Chernobyl after 30 Years: A Personal Memoir

David Marples

PART 1

April 26, 2016 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, the world’s worst civilian nuclear disaster. What follows is a personal story of my association with the event, and its Belarusian context in particular. Over time one’s views change and I don’t equate the person I was then with the one I am now. Moreover, one’s views are never static. So it seemed most useful to offer a retrospective look in light of three decades of information and personal experience. I cannot pretend that I have followed the situation in the evacuated zone closely for the past ten years, and my interest was only fleeting in the period 1996-2006. But for a decade it pretty well dominated my academic life and much of my personal one as well.

Early Days

The study of Chernobyl began for me in Munich, (West) Germany, in 1985 at the American radio station Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, based there between 1949 and 1995. I had started a job as a young researcher in 1984, linked to the Ukrainian program under the nebulous title Research Analyst. There were two of such positions in the Ukrainians section occupied by Roman Solchanyk, a New Yorker with a quick wit that belied a very dedicated scholar, not always in tune with the wishes of his superiors, and myself. Roman had been there for some eight years and his desk and newspapers occupied most of our very large office. He was also at that time a heavy smoker of Camel cigarettes so one of my first acquisitions was a large fan.

Our focus was contemporary Ukraine. Roman’s area was the church and the national question, we both delved into Soviet politics, and that left me with the economy and energy issues. I found the latter most appealing, and set to work eventually on a study of Ukraine’s energy options, which generally signified what Moscow believed were in the best interests of Ukraine and how they were to be introduced. It soon became evident that nuclear power was—as I wrote in one of my first papers for RL—the “wave of the future.” By the end of the year I had compiled several files of information about Soviet nuclear stations in Ukraine. I had also decided to leave the radios and return to Canada. In the meantime I had acquired my PhD from Sheffield after an extended period of making changes to a thesis I had defended two years earlier.

Bohdan Krawchenko, then director of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (CIUS), had offered me a new job as a Research Associate. The pay was somewhat lower than the attractive salaries at RFE/RL but conditions less onerous—RFE/RL was a somewhat fractious environment in which to work, as one can imagine when Soviet dissidents and others of various nationalities are all assembled under one roof in a building of narrow corridors that was formerly an asylum.

The Disaster, April 26, 1986 and the Aftermath

Four months after I returned to Canada, the Chernobyl disaster occurred, though it was only after a couple of days that news began to filter through to the world. It was while watching two prominent American Sovietologists talking on television about Chernobyl—they knew almost nothing though they reappeared on several different channels—that the thought occurred to me to pursue the issue further and keep a close watch on the events. Krawchenko was not only encouraging; he released me from all other duties to follow the news reports from around the world. He recognized far more quickly than anyone else I knew the importance of the event.

Though little was known at the time, the accident was a result of an experiment on the safety equipment of Chernobyl’s fourth reactor, one of four graphite-moderated reactors in operation at a large edifice on the Uzh and Pripyat rivers, about 80 miles north of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital of 2.5 million people. The goal of the experiment, conducted by a senior engineer in the absence of the plant director and chief engineer (it was a holiday weekend), was to see how long spinning turbines could generate enough power during a shutdown before the safety equipment activated. In order to prevent an automatic shutdown, the various safety mechanisms were dismantled beforehand. One of the operators began to pull out control rods to raise the reactor’s power, which caused a violent surge blowing off the roof over the core and causing a graphite fire.

Chernobyl was the only graphite-moderated station (the Russian acronym was RBMK) in Ukraine—there were others at Leningrad, Kursk, and a large station with 1500 MW reactors in Ignalina in Lithuania, as well as a new modern plant under construction near Smolensk. Much later the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy acknowledged an inherent flaw (one of 32) in the RBMK reactor in that it became unstable if operated at low power. The Soviets boasted in 1985 that their nuclear program had remained accident-free, a statement that was later demonstrated to be a blatant lie—there had been a previous very serious accident at Chernobyl in September 1982 that was revealed when the archives of the Ukrainian KGB were published in the 1990s.

For the next 3-4 days after hearing of the disaster, there was no opportunity to do much other than answer the telephone at CIUS as one media source after another called asking for information. I had nothing other than the background to the event, and details about the construction of the Chernobyl nuclear plant. But that was more than most people in late April 1986. Reports coming to Kyiv from contacts in Kyiv suggested that the situation was more serious than it appeared from the Soviet media.

