Saturday, June 12, 2021

Officials in Russian Areas Contaminated by Chernobyl Playing Down Dangers, HSE Sociologists Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 10 – Three Higher School of Economics sociologists interviewed 39 residents of two Russian villages that were contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear accident 35 years ago and report that the trauma remains for individuals but not for the community and that officials have promoted the diminution of memories and their replacement by myths.

            Yuliya Belova, Margarita Muravnitskaya and Nadezhda Melnikov interviewed residents of Novozybokova in Bryansk Oblast and Plavsk in Tula Oblast. Some of the subjects had been there the whole time, others were born later, and a third group consisted of people who had been there in 1986, then left but have now returned (

            They found that collective trauma has been replaced by an individual kind, with the authorities no longer promoting any sense that the community faces a problem but with individuals still very much aware that the radiation means they are more likely to suffer from cancer than people who live outside the exclusion zone.

            Officials have ended the practice of reporting on radiation levels or featuring stories in the local media about the accident on a regular basis. They have stripped the two villages of their membership in the list of historic cities of Russia, thereby reducing attention to them. And they have insisted that everything has returned to “normal.”

            On the one hand, the sociologists say, the community at one level at least accepts that as a way of coping with their situations. But on the other, even though official actions are attenuating the memory, people in these two places retain enough of a sense of trauma that they act as individuals to try to reduce the chance that they will suffer from cancer.

            Thus, while officials have ended regular checking of foodstuffs and water supplies for radiation, Russians in these places continue to do so on their own, an indication that they both trust and don’t trust what they are being told, the Moscow sociologists say. But this individualization of trauma is further reducing the centrality of memories of the 1986 event.

            Moreover, the sociologists report, people in these two villages at least are ever more viewing the accident itself through officially promoted myths. As time passes, fewer of the people have direct memories; and so, even though they fear the impact of radiation to this day, they accept the official Russian version of what happened.

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