Letters & Essays

Voices from Chernobyl

Svetlana Alexievich

On April 26, 1986, at 1:23:58 a. m., a series of explosions destroyed the reactor in the building that housed Energy Block #4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. The catastrophe at Chernobyl became the largest technical disaster of the twentieth century. . . . For tiny Belarus (population: ten million), it was a national disaster. . . . Today, one out of every five Belarussians lives on contaminated land. This amounts to 2.1 million people, of whom seven hundred thousand are children. In the Gomel and Mogilev regions, which suffered the most from Chernobyl, mortality rates exceed birthrates by twenty percent.

—Belaruskaya entsiklopedia, 1996, s.v. “Chernobyl,” pg. 24

 

On April 29, 1986, instruments recorded high levels of radiation in Poland, Germany, Austria, and Romania. On April 30, in Switzerland and northern Italy. On May 1 and second, in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and northern Greece. On May 3, in Israel, Kuwait, and Turkey. . . . Gaseous airborne particles traveled around the globe: on May 2 they were registered in Japan, on May 5 in India, on May 5 and sixth in the U.S. and Canada.

—“The Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident in Belarus”

The Sakharov International College on Radioecology, Minsk, 1992

Lyudmilla Ignatenko Wife of deceased Fireman Vasily Ignatenko

We were newlyweds. We still walked around holding hands, even if we were just going to the store. I would say to him, “I love you.” But I didn’t know then how much. I had no idea . . . We lived in the dormitory of the fire station where he worked. I always knew what was happening—where he was, how he was.

One night I heard a noise. I looked out the window. He saw me. “Close the window and go back to sleep. There’s a fire at the reactor. I’ll be back soon.”

I didn’t see the explosion itself. Just the flames. Everything was radiant. The whole sky. A tall flame. And smoke. The heat was awful. And he still hadn’t come back.

They went off just as they were, in their shirtsleeves. No one told them. They had been called for a fire, that was it.

Seven o’clock in the morning. At seven I was told he was in the hospital. I ran over there‚ but the police had already encircled it, and they weren’t letting anyone through. Only ambulances. The policemen shouted: “The ambulances are radioactive‚ stay away!” I started looking for a friend, she was a doctor at that hospital. I grabbed her white coat when she came out of an ambulance. “Get me inside!” “I can’t. He’s bad. They all are.” I held onto her. “Just to see him!” “All right‚” she said. “Come with me. Just for fifteen or twenty minutes.”

I saw him. He was all swollen and puffed up. You could barely see his eyes.

“He needs milk. Lots of milk‚” my friend said. “They should drink at least three liters each.”

“But he doesn’t like milk.”

“He’ll drink it now.”

Many of the doctors and nurses in that hospital‚ and especially the orderlies‚ would get sick themselves and die. But we didn’t know that then.

At ten‚ the cameraman Shishenok died. He was the first.

I said to my husband, “Vasenka, what should I do?” “Get out of here! Go! You have our child.” I was pregnant. But how could I leave him? He was saying to me: “Go! Leave! Save the baby.” “First I need to bring you some milk, then we’ll decide what to do.” My friend Tanya Kibenok came running in—her husband was in the same room. Her father was with her, he had a car. We got in and drove to the nearest village. We bought a bunch of three-liter bottles, six, so there was enough for everyone. But they started throwing up terribly from the milk.

They kept passing out, they got put on iv. The doctors kept telling them they’d been poisoned by gas, for some reason. No one said anything about radiation.

I couldn’t get into the hospital that evening. There was a sea of people. I stood under his window, he came over and yelled something to me. It was so desperate! Someone in the crowd heard him—they were being taken to Moscow that night. All the wives got together in one group. We decided we’d go with them. “Let us go with our husbands! You have no right!” We punched and we clawed. The soldiers—there were already soldiers—they pushed us back. Then the doctor came out and said they were flying to Moscow, but we needed to bring them their clothing. The clothes they’d worn at the station had been burned. The buses had stopped running already and we ran across the city. We came running back with the bags, but the plane was already gone. They tricked us. So that we wouldn’t be there yelling and crying.

Later in the day I started throwing up. I was six months pregnant, but I had to get to Moscow.

In Moscow we asked the first police officer we saw, Where did they put the Chernobyl firemen? And he told us, which was a surprise; everyone had scared us into thinking it was top secret. “Hospital number 6. At the Shchukinskaya stop.”

