Chernobyl, its plants and flowers, and the photos that do not shut up

In the south or in the north, Ukraine has been in trouble. But almost no one remembers April 26, 1986. What happened that day was called an “accident”, when what happened was a concatenated series of human errors in the framework of an exercise to increase -precisely- security of a reactor nuclear. The explosion in reactor 4 of the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl it had a maximum level of danger and was assisted but not immediately communicated. The authorities of the time (Ukraine belonged to the Soviet Union) remained silent. It had to be the Swedish Forsmark plant, 1,100 kilometers away, who sounded the alert to the world two days later, when it found that there were radioactive particles in the air and they were not theirs, but came from far away. Just two weeks later, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, champion of transparency, released information. The Soviet Union was beginning the final stage of its implosion, and the world was suffering from an alert comparable to that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an alert that would be followed by the usual amnesia.

Some would remember, though. Those affected who survived, and the hundreds of thousands of military and civilian volunteers who participated in the cleaning, evacuation and construction of the so-called “sarcophagi” intended to cover and contain the disaster. An indeterminate number would suffer the consequences in the form of cancer, depression, etc. Many were interviewed by the Belarusian writer Svetlana Aleksievich for the book Voices from Chernobyl, published in 1997, but which only had an international impact when Aleksievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015.

Not only humans remember. The impressions of the past are indelibly manifest in nature. French visual artist Anais Tondeur and the researcher of Russian origin Michael Marder they devoted themselves to that and put together Chernobyl Herbarium with texts and images, an engaging and conscientious book.


The most ominous thing was that, at least at the beginning, everything was the same, and it is known that there is nothing worse than an invisible enemy. Michael Marder was six years old and traveling with his father from Moscow to Anapa, on the shores of the Black Sea, when the explosion occurred. He made this trip on medical recommendation, to escape the polluting city and cure himself of seasonal allergies. A championship irony to be traveling to refreshing beaches under a radioactive fallout, and without knowing it: “at that time we were all plants,” he says. But Marder then wondered if plants might not actually be equipped with better adaptive mechanisms than humans to resist nuclear attack: “Rooted to the ground, of course, they are unable to escape the damaging effects of radioactivity, as the pine trees attest. of the so-called ‘red forest’ located near the Exclusion Zone. But they also adapt more easily: soybeans grown experimentally in the radioactive environment of Chernobyl have undergone drastic changes in their protein composition, which has allowed them to improve their resistance to heavy metals and modify their carbon metabolism. Their exposure to the world is consubstantial with their learning of the world, so they are able to give a lot back to it. Only our exposure, the human one, implies pure vulnerability, passivity, impotence”.

The “Exclusion Zone”, says Marder, should be called the “Zone of Alienation”, a catastrophic end of the world that affects everyone to whom this book, in three languages ​​(Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian) is dedicated: land, animals, water, air, plants and people. That area is 30 square km and is also called the “Dead Zone” or “Fourth Zone”, the most dangerous. Where more than a hundred thousand people used to live, it is now an empty territory that can be entered for a short period and that is patrolled by special police. The patrol cannot, however, contain looting incursions into abandoned homes, poaching (human flight made it possible for numerous animal species to return), and the presence of those who wanted to return to their homes, because they had no other or because nostalgia.

Sometimes this place is only called “The Zone”, and there is a great temptation to consider Andrei Tarkovski’s film (Stalker, also known as The Zone, 1979), in which three individuals ventured into such a place, prescient. , devastated by some apocalypse, subjected to different rules and unseen dangers. Only that in Tarkovsky the outcome foresaw a mode of hope that reality does not provide. For example: in February 2022 the Russian-Ukrainian war also reached Chernobyl, supposedly increasing radiation levels due to the alteration of dust on the ground.

artist look

In the Exclusion Zone, a nature reserve was in fact installed. In its so-called Red Forest (enclosure of 10 km around the nucleus of the explosion) biodiversity is increasing, and, despite probable mutations, swallows, eagles, beavers, storks, wild boars, deer, wolves, lynxes and, of course, plants. Anaïs Tondeur did not photograph the Chernobyl plants, she placed them on photosensitive paper exposed to light. The result is a collection of frames of horrific beauty, where the luminosity of what is obtained is the translation of a sudden and stealthy invasion of strontium-90 and caesium-137 at the same time. Instead of photos of sick or deformed human beings, this book delivers the shimmering beauty of a living stem and branch containing genetic mutations.

A traumatic symbol of a future catastrophe, the word Chernobyl has a plant etymology: “chyornyi byllia” means “black grass”; It is Artemisia vulgaris, a plant with magical healing and strengthening powers dedicated in its Greek origins to the goddess Artemis, one of the twelve Olympians, goddess of hunting, animals, virginity. Irony or self-fulfilling prophecy? Chernobyl is, in a way, virgin land again. Marder remembers the innocence with which he experienced his “cure” on the beach while he was inoculated with radiation and maintains that the nuclear threat is constant. Human fear is still not enough to truly fear him, that’s why he continues betting on the economic benefits of that energy. That is why in 2011 the Fukushima plant in the Pacific was not prepared for an earthquake followed by a tsunami to put the world in danger again. Tomorrow it could be a stone or a color that falls from the sky, who knows. If the biblical quote that Marder mentions is fulfilled, the abyss will continue to attract abyss. So far it doesn’t fail.

CHERNÓBIL HERBARIUM, by Anaïs Tondeur and Michael Marder. Ned, 2021. Madrid, 173 pages. Translation by Xavier Gaillard Pla.

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Chernobyl, its plants and flowers, and the photos that do not shut up