The liquidators of Chernobyl: December 14 is the day in honor of these heroes

Very often they ask me why I feel so connected to the Chernobyl area, the answer is not always easy for me to be able to explain: I have always considered these men legendary, who in silence have worked for others. Courageous and admirable, in the critical and impossible situations in which they found themselves, they managed to manage honor, humanity and courage and there is no greater and more difficult undertaking than being able to manage these three things all together.
And I always feel so small when I’m in the land of heroes, because the history of that place is nothing more than the biography of these great men.

Everyone chooses their heroes.

Francesca Dani

The liquidators of Chernobyl, 650,000 heroes and their race to save the world

There were so many unnamed heroes during the epic battle of Chernobyl.
About 226,000 liquidators were involved in recovery operations in the 30-kilometer zone between 1986 and 1987, the hardest two years since it was during this period that the highest doses of radiation were received by the participants in the cleaning of the area.
In the works to liquidate the accident, which lasted over a period of time between 1986 and 1989, more than 650,000 liquidators were involved in the reclamation and safety measures in the area around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

In this article I would like to explain to you in full the meaning of the celebration of December 14 in Ukraine and for the occasion I have accompanied my text with the photos I took at a commemoration of liquidators to which I was invited to attend and speak.

All is not lost and heroes are born from every tragedy

December 14 in Ukraine is a very important and heartfelt holiday, in fact the “Day in honor of the participants in the liquidation of the consequences of the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant” occurs and despite this complex and articulated official name, the celebration it is simply called “the day of the liquidator” (День ліквідатора).

As we all know, on April 26, 1986, in the former Soviet Union, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which was located in the territory of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the greatest technological catastrophe occurred in the history of humanity and for the elimination of the consequences of the accident and reclamation of the area, all the forces that were available throughout the territory of the former Soviet Union were required: military, civilians, reservists, volunteers, doctors … Men and women arrived from all over the former USSR to lend their help in the reclamation and liquidation works.

Thanks to the dedication and courage of the liquidators, the accident was localized and in the shortest possible time the whole area was reclaimed with a long and dangerous job that lasted from 1986 to 1989. But many of these men paid with their health, and in many cases also with life, the gesture of their courage and altruism.

But doubts and questions may arise: why is there a need for this anniversary if April 26 is already the International Day of Remembrance for the victims of the Chernobyl accident? And why precisely December 14 was chosen as the day to honor the clearance participants?

December 14, the day of the liquidators of Chernobyl: origins and meaning

On November 30, 1986, the construction of the “sarcophagus” was completed, an insulating structure built immediately after the explosion of the fourth reactor. Its construction required 400,000 cubic meters of concrete and 7,000 tons of metal structures. It was built in the shortest possible time, 206 days, and its construction involved 90,000 liquidators. Positioned as a protective envelope above the destroyed reactor, it was to serve to protect the population from radiation.

After two weeks, in a communist newspaper called “Pravda”, an article was published concerning the completion of the work on the sarcophagus. The day of the release of this article in the press was December 14, 1986 and it is precisely for this reason that this date was chosen for the establishment of the day in honor of the participants in the settlement of the consequences of the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Immediately after the press article came out, many of the liquidation participants gathered to celebrate their victory over the radioactive nightmare, and for many years to come, December 14th became their holiday in their ranks.

In 1994, the Chernobyl social organizations in Ukraine addressed a letter to the heads of state, in which they proposed to establish on the calendar, the day of the participants in the liquidation of the Chernobyl disaster. Unfortunately, the official decision was not taken, but the liquidators alone began to celebrate this date and over the years these celebrations have been officially authorized by the various security agencies. The celebrations were distinguished by the presence of honor guards, processions in which the wreaths of flowers were placed by the leaders of the state at the monuments dedicated to Chernobyl, participation by foreign embassies and social organizations, but there was still no recognition of this day at the state level.

Traditionally, many commemorative ceremonies take place in Ukraine on December 14, reminding us of this tragedy and of incredible heroes who saved millions of lives by sacrificing theirs.

Life for life

The Chernobyl Liquidators’ Medal of Honor is the only one in the world established to reward people who have participated in operations to secure a nuclear plant after an accident or who have carried out subsequent decontamination and reclamation of the surrounding territories. The text in Cyrillic at the top means “Participant in the Cleanup Campaign” and the abbreviation “ЧАЭС” at the bottom is the abbreviation for the Chernobyl nuclear plant. The symbol depicted is a drop of blood that is crossed by alpha, beta and gamma rays to underline the impact on human health of the Chernobyl accident.

The incredible strength of fragility

I started studying and researching the story linked to the Chernobyl accident many years ago but what has always pushed me to move forward was not the simple technical-scientific approach but the human and psychological one of the people who gravitated around the events. So, I went west, south, east and north. I’ve seen life, bad things, challenge, risk, failure, decay, pain but also rebirth and hope. I listened to the stories of the heroes who lived what Chernobyl was on their skin, of those who still carry the weight on their shoulders, I saw with my eyes that human sphere that I wanted to know and I understood that to unite the hearts of people is not only the harmony of their feelings but very often it is also their fragility. 

Those who follow me know that the stories of the liquidators are what I have been dealing with most deeply for many years now and I am happy to see that many are starting to take an interest in the stories of these men. Heroes are always born from every tragedy and all the liquidators were the real protagonists of this story, they went to meet danger with primitive precautions on them but without holding back. Humanity has changed and now it is not always easy to accept and understand such heroism, more like a sacrifice. Perhaps it is precisely for this reason that there is still too little talk of it.


Author: Francesca Dani

Francesca Dani is a professional freelance photographer and reporter, specializing in photography of abandoned settlements and artificial structures within the 30 km of the Chernobyl “exclusion zone”. 

Creator of the cultural information dissemination project “Chernobyl Synopsis: lights and shadows of Chernobyl”, she is a tour leader in group trips to Chernobyl, Pyramiden and the Northern lands. In parallel with these projects, she also holds school courses for middle school pupils, teaching them the basics of nuclear energy, the history of the former Soviet Union and the timeline of the events of Chernobyl, an event that forever changed the relationship between man and the “peaceful atom”.

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