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Land of the Wolves

Interview with Elena Filatova
Questions by Astrid Wehling

The test in the reactor had started the night before – for how long would the reactor be able to produce power without being connected to the power grid? To get better results the technicians had to take certain steps, amongst other things deactivating the automatic shutdown mechanism. A few hours later the temperature in the reactor started to rise, an unstable power supply and undetected system faults started the fatal domino effect. On April 26, 1986, at 1.23am, Reactor IV in Chernobyl explodes..

In the Land of the Wolves

Elena Filatova lives today – as she did in 1986 – in Kiev, 130 kilometers south of the deadzone of Chernobyl. Often she takes her motorbike, her camera and her Geiger counter and continues on her search for the traces of those people who lived there all these years ago. Elena's website where she updates her stories on Chernobyl regularly has created lots of interest when it went online in 2003. Even some early doubts on the 100 percent truth of her stories didn't diminish her popularity. Her main reason for her work is and has been to keep the images of Chernobyl alive.

Within a radius of 250 kilometers, around Chernobyl and the next town Pripyat, dead silence dominates the journey. A modern Pompeji, not covered in ashes, more like frozen in the wind at that day, 21 years ago. Almost 2000 villages and small townships are deserted. Only the foxes, wolves, bears and wild horses wander through the forests, they don't have any enemies left. At least no living ones. Radioactivity is not in the air anymore, it's in the soil, 20 centimeter deep. Geiger counters only show what's on the surface.
The houses in the Land of the Wolves, as Elena has named the area around Chernobyl, start to crumble, in some places a small tree has made its way through the concrete floor. Toys are left behind, wedding- and familyphotos still hang on the walls. The announcement board at the movies has faded as well as the political party posters promoting the 1st of May labour day, a holiday that was not celebrated here in 1986. Laundry still hangs in the backyards, mail waits in some letterboxes. A small note at the pinboard at school refers to a school outing that has been cancelled 'due to unexpected circumstances'. Little gas masks are left on the window sill. The people of Chernobyl had only little time to pack when they finally – after a couple of days - got the order to evacuate their homes.

Only the churches are still standing, almost undamaged, the sun breaking through the stained windows. A few candles here, an old bible there, left on the altar. Ready for the next church service, probably in 600 years time. Optimists are talking of less, maybe 300.


Wirtschaftswetter: Elena - where have you been on April 26, 1986? What happened to you and your family on that day?

Elena Filatova: That day was not different from others, we played in the streets, we had south wind, so the radiation was not high in Kiev. When levels start picking up my father sent me and my sister away, he put us on a train without any tickets. Panic had already started to set in, so the train was full of children. My father says during those days the levels of radiation in Kiev were over 1 milliroentgen per hour on eye level and 20-50 milliroentgen on the ground. These days such high levels can only be found in radioactive burials in Chernobyl. Most Kievers escaped and stayed with their relatives until Mid-May 1986, then schools, colleges,factories and other facilities started to call their employees and students back, so we had no choice other than to return to radioactive Kiev.

Wirtschaftswetter: Where are the people of Chernobyl today?

Elena Filatova: People were relocated and now live in various cities and towns of the Ukraine – most of them in Kiev. Resettling was very painful for them. It's like replanting of a tree, which often fails to put down roots at new place, especially if the surroundings are so different. Most Chernobyl evacuees lived in rural areas and here we have the very big difference between life in the cities and that in the villages. Let me show a few parallels to explain the problems: Language - in cities people speak Russian, in villages Ukrainian. This is a major barrier. Tempo - in villages life is static, in cities dynamic. World view - in villages it derives from nature-knowledge, it is organic, while in cities it is determined by engineering, art, tending to be mechanical and pragmatic. Attitude - In villages the attitude is organic, it derives from and is entwined within a cult of ancestors and is impossible without sacred traditions. Life in the city on the other hand is pro-civilization; it is a will to wield worldwide power, beginning with a massive re-ordering of the surface of the earth itself. A city is international by nature, while a village is sub-national.
But what affected the villagers most deeply was the spiritual deprivation after their relocation. Life in villages is religious by nature and by this it is distinct from life in the cities, which is irreligious. A country soul is one whose gentle ways were influenced by the Christian period of history. It shines through everything with the rays of the Christian sun. In the city these rays have long been quenched by the lurid practices of godless civilisation. For this reason many of Chernobyl evacuees have died from drinking too much alcohol, homesickness and despair, while others returned to their homes and died from radiation. Those of them who were young and strong settled in different places and now live with us.

