a major offensive in the east. The Russians had advanced from Chernobyl as far as the village of Demydiv, between the Irpin river and a dam next to Kyiv’s reservoir. They were unable to go further. As they retreated back to the exclusion zone, the blew up several bridges.


Back in the exclusion zone, soldiers drove a stream of stolen Ukrainian vehicles back to Belarus, as well as their own military hardware. They took the captured national guardsmen with them. They were summoned to the power plant’s conference room, where their hands were bound, and they were driven off. “We don’t know where they are,” Kramarenko said.

Ukraine’s nuclear agency is now trying to clear up the damage. The plant is still without electricity. The departing Russians left tripwires and mines concealed among radioactive trees. Kramarenko said five of his staff were killed while fighting in territorial defence units. Others were in a “difficult” psychological state after being forced to cohabit with their occupiers.

On Wednesday, the signs of fighting were all around. A kilometre from the Dytiatky control point the carcass of a burnt-out Russian infantry vehicle lay on the forest road. “Glory to Ukraine” was painted on its side in white letters. Swirling tracks in the sand and cut fir branches marked where its crew had parked. There were Russian ration packages and empty bottles.

Davidenko said he had survived the Russian takeover relatively unscathed. He managed to hide his car, snowplough and canoe in the forest. The exclusion zone’s animal denizens appeared to have ignored one of this century’s most extraordinary battles, he said. They included bears, elk, deer and white storks who feed from the fish-rich Pripyat river. “They are flourishing. Their numbers are going up,” he said. – Guardian