On the ground around the station, events moved rapidly though dissemination of news was fragmentary. The graphite fire spread from the fourth to part of the third reactor. Firemen arrived from Kyiv to try to contain it, and first-aid workers attended to the early victims. All three categories suffered heavy casualties though the official total never rose about 28 dead, and 2-3 instant deaths from the explosion. Helicopters flew over the fourth reactor dropping sand, boron, and lead pellets into the interior. The eventual weight derived pushed the reactor down toward the water table and coal miners from the Donbas were brought for the gruelling task of constructing a concrete shelf to prevent its further fall.

The reactor was entombed eventually in what was termed a sarkofag, a concrete covering, prior to which a massive decontamination exercise began to remove the irradiated topsoil in the 30-kilometer zone and cut down the forested areas. Initially “volunteers” from all over the USSR took part in the operation, but within a month the authorities ordered military reservists to the zone for initial periods of one month that were soon extended. They had a few Geiger counters but the measurements soon went off the scale. The evacuation encompassed over 120,000 residents on both sides of the border. Eventually the figure would rise to 250,000 as levels for acceptable living standards were raised over time. Some residents refused to move; others, mainly elderly, returned without permission. The Soviet media featured disasters at US nuclear stations but eventually revealed more information.

Researching Chernobyl

On April 30, 1986, I flew to New York at five hours’ notice for a press conference organized by some Ukrainian activists, including a former employee of RFE/RL who knew of my work, followed by an appearance on CBS News, and another press conference in Montreal the following day. By then reports had spoken of 2,000 dead based on information from UPI (it later turned out to be fake). The Soviet side acknowledged two deaths, appointed a Government Commission to “eliminate the consequences of the accident,” and forty hours after the explosion that blew the roof of the fourth reactor building, evacuated the population of Pripyat, estimated at 45,000, which housed the workers of the station and their families.

I used my files from RFE/RL to produce my first book entitled Chernobyl and Nuclear Power in the USSR, which was published in August 1986 by the Macmillan Press. Only the final chapter discussed the accident, insofar as the details were known. Around the same time it came out a Soviet delegation arrived in Vienna for a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), delivering a report in which it blamed the accident on human error. The IAEA and much of the Western world were so taken aback by the frankness of the report that they paid little attention to its dubious nature.

It was evident that the real story remained to be told. I felt that way even as other books arrived on the market. One was actually out before mine, a sensational epic by reporters from the British Observer newspaper. The Ukrainian National Organization (UNA), founded in USA in 1894 agreed to support a new study and offered me a grant of around $26,000, which was a small fortune by the standards of the time. I immediately applied to visit Chernobyl but received no response. In the fall of 1986 Gorbachev had called the 27th Party Congress of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and buzzwords like Glasnost and Perestroika were in circulation. But there was no clear indication of fundamental change in the Soviet system.

Further, Chernobyl appeared to many, including myself, as a cover-up operation, whereby information on health and casualties was classified and the authorities provided bland announcements to local and international media about sacrifice and bravery, as well as concocting a success story—the Soviet system had responded to a catastrophe efficiently and well. Most of these suppositions about concealment turned out to be accurate. At the same time, many observers from afar were largely unaware of the scale of the problem. With the help of a student from University of Pennsylvania, Leda Hewka, I started to investigate the impact of the accident on the surrounding villages and environment, wading through the Soviet media at the national and republican levels.

I completed the resultant second book called The Social Impact of the Chernobyl Disaster, with which I was very satisfied. It was made the feature review in The Los Angeles Times Book Review (by James Oberg), and I gleaned information from various sources, including incidentally a former RFE/RL colleague Toomas Ilves, currently the president of Estonia, who provided information on executions of some Estonian cleanup workers who had refused to stay in the zone beyond their mandatory term of one month, and had downed tools in protest. Roman Solchanyk forwarded a vast quantity of information from various Soviet sources. Glasnost permitted such stories, though in the case of the cleanup workers’ strike, the Soviet leaders likely could not monitor the Estonian press.

In 1988 I was in Moscow, attending a press conference of the Soviet Academy of Sciences where I had an opportunity to ask a question of Evgeniy Velikhov, Vice-President of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and shortly to be appointed Director of the Kurchatov Institute. He was the chief scientist at Chernobyl in the early months after the accident. I recall that his response was honest and detailed. I had also evidently spoken ahead of turn and there were numerous mutterings of “Who is he?” “Where did he come from?” around me. Only in early 1989 did I receive a response to my letter to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, receiving permission to visit Chernobyl in May or June of that year.

