Ukraine: The kettle thieves of Chornobyl

A radiation sign is seen near a broken Russian vehicle with a V letter, a sign of the Russian army, close to the Chornobyl nuclear power plant, Ukraine, Saturday, April 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky).
Click to play video: '‘What were they thinking?’: Chornobyl residents react to mess left behind by Russians' ‘What were they thinking?’: Chornobyl residents react to mess left behind by Russians
Jeff Semple reports from Chornobyl – Jun 7, 2022

CHORNOBYL, Ukraine — The Russian soldiers who invaded Chornobyl in late February did things that mystified Oleksandr Toporovsky.

They dug trenches in radiation-contaminated soil, defecated in offices and spray-painted Illuminati symbols on walls.

But it’s the kettles that confound Toporovsky.

A lieutenant colonel in the National Guard of Ukraine, which defends the decommissioned Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, he asked himself why soldiers would steal electric kettles, but leave behind the base plates needed to power them?

“What for,” wondered Toporovsky, dressed in army greens with long sleeves, a precaution against radiation. A device that measured his accumulated exposure was clipped to his name tag.

“Who needs kettles without an electrical connection?”

Read more: The first 100 days of war through the eyes of a Ukrainian village

Toporovsky was at his base in Slavutych, a city north of Kyiv built for survivors of the 1986 Chornobyl accident, when the Russian army crossed the border from Belarus on Feb. 24.

Their tanks and armoured vehicles rumbled through the Red Forest, named after the pine trees that turned orangey-brown from radiation, to capture Chornobyl.

As the Russians took control of the reactors and radioactive waste facilities, radiation measurements immediately climbed, which the International Atomic Energy Agency said was likely the result of military vehicles stirring up contaminated soil.

A Russian firing position near a shelter above the sarcophagus covering the exploded reactor at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant in Chornobyl, Ukraine, Saturday, April 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky). EL

Around the world, the word Chornobyl is synonymous with environmental catastrophe. But the soldiers sent by Moscow behaved as if the nuclear disaster site was just another battlefield.

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To Toporovski, that said something about the state of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

“It’s pedagogical,” he said.

The Russians should have known they’d been sent to seize a zone that would give them a year’s worth of radiation exposure in a week.

“And they dug a lot of trenches there,” Toporovsky said.

He never sets foot in the Red Forest himself. “I am not a crazy person,” he explained. But he had visited the abandoned Russian positions, to see the recklessness with his own eyes.

“If you want I could guide you there,” he offered. “If you are bored in your life, it’s possible.”

Russian trenches and firing positions in the highly radioactive Red Forest near the Chornobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, on April 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky). EL

Proposal accepted, he climbed into the driver’s seat of a rented Nissan Qashqai and left Chornobyl town, heading for the hotspot known as the exclusion zone, speeding past deer-crossing and radiation-warning signs.

He cautioned to keep the car windows rolled up because radiation levels were 43 times above normal. He pointed to fallen trees he said were knocked over by Russian shelling.

“From here, the Red Forest starts,” he said.

He stopped at a t-intersection beside what had been a Russian checkpoint. It was made of sandbags filled with contaminated soil dug up from a nearby pit. The bunker was camouflaged with orange pine boughs.

“Welcome to the Russian position. And here, radiation is 24 times the limit.”

He said it was safe to have a brief look around. He lit a cigarette. A structure with a log frame and tarp walls overlooked a dozen trenches, some just big enough for a few soldiers and others made to accommodate tanks and armoured vehicles.

The area around the camp was charred black. Toporovsky said the Russians had set it on fire to clear the brush so enemy troops couldn’t sneak up on them.

Two computers with their motherboards ripped out were dumped at the roadside, another mystery among many.

Lt.-Col. Oleksandr Toporovsky of the National Guard of Ukraine inspects an abandoned Russian position in Chornobyl, Ukraine, on June 2, 2022. Stewart Bell/Global News

Toporovsky said the Russians had arrived in two columns. Fearing the nuclear facility would be damaged by gun battles, the National Guard wasn’t able to put up much resistance. Many of them were captured as a result — 181 on the first day alone by Toporovsky’s count.