It was a special hospital, for radiology, and you couldn’t get in without a pass. I gave some money to the woman at the door, and she said: “Go ahead.” Then I had to ask someone else, beg. Finally I was sitting in the office of the head radiologist, Angelina Vasilyevna Guskova. Right away she asked: “Do you have kids?”

What should I tell her? I can see already I need to hide that I’m pregnant. They won’t let me see him! It’s good I’m thin, you can’t really tell anything.

“Yes,” I say.

“How many?”

I’m thinking, I need to tell her two. If it’s just one, she won’t let me in.

“A boy and a girl.”

“So you don’t need to have any more. All right, listen: His central nervous system is completely compromised, his skull is completely compromised.”

Okay, I’m thinking, so he’ll be a little fidgety.

“And listen: If you start crying, I’ll kick you out right away. No hugging or kissing. Don’t even get near him. You have half an hour.”

But I knew already that I wasn’t leaving. If I leave, then it’ll be with him. I swore to myself!

I come in, they’re sitting on the bed, playing cards and laughing. “Vasya!” they call out. He turns around: “Oh, well, now it’s over! She’s found me even here!” He looks so funny, he’s got pajamas on for a size 48, and he’s a size 52. The sleeves are too short, the pants are too short. But his face isn’t swollen anymore. They were given some sort of fluid.

I say: “Where’d you run off to?” He wants to hug me. The doctor won’t let him. “Sit, sit,” she says. “No hugging in here.”

We turned it into a joke somehow. And then everyone came over, from the other rooms too, everyone from Pripyat. There were twenty-eight of them on the plane.

I wanted to be with him alone, if only for a minute. The guys felt it, and each of them thought of some excuse, and they all went out into the hall. Then I hugged him and I kissed him. He moved away.

“Don’t sit near me. Take a chair.”

“That’s just silliness,” I said, waving it away.

The next day when I came, they were lying by themselves, each in his own room. They were banned from going in the hallway, from talking to each other. They knocked on the walls with their knuckles. Dash-dot, dash-dot. The doctors explained that everyone’s body reacts differently to radiation, and what one person can handle, another can’t. They even measured the radiation of the walls where they had them. To the right, the left, and the floor beneath. They moved out all the sick people from the floor below and the floor above. There was no one left in the place.

He started to change—every day I met a brand-new person. The burns started to come to the surface. In his mouth, on his tongue, his cheeks—at first there were little lesions, and then they grew. It came off in layers—as white film . . . the color of his face . . . his body . . . blue . . . red . . . gray-brown. And it’s all so very mine! It’s impossible to describe! It’s impossible to write down! Or even to get over. The only thing that saved me was that it happened so fast; there wasn’t any time to think, there wasn’t any time to cry.

Fourteen days. In fourteen days a person dies.

It was the ninth of May. He always used to say to me: “You have no idea how beautiful Moscow is! Especially on V-Day, when they set off the fireworks. I want you to see it.”

I was sitting with him in the room, he opened his eyes.

“Is it day or night?”

“It’s nine at night.”

“Open the window! They’re going to set off the fireworks!”

I opened the window. We were on the eighth floor, and the whole city was there before us! There was a bouquet of fire exploding in the air.

“Look at that!” I said.

“I told you I’d show you Moscow. And I told you I’d always give you flowers on holidays...”

I looked over, and he was getting three carnations from under his pillow. He had given the nurse money, and she had bought them.

I ran over and kissed him.

“My love! My only one!”

He started growling. “What did the doctors tell you? No hugging me. And no kissing!”

He got so bad that I couldn’t leave him even for a second. He was calling me constantly: “Lusya, where are you? Lusenka!” He called and called. The other biochambers, where our boys were, were being tended to by soldiers because the orderlies on staff refused, they demanded protective clothing. The soldiers carried the sanitary vessels. They wiped the floors down, changed the bedding. They did everything. Where did they get those soldiers? We didn’t ask. But he—he—every day I would hear: Dead. Dead. Tischura is dead. Titenok is dead. Dead.

He was producing stool twenty-five to thirty times a day. With blood and mucus. His skin started cracking on his arms and legs. He became covered with boils. When he turned his head, there’d be a clump of hair left on the pillow. I tried joking: “It’s convenient, you don’t need a comb.” Soon they cut all their hair. I did it for him myself. I wanted to do everything for him myself. If it had been physically possible I would have stayed with him twenty-four hours a day. I couldn’t spare a minute. [Long silence.]