PART 2

Kyiv 1989

The spring of 1989 was a pivotal moment in the history of the Chernobyl accident. At that time Pravda and other newspapers published for the first time detailed maps of the radioactive fallout based on Cesium-137 (and to some extent Strontium-90), extending well beyond the officially designated 30-kilometer zone around the reactor. The dark patches on the map extended almost to the Polish border in the west, over swathes of Belarus in the south, east, and central part of the republic, and over the Russian border into Bryansk and Orel. In some parts of Zhytomyr region of Ukraine there were hotspots of radiation that were higher than most parts of the 30-kilometer zone. It was in the wake of this information, which infuriated local activists and journalists, that I arrived in Kyiv in May as the guest of the Foreign Ministry of Ukraine.

There followed the sort of anti-climatic lull typical of the time: I was left to explore Kyiv and remained at the Hotel Dnipro for two full days before anyone from the Ministry appeared. At that point a man called Valery Ingulsky, First Secretary at the Foreign Ministry, sauntered into the lobby, addressing me in French, and asked me to make a list of the places I wanted to visit in the vicinity. The trip to Chernobyl was set for two days ahead. I spent a couple of days visiting various Ukrainian media to get their views on the situation, as well as other information.

The time at Chernobyl was simply astounding, one of the formative experiences of my life. It is hard to imagine today the degree of central control over every facet of industry and the combination of secrecy and shabbiness behind every Soviet institution. My host for the day was Yuri Risovanny, a Kyiv native and senior engineer (a word that means nothing like its western equivalent); he knew several Western languages and had been designated the host for any foreign delegations visiting the station. He later became a close friend and subsequently immigrated to the United States with his family after winning a green card in the lottery.

At the village of Chernobyl we stopped at a prefabricated house. I was given a cross examination by Pavel Pokutniy, head of the Kombinat association, a hard-talking bull of a man with a deep voice and a suspicion of foreigners to match. He was very interested in my first book and why it appeared so critical of the Soviet system. He and others asked me why I had worked at Radio Liberty, which they associated with the CIA—it had been run by the CIA until 1971 when it was placed under the Board for International Broadcasting.

Chernobyl was within the 30-kilometer zone but some 16 kilometers (10 miles) south of the plant. I was taken there in a bus used to transport cleanup workers, who were still much in evidence, sitting on the ground eating sandwiches or smoking, oblivious to the ‘Danger! Radiation!’ signs all around them. We had Geiger counters and it was clear that the background radiation was 60-100 times the norm, and higher closer to the reactor. The workers appeared not to care. The Chernobyl nuclear power station called “V.I. Lenin” was always visible in the distance.

The plant director, a small serious man in his 50s, Mikhail Umanets, was civil and courteous but perhaps understandably defensive. He talked about Western propaganda and anti-nuclear protests taking place in Ukraine and Russia with evident disgust. Yuri took me around the first and second reactor units (they had shut down by the end of 1987), and as far as the wall of the “sarkofag” in the fourth. I even ate lunch at the Chernobyl plant, a solid meal of pork chops, which was better than anything I’d eaten in the Kyiv hotel.

Yuri then took me to Pripyat, about three kilometers to the north, and we visited the deserted apartments and an experimental glasshouse where shoots of pine trees had been taken from the irradiated forest around the station (soon destroyed) and grown alongside shoots from clean areas. They were around there times larger and their growth was unnatural. I was asked to sample tomatoes and cucumbers grown in the glasshouse. The local gardener did but I declined. Instead I took a cucumber, naively intending to take it back home to Canada to get tested. But my suitcase went astray somewhere in Montreal and when it arrived two days later, the cucumber had disintegrated among my clothing. Everything ended up somewhere in Edmonton landfill site.

The following day I visited the Center for Radiation Medicine where grim-faced scientists, including I.P. Los, and O.A. Pyatak, scoffed at sensational reports from journalists and in recent films about mutations in wildlife and the situation at Narodychi, in the highly irradiated zone of Zhytomyr. They provided information on the 238 seriously affected victims, 85% of whom had returned to work, before giving me a dull volume of their own findings, published in Moscow, written in typical technocratese with radiation averages per oblast rather than hotspots or highly contaminated zones. They also dismissed radiophobia and concurred with the IAEA that fear and stress had caused more sicknesses than Chernobyl radiation.

