Can A Place Still Be Home Even After Becoming Toxic?

Oct 21, 2016
Originally published on November 4, 2016 8:08 am

Part 6 of the TED Radio Hour episode Toxic

About Holly Morris's TED Talk

Even thirty years after the devastating nuclear accident in Chernobyl, there are still people who call the place home. Filmmaker Holly Morris tells the stories of the mostly elderly women who decided to stay despite the toxicity.

About Holly Morris

Holly Morris is a writer, producer and director. She is the author of Adventure Divas: Searching the Globe for a New Kind of Heroine and writer and director of its companion PBS documentary series. A former National Geographic Adventure columnist and essayist, Morris is also a contributor to The New York Times, among other publications.

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So earlier in the show we met filmmaker Holly Morris who made a documentary called "The Babushkas of Chernobyl." And it's about the old women who live inside the toxic Exclusion Zone around the Chernobyl nuclear site. And that area is one of the most toxic environments on Earth, but that doesn't bother them.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

RAZ: There's this great moment in Holly's documentary where three of the surviving babushkas get together for Easter. They kiss each other hello...


RAZ: They sing a drinking song.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing in foreign language).

RAZ: They do shots of vodka.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).

RAZ: And then they reminisce about the day of the accident...


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Foreign language spoken).

RAZ: ...Which was right around Easter.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Foreign language spoken).

RAZ: One of them says, I was one of the first to come back. She says, when I got here, I kneeled down. I grabbed a handful of soil, put it in my mouth. And then she says, I will never leave here again.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Foreign language spoken).

RAZ: And then they do more shots.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Foreign language spoken).

RAZ: These women are surrounded by toxins, but they're surviving, even thriving, says Holly Morris. Here's her TED Talk.


HOLLY MORRIS: Now, around Chernobyl, there are abandoned villages - bucolic, charming. Many were buried under the time of the accident. All are totally contaminated. Others have one or two babushkas or babas - that's the Russian and Ukrainian words for grandmother - who live in them. Other villages might have six or seven women in them. So this is the strange demographic of the Zone, isolated, alone together.

And when I made my way to a village - it was called Kupuvate - I met Hanna Zavorotyna, the self-declared mayor of Kupuvate village, population 8. And she told me when I asked her the obvious question, radiation doesn't scare me; starvation does.

Now, you have to remember. These are people who have survived the worst atrocities of the 20th century - Stalin's enforced famines of the 1930s which killed millions of Ukrainians. In the '40s, the Nazis came through, raping, killing, and in fact many of these women were shipped to Germany as forced labor.

So when a couple decades into Soviet rule Chernobyl happened, they were unwilling to flee in the face of an enemy that was invisible. So they returned to their villages and are told they're are going to get sick and die soon. But five happy years, the thinking goes, is better than 10 stuck in a high-rise on the outskirts of Kiev, you know, separated from their gardens, the graves of their mothers and fathers, their children.

For them, environmental contamination may not be the worst sort of devastation, and this holds true for other species as well. Wolves, wild boar, lynx - they've all returned to the Zone in force. The dead zone, it turns out, is full of life.

RAZ: So that's interesting that things are still, you know, growing and thriving in the dead zone. But I have to assume it's pretty - still really dangerous, right? I mean when you were filming there, weren't you, like, worried about your own safety?

MORRIS: Yeah (laughter). Well, you know, we filmed in teams, and the sum total of our time inside the Zone was about 18 days. And you know, the people disagree and scientists and everybody else about how much time inside the Zone today is OK or how dangerous it is or it isn't. And you can go to the Zone for a day even as a tourist. You're quite limited in where you can go and what you can do, but it is possible to go there.

But the bottom line, the one thing everyone agrees on is less time is better, and more is worse. And of course you try to avoid highly contaminated areas of around the reactor and the Red Forest and certain areas.

RAZ: So when you're there, do just walk around with a radiation detector all the time to know, you know, where the danger is?

MORRIS: Yeah, well, you do have a dosimeter, a Geiger counter with you at all times so you don't - in case you stumble across something. And you know, that clicking can drive you crazy (laughter) because it is the constant reminder that you are in a radioactive zone, which is easily forgettable when the villain is invisible. You can't see it. You can't smell it. You can't hear it. So it's that clicking dosimeter that keeps you on your toes.

And the women of the Zone are, you know - of course they've chosen to live there, so you know, if you show up - and of course like so many women of that part of the world, the first thing you got to do is eat. And the first rule of visiting the Zone is, do not eat the local food. So it is a delicate matters, especially when you're trying to make a film, to say no to the food or the drink.

RAZ: Yeah. Would you pop in and the sleep somewhere else for the night?

MORRIS: Yeah, yeah. So we stayed in Kiev and then essentially commuted to the Zone every day - couple of hours to the Zone border. You're in at 9. You have to be out by 5. There's a curfew. You can only enter the Zone for so many consecutive days - a lot of bureaucracy around the...

RAZ: Yeah, I can imagine.

MORRIS: ...Exclusion Zone.

RAZ: But you just, like, wear regular clothes, right?

MORRIS: Did wear regular clothes, although I have to say I threw them out after each and every visit (laughter) because you know, there are higher levels of background radiation inside the Zone. But there is dust. So you know, dusty days, for example, are not good. Usually the beautiful, lovely, breezy days are the most dangerous.


MORRIS: And here is the really surprising truth. There's evidence that the women who have returned to their homes and lived for the last 30 years off some of the most toxic land on Earth have actually outlived their counterparts who accepted relocation by some estimates up to 10 years. I mean how could this be?

I mean here's a theory. Could it be that those ties to home actually affect longevity? The power of motherland so intransigent to that part of the world seems almost palliative. By avoiding relocation trauma, which is devastating to anybody but especially the elderly, they've actually stayed happier and thus healthier.

It turns out home and community are forces that rival even radiation. And for the stalkers, you know, who are the first generation disconnected from the - those land - the ties to land and community, I think they sense that disconnect and are searching for something new.

Now, radiation or not, the women of the Zone are at the end of their lives. But the spirit and existence of the babushkas whose numbers have been halved in the five years I've known them will leave us with powerful new ideas to think about and grapple with about the relative nature of risk, about transformative connections to home and about the magnificent tonic of personal agency and self-determination. Thank you.


RAZ: That's Holly Morris. "The Babushkas of Chernobyl" is a pretty incredible film. You can hear more about it in Holly's full Ted Talk at


MARK RONSON: (Singing) Too high, can't come down. It's in my head, spinning round and round. Can you feel my now?

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show Toxic this week. If you want to find out more about who is on it, go to To see hundreds more Ted Talks, check out or the TED app.

Our production staff at NPR include Jeffrey Rogers, Brent Bachman, Megan Cain, Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour and Casey Herman with help from Daniel Shukhin. Our intern is Camilo Garzon. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Kelly Stoetzel and Janet Lee. You can write us at, and you can follow us on Twitter. It's @TEDRadioHour. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.