There’s a fragment of some conversation, I’m remembering it. Someone saying: “You have to understand: This is not your husband anymore, not a beloved person, but a radioactive object with a strong density of poisoning. You’re not suicidal. Get a hold of yourself.” And I was like someone who’d lost her mind: “But I love him! I love him!” He’s sleeping, and I’m whispering: “I love you!” Walking in the hospital courtyard, “I love you.” Carrying his sanitary tray, “I love you.”

One night, everything was quiet. We were all alone. He looked at me very, very carefully and suddenly he said:

“I want to see our child so much. How is he?”

“What are we going to name him?”

“You’ll decide that yourself.”

“Why myself, when there’s two of us?”

“In that case, if it’s a boy, he should be Vasya, and if it’s a girl, Natasha.”

I was like a blind person. I couldn’t even feel the little pounding underneath my heart. Even though I was six months in. I thought that my little one was inside me, that he was protected.

And then—the last thing. I remember it in flashes, all broken up. I was sitting on my little chair next to him at night. At eight I said: “Vasenka, I’m going to go for a little walk.” He opened his eyes and closed them, letting me go. I had just walked to the hotel, gone up to my room, lain down on the floor—I couldn’t lie on the bed; everything hurt too much—when the cleaning lady started knocking on the door. “Go! Run to him! He’s calling for you like mad!”

Right away I called the nurse’s post. “How is he?” “He died fifteen minutes ago.” What? I was there all night. I was gone for three hours! I ran down the stairs. He was still in his biochamber, they hadn’t taken him away yet. I didn’t leave him anymore after that. I escorted him all the way to the cemetery. Although the thing I remember isn’t the grave, it’s the plastic bag. That bag.

At the morgue they said, “Want to see what we’ll dress him in?” I did! They dressed him up in formal wear, with his service cap. They couldn’t get shoes on him because his feet had swelled up. They had to cut up the formal wear, too, because they couldn’t get it on him, there wasn’t a whole body to put it on. The last two days in the hospital—pieces of his lungs, of his liver, were coming out of his mouth. He was choking on his internal organs. I’d wrap my hand in a bandage and put it in his mouth, take out all that stuff. It’s impossible to talk about. It’s impossible to write about. And even to live through. They couldn’t get a single pair of shoes to fit him. They buried him barefoot.

Everyone came—his parents, my parents. They bought black handkerchiefs in Moscow. The Emergency Commission met with us. They told everyone the same thing: It’s impossible for us to give you the bodies of your husbands, your sons, they are very radioactive and will be buried in a Moscow cemetery in a special way. In sealed zinc caskets, under cement tiles. And you need to sign this document here.

If anyone got indignant and wanted to take the coffin back home, they were told that the dead were now, you know, heroes, and that they no longer belonged to their families. They were heroes of the state. They belonged to the state.

Right away they bought us plane tickets back home. For the next day. At home I fell asleep. I walked into the place and just fell onto the bed. I slept for three days. An ambulance came. “No,” said the doctor, “she’ll wake up. It’s just a terrible sleep.”

I was twenty-three. Two months later I went back to Moscow. From the train station straight to the cemetery. To him! And at the cemetery I started going into labor. Just as I started talking to him—they called the ambulance. It was two weeks before I was due.

They showed her to me—a girl. “Natashenka,” I called out. “Your father named you Natashenka.” She looked healthy. Arms, legs. But she had cirrhosis of the liver. Her liver had twenty-eight roentgens. Congenital heart disease. Four hours later they told me she was dead. And again: “We won’t give her to you.” “What do you mean you won’t give her to me? It’s me who won’t give her to you!”

[She is silent for a long time.]

In Kiev they gave me an apartment. It was in a large building where they put everyone from the atomic station. It’s a big apartment, with two rooms, the kind Vasya and I had dreamed of.

[She stands up, goes over to the window.]

There are many of us here. A whole street. That’s what it’s called—Chernobylskaya. These people worked at the station their whole lives. A lot of them still go there to work on a provisional basis, that’s how they work there now, no one lives there anymore. They have bad diseases, they’re invalids, but they don’t leave their jobs, they’re scared to even think of the reactor closing down. Who needs them now anywhere else? Often they die. In a minute. They just drop—someone will be walking, he falls, goes to sleep. He was carrying flowers for his nurse and his heart stopped. They die, but no one’s really asked us. No one’s asked what we’ve been through. What we saw. No one wants to hear about death. About what scares them.