These were unusual times, however, and at the Center I was also allowed to meet a fireman from the Chernobyl crew (he had fought the fire from 2am until 5am on April 26), Vladimir Pryshchepa, who was confined to his bed and very sick. The scientists were obviously reluctant for there to be anything approaching a private conversation, but the short meeting was much more revealing than the formal interview with the “experts.” A memorial plaque in the grounds to the firemen and first-aid workers who had died from the graphite fire that enveloped the third and fourth reactors had been donated by the IAEA, the UN agency established to promote nuclear power.

The Nineties: Belarus

Subsequently I gave many talks on Chernobyl, particularly to government agencies. It was on the fifth anniversary, in April 1991, that I found myself in Washington, DC. If I recall correctly I had been part of a gathering of anti-nuclear activists headed by Helen Caldicott. I had been the penultimate speaker, but by the time I reached the platform it was evident that the audience was only interested in one side of a story. The previous speaker had bellowed platitudes like “Down with nuclear power!” and received rapturous applause. I decided to scrap my prepared speech and reel off the names and dates of nuclear power station projects that had been abandoned in the Soviet Union. After each one, the besandelled hippies roared with delight. It was hardly an academic setting.

On that same visit, however, I was invited to a meeting that included the Belarusian gymnast Olga Korbut. There I met a man called Yourie (his own rendering of his Christian name) Pankratz, who instantly regaled me, quite rightly, for focusing solely on Ukraine in my work on Chernobyl. The fallout in Belarus had been very severe. He invited me to a conference (it was termed a Congress) in Minsk the following April, at which, he said, I would be invited to speak.

Thus I flew to Minsk for the first time in the spring of 1992. It was a unique period in the history of Belarus. The Soviet period had ended but there was a power struggle between the Prime Minister Viachaslau Kebich, who supported a military-security union with Russia, and the Chairman of the parliament Stanislau Shushkevich who had found himself suddenly elevated to state leader after the failed putsch in Moscow in August 1991 but lacked popular support or the backing of a political party. The Popular Front was large and active and mounting a petition for new elections to replace the old assembly elected in 1990.

My host was an association called ‘Children of Chernobyl’—a very familiar name in this period as there were probably a dozen similarly named organizations. This particular one was under the leadership of Gennady Grushevoy (Hienadz Hrushavy), an ethnic Russian and a professor of philosophy, who had been close to the Popular Front and the Belarusian revival movement. The event was held in the Yubileinaya Hotel, on the street then adorned with the name Masherau Praspekt. On the podium in front of the Children of Chernobyl, Grushevoy presided, young (he was 42) but balding and with a moustache and what seemed at that time a brusque and somewhat condescending attitude, though subsequently I realized this description was a complete misrepresentation of his character.

The Congress was a little disappointing, for the same reasons as in Kyiv, namely that there were no attempts by the scientists speaking to make their findings comprehensible to a lay audience. Many would rush through overhead charts and graphs claiming to show the impact of additional radiation on various parts of the body. There were also more politically oriented offerings opposing nuclear power. Belarus did not have a nuclear power station of its own, but the Moscow Ministry of Power and Electrification had authorized the construction of a nuclear powered heating station on the road between Minsk and its international airport.

The occasion was an eye opener in terms of contact between locals and the few selected Westerners in attendance. We (Germans and Canadians were prominent) were in big demand for social occasions and it was wonderful to be invited to the homes of various attendees. I stayed at the home of two professors at Minsk Linguistic University, Uladzimir and Tamara Tyomkin, and met numerous people who later became close friends, including Lyuba Pervushina, at that time a violinist with the State Orchestra, Yourie and his wife Mila Pankratz, Katya Stulova, and Seriozha Lapteu.

Grushevoy held another congress in 1994, notable because that time in Minsk also featured the campaigning for the first presidential election campaign, eventually won by A. Lukashenka. A third congress in 1996 proved to be too sensitive for the authorities (attendees included Ally Hewson, wife of Bono, and Adi Roche, who lead the Irish Chernobyl Children International group, as well as one of my own MA students from the University of Alberta, Esther Van Nes). One doctor was refused permission to deliver his paper, and at one point the microphones were abruptly switched off. By then I had become much more aware of Chernobyl-related problems in Belarus having visited various hospitals and clinics, and interviewed doctors and scientists.