Wirtschaftswetter: What will happen with the reactor in the future? It's will never be safe, won't it?

Elena Filatova: I can not predict what will happen to the reactor. There were a few attempts to start building new sarchophagues, but they all failed. All I know is that as long as the political and economic situation in the Ukraine remains unstable, no one will invest in this multibillion dollar project.

Wirtschaftswetter: People say it's much safer now to travel through the zone of Chernobyl. Is this true? What about radioactivity in the soil? Will people ever be able to live there again?

Elena Filatova: Travelling is much safer travel now, but to live there is still not safe. Nature will heal the land and I hope that some day people will live in some places again.

Wirtschaftswetter: Elena – on your website you publish lots of photos, information, diary entries and thoughts of yours. What are you looking for? What makes you go back again and again?

Elena Filatova: I am sure that there are many people around the world who would do this work, but not all of them have the money to travel to the Ukraine and not all of them speak the language and do know how to get the permission for visiting Chernobyl or how to bypass checkpoints. I know this, because I am born here. Chernobyl is by my side and carrying out this work is easier for me than for people who live far away. Chernobyl is also part of my life and I feel like I have a certain obligation to tell about it. Some day I hope to fix my motorcycle and to continue my story.

Wirtschaftswetter: What do you think when you cross the imaginary border into the Land of the Wolves?

Elena Filatova: The imaginary border into the Land of the Wolves for me is a bridge some 60 kms west from the reactor. There is a dead village, called Bobyor (Beaver) which was located along the bank of the river. This place is very beautiful and while standing on this bridge I always feel like I loose some sense of reality, which is really a loss of the presence of time.
Usually humans feel as if time stands still in Chernobyl. It's because time is in which all things pass away. Yet in Chernobyl nothing changes. In human life some ten or fifteen years are always a significant amount of time, there is always something going on, while in Chernobyl nothing passes away for the same period. That's why it feels like I am standing on a kind of bridge to infinity and I can stand there for thousand years seeing the same picture, thinking the same thought about vanity of our existence and fleetingness of the human age, which is just a brief moment in the decay of isotopes as they slowly, imperceptibly, flare from one element into another.

I feel on this bridge like I am between two worlds. The one that I am leaving behind is ours – the world of civilization, where eternal restlessness, turmoils and the fleeting passing of each present moment is the only mode of human existence. Where Chernobyl is forgotten because most people are nothing but an embodiment of present impulses, and for them everything that has been exists now no more.
When I cross the imaginary border I think that the world I am leaving is a purely physical one, while the one I am about to enter is metaphysical. Where roads exist without pedestrians, counters without shop keepers and churches with no priests. Because it is neither heaven of God, nor it is the kingdom of Caesar, it is now the realm of a Pluto, where all – past, present and the future flow together and exists in one mode.
I also think about life that once boiled in Chernobyl – about ordinary human life, where some people built careers, others fought windmills. Life where some dug storm cellars, while others erected air castles. Life where some sowed seeds they never saw sprouting, others reaped a harvest they did not sow... Now, all their strivings, achievements and passions are just a pale shadow on the wall.

Wirtschaftswetter: Do you believe that people will still talk about Chernobyl in 10 or 20 years?

Elena Filatova: People can not forget about Chernobyl completely, because it is such a huge territory. Poisoned with radiation, it will always be there and will always? remind us of itself..

Wirtschaftswetter: Are you against nuclear technology?

Elena Filatova: Nuclear technology posits a death sentence for the world; it is very dangerous in human hands

Wirtschaftswetter: What would you like to say to the children, born over the last 15 years? And what to their parents?

Elena Filatova: The chidren: Don't feel foresaken, the world is looking after you. To the parents: Do not stare over-long into that abyss for as Nietzsche said, if you look for long into abyss, the abyss will look into you. That means that you are going to limit yourself with your thinking about infinite things, such as time, universe and human stupidity.

Wirtschaftswetter: Elena, are you still an optimist?

Elena Filatova: I am a cheerful pessimist.

Interview in German: Land der Wölfe

More Information:

2007-11-10 Astrid Wehling
Words: ©Astrid Wehling und Elena Filatova
Picture themes: ©Angelika Petrich-Hornetz
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