In a small town where radiation permeates the ground, life continues on

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What started as an investigation by Kateryna Radchenko into the morbid history of a former Soviet uranium extraction site in Ukraine, resulted in a picture of community and, now, survival

Zhovti Vody is a small town in Ukraine’s Kamianske region. Its name – literally translating to ‘yellow waters’ – was ascribed in 1895, due to its serene location on the Zhovta River. However, when the country was part of the Soviet Union, classified government correspondence referenced it by a different name – Mailbox 28 – to keep its location a secret.

The town was then home to a key uranium extraction site, a crucial part of the Soviet nuclear project. Given the significance of the industry and need for discretion, only a limited number of people were permitted to go in and out, and residents were rewarded for staying put with disproportionately comfortable lifestyles compared to the rest of the county’s living conditions.

There are up to 25 former closed cities in Ukraine, but this one was of particular interest to Kateryna Radchenko because it was where her grandfather was born. She was fascinated by the morbid contradiction of a “Soviet paradise” luring people into living somewhere that was exposed to the dangers of radiation. However, when the factories were forced to close in 1991 as the Soviet Union fell, “the way of life changed completely, the city was forgotten,” says Radchenko. “The younger generation started to leave, the older generation lost their jobs. It was a time of stagnation.”

© Kateryna Radchenko.

Radchenko began working on a project over a decade ago, but was forced to start again when her computer and hard drive were stolen in 2016. In 2019, she returned to Zhovti Vody and unexpectedly, the focus of the work changed. “I noticed that the city is still alive. It’s comfortable, small and calm,” she says. “I was surprised that people my age had chosen to stay to work and develop the place they were living in, rather than move to bigger cities… This is a small drop in the ocean compared to the wider population. But people are trying to build something good from the ruins.”

Her ongoing project, then, is a portrait of the city as it is today, and the people working to place it back on the map. Radchenko is also a curator, researcher and the director of Odesa Photo Days, and the series draws heavily on historical archives for context.

“It’s not possible to tell a story without knowing about the past,” she explains. “I’m trying to understand the connection between the past and future. From the utopian city built on the heavy uranium industry, to what it is today and how it has changed over time.”

© Kateryna Radchenko.

Visibility and invisibility are important and recurring themes, from the coded name of Mailbox 28 to the secrets kept from local citizens. Indeed, traces of radiation, left behind after decades of mining, still pollute the surrounding soil and water. “It’s difficult to solve, radiation spreads fast and you can’t see it,” says Radchenko. “We have our doubts, but we can’t leave our country. Despite it bringing many problems – cancer is the second leading cause of death in Ukraine – we accept it and move on.”

The intangibility of the problem is perhaps another reason why the impetus to find solutions has fallen by the wayside – environmental hazards become less of a priority when people are fighting to survive air strikes and bombs.

The current war began when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. The major attack earlier this year, on 24 February, shifted Ukraine’s focus to defence once again. Russia’s high-risk targeting of the nuclear power plants is a haunting echo of the past. “For a long time, Russia used the territory of Ukraine to extract uranium for the development of nuclear weaponry,” says Radchenko. “Now, the nuclear plants in Ukraine and Russia’s nuclear weapons are being used to blackmail Ukraine and the rest of the world. We are entering into a new chapter in this story.”

Izabela Radwanska Zhang

Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Editorial Director of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.