In December 1993 I took a University of Alberta Hospital paediatrician, Dr. Ernest McCoy, around several Minsk clinics. At the Belarusian Republican Center for Cancers of the Thyroid Gland, director, E.P. Demidchik provided us with detailed evidence of the spread of thyroid cancer among children, noting that its cause, radioactive iodine, had spread through the air in the first days after Chernoby, embracing most regions of the republic. Only Viciebsk in the north was outside its range. Around 5,000 children had fallen victim to this cancer by the early 1990s. Most scientists concur that this illness among children was the most discernible medical consequence of Chernobyl, and caused from fallout in the first few days after the accident. Belarus lacks iodine in the soil so children’s thyroids took it in through the air.

Grushevoy labored on long after his former friends from the Popular Front had departed the scene (Zianon Pazniak emigrated to United States in 1996, for example). On one occasion, his staff arranged for me to visit families in the contaminated zones of Mahilou region, accompanied by some members of the Fund. It was evident that these families had been living off the land since 1986. A few of their children had traveled abroad in the summers through the Fund, but most people had remained in their villages, though the local factory, which produced flax, had shut down.

There was general poverty in evidence and most of the males I met, were drunk or sleeping. In one place, seven people slept in one room in the middle of the day, most of them ill, though not as a result of radiation brought from the Chernobyl reactor. In almost all the cottages, the reception was uniformly warm with tables set for a feast in each one—I forget how many ‘lunches’ we ate but it was at least three. The fear of radiation was manifest everywhere, as was the sentiment of gloom and hopelessness. I took a photograph of a more cheerful family of seven, which appeared in my first book on Belarus, Belarus: From Soviet Power to Nuclear Catastrophe, published in 1996.

Grushevoy, in one of the many long conversations I held with him, attributed the pessimism less to radiophobia and more to the tradition in Belarus in depending upon state direction and largesse. Gorbachev’s Soviet Union from 1986 to 1991, in the victims’ view, had betrayed this trust by concealing the dangers of radiation and declining for three years to reveal the scope of its dissemination. Grushevoy’s goal, which he emphasized most fully at the 1999 Congress of Children of Chernobyl, was to set up self-help organizations at the grassroots level, something he had started to do in the early 1990s.

In 1997, however, his organization came under government scrutiny and a special commission of the KGB was set up to investigate its operations. For some months the KGB officials simply sat in the offices in Starovilenskaya Street in a restored older part of central Minsk and carried out audits (especially of its links with German organizations, where many children were sent for the summer months for recreation) while monitoring all facets of business. Ultimately the Fund was evicted from the building and forced to operate, under a different name, out of a hotel room.

PART 3

The Irish ‘Chernobyl Children’s Project’ members of which I had met in 1996, incidentally, formed ties with government organizations and thus was permitted to continue. But despite its name its main work today is less with Chernobyl victims than in mental asylums where it has carried out fundamental changes as well as medical operations on the sick, either by flying in teams of doctors or transporting children to Ireland. In 2003, its leaders helped to produce the documentary Chernobyl Heart, which won an Academy Award for Best Short Documentary. The film focused on cardiac degradation among children, though there is no verifiable link of this condition to additional radiation from the disaster.

Therein, however, lies a fundamental issue arising from the Chernobyl disaster: how many people did it actually affect through death, illness, or evacuation? That question pervaded the dozens of conferences and meetings I attended in places as far-flung as Tokyo, Kyiv, Minsk, Ottawa, London, Berlin, Munich, and all over North America from Los Angeles to the White House. It was difficult to separate the issue from that of the future of nuclear energy and fiercely antithetical organizations such as the IAEA and Greenpeace, which disagree profoundly on the number of deaths to date from Chernobyl-induced radiation and the impact of low-level radiation.

Thoughts After Three Decades

The Gorbachev years were a special period in the history of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. Chernobyl’s consequences catalyzed Glasnost but also were exposed by it. Underneath all the bitterness, accusations, and recriminations, it needs to be acknowledged that this deeply flawed empire had become a debating society; nothing was sacred any longer. It was like a door to a secret kingdom being opened briefly, then further, before finally being slammed shut again, and that kingdom in the meantime having split into its various parts, each with their own particular problems and the only unifying factor being the extraordinary difficulty of building something new to replace the old system.