But I was telling you about love. About my love . . .

Settlers’ Chorus: Those Who Returned

Oh, I don’t even want to remember it. It was scary. They chased us out, the soldiers chased us. The big military machines rolled in. The all-terrain ones. One old man—he was already on the ground. Dying. Where was he going to go? “I’ll just get up,” he was crying, “and walk to the cemetery. I’ll do it myself.”

 

§

 

We were leaving—I took some earth from my mother’s grave, put it in a little sack. Got down on my knees: “Forgive us for leaving you.” I went there at night and I wasn’t scared. People were writing their names on the houses. On the wood. On the fences. On the asphalt.

 

§

 

The nights are very long here in the winter. We’ll sit, sometimes, and count: Who’s died?

 

§

 

My man was in bed for two months. He didn’t say anything, didn’t answer me. He was mad. I’d walk around the yard, come back: “Old man, how are you?” When a person’s dying, you can’t cry. You’ll interrupt his dying, he’ll have to keep struggling. I didn’t cry. I asked for just one thing: “Say hello to our daughter and to my dear mother.” I prayed that we’d go together. Some gods would have done it, but He didn’t let me die. I’m alive . . .

 

§

 

I washed the house, bleached the stove. You needed to leave some bread on the table and some salt, a little plate and three spoons. As many spoons as there are souls in the house. All so we could come back.

 

§

 

The chickens had black coxcombs, not red ones, because of the radiation. And you couldn’t make cheese. We lived a month without cheese and cottage cheese. The milk didn’t go sour—it curdled into powder, white powder. Because of the radiation.

§

 

I had that radiation in my garden. The whole garden went white, white as white can be, like it was covered with something. Chunks of something. I thought maybe someone brought it from the forest.

 

§

 

We didn’t want to leave. The men were all drunk, they were throwing themselves under cars. The big Party bosses were walking to all the houses and begging people to go. Orders: “Don’t take your belongings!”

 

§

 

No one’s going to fool us anymore, we’re not moving anywhere. There’s no store, no hospital. No electricity. We sit next to a kerosene lamp and under the moonlight. And we like it! Because we’re home.

 

§

 

The police were yelling. They’d come in cars, and we’d run into the forest. Like from the Germans. One time they came with the prosecutor, he huffed and puffed, they were going to put us up on Article 10. I said: “Let them give me a year in jail. I’ll serve it and come back here.” Their job is to yell, ours is to stay quiet. I have a medal—I was the best harvester on the kolkhoz. And he’s scaring me with Article 10.

 

§

 

This one reporter said we didn’t just return home, we went back a hundred years. We use a hammer for reaping, and a sickle for mowing. We flail wheat right on the asphalt.

 

§

 

We turned off the radio right away. We don’t know any of the news, but life is peaceful. We don’t get upset. People come, they tell us the stories—there’s war everywhere. And like that, socialism is finished and we live under capitalism. And the czar is coming back. Is that true?

 

§

 

Everyone’s rearing to get back for the harvest. That’s it. Everyone wants to have his own back. The police have lists of people they’ll let back, but kids under eighteen can’t come. People will come and they’re so glad just to stand next to their house. In their own yard next to the apple tree. At first they’ll go cry at the cemetery, then they go to their yards. And they cry there, too, and pray. They leave candles. They hang them on their fences. Or on the little fences at the cemetery. Sometimes they’ll even leave a wreath at the house. A white towel on the gate. An old woman reads a prayer: “Brothers and sisters! Have patience!”

 

§

 

People take eggs, and rolls, and whatever else, to the cemetery. Everyone sits with their families. They call them: “Sis, I’ve come to see you. Come have lunch.” Or: “Mom, dear Mom. Dad, dear Dad.” They call the souls down from heaven. Those who had people die this year cry, and those whose people died earlier, don’t. They talk, they remember. Everyone prays. And those who don’t know how to pray, also pray.

 

§

 

We have everything here—graves. Graves everywhere. The dump trucks are working, and the bulldozers. The houses are falling. The grave diggers are toiling away. They buried the school, the headquarters, the baths. It’s the same world, but the people are different. One thing I don’t know is, do people have souls? What kind? And how do they all fit in the next world? My grandpa died for two days. I was hiding behind the stove and waiting: How’s it going to fly out of his body? I went to milk the cow—I came back in, called him, he was lying there with his eyes open. His soul fled already. Or did nothing happen? And then how will we meet?

