“It wasn’t the radiation that stopped everything for me, it was Putin”

Lara Graldina has always been an artist, a free spirit and an aberrant. She is a woman who would defy boundaries and convention anywhere, but particularly so in her native Ukraine, where adherence to Soviet-style “process” and bureaucracy is still (tired) evident in older men.

The arrival of Putin’s tanks is Moscow’s attempt to reverse the political and intellectual enlightenment – “Westernization” – that has emerged here since the Maidan revolution in 2014. Like many educated women, Lara had embraced this change. And so she suffers.

“For me, this situation, the Russian invasion, well, it’s like when you know someone is going to die,” she said. Bazaar. “You know it’s going to happen. But when it happens, you are still unprepared.

She has been an actress and a model, but for the past five years she has worked as a private tourist guide in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The power station, north of the capital Kiev and near the Belarusian border, was the scene of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in April 1986, spreading radioactive fallout across Europe when reactor number 4 exploded.

“When I started working there, a lot of people were already drawn to the urban decay,” she explains. “Chernobyl and the nearby abandoned city of Pripyat were on another level. Then, thanks to the 2019 HBO drama series, it got super, super cool.

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“We have a strange fascination with man-made disasters. If people could visit the Titanic at the bottom of the ocean, they would. Chernobyl was just easier to reach.

It is now in the hands of the Russian military, which took the facility within the first 48 hours of the invasion. Ukrainian authorities announced this week that Chernobyl’s power supply had been cut, although the UN’s atomic watchdog said the spent nuclear fuel stored there had cooled enough not to constitute a impending security issue.

The staff are “taken hostage” there. Some of them are Lara’s friends.

She made her final tour of the plant and its surroundings – which includes her favorite site, the massive Duga ballistic missile warning radar station deep in a nearby forest – on February 6.e. Then she caught Covid. February 20andwith the threat of war looming, the authorities closed the exclusion zone for a month, for “technical reasons”.

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February 23rd Lara went for her annual medical check-up, to make sure her health had not been damaged by exposure to the radiation that will always be present inside the 30km radius exclusion zone. “I got the green light. But it wasn’t the radiation that stopped everything for me, it was Putin. Today, the Chernobyl site has again become an atomic threat for all of Europe. The part Ukraine’s most vulnerable was betrayed by neighboring Belarus, which allowed Russian troops to enter and sent missile strikes on the airport and ammunition depots closest to the capital.

This week, Lara has been instrumental in organizing Bazaarwith famous Ukrainian fashion designer Svitlana Bevza, who presented her latest collection at New York Fashion Week shortly before the Russian attack began. Svetlana became a refugee in the Czech Republic with her two young children.

Now Lara is also homeless; an internally displaced person, staying in a village outside Lviv, the capital of western Ukraine. She is currently in a rented room with her boyfriend, but the landlord has just told them they have to leave by Monday to make way for her own relatives who are displaced.

“I can’t live like this,” she told me. She doesn’t know where she will go next.

But she hasn’t lost her slightly macabre sense of humor.

“Since the beginning of the war, I started smoking with revenge,” she says. “If I can’t work at Chernobyl, I need something new to harm my health.”

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