Water wells were sealed to protect against radiation, and the new system… (Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Stary Vyshkov, Russia — After Svetlana Ivanova and her husband moved to this village in southwestern Russia 17 years ago, they laughed when they found out what locals called the $4 monthly payment for living in the contaminated Chernobyl zone: funeral money.
Then one warm spring afternoon three years ago, her husband, Pyotr Ivanov, came home from a job-seeking trip to Moscow, put on a clean white shirt, stepped out into the garden "for a smoke" and hanged himself.
"I remembered this sad joke when I buried my husband," she said. "I don't think the benefits he got from the state over the years were enough to buy him a casket."
Ivanova, a mother of three, admitted that sometimes she wakes up in the middle of the night and thinks about killing herself too.
"We all live in radioactive houses, we breathe this radioactive air, we eat this contaminated food, we drink the polluted water," she said, trying to hold back her tears. "We are like prisoners, like hostages with no escape."
Twenty-five years after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor spewed the largest shower of radioactive isotopes in the history of nuclear power, this village 110 miles from the plant is still paying the price.
Stary Vyshkov yields some terrible lessons for a world spellbound by a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan. A tragic convergence of historic events left the village suffering not only some of the worst pollution in a contaminated region, but a plague of stress-related suicides.
Although the region is also beset by a higher-than-normal prevalence of some physical diseases, "it is not the radiation itself that makes these people sick and kills them … but it is what's going on in their minds due to this never-ending stress," said Galina Rumyantseva of the Moscow-based Serbsky Institute for Social and Forensic Psychiatry.
"They just give up any effort to go on living."
The first one to kill himself was 24-year-old Vladimir Laptev. One day 10 years ago, he quarreled with his wife, went to his sister's house a short distance away, locked himself in the back room and hanged himself.
In the years since, five other young people, a 16-year-old schoolgirl among them, have hanged themselves, giving rise to muffled talk about a mysterious epidemic of suicides in this village of 450 people.
"It is the zone that kills the young and leaves the old be," Laptev's mother, Roza Lapteva, said in a quiet, almost indifferent tone. "I don't know how it does it, but the zone is to blame."
As she spoke, she cast down her tired eyes, as if bracing herself to reveal some dark mystery that is no secret for every adult resident of this "cursed place."
The 57-year-old, who looks much older than her age, came here with her family in 1992 from Kazakhstan, where she says ethnic Russians were no longer welcome after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
In the early 1990s, tens of thousands of Russian-speaking refugees were fleeing political strife and interethnic violence, and the deserted houses in Stary Vyshkov came in handy. Even though the remaining villagers were slated to be resettled, the cash-strapped regional administration was desperate and saw this as the only workable option for the newcomers.
"This place is still in the relocation zone and was to be relocated years ago," Ivan Yermakov, head of the district agriculture department, said in an interview. "But then these refugees began to arrive from Central Asia and they had to be accommodated somehow."
The residents who had remained in Stary Vyshkov — 30% of the original population — didn't greet the newcomers with open arms. They still call them nabrod, a contemptuous word for aliens.
Now the newcomers are trapped here, and dying one by one.
"Little did we know then what to expect, as we knew nothing about radiation," Lapteva said. "Now we see what this place has done to us, too late."
None of the villagers have radiation counters.
Lapteva placed her stocky body with some difficulty on a worn-out sofa in a low-ceilinged room of a white brick house on the edge of the village. In a monotone, she told how last March she had buried her husband, who was "torched away to a skin-covered skeleton" by a fast-moving lung cancer.
She laid her husband to rest next to their son and close to their 28-year-old son-in law, who hanged himself three years after Vladimir's suicide.
The slow death of Stary Vyshkov is palpable on its grim main street: two uneven rows of small log and brick homes along a potholed road that winds for a mile or so up and down slopes covered with last year's brown foliage and piles of litter.
Every other structure in the village greets a visitor with with windows either boarded up or gaping and glassless under rusted tin shingles, or no roofing whatsoever. Some plots are nothing but tall dried-out grass and shrubbery-covered mounds of wood or rubbish. Mossy green silhouettes of long-closed wells stand on both sides of a deserted street like ghosts.