 

§
 

Soldiers’ Chorus

Our regiment was given the alarm. It was only when we got to the Belorusskaya train station in Moscow that they told us where we were going. One guy, I think he was from Leningrad, began to protest. They told him they’d drag him before a military tribunal. The commander said exactly that before the troops: “You’ll go to jail or be shot.” I had other feelings, the complete opposite of that guy. I wanted to do something heroic. Maybe it was kid’s stuff. But there were others like me. It was scary but also fun, for some reason.

Well, so they brought us in, and they took us right to the power station. They gave us white robes and white caps. And gauze surgical masks. We cleaned the territory. The robots couldn’t do it, their systems got all crazy. But we worked. And we were proud of it.

 

§

 

We rode in—there was a sign that said: Zone Off Limits. We met these crazed dogs and cats on the road. They acted strange: They didn’t recognize us as people, they ran away. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with them until they told us to start shooting them . . . The houses were all sealed up, the farm machinery was abandoned. It was interesting to see. There was no one, just us and the police on their patrols. You’d walk into a house—there were photographs on the wall, but no people. There’d be documents lying around: people’s komsomol IDs, other forms of identification, awards.

People drove to the block, the actual reactor. They wanted to photograph themselves there, to show the people at home. They were scared, but also so curious: What was this thing? I didn’t go, myself, I have a young wife, I didn’t want to risk it, but the boys took a few shots and went over. So . . .

 

§

 

There’s this abandoned house. It’s closed. There’s a cat on the windowsill. I think: Must be a clay cat. I come over, and it’s a real cat. He ate all the flowers in the house. Geraniums. How’d he get in? Or did they leave him there?

There’s a note on the door: Dear kind person, please don’t look for valuables here. We never had any. Use whatever you want, but don’t trash the place. We’ll be back. I saw signs on other houses in different colors—Dear house, forgive us! People said goodbye to their homes like they were people. Or they’d written: We’re leaving in the morning, or, We’re leaving at night, and they’d put the date and even the time. There were notes written on school notebook paper: Don’t beat the cat. Otherwise the rats will eat everything. And then in a child’s handwriting: Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good cat.

 

§

 

I went. I didn’t have to go. I volunteered. I was after a medal? I wanted benefits? Bullshit! I didn’t need anything for myself. An apartment, a car—what else? Right, a dacha. I had all those things. But it exerted a sort of masculine charm. Manly men were going off to do this important thing. And everyone else? They can hide under women’s skirts, if they want. There were guys with pregnant wives, others had little babies, a third had burns. They all cursed to themselves and came anyway.

We came home. I took off all the clothes that I’d worn there and threw them down the trash chute. I gave my cap to my little son. He really wanted it. And he wore it all the time. Two years later they gave him a diagnosis: a tumor in his brain . . . You can write the rest of this yourself. I don’t want to talk anymore.

 

§

 

On May 9, V-Day, a general came. They lined us up, congratulated us on the holiday. One of the guys got up the courage and asked: “Why aren’t they telling us the radiation levels? What kind of doses are we getting?” Just one guy. Well, after the general left, the brigadier called him in and gave him hell. “That’s a provocation! You’re an alarmist!” A few days later they handed out gas masks, but no one used them. They showed us Geiger counters a couple of times, but they never actually gave them to us.

Before we went home we were called in to speak to a KGB guy. He was very convincing in telling us we shouldn’t talk to anyone, anywhere, about what we’d seen. When I made it back from Afghanistan, I knew that I’d live. Here it was the opposite: It’d kill you only after you got home.

 

§

 

We got to the place. Got our equipment. “Just an accident,” the captain tells us. “Happened a long time ago. Three months. It’s not dangerous anymore.” “It’s fine,” says the sergeant. “Just wash your hands before you eat.”

I got home, I’d go dancing. I’d meet a girl I like and say, “Let’s get to know one another.”

“What for? You’re a Chernobylite now. I’d be scared to have your kids.”

