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An Anthropological Investigation of the Chernobyl Babushka

Claire A Baker, Lecturer BA (Hons) Textiles and Surface Design

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The purpose of this paper is to contextualise and support a cohesive line of enquiry, that is, a body of research originally an investigation into the textile practices of the Self-Settlers of Chernobyl; those who returned to their homeland after being evacuated and dispersed due to the world’s worst nuclear disaster. This research developed into a focus on anthropological aspects that emerged, which pertain to be of equal importance and value.


Post the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986, 91,200 people evacuated from areas around Chernobyl that were uninhabitable. However, a ‘community’ as described by Alan Macfarlane (1977), of 136 individually isolated and obsolescent people remain (as of January 2018). A deep personal interest of mine has developed into a narrative study of these people, during nine separate visits by me, to the Chernobyl exclusion zone.


During the process of qualitative research; working in the field, observing, recording and gathering testimonies alongside building an archive, notions of: Place, Home, (isolated) Society, Social Fragmentation and Displacement were noted. In-action research methodology was executed through the collective practice of stitching by the interviewer and the subject together, which engaged and encouraged a more personal response to and from the Babushkas.


The critical analysis of findings includes reasons for the change in expected outcome; photography became much more important and rather than being merely a recording device the resulting photographs became artworks in their own right. The visual documentation of the Babushkas at home gave an unexpected insight into many aspects of their daily lives and culture, so much so that the focus became their present lifestyle, their ‘Everyday’ and that unique culture which will die with them. The intention is to preserve some of the evidence of this for future generations.


The Babushkas, self-sufficient through need and isolation, are fighting for survival on a daily basis, for themselves, their neighbours and their community, afraid that the government have forgotten them, that ‘they’ are just waiting for them to die so they can reclaim their land... this raises the question, for what?


The impact of my research to date is evidenced in a collective touring exhibition with visitor numbers exceeding 12,000, publications and organisational involvement in an international project; a new festival based in Ukraine which supports and raises awareness of the self-settlers and their existence.


Results gained through qualititive methodology and experimental, experiential information gathering are presented with the full cooperation and permission of the participating Babushkas and Dedushkas, ‘бабушка’ - grandmother or pet name for ‘old woman’ and дедушка- grandfather or ‘old man’ in Russian.

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