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Russian Photographer Recalls Death, Beauty Inside Chernobyl's Fourth Reactor

Just days after the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Soviet Ukraine, photographer and rights activist Viktoria Ivleva approached an elderly man sitting on a street bench in Kyiv. "Grandpa, why are you sitting here in the sun? Go home," she recalls warning the man. "And he answered me: 'My little one, we beat the Nazis. You don't think we can beat radiation?'"

Four years later, Ivleva became the first journalist known to have entered the fourth block of the reactor, where a deadly explosion and fire on April 26, 1986, triggered the world's worst civilian nuclear accident and sent a radioactive cloud drifting across the Soviet Union and Europe.

Ivleva, 60, reported from conflict zones in the 1980s and '90s, including the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory. More recently, she traveled across Ukraine in 2014 to document how ordinary people were affected by the escalating conflict between Kyiv and Moscow.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Belarus Service, Ivleva recalls below how she managed to sneak into the destroyed reactor with the help of some scientists in 1990 and discusses the eerie ambience there.

Ivleva says she was able to enter the fourth reactor thanks to physicists she befriended. It wasn't about pulling connections, she says. "Connections and friendship are two different things."  
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Ivleva says she was able to enter the fourth reactor thanks to physicists she befriended. It wasn't about pulling connections, she says. "Connections and friendship are two different things."

 

A destroyed machinery hall bears witness to the nuclear accident four years earlier. "I think Chernobyl played a very important role in the future of the Soviet Union," Ivleva says. "This tragedy greatly influenced [then-Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev and his attitude toward the union."  
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A destroyed machinery hall bears witness to the nuclear accident four years earlier. "I think Chernobyl played a very important role in the future of the Soviet Union," Ivleva says. "This tragedy greatly influenced [then-Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev and his attitude toward the union."

 

"This was final proof that nature lives by its own laws, and that a cloud does not stop at the border," she says.
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"This was final proof that nature lives by its own laws, and that a cloud does not stop at the border," she says.

A destroyed machinery hall. Ivleva says she did not sense any fear while shooting inside the reactor. "I felt nothing but curiosity."
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A destroyed machinery hall. Ivleva says she did not sense any fear while shooting inside the reactor. "I felt nothing but curiosity."

Ivleva says, however, that she was aware of the risks. "I knew that I was embarking on a very dangerous affair, where everything around you speaks of danger. ...  I understood that this was not the most beautiful place on Earth."
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Ivleva says, however, that she was aware of the risks. "I knew that I was embarking on a very dangerous affair, where everything around you speaks of danger. ...  I understood that this was not the most beautiful place on Earth."

Scientists in special protective clothing (left) and a mutated pine tree against the backdrop of the nuclear plant. "I was with people who knew very well how and where to go to minimize the danger," Ivleva says. "It was infinitely interesting, since no journalists had been given access before."  
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Scientists in special protective clothing (left) and a mutated pine tree against the backdrop of the nuclear plant. "I was with people who knew very well how and where to go to minimize the danger," Ivleva says. "It was infinitely interesting, since no journalists had been given access before."

 

A destroyed machinery hall. "I was dressed in special clothes, which made it very difficult to move. Rubber boots, special gloves, the plastic suit. It was not a tour."
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A destroyed machinery hall. "I was dressed in special clothes, which made it very difficult to move. Rubber boots, special gloves, the plastic suit. It was not a tour."

Speaking to The New York Times in 1991, five years after the accident, Ivleva said of the men working inside the reactor when she was shooting photographs: "The guys are my friends now, and I look at them and think, 'Oh God, I will soon see them in a coffin.'"
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Speaking to The New York Times in 1991, five years after the accident, Ivleva said of the men working inside the reactor when she was shooting photographs: "The guys are my friends now, and I look at them and think, 'Oh God, I will soon see them in a coffin.'"

Workers at still functioning units of the power plant are measured for radiation. Ivleva's work inside the fourth reactor at Chernobyl earned her a World Press Photo award in 1992 in the Science and Technology category.
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Workers at still functioning units of the power plant are measured for radiation. Ivleva's work inside the fourth reactor at Chernobyl earned her a World Press Photo award in 1992 in the Science and Technology category.

In an essay published last year on the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, Ivleva recalled seeing sunbeams streaming through a hole in the sarcophagus encasing the fourth reactor. "The tiny dust particles dancing in these rays transformed this apocalypse into this kind of strange, theatrical beauty," she says. "Never in my life have I witnessed a scene so beautiful and so deadly."
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In an essay published last year on the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, Ivleva recalled seeing sunbeams streaming through a hole in the sarcophagus encasing the fourth reactor. "The tiny dust particles dancing in these rays transformed this apocalypse into this kind of strange, theatrical beauty," she says. "Never in my life have I witnessed a scene so beautiful and so deadly."

"Because the security guards knew the guys by face, they let all of us in without really paying attention," Ivleva wrote in her essay last year.
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"Because the security guards knew the guys by face, they let all of us in without really paying attention," Ivleva wrote in her essay last year.

Ivleva noted in her essay that while her photographs from the reactor were published all over the world, only a few were published in the Soviet Union -- in a photography magazine and some black-and-white images in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. "I am happy that the time has come to publish them all," she wrote.
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Ivleva noted in her essay that while her photographs from the reactor were published all over the world, only a few were published in the Soviet Union -- in a photography magazine and some black-and-white images in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. "I am happy that the time has come to publish them all," she wrote.

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