From fiction to gallows humour: How Chernobyl survivors are coping with trauma 30 years later

Chernobyl's liquidators have come up with some intriguing ways of dealing with what they've gone through – without directly confronting painful memories.

It’s been exactly 30 years since the world’s worst nuclear disaster occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine. Yet the trauma is still fresh. Exactly how the survivors handle this trauma has been the subject of a lot of psychological research – and it has identified a range of sometimes surprising defence mechanisms.

According to a WHO investigation, there’s some evidence to suggest that populations exposed to the radioactive fallout may still be struggling with a number of health problems, including cataracts, pulmonary disease and congenital disorders. But estimating the exact impact on human health, such as cancer rates, is notoriously difficult.

Nevertheless, we are starting to understand the psychological impact of the disaster and the hasty evacuation of the region surrounding the power station – including the town of Pripyat, built to house Chernobyl’s workers and their families. In March and April of 2016, many of the area’s former residents visited their old, abandoned homes to pay their respects to loved ones who lost their lives.

But doing that is tough for many. Natalya Syomin, a survivor of the accident, recalled in a recent interview: “Pripyat holds so many memories for us. Our son was born there and everyone misses it. All we have are memories. It was mentally tough to go back, very painful, so we stopped going.” Another survivor, Lydia Petrovna Malesheva, said: “I miss Pripyat very much. Sometimes it’s too painful to think about it.”

Horrifying fiction

This trauma has been explored in literature, film and computer games, with novels including The Sky Unwashed (2000), Dicky Star and the Garden Rule (2011) and All that is Solid Melts into Air (2014).

In the latter, teenage Chernobyl survivor Artyom loses his father, who was ordered to help cut down and bury irradiated trees, to radiation poisoning. The book is about Artyom remembering his father and revisiting the forest he once worked in, where he sees his father’s shadow dancing around. In this and many other stories, the exclusion zone is represented as a (sometimes supernaturally) haunted ghost town. Horror stories such as the film Chernobyl Diaries (2012) and the videogame series S.T.A.L.K.E.R (2007-2009) seek to thrill audiences with fear of the zone as much as to educate them about it.

The S.T.A.L.K.E.R video game. youtube, CC BY-SA
The S.T.A.L.K.E.R video game. youtube, CC BY-SA

Some survivors of the disaster have responded with aversion to such fictionalised accounts, while others have been more neutral. Nikolai Kalugin recalled in an interview that he even thought newspaper and magazine writers were fictionalising the events, competing to see “who can write the most frightening article. They turned Chernobyl into a house of horrors.”

Other survivors claim that imagination and fiction are essential tools for coping with the trauma – an issue I investigated in my doctoral thesis. For example, Victor Latun described conversations with fellow victims. “Some say aliens knew about the catastrophe and helped us out; others that it was an experiment and soon kids with incredible talents will start to be born,” he said. “We don’t live on this Earth, but in our dreams, in our conversations. Because you need to add something to this ordinary life, in order to understand it. Even when you’re near death.”

Others even contributed to the fiction. Yevgeniy Brovkin, an instructor at Gomel State University in Belarus, wrote a story about what he imagined Chernobyl would be like in a hundred years. His story detailed “a person, or something else, galloping on all fours … At night it could see with a third eye, and its only ear, on the crown of its head.” However, the publisher he submitted it to wrote back saying that “this wasn’t a work of literature, but the description of a nightmare”.

Meanwhile, the creators of S.T.A.L.K.E.R and The Sky Unwashed are second-generation Ukrainians, who did not experience the immediate aftermath of the reactor explosion. For many people in this generation, this kind of fiction has actually been more cathartic on a cultural level. In an interview, S.T.A.L.K.E.R project lead Anton Bolshakov said that there was so much secrecy around what caused the accident at Chernobyl, and that the game intends to explore the truth.

Gallows humour

I have investigated the use of jokes and tall tales as a coping mechanism among the survivors as part of my upcoming research. “Want to hear a joke?” a driver who transported shift-working soldiers to and from the reactor asked. “Guy comes home from the reactor. His wife asks the doctor, ‘What should I do with him?’ ‘You should wash him, hug him, and put him out of commission’, [the doctor replies].”

Here, as in many other survivors’ testimonies, the joke relates the speaker’s personal experience, but assigns it to another “guy”, thereby enabling the individual to abreact their psychological trauma, while sidestepping – with the aid of gallows humour – the incapacitating, direct confrontation of the painful memory.