 

§

 

Every April 26, we get together, the guys who were there. We remember how it was. You were a soldier, at war, you were necessary. We forget the bad parts and remember that. We remember that they couldn’t have made it without us. Our system, it’s a military system, essentially, and it works great in emergencies. You’re finally free there, and necessary. Freedom! And in those moments the Russian shows how great he is. How unique. We’ll never be Dutch or German. And we’ll never have proper asphalt and manicured lawns. But there’ll always be plenty of heroes.

They made the call, and I went. I had to! I was a member of the Party. Communists, march! That’s how it was. I was a police officer —senior lieutenant. They promised me another “star.” This was June of 1987. The looters had already been there. We boarded up windows and doors. The stores were all looted, the grates on the windows broken in, flour and sugar on the floor, candy. Cans everywhere. One village got evacuated, and then five, ten kilometers over, the next village didn’t. They brought all the stuff over from the evacuated village. That’s how it was. We’re guarding the place, and the former head of the kolkhoz arrives with some of the local people, they’ve already been resettled, they have new homes, but they’ve come back to collect the crops and sow new ones. They drove the straw out in bales. We found sowing machines and motorcycles in the bales. There was a barter system—they give you a bottle of homemade vodka,* you give them permission to transport the television. We were selling and trading tractors and sowing machines. One bottle, or ten bottles. No one was interested in money. [Laughs.] It was like Communism. There was a tax for everything: a canister of gas—that’s half a liter of vodka; an astrakhan fur coat—two liters; and motorcycles—variable. They transported the zone back here. You can find it on the markets, the pawnshops, at people’s dachas. The only thing that remained behind the wire was the land. And the graves. And our health. And our faith. Or my faith.

They gave me a medal and one thousand rubles.

 

§

 

I remember the empty villages where the pigs had gone crazy and were running around. The kolkhoz offices and clubs, these faded posters: We’ll give the motherland bread! Glory to the Soviet worker-peoples! The achievements of the people are immortal.

 

§

 

My wife took the kid and left. That bitch! But I’m not going to hang myself. And I’m not going to throw myself out a seventh-floor window. When I first came back from there with a suitcase full of money, that was fine. She wasn’t afraid. [Starts singing.]

Even one thousand gamma rays

Can’t keep the Russian cock from having its days.

That bitch! She’s afraid of me. She took the kid. [Suddenly serious.] The soldiers worked next to the reactor. I’d drive them there for their shifts and then back. I had a total-radiation meter around my neck, just like everyone else. After their shifts, I’d pick them up and we’d go to the First Department—that was a classified department. They’d take our readings there, write something down on our cards, but the number of roentgens we got, that was a military secret. Those fuckers! Some time goes by and suddenly they say: “Stop. You can’t take any more.” That’s all the medical information they give you. Even when I was leaving they didn’t tell me how much I got. Fuckers! Now they’re fighting for power. For cabinet portfolios. They have elections. You want another joke? After Chernobyl you can eat anything you want, but you have to bury your own shit in lead.

 

§

 

My friend died. He got huge, fat, like a barrel. And my neighbor—he was also there, he worked a crane. He got black, like coal, and shrunk, so that he was wearing kid’s clothes. I don’t know how I’m going to die. I do know this: You don’t last long with my diagnosis. But I’d like to feel it when it happens. Like a bullet to the head. I was in Afghanistan, too. It was easier there. They just shot you.

Arkady Filin Liquidator

I was thinking about something else, then. You’ll find this strange, but I was splitting up with my wife.

They came suddenly, gave me a notice, and said, “There’s a car waiting downstairs.” It was like 1937. They came at night to take you out of your warm bed. Then that stopped working: People’s wives would refuse to answer the door, or they’d lie, say their husbands were away on business, or vacation, or at the dacha with their parents. The soldiers would try to give them the notice, the wives would refuse to take it. So they started grabbing people at work, on the street, during a lunch break at the factory cafeteria.

But I was almost crazy by then. My wife had cheated on me, everything else didn’t matter. I got in their car. The guys who came for me were in street clothes, but they had a military bearing, and they walked on both sides of me, clearly worried I’d run off. But my wife had left me, and I could only think about that. I tried to kill myself a few times. We went to the same kindergarten, the same school, the same college. [Silent. Smokes.]

I told you. There’s nothing heroic here, nothing for the writer’s pen. I had thoughts like, It’s not wartime, why should I have to risk myself while someone else is sleeping with my wife? Why me again, and not him? To be honest, I didn’t see any heroes there. I saw nutcases, who didn’t care about their own lives, and I had enough craziness myself, but it wasn’t necessary. I also have medals and awards—but that’s because I wasn’t afraid of dying. I didn’t care! It was even something of an out. They’d have buried me with honors. And the government would have paid for it.

