Faith and History: The Haunting Icons of Chernobyl

One Orthodox practice that came under scrutiny during the pandemic, even before social distancing began in Europe and North America, was the kissing of icons. Over at Public Orthodoxy, Scholar Elena Romashko has a new article up on the haunting icons of Chernobyl. Yesterday was the thirty-fourth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, an event that has been compared to the COVID-19 pandemic—both events call into question the relationship between natural threats, public policy, science, and social control. Romashko writes:

In March 2020, we were asked to work from home because of the pandemic of coronavirus. We could not even imagine how quickly the situation would escalate to a global lockdown. Looking at the warm and beautiful weather my husband said, “It’s hard to believe that being outside can be dangerous—the world around looks exactly the same, like nothing has changed.”

His words stung me with a flashback: Sonja, one of my informants in Belarus, said the same about the Chernobyl disaster. She told me that it was so hard for her to comprehend that all this familiar beauty can possess danger. The world for her had turned upside down as what used to bring life became a source of mortal danger: water, food, soil, and even human bodies. Radiation, just like a virus today, was described to me as an awakened primal power, an invisible, ancient evil that suddenly started targeting humans for their irresponsibility, greed, and arrogance.

Despite atheistic Soviet policies, some resorted to another ancient power in their hope for protection and healing: Orthodox Christianity. In their anxiety many turned to the churches and relics. People were warned with the language of science not to touch objects, including religious items, as they could emit radiation, but that did not stop the believers. Neither did it stop people nowadays from queuing in churches to kiss relics and taking part in the Eucharist despite the risk of spreading and contracting coronavirus.

Both of the tragic events prove that religious needs cannot be dismissed or just stopped even when they are considered dangerous or undesirable. Moreover, they show how religiosity is wider than just intellectual conviction about dogmas; it also is an urge for physical participation in religious life. Through my research, I saw that, despite often being overlooked, the sensual response to objects and substances might be at the core of the desire to live a religious life.

Take, for example, religious transformations after Chernobyl. Everyday life dramatically changed for evacuees: spaces, distances, sounds, and smells. Many were relocated from their rural homes to the tall buildings of the capital city. It was hard to leave behind relatives, houses, animals, and gardens, but also heirlooms which could not be taken because of the risk of contamination. “I still secretly took my mother’s icon and traditional towels; I would not dare to leave them behind,” Sonja shared with me.

Romashko goes on to reflect on the nature of material things during times of crisis, how the role of objects and spaces in our lives becomes heightened by events like the COVID-19 pandemic or the Chernobyl disaster. We cannot simply discard these objects and spaces because they have become threatening to us. She describes how “post-Chernobyl cooperation started between scientists and believers to clean and relocate religious objects: not only smaller items like icons, but even buildings, such as the Archangel Michael Orthodox wooden church that was deconstructed, scanned log by log, and relocated to the city of Gomel.”

Romashko also describes how new churches were built and new icons written to memorialize the Chernobyl disaster. She calls attention to two icons in particular: “The Savior of Chernobyl” and “The Blessing of Children” both “bring visions of the disaster into religious imagery, which vary notably in style and composition. … They are more than artworks; they are ways of communicating and working through the traumatic experiences of disaster with other believers and with the divine. They seek to equip people for a life full of post-Chernobyl challenges, such as radiation-related illnesses, disabilities, migration, social stigma, and reproductive fears.”

I’ve included images of the icons below from Romashko’s article, from The Catalogue of Good Deeds blog, and from A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons. According to The Catalogue of Good Deeds blog, “In the bottom centre [of the icon] is a tree which, because of its natural shape, was used by the Germans to hang opposition forces during the Second-World War. It became a small graveyard and memorial for those killed there, in the shadow of the Chernobyl nuclear plant. After the 1986 disaster it was poisoned and died.”

The use of Orthodox iconography to alleviate, integrate, and transcend historical trauma call to mind another upcoming anniversary and memorial project: the seventy-fifth anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany on May 9, 1945, and the opening of the new Orthodox Cathedral for Russia’s Armed Forces. The cathedral is designed to incorporate as many subtle (and not-so-subtle) allusions to what Russians call “the Great Patriotic War.” See the video below:

The increased role of the Russian Orthodox Church in everyday Russian public life has come under scrutiny in recent years, especially the frequent collaborations between the Russian Church and the Russian government. Both Church and government, however, have a responsibility to intervene in and interpret history for their people. The new Armed Services Cathedral may include some controversial notes (the phrase Крым наш, “our Crimea,” seems deliberately provocative from a Western perspective). But both the cathedral and the Chernobyl icons demonstrate how the Church can sacramentalize the traumas of history (and we are all, to a lesser and greater extent, traumatized by history) within material objects, from massive edifices to tiny icons.

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