Chernobyl was a disaster of epic proportions, especially in terms of contamination of land (over 60,000 square miles), but it also suffered because of the lack of affinity between its victims and those assigned to assess and take measures to overcome it. It tested the Soviet Union to the limit, and the Communist system proved inadequate for the task. That may not have been a result entirely of the weakening structure; the Japanese had similar problems after the earthquake and tsunami that caused the Fukushima disaster in March 2011.

For Belarus the suffering was especially acute because it was a secondary, indirect victim of the explosion, which happened ten miles south of its border; Belarusians were unaware of its scale; the party leader Mikalai Sliunkau took an active role in responding to the disaster in the parts of the zone in Belarusian territory in the first months but likely knew little about its influence. It was estimated in the 1990s that the cost of Chernobyl to Belarus in terms of damage, health, and evacuations, as well as continued monitoring of the irradiated zones, was equivalent to thirty-two annual budgets. And as noted, the effects took place in a society in which local initiatives and responses were overtly discouraged. And yet it was left to NGOs to bear the brunt of the efforts to respond.

The number of direct deaths was probably a few hundred. If one adds the later deaths (within five years) to cleanup crews and evacuees, the figure is probably around 10-15,000. It was accompanied by a worrying rise in morbidity and general illnesses in the affected zones. What was termed “Chernobyl AIDS” appeared to be a consequence of deficiencies of the immune system, which in turn may have resulted from drastic dietary changes and fear of consuming homegrown vegetables. Diseases like diabetes among children or heart attacks among young cleanup workers were also prevalent. There were also and remain still numerous health problems that might be associated with contamination but without any definitive proof.

By 2004, prior to the eighteenth anniversary, the president of Belarus, Lukashenka, declared that the accident was over and the contaminated lands of Homiel, Mahiliou, and Brest, could be re-cultivated. As a move to economize or dispel fears, it was an astute statement; as a reflection of the actual situation one hopes it was based on ignorance. Longer living radionuclides, particularly Plutonium, will remain in isolated areas for generations.

On the other hand, Belarus and Ukraine almost immediately began to face questions on sovereignty and independence, followed by struggles for power among the post-Communist elite (and some non-elites) and their relationship with the largest power to emerge from the Soviet corpse, the Russian Federation. In perspective also, the damage caused by Chernobyl was extensive, but does not compare for mortalities even with another disastrous accident in India in December 1984 at the Union Carbide Pesticide plant in Bhopal, which resulted in over 2,200 immediate and over 1,500 subsequent deaths from a leakage of gas. A further 16,000 reportedly died from related diseases caused by gas inhalation. In the USSR, the earthquake in Spitak, Armenia in December 1988 resulted in a fatality total of between 25,000 and 50,000. In scale these events superseded Chernobyl. The difference is that they were instantly measurable and attributable to the specific accident. No such certainty occurred or will occur after Chernobyl.

Soviet society seems a foreign world today. There were few computers in 1986, no Internet, and no social networks. The chief forms of communication were the telephone and the postal system. When I was driven to Chernobyl in 1986 there was one paved road all the way from Kyiv and we stopped frequently for cattle crossing. The old authorities prior to the emergence of Gorbachev, were indeed old. Three Soviet leaders and at least four other Politburo members died between November 1982 (Brezhnev) and March 1985 (Chernenko).

Soviet students were not permitted to read Freud, but all the KGB workers in Intourist, as one informed me in Moscow in 1987, had to plow through eleven volumes of that great sage Leonid Ilich Brezhnev (recipient of the Lenin Prize for Literature), or watch the geriatrics assemble on Lenin’s tomb for the latest funeral. Gorbachev took office at 54, almost absurdly young by these standards. Moreover, he was active and articulate, and his intelligent and fashionably dressed wife Raisa was always at his side.

Attitudes to sensitive high-level industries like nuclear power—and to some extent to its military equivalent the atomic weapons industry—were incredibly nonchalant by Western standards. This was the country that tested the aptitude of the military by detonating atomic weapons between exercising army groups to monitor reactions and vulnerability (something revealed by Moscow News during the Gorbachev period). Earlier when a nuclear waste dump had exploded at Kyshtym in the Chelyabinsk region of the Urals in 1957, entire settlements were wiped out and the Techa River remains contaminated today. The ground in Kamchatka Peninsula today is still heavily polluted from atomic weapons testing. Chernobyl was a tragedy but one with a lengthy history. The Soviet regime laid waste to its own country in its quest to be a Super Power and the results are only too evident today.