You immediately found yourself in this fantastic land, where the apocalypse met the Stone Age. We lived in the forest, in tents, twenty kilometers from the reactor. We were between twenty-five and forty, some of us had university degrees, or vocational-technical degrees. For example, I am a history teacher. Instead of machine guns they gave us shovels. We buried trash heaps and gardens. We had gloves, respirators, and surgical robes. The sun beat down on us. We showed up in their yards like demons. They didn’t understand why we had to bury their gardens, rip up their garlic and cabbage when it looked like ordinary garlic and ordinary cabbage. The old women would cross themselves and say: “Boys, what is this—is it the end of the world?”

Maybe that’s enough? I know you’re curious, people who weren’t there are always curious. But it was still a world of people, the same one. It’s impossible to live constantly in fear, a person can’t do it, so a little time goes by and normal human life resumes . . .

The men drank vodka. They played cards, tried to get girls, had kids. They talked a lot about money. But we didn’t go there for money. Or most people didn’t. Men worked because you have to work. They told us to work. You don’t ask questions. Some hoped for better careers out of it. Some robbed and stole. People hoped for the privileges that had been promised: an apartment without waiting and moving out of the barracks, getting their kid into a kindergarten, a car. One guy got scared, refused to leave the tent, slept in his plastic suit. Coward! He got kicked out of the Party. He’d yell: “I want to live!”

There were all kinds of people. They were told, No, we need chauffeurs, plumbers, firemen, but they came anyway. Thousands of volunteers guarding the storehouses at night. There were student units, and wire transfers to the fund for victims. Hundreds of people who donated blood and bone marrow.

Every day they brought the paper. I’d just read the headlines: Chernobyl—A Place of Achievement; The Reactor Has Been Defeated; Life Goes On. We had political officers, they’d hold political discussions with us. We were told that we had to win. Against whom? The atom? Physics? The universe? Victory is not an event for us, but a process. Life is a struggle. An overcoming. That’s why we have this love of floods and fires and other catastrophes. We need an opportunity to demonstrate our “courage and heroism.”

Our political officer read notices in the paper about our “high political consciousness and meticulous organization,” about the fact that just four days after the catastrophe the red flag was already flying over the fourth reactor. It blazed forth. In a month the radiation had devoured it. So they put up another flag. And in another month they put up another one. I tried to imagine how the soldiers felt going up on the roof to replace that flag. These were suicide missions. What would you call this? Soviet paganism? Live sacrifice? But the thing is, if they’d given me the flag then, and told me to climb up there, I would have. Why? I can’t say. I wasn’t afraid to die, then. My wife didn’t even send a letter. In six months, not a single letter. [Stops.] Want to hear a joke? This prisoner escapes from jail, and runs to the thirty-kilometer zone at Chernobyl. They catch him, bring him to the Geiger counters. He’s “glowing” so much, they can’t possibly put him back in prison, can’t take him to the hospital, can’t put him around people.

Why aren’t you laughing?

Nadezhda Petrovna Vygovskaya Evacuee from the town of Pripyat

It happened late Friday night. That morning no one suspected anything. I sent my son to school, my husband went to the barber’s. I was preparing lunch when my husband came back. “There’s some sort of fire at the atomic station. They’re saying we are not to turn off the radio.” This wasn’t any ordinary fire, it was some kind of shining. It was pretty. I’d never seen anything like it in the movies. That evening everyone spilled out onto their balconies, and those who didn’t have balconies went to friends’ houses. We were on the ninth floor, we had a great view. People brought their kids out, picked them up, said: “Look! Remember!” And these were people who worked at the reactor—engineers, laborers, physics instructors. They stood in the black dust, talking, breathing, wondering at it. People came from all around in their cars and on their bikes to have a look. We didn’t know that death could be so beautiful.

I didn’t sleep all night. At eight that morning there were already military people on the streets in gas masks. When we saw them on the streets, with all the military vehicles, we didn’t grow frightened—to the contrary, it calmed us down. Since the army has come to our aid, everything will be fine. We didn’t understand then that the peaceful atom could kill, that man is helpless before the laws of physics.

