Wait, the Russians really did dig trenches near Chernobyl?

Wait, the Russians really did dig trenches near Chernobyl?

I thought it was propaganda!

When rumors swirled that Russian troops who had occupied Chernobyl were being treated for radiation poisoning, experts scoffed. Yes, they said, Russians (and Ukrainians) in the vicinity would have been exposed to higher than normal levels of radiation as movement in the area kicked radioactive dust up into the air. And yes, if the reports were true that the Russians had spent time in the no-go zone known as the “Red Forest,” then they might expect to walk away with a higher long-term risk of cancer than the average person. But radiation sickness requires a truly massive dose. And besides, why the hell would they be digging trenches in the Red Forest? Surely they’d know better than to surround themselves with Chernobyl’s most toxic soil.

If this drone footage is accurate, they did not, in fact, know better.

As a quickie introduction to the Red Forest, skim this piece titled “The Most Radioactive Outdoor Environment On The Planet.” The forest got its name from the fact that trees there died almost instantly after the Chernobyl disaster, turning from green to red as they “burned” from the inside. One conservative estimate is that 400 times as much radioactive material was released in that area than was released at Hiroshima. Those ultra-radioactive trees were bulldozed, then buried in the soil underneath a layer of sand, then new trees were planted on top. More than 35 years later, the forest is still the most radioactive area at Chernobyl, so much so that Ukrainians won’t enter it.

The Russians evidently dug there. And made camp, presumably, for God knows how long.

I’m reminded of what a source who works at the plant told Reuters a few weeks ago about his conversation with Russian soldiers occupying the site. “When they were asked if they knew about the 1986 catastrophe, the explosion of the fourth block (of the Chernobyl plant), they did not have a clue. They had no idea what kind of a facility they were at,” he said, claiming they were merely told that it was “critically important infrastructure.” That seems absurd given Chernobyl’s infamy in the west, but is it so hard to believe that Russian twentysomethings wouldn’t have heard of it? Such episodes probably aren’t spoken of in history class or on state television. So how would they know?

The military high command surely knew. They just didn’t care to tell them, it seems, possibly fearing that units would have refused to deploy there had they known where they were going.

Slavutych is a Ukrainian town built in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster to relocate residents of Pripyat, the city where the reactor was located. The mayor of Slavutych was asked what he thought about Russian troops spending time in the exclusion zone:

The Russian Armed Forces really weren’t the brightest there — going to Chernobyl and deciding that this was the best “green corridor” for an invasion of Kyiv! Well, there will be very severe consequences, the Chernobyl zone doesn’t forgive such things. This really was a comfortable military route for them. But the Chernobyl zone requires specific behavior. You can’t drive heavy equipment [through] there, stirring up dust and breathing it. That’s what they did — they breathed this radioactive dust for a month.

It’s one thing when you’re [exposed to] external radiation. [When] there’s a source of radiation, you’re exposed, you leave, and then the body copes with it. When you’ve inhaled radioactive dust it’s a completely different story. Today, there’s even a saying that’s caught on here — I’ve adopted it myself: Russian troops left Chernobyl, but Chernobyl will never leave them. They’ve given their own soldiers a kiss of death. The Russian military’s casualties from this war will increase many times over after Chernobyl, without explosions — that’s a fact. And these will be slow casualties, there will be casualties for several more years. This is the science of cancer, it’s a terrible disease.

They probably didn’t get a dose high enough to cause acute radiation sickness, though. How do we know? Because: As weird as it may sound, the fact that people no longer enter the Red Forest means it’s become a haven for wildlife. “It’s now home to Eurasian lynx, brown bears, and black storks. In the mid-2010s, camera traps spotted the first European bison in the area for 300 years—a lone male that is thought to have migrated to the area after bison were introduced to the Belarusian side of the zone in 1996,” Wired reported this week. Scientists had been in and out of the area for years until recently to study the effects of the lingering radiation on the animal population. It’s not high enough to kill them in the short term, apparently. How much it may be shortening their lifespans is a separate question.

Here’s Sky News reporting, surreally, on Russians camping out in the most radioactive forest on Earth.

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