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For whom the Chornobyl bell tolls
“And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as if it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; and the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were bitter.”
The Revelation of St John, 8:11-12;
In the Ukrainian language,
wormwood is chornobyl.
Oles PANASENKO tells his own, very personal story
of Chornobyl, the way it felt twenty years ago.
Photos by Yury BUSLENKO
I will not provide official or unofficial data related to how many died in the disaster, how many were affected, how many were evacuated — such data are freely available at the corresponding Internet sites, in magazine and newspaper articles and other publications devoted to the world’s worst nuclear disaster. It was caused by human error in conjunction with technical imperfections inherent in the soviet-built reactors of Chornobyl type. The combination of human carelessness and functional shortcomings proved to be deadly. By its very existence the Soviet Union was an excellent example of how things should NOT be done — politically, economically and technically. Chornobyl was a terrible warning to the whole mankind. But was it heeded?
Chornobyl sounded the death of the Soviet Union — and many did hear the tolling of this bell of doom.
The morning of April 26 1986 promised “a day of cheerful sunshine, aestival warmth and vernal fragrant blossoming.” It happened to be the phrase in the first sentence I translated that morning. I do not remember the name of the Ukrainian author or of the book I was then translating into English, but for some strange reason — maybe not so strange? — that phrase got firmly lodged in my memory.
My schedule and daily routine those days were pretty tight — early (by my today’s standards) rise and simple breakfast of tea and cheese; by eight I was at my desk, in front of the typewriter (no computers yet) hitting the keys; quick lunch at around one — and off to the university where I taught translation. I was separated then with my second wife and my routine changed when our five-year old daughter who alternated being with her mother and me, stayed at my place. On that day she was with her mother.
The first thing I always did when I woke up was turning on the radio. Most often it was the BBC World Service that I tuned to. Svoboda (Radio Liberty), Voice of America and BBC broadcasts in Russian or Ukrainian were heavily jammed but BBC World Service broadcasts in English were not, and they were my main source of information about what was happening in the outside world and inside the iron-curtained country I lived in. My radio had a short-wave band good enough to pick the BBC signal with a considerable clarity. But that morning I did not turn my radio on. I do not know why, and now, so many years later it would be futile to try to figure it out. Listening to the BBC broadcasts in the morning was as much part of me as brushing the teeth or going to the toilet.
Time passes very fast when you are doing battle with recalcitrant words, looking things up in dictionaries or racking your brains trying to coherently put in “the target language” what is so clearly expressed in “the source language” (to use a bit of translation jargon). The morning of April 26 was no exception — there was nothing that would give the slightest of indications that by the end of the day life for millions of people would be cut through by Chornobyl into what had been before the disaster and after.
It was so unusually warm that I, going out, did not put on my dark-orange suede jacket but only took it with me — for showing-off reasons and against possible drop in temperature. It was still hard to believe that the end of April was so warm, with everything that could blossom being already in full bloom.
Out of two possible ways of getting to the subway station I chose a longer one because it took me through the park. I walked slowly, looking at the bushes covered in white and yellow blossoms, and stopping once in a while to get a closer look. And the scents were almost overpowering. This “riot of smell and colour” put me in a highly elated mood. Even the subway ride did not take it away from me. The street I walked from the subway station to the building of the university was lined with horse chestnut trees whose tall, candle-like blooms greeted me at every step. And I thanked them for being there where they were and for giving me so much joy.
About a hundred yards from the entrance to the building of the university I was heading for (in those times we had classes on Saturdays) I almost literally ran into one of the teachers of our department who taught French. She was tall, always excellently dressed, not beautiful but attractive to a point that no man would fail to spot her in the street and then turn his head to give her a thorough, assessing look. We had attended quite a few parties together, some of which were sort of on a wild side. Discretion does not allow me to say more. But on that day I was so immersed in the reawakened beauty of nature that it was only when I actually bumped into her that I noticed her. She deliberately stood in my way to prevent my further progress.
I said, “Oh, hi. Sorry for…” Not noticing I would sound wrong and I just cut myself short. Besides there was something in her greeting smile that immediately put me on alert.
“Yeah, but not with me. Have you heard the news? Chornobyl has blown up.” And she used a string of swear words I could never expect to hear from a person like her. “My father told me. It will not be in the official news for quite some time… He urged me to leave town as soon as possible…”
Her father was a writer, well connected, and he had acquaintances in the upper echelons of power. It meant that what she had just told was hardly a piece of wild gossip — it was true. I felt my mouth going instantly dry. The magnificence of blossoming nature momentarily seized to exist — in fact started to look hostile and threatening. What should I do? Where should I take my children?
