Ukraine | Near Chernobyl, the ‘football forest’ designed to radiate life

For some, such fears would beget a new psychosis, diagnosed as a “radiophobia” that, to the present, discourages women from having children and attributes any ailment to the Chernobyl fallout. Ukraine still has the lowest birth rates in Europe. Yet soccer did provide solace, as it had in the exploits of a reconstituted Dynamo Kyiv during World War II and would shortly after the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl in 2006—when Ukraine made its first appearance in the World Cup finals as an independent nation, advancing to the quarterfinals.

The Soviet Union’s first match in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico took place on Jun 2. “The big talk now is soccer,” one Kyiv resident told the New York Times‘s Serge Schmemann (“The Talk of Kiev,” 31 May 1986). In its first match against Hungary—a 6–0 victory—the USSR featured nine members of Dynamo Kyiv, recent winners of the European Cup Winners’ Cup. At the helm was legendary Kyiv manager Valeriy Lobanovskyi.

Post-Chernobyl football offered an easy escape to a time when the game proved an exemplar of Soviet success in science and other cultural fields. Robert Edelman in his study of Soviet spectator sport describes how communist ideology attached itself to football as an ideal representation of the resources available in a collective. Edelman quotes a Soviet specialist from the early 1950s, who says: “Soviet football serves the people, the task of communist education, and the improvement of the workers’ health. Soviet football develops on the basis of the latest achievements of science.”

The year of Pripyat’s founding, Shcherbak had published what he calls a “grotesque-fantastic” story, “The Little Football Team,” about a youth side that “looks like an illustration of the growth of humanity from the times of Malthus up to our days.” Teammates cling “tight onto each other’s hands, as if we are a living chain of generations.” Shcherbak refers to the football fable in order to introduce one of the members of that child team, Maksym Ivanovych Drach, son of Ukrainian poet Ivan Drach. The elder Drach in 1974 had dedicated a cycle of poems to the builders of Chernobyl power station and of Pripyat, but, in Shcherbak’s oral history, his son narrates his drafting as a sixth-year medical student in early May 1986 to support doctors in village hospitals surrounding Chernobyl.

Despite the risks, football has been played in the exclusion zone since the accident. The zone is now characterized as a nature preserve, supporting packs of wolves and feral horses along with a few hundred elderly residents and security and scientific workers who still commute to the Chernobyl site. Jonathan Wilson mentions a 1986 exhibition in Chernobyl that attracted the participation of one of the USSR’s great players, Eduard Streltsov. Cryptically, Streltsov is said to have been exposed to radiation at various gulag camps following what may have been trumped-up rape charges in 1958. After a successful comeback, interspersed with periods of heavy smoking and drinking, he died of throat cancer in 1990. Soviet-era football authority Axel Vartanyan says the Chernobyl game “pushed him over the edge.” The meaning of the statement, however, is unclear.

Showing the devil-may-care attitude that is the flip side of Chernobyl-era phobias, at least one soldier, in an oral history by Svetlana Alexievich, readily admits the temptations to which guards posted to the vacant exclusion zone (or “zone of alienation”), overwrought by edginess and ennui, succumbed:

You start going crazy! Those first few days we were afraid to sit on the ground, on the grass; we didn’t walk anywhere, we ran; if a car passed us, we’d put on a gas mask right away for the dust. After our shifts we’d sit in the tents. Ha! After a few months, it all seemed normal. It was just where you lived. We tore plums off the trees, caught fish, the pike there is incredible. And breams—we dried them to eat with beer. People probably told you about this already? We played football. We went swimming! Ha. [Laughs again.] We believed in fate, at bottom we’re all fatalists, not pharmacists.

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