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The Chornobyl explosion and nuclear terror during the Russian occupation.The suffering of Chornobyl in the pictures of Ukrainian documentary filmmakers

Photo by Ihor Kostin

April 26, 2024 marks 38 years since the explosion at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant. However, since 2022, this day has been remembered for another tragedy that Chornobyl had to endure: the invasion of Russian troops.

The Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant is located near the town of Prypiat, 18 kilometers from the city of Chornobyl, 16 kilometers from the Belarusian border, and 110 kilometers from Kyiv. On April 26, 1986, at 01:23 a.m., the largest man-made and environmental and humanitarian accident in the history of mankind occurred - the fourth reactor of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant exploded. The catastrophe is considered the largest in the history of nuclear energy, both in terms of the number of people killed and affected by its consequences and the economic damage.

Photo by Ihor Kostin

The Chornobyl accident released 100 times more radiation than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

800 thousand people risked their lives and health to eliminate the consequences of the accident. 25 thousand of them died, and more than 70 thousand became disabled. Millions of Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Russians received significant doses of radiation in the days after the explosion.

Photo by Ihor Kostin

To mark the 38th anniversary of the Chornobyl explosion, the Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers publishes photographs by Ihor Kostin, who risked his life and health to document the aftermath of the disaster; Viktor Marushchenko, who photographed the lives of residents who remained in the exclusion zone; and Viacheslav Ratynskyi, who visited Chornobyl a year after the Russian occupation.

World Press Photo 1987 by Igor Kostin

The Soviet leadership allowed Kostin's photos to be published only a few weeks after the tragedy. The photos went viral, showing the scale of the disaster. Kostin was the only photographer who took a photo of the destroyed reactor almost up close.

Photo by Ihor Kostin

From the very first days of the Chernobyl disaster relief, Ihor Kostin was in the zone of high radiation doses: he twice went down to the fourth reactor and five times climbed to the roof of the third reactor, and flew around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant dozens of times by helicopter.

For his work at Chornobyl, Kostin received the most prestigious award in photojournalism - World Press Photo 1987. His photo project took first place in the Science & Technology category.

Later, Ihor Kostin repeatedly returned to the exclusion zone and photographed victims of radiation sickness: liquidators and local residents. The photographer documented the terrible effects of radioactive contamination on people and animals in Ukraine and Belarus.

Igor was born in Belarus after the disaster. He was abandoned by his parents, so this photo was taken in an orphanage. According to media reports, in the 1990s, Igor was adopted by a woman from England who saw his picture in the Western press. Photo by Igor Kostin

In 2002, Ihor Kostin published the book Chernobyl: Confessions of a Reporter, which included his photographs of the disaster and the aftermath. His works were included in the anthology "One Hundred Reporters of the 20th Century". Ihor Kostin died in 2015 at the age of 79.

Life in the exclusion zone in the photos of Viktor Marushchenko

In the 1990s, Viktor Marushchenko actively documented the lives of people who remained in the Chornobyl zone after the disaster. His photographs show the tragedy of a person facing a major man-made disaster, as well as the social and political changes that took place at a crucial time for the country.

Photo by Viktor Marushchenko

Later in the 2000s, the photo series was shown at the 49th Venice Biennale. In 2021, Untitled published these photographs.

The famous Ukrainian photographer died on the night of September 29, 2020, at the age of 74. During the last period of his life, Viktor fought a serious illness.

Photo by Viktor Marushchenko

The trace of Russian occupation in the lens of Viacheslav Ratynskyi

For the second time, the world's attention was focused on the Chornobyl nuclear power plant in the spring of 2022, when Russian troops entered the exclusion zone from the territory of Belarus. From February 24 to April 2, Chornobyl was under occupation. Then about 300 people were taken hostage: staff and military personnel who were at the station at the time. For 36 days, the Russians controlled the plant, putting Ukraine, Europe, and the entire world at risk of a nuclear disaster.

Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

The occupiers, not realizing the danger, dug up the soil contaminated with radiation with their bare hands, collected radioactive sand in bags for fortifications, and breathed this dust.

On March 31, 2022, the Russians left Chornobyl, stealing computers, kettles, coffee makers, and containers with property that was at the nuclear power plant. They also looted a hotel located next to the nuclear power plant.

Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

Currently, civilians are prohibited from traveling to the exclusion zone, as the occupiers have left large areas of mined territory behind. Ukrainian documentary filmmaker Viacheslav Ratynskyi was able to visit the restricted facility a year after his release in the spring of 2023.

"NPP workers now, in addition to the anniversary of the disaster, remember the occupation with horror," says Viacheslav, "They spent the entire month of the occupation as hostages of the Russians. In terrible conditions, without food and often with limited access to water. I had the impression that even a year after the occupation, they were still experiencing everything that had happened and were quite depressed."

Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

The National Guard members remember the occupation with the same sadness. As a reminder, the soldiers of a small unit of the National Guard of Ukraine who guarded the Chornobyl nuclear power plant were taken prisoner on February 24, 2022. In the spring of 2023, the Ukrainian side managed to return 47 National Guardsmen home. Currently, 130 members of the National Guard are in Russian captivity.

Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

The material was worked on:

Author of the text, researcher of the topic: Vira Labych

Editorial director: Viacheslav Ratynskyi

Literary editor: Yulia Futey

Website manager: Vladyslav Kukhar


Ihor Kostin is a civil engineer by profession, and for almost a decade he worked as a chief designer. In 1972, he made a drastic change in his life and took up photography professionally. He is the author of hundreds of reports, starting from the first hours after the Chernobyl explosion. More than 250 of his documentary photographs were included in the official report of the IAEA and the USSR government. Ihor Kostin died in a car accident in 2015. He was 78 years old.

Viktor Marushchenko (1946-2020) was a Ukrainian photographer, art critic, and photography teacher. He started taking pictures in the mid-1970s as a theater photographer. He worked as a photojournalist for the newspapers Soviet Culture (1980-1991), Soviet Culture for Ukraine, and Day (1997-1998). He has participated in more than 60 solo and group photo exhibitions in Switzerland, Germany, France, the USA, Canada, Brazil, Chile, Slovakia, Russia and Ukraine. In 2004, Viktor Marushchenko founded his own school of photography and was engaged in teaching. In 2010, he began publishing a printed photo magazine, 5.6.

Viacheslav Ratynskyi is a Ukrainian documentary photographer and photojournalist. He has been working in the field of photojournalism for over 10 years. He collaborates with international and Ukrainian news agencies and media, including Reuters, The Guardian, Le Monde, Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazine and others.

He has been published in many Western and Ukrainian media, including: The Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Telegraph, The New York Times, El Pais, Der Spiegel and others.

He has participated in many photo exhibitions in Europe, the USA, Japan and South Korea. His photographs have been published in several books.


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