I had heard about Chornobyl and the nuclear power station there only a couple of months before at a wine-guzzling and wild-dancing party; a tipsy friend who said he had learnt from a very reliable source that they were having some problems at a nuclear power station situated only about sixty or so miles from Kyiv. Given the circumstances under which I was given this piece of information (incidentally, quite recently the secret service made public some of the KGB documents that contained KGB reports about serious problems the Chornobyl station was experiencing for months prior to the accident), I did not give it much of my attention. It was only after I heard the terrible news the full significance of which did not come to me but much later that I remembered I had heard something about Chornobyl before.
The next couple of days I spent glued to the radio. Once in a while I glanced out the window in the northern direction, expecting to see a plume of smoke on the horizon rising skywards. I did not see the smoke but I heard near-hysterical reports on several foreign English-language radio stations — those that were broadcasting in Ukrainian or Russian were jammed to such an extent that you could not make a word they said. Even such supposedly well-informed broadcasters as the BBC did not seem to know anything for sure; there was no official confirmation by the soviets that an accident had indeed occurred, or that something was being done about.
My first, knee-jerk reaction was to get my younger daughter and leave Kyiv for a place where we would feel more or less safe, and tell my elder daughter who was a student to get her fiance and go to her relatives on her mother’s side — they lived somewhere in the depths of Russia. But wasn’t it just panicking? I was a hard-core anti-soviet “dissident” but even I could not imagine that the soviet government could be withholding information that was literally vital. All kinds of wild rumours were circulating but there was still no mass exodus from the city. People had their jobs and leaving on such a short notice would almost automatically mean losing those jobs.
In those first torturous days of horrible uncertainty something wrong began happening with the telephones — I could not get through to my relatives, friends, or acquaintances, sometimes for hours on end, not because their lines were busy but because there was no connection. To this day I do not know whether it was a deliberate disruption by the authorities or whether the number of calls was so great that the soviet telephone exchange boards got clogged.
I decided to wait until May 1 — it was an official soviet holiday, “The Day of Solidarity of the Working People of the World”; on that day, civil parades marched through the main streets of all the major cities of the country, and in the capital they also had a military parade (though what a military parade had to do with “workers’ solidarity” was not clear to me and to many other questioning citizens). If the authorities decide not to cancel the parade then it would mean that the rumours and “unauthorized” reports speaking of big amounts of radioactive materials being thrown from the ruined reactor into the atmosphere and then spread by the winds over vast territories, could not be possibly true — the soviet leaders themselves would have to be there on the their “government viewing stand” waving to the people marching past them. They would not expose themselves to such an obvious health hazard, would they? That’s what I, a hardened anti-soviet dissident, naively thought. And that’s what most of my close friends thought too, though a couple of them said that the soviet leaders were so inhumane that they would do anything to maintain the semblance of normality. I could hardly believe it — even if inhumane and ruthless, they were human after all, were not they? They would have to expose themselves to radioactive whatever on that stand, wouldn’t they? They would not be wearing protective spacesuits, would they?
The parade was not cancelled. People carried flowers, people waved flags and the leaders on the central stand waved back and smiled. Once in a while, the party bosses would disappear from the stand — not all of them at once, of course, but alternating. As I later learnt from a friend who happened to be in the building that stood next to the viewing stand, the party and soviet bosses rushed, under the cover of a makeshift passage to a refreshment room organized for them in that building, where they tossed off one vodka after another; by the end of the parade they could barely stand straight — all these bastards knew what they were subjecting the people and themselves to, and yet they were such dastardly cowards and in such morbid fear of repercussions “from Moscow” that they could not make themselves tell the people they governed the truth (the surrealistic character of soviet life revealed itself in so many manifestations — the building next door to the “government stand” was that of a music conservatory, and my friend who “happened to be” there was a music and art critic who was obliged to come to work on that day “to be on duty” — she could not say what kind of “duty” it was supposed to be; she just had to be there and “report” if anything suspicious should start to happen).
Later, I and so many other people of Kyiv learnt that on that day the winds brought a radioactive hello from Chornobyl — the level of radiation in the city was particularly high.
The first official announcement that I heard was made several days after Chornobyl had blown up on the nine-p.m. central TV news show. The newscaster said a few words to the effect that an accident had occurred at the Chornobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine and that measures were being taken “to liquidate the results of the accident,” to use the soviet jargon of the time.
