Tag Archives: Material Religion

When Icons Make You Sick
Religious Materiality in Post-Chernobyl Contamination

by Elena Romashko | ελληνικά | Română | српски

The publication of this essay coincides with the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, Saturday, April 26, 1986.

The Savior of Chernobyl icon

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.

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