Ironically, it was under Gorbachev, the one leader who tried to affect change—hapless though he often was—that the first disaster to elicit world attention took place. And it brought about that attention first of all because workers at the Forsberg nuclear power station in Sweden set off radiation alarms on entering the station on the morning of April 28, 1986. But the radiation came from the Soviet Union, not Sweden.

Ultimately, there was also a positive side to Chernobyl, far-fetched though that may sound. First, it alerted the republics to the dangers of their industries being planned and administered from distant offices in Moscow by bureaucrats who likely had never set foot there. Second it released a surge of civil activity, environmental movements, and ultimately political parties that eventually brought down the Soviet regime that could no longer keep pace with US technological advances. The USSR principally collapsed from within, not from external issues. Indeed, the United States was anxious to maintain Gorbachev’s administration in power.

These are the lessons I learned, as well as making many lifelong friends and colleagues en route and paradoxically starting my own career outside my own discipline, and introducing me to Belarus and Belarusians. I should note that Gennady Grushevoy died of leukemia on January 28, 2014 at the age of 63. I hope my Belarusian-speaking friends will forgive me when I say that I miss hearing his beautiful Russian, with which he used to express his thoughts, always based on deep thinking and careful analysis. He wanted Belarusians to determine their own futures but he was never doctrinaire. In fact, he was disarmingly honest. For me he remains a symbol of this 30th anniversary in Belarus: community-minded, building bridges, working with young people, and, if not flouting authority, circumventing it at every opportunity. It is much preferable to a mindset of permanent victimhood and suffering, a state of mind that the Chernobyl disaster helped to perpetuate.

The zone itself has become the site for horror movies, such as Brad Parker’s Chernobyl Diaries (2012) and in June 2015 in Kyiv, tourist agencies were offering trips to the reactor for $400 for an individual and around $100 for groups of four or more. Some wildlife has flourished there and the irradiated zone provides an environment mostly free of human habitation, but there is a notable absence of birds and certain insects.

If one were to ask people in Belarus or Ukraine today where they would list the Chernobyl disaster as a factor in their daily lives, it would be unlikely to be listed in the top ten. That is natural and, I think, healthy. At the same time as the founder of the Ukrainian Green Party Yuri Shcherbak once wrote, it was an “epochal” event, something that defined a certain time period. Its consequences were inflated, underestimated, and debated endlessly, but ultimately one cannot discern if a cleanup worker or evacuee who died subsequently, passed away as a result of Chernobyl radiation or other causes. Nor will that information ever be revealed. That is why for families of victims there can be no closure.

The arguments over the impact of additional low-level radiation to humans will continue but radiation affects people differently, depending on lifestyle, environment, habits, the workplace, and other ways. Chernobyl should not be forgotten, yet it should be placed in perspective. It took place in a world that no longer exists but it is not as distant as the war, which the Belarusian leader speaks of as though it happened yesterday. We should not blame those who made mistakes, or even those who refused to reveal information because that behavior was ingrained in the Soviet system.

Chernobyl’s simple lessons are that openness in reports to those affected is always the wisest policy, and that human error is always likely to outweigh even the most foolproof piece of technology. Scientists must plan for the worst, for all eventualities. In this case the technology was far from foolproof.

This article appeared first in Belarusian Review/The Point and is reproduced here by permission.

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2 thoughts on “Chernobyl after 30 Years: A Personal Memoir

  1. David,
    Thank you for this. It is valuable to have such a personal and yet, historical account of the time before, during and after the Chernobyl disaster.

    Among the most poignant visuals I recall from the disaster are the elderly who, after living through the ravages of the Great Patriotic War, rebuilt villages, planted gardens and desired above all peace, had their way of life utterly destroyed. After war, as painful and difficult as it may be, life can return to normal. But Chernobyl uprooted families, ways of life, local histories and moved them into apartments, into cities and foreign situations. I recall you telling a journalist that the older folks would plant gardens in the quads and playgounds of apartment buildings. Such resoluteness in the face of such adversity.

    For the children, some whom developed cancers and the adults, who faced illnesses of their own due to radiation, they at least had an opportunity to try and pick up the pieces and begin a new life. But for the elderly… I don’t blame them for wanting to stay despite the danger.

    I would imagine most who elected or were permitted to stay have all but passed on. But their legacy, their indomitable spirit and will to live as they wanted to live, I think, speaks to the fortitude and hardiness of the Belarusian character.

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