What I heard on the BBC news differed strikingly from the complacency of the first soviet reports. My sister’s husband who was an editor at a Kyiv radio station told me that he had already bought the tickets and would send his wife — my sister that is — and their two children away to his mother who lived in a big city in the south of Ukraine, hundreds of miles from Kyiv. I knew I had to do something too — panic might erupt at any moment. Plus, there was talk about the top communist party and soviet bosses secretly getting their children out of Kyiv. But I still tarried — leaving abruptly would mean that I would not be able to turn my translation to the publishers on time, and it could also lead to losing my job at the university. I still refused to fully believe that the soviet government and party leaders were so ruthless and uncaring that they would expose millions of people to the unknown dangers of the massive radioactive fallout.
In the first days of May the then minister of health protection of Ukraine addressed himself to the people of Ukraine on the radio or television saying that yes, the level of radioactivity was “slightly higher” but it did not constitute any danger at all; with such levels of radiation people in some parts of the world are known to have been living for centuries with no damage whatsoever to their health — “just keep your windows shut when it is windy.”
A friend who had come into the possession of a Geiger counter confirmed my worst fears and totally dispelled my na?ve belief in the soviet officials having any conscience or morals at all — he said that the counter showed the level of radiation being dozens of times higher than “the normal level” in his apartment and hundreds of times higher in the street. He also told me that I should not use tap water — it was badly contaminated too.
It decided me to act — at last. But the massive panic had already hit the city. When I arrived at the saving bank to get some money from my account, I found a line of the kind I had never seen before. Seven hours later I managed to get a hundred rubles — all it was allowed to take from my account that had a thousand on it. It was then that I felt a first wave of despair roll through me. My frantic search for money lasted for another day as the panic in the city grew — a close friend said he could lend me a thousand rubles to be paid back in six months with no interest. By then buying tickets for any means of transportation was not just a problem — it was impossible to do it. Ticket offices and outlets were packed solid with humanity, with angry crowds thronging outside; everywhere signs said, “No tickets. Sold out.”
But I did buy them — the plane tickets to the Crimea, my passes to relative safety. It’s a story in itself — all I can say here is that my managing to get the tickets was a combination of good luck, a friend’s help and the most surprising feat of unimaginable boldness and audacity on my part — I had never known it was in me to do the things that I did.
All those days I was in a perpetual state of frustration, fear and fierce but powerless anger. I am sure hundreds of thousands of people in Kyiv and other cities of Ukraine affected by the radiation felt the same. Everybody was asking themselves a question: How can those in power be so cruel, uncaring and monstrously uncaring?
I told my publishers that I’d turn my translation at least two months later than I was supposed to, and was told in return “not to worry — all the editors have left for uncertain time anyway.” I called the dean’s office at the university and flatly informed them I was leaving. “Do you understand that you are in danger of losing your job?” “I do,” I said and hung up. I already knew that dozens if not hundreds of teachers and students of our department had already left without any authorization, and by that point in time I could not care less if I lost my job or not — I just had to get my younger daughter out of the city permeated with the deadly radiation which did not smell, which you did not see or feel in any way but which was still there. My elder daughter refused to go anywhere — she said she would stay behind with her fiance and “come what may.”
When, two months later, we returned from the Crimea, the city looked deserted. The streets were regularly washed — but the radiation lurked on the roofs, balconies, on the grass, on the leaves of trees. People drank inordinate amounts of red wine — the rumour had it that drinking red wine helped “to get the radiation out of your system.”
By the end of the fall everything seemed to be back to normal — the fallen leaves were collected and taken out of the city to be buried elsewhere; some people did lose their jobs for leaving “without authorization.” Nobody knew how many people actually died or were terminally ill after taking part in putting down the fire at the reactor and in the cleanup operation that followed. In a terrible soviet tradition of easily dispensing with human life and of ruining people’s destinies, soldiers were sent to Chornobyl to assists in the cleanup work without any protective clothes or masks provided. Nobody knew how many people were actually affected and what the results of being exposed to radiation would be.
The soviet people for generations were brought in such fear and obedience that nobody went out into the streets to protest or demand the resignation of the government and of all those who had behaved in such an atrocious way, first concealing the truth and then feeding lies to the people.
But the soviet regime had sustained a blow from which it would never recover.
One of the motorboats
Abandoned boats on the bank of the Prypyat River.
Unveiling of a monument to mark the 20th
Flowers laid at the monument which
At a memorial meeting to commemorate those
An open-air museum, opened in the stadium
Chornobyl houses ruined by time
The interior of the Svyatoillinska Church
This bell tolled on April 26 2006
The Svyatoillinska Church in Chornobyl was built
One of the oldest icons, Virgin with Child Christ,