This sort of macabre joke is common throughout the Chernobyl liquidators’ dialogues. There is another joke they share, which is based on the remotely-controlled robots initially used to clear the irradiated graphite from the exploded reactor’s roof – until the radiation rendered them unresponsive. It runs: “An American robot is on the roof for five minutes, then it breaks down. The Russian robot is up there for two hours! Then a command comes in over the loudspeaker: ‘Private Ivanov! In two hours you’re welcome to come down and have a cigarette break!’”

It is clear that the Chernobyl accident will continue to be traumatic for those who survived it. We must therefore be accepting of the multitude of ways in which they cope with the memory. In this light, whether we like jokes or fictional accounts of Chernobyl or not, they are a way for the disaster to remain in the global consciousness, as a shared culture. We must must study them if we are to learn from and live with the disaster’s painful legacy.

Stuart Logan Lindsay, Post-doctoral Teaching Fellow in Literature & Languages, University of Stirling

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Not just for experts: How videography is poised for a disruption

Digital solutions are making sure it’s easier than ever to express your creativity in moving images.

Where was the last time you saw art? Chances are on a screen, either on your phone or your computer. Stunning photography and intricate doodles are a frequent occurrence in the social feeds of many. That’s the defining feature of art in the 21st century - it fits in your pocket, pretty much everyone’s pocket. It is no more dictated by just a few elite players - renowned artists, museum curators, art critics, art fair promoters and powerful gallery owners. The digital age is spawning creators who choose to be defined by their creativity more than their skills. The negligible incubation time of digital art has enabled experimentation at staggering levels. Just a few minutes of browsing on the online art community, DeviantArt, is enough to gauge the scope of what digital art can achieve.

Sure enough, in the 21st century, entire creative industries are getting democratised like never before. Take photography, for example. Digital photography enabled everyone to capture a memory, and then convert it into personalised artwork with a plethora of editing options. Apps like Instagram reduced the learning curve even further with its set of filters that could lend character to even unremarkable snaps. Prisma further helped to make photos look like paintings, shaving off several more steps in the editing process. Now, yet another industry is showing similar signs of disruption – videography.

Once burdened by unreliable film, bulky cameras and prohibitive production costs, videography is now accessible to anyone with a smartphone and a decent Internet bandwidth. A lay person casually using social media today has so many video types and platforms to choose from - looping Vine videos, staccato Musical.lys, GIFs, Instagram stories, YouTube channels and many more. Videos are indeed fast emerging as the next front of expression online, and so are the digital solutions to support video creation.

One such example is Vizmato, an app which enables anyone with a smartphone to create professional-looking videos minus the learning curve required to master heavy, desktop software. It makes it easy to shoot 720p or 1080p HD videos with a choice of more than 40 visual effects. This fuss- free app is essentially like three apps built into one - a camcorder with live effects, a feature-rich video editor and a video sharing platform.

With Vizmato, the creative process starts at the shooting stage itself as it enables live application of themes and effects. Choose from hip hop, noir, haunted, vintage and many more.

The variety of filters available on Vizmato
The variety of filters available on Vizmato

Or you can simply choose to unleash your creativity at the editing stage; the possibilities are endless. Vizmato simplifies the core editing process by making it easier to apply cuts and join and reverse clips so your video can flow exactly the way you envisioned. Once the video is edited, you can use a variety of interesting effects to give your video that extra edge.

The RGB split, Inset and Fluidic effects.
The RGB split, Inset and Fluidic effects.

You can even choose music and sound effects to go with your clip; there’s nothing like applause at the right moment, or a laugh track at the crack of the worst joke.

Or just annotated GIFs customised for each moment.

Vizmato is the latest offering from Global Delight, which builds cross-platform audio, video and photography applications. It is the Indian developer that created award-winning iPhone apps such as Camera Plus, Camera Plus Pro and the Boom series. Vizmato is an upgrade of its hugely popular app Game Your Video, one of the winners of the Macworld Best of Show 2012. The overhauled Vizmato, in essence, brings the Instagram functionality to videos. With instant themes, filters and effects at your disposal, you can feel like the director of a sci-fi film, horror movie or a romance drama, all within a single video clip. It even provides an in-built video-sharing platform, Popular, to which you can upload your creations and gain visibility and feedback.


So, whether you’re into making the most interesting Vines or shooting your take on Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’, experience for yourself how Vizmato has made video creation addictively simple. Android users can download the app here and iOS users will have their version in January.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Vizmato and not by the Scroll editorial team.