The Nazis and the Soviets had fought over Chornobyl in 1943, but that was before there were reactors. This time around, the sensitivity of the terrain and the carelessness of the Russians called for caution.

“We are not crazy people,” Toporovsky said. “We can’t do any fighting here.”

He walked into the clearing for a closer look, pausing to pick up the things the Russians had left behind like crime scene evidence. Garbage had been tossed everywhere. Tin cans, water bottles, a novel. He examined a ration box with a Soviet-looking star on the package.

There were no kettles. Maybe the soldiers took them back to Russia.

Toporovsky said what the Russians did there made no sense.

“You have to be crazy or stupid to do that kind of thing. Do they have a death wish?”

Ukrainian servicemen walk at the Chornobyl nuclear plant, Ukraine, Tuesday, April 5, 2022. AP Photo/Oleksandr Ratushniak

Toporovsky got back into the car and ran a stop sign. It was Chornobyl, after the Russian occupation. Traffic bylaws weren’t on anyone’s mind.

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On a straightaway, he accelerated to 150 kilometres per hour. “It’s more difficult target you if you drive faster.” Russian diversionary groups, teams sent across the border to cause havoc, might be in the forests, he said.

Read more: How a 15-year-old Ukrainian drone pilot helped destroy a Russian army column

During the five weeks the Russians held Chornobyl, the IAEA warned repeatedly that nuclear facilities should not be “disrupted in any way,” but the electrical grid was disconnected and the system used by the IAEA to monitor the facility remotely was shut down.

The Russians shelled a checkpoint at Slavutych, stole radiation equipment and trashed buildings, leaving empty vodka bottles and, on one office door, a backwards swastika.

“It looked like the previous century when Tartars or Mongols entered Kyivan Rus,” Toporovsky said.

The hallway of a Chornobyl building used by Russian forces. Stewart Bell/Global News

A message spraypainted outside another building, used as a Russian barracks, called the Ukrainians assholes, scum and Nazis.

Inside, papers and reading materials were strewn around the rooms, along with piles of reeking trash. A Russian newspaper, an anthology of Russian jokes and the poetry of Alexander Pushkin, who wrote of a man who “read and read, but none of it made sense.”

At the Chornobyl church, Lubov Zavadenko said she had spied on the Russians after they arrived and used her phone to pass along what she saw. When they caught her, she thought it was over.

“They forced me to my knees with a gun to my head, I thought I was going to die,” she said.

They let her go with a warning but wanted her pig. She refused, saying it was to feed the villagers.

“They drank a lot of vodka,” she noted.

But she pitied the soldiers, whom she said were too young and unsophisticated to grasp the hazardous zone they were ordered to capture.

“I think they didn’t know about this red wood, they just received orders.”

Lubov Zavadenko, a resident of Chornobyl, said the Russian troops left town with looted washing machines and women’s clothing piled on their tanks. Stewart Bell/Global News

The Russians left town on March 31, on the same road on which they had come, their vehicles piled high with loot.

They took bed sheets, women’s clothing, shoes, washing machines, bicycles, cars and even a school bus, Zavadenko said. According to the Ukrainian authorities, they also pilfered millions worth of nuclear equipment.

“They stole everything,” Zavadenko said.

They even took kettles, minus the bases needed to plug them in, she said. Her theory: the soldiers were so unworldly they thought they could use electric kettles to boil water on their open fires and camp stoves.

Toporovski said the Russian disregard for the dangers of Chornobyl had come back to haunt them.

“We have information that in hospitals in Belarus are staying around 100 people, everyone who stayed in these trenches in this red wood,” he said.

He insisted it wasn’t just rumour.

“I am sure!”

Asked if he had concluded why the Russians had been so irresponsible, he was reluctant to even answer, as if it was obvious.

“I told you about the kettles,” he said.

Stewart.Bell@globalnews.ca