All day on the radio they were telling people to prepare for an evacuation: They’d take us away for three days, wash everything, check it over. The kids were told that they must take their schoolbooks. Still, my husband put our documents and our wedding photos into his briefcase. The only thing I took was a gauze kerchief in case the weather turned bad.

Marat Filippovich Kokhanov Former Chief Engineer of the Institute for Nuclear Energy of the Belarussian Academy of Sciences

Already by the end of May, about a month after the accident, we began receiving, for testing, products from the thirty-kilometer zone. They brought us the insides of domestic and undomesticated animals. After the first tests it became clear that what we were getting wasn’t meat, but radioactive by-products. We checked the milk. It wasn’t milk, it was a radioactive by-product.

High doses were everywhere. In a few villages we measured the thyroid activity for adults and children. It was one hundred, sometimes two and three hundred times the allowable dosage. The tractors were running, the farmers were digging on their plots. Children were sitting in a sandbox and playing. We’d see a woman on a bench near her house, breast-feeding her child—her milk has cesium in it—she’s the Chernobyl Madonna.

We asked our bosses: “What do we do? How should we act?” They said: “Take your measurements. Watch television.” On television Gorbachev was calming people: “We’ve taken immediate measures.” I believed it. I’d worked as an engineer for twenty years, I was well acquainted with the laws of physics. I knew that everything living should leave that place, if only for a while. But we conscientiously took our measurements and watched the television. We were used to believing.

Zoya Danilovna Bruk Environmental Inspector

I worked at the inspection center for environmental protection. We were awaiting some kind of instructions, but we never received any. They only started making noise after our Belarussian writer Aleksei Adamovich spoke out in Moscow, raising the alarm. How they hated him! Their children live here, and their grandchildren, but instead of them it’s a writer calling to the world: Save us! You’d think some sort of self-preservation mechanism would kick in. Instead, at all the Party meetings, and during smoke breaks, all you heard about was “those writers.” “Why are they sticking their noses where they don’t belong? We have instructions! We need to follow orders! What does he know? He’s not a physicist!”

There was something else I was afraid of leaving out . . . oh, right! Chernobyl happened, and suddenly you got this new feeling, we weren’t used to it, that everyone has their separate life. Until then no one needed this life. But now you had to think: What are you eating, what are you feeding your kids? What’s dangerous, what isn’t? Should you move to another place, or should you stay? Everyone had to make their own decisions. And we were used to living—how? As an entire village, as a collective—a factory, a kolkhoz. We were Soviet people, we were collectivized. Then we changed. Everything changed. It takes a lot of work to understand this.

They had protocols written up for burying radioactive earth. We buried earth in earth—such a strange human activity. According to the instructions, we were supposed to conduct a geological survey before burying anything to determine that there was no groundwater within four to six meters of the burial site. We also had to ensure that the depth of the pit wasn’t very great, and that the walls and bottom of the pit were lined with polyethylene film. That’s what the instructions said. In real life it was, of course, different. As always. There was no geological survey. They’d point their fingers and say, “Dig here.” The excavator digs. “How deep did you go?” “Who the hell knows? I stopped when I hit water.” They were digging right into the water.

They’re always saying: The people are holy, it’s the government that’s criminal. Well, I’ll tell you a bit later what I think about that, about our people, and about myself.

My longest assignment was in the Krasnopolsk region, which was just the worst. In order to keep the radionuclides from washing off the fields into the rivers, we needed to follow the instructions again. You had to plow double furrows, leave a gap, put in more double furrows, and so on. You had to drive along all the small rivers and check. Obviously I needed a car. So I go to the chairman of the regional executive. He’s sitting in his office with his head in his hands: No one changed the plan, no one changed the harvesting operations; just as they’d planted the peas, so they were harvesting them, even though everyone knows that peas take in radiation the most, as do all beans. And there are places out there with forty curies or more. So he has no time for me at all. All the cooks and nurses have run off from the kindergartens. The kids are hungry. In order to take someone’s appendix out, you need to drive them in an ambulance to the next region, sixty kilometers on a road that’s as bumpy as a washboard—all the surgeons have taken off. What car? What double furrows? He has no time for me.

So then I went to the military people. They were young guys, spending six months there. Now they’re all awfully sick. They gave me an armored personnel carrier with a crew—no, wait, it was even better, it was an armored exploratory vehicle with a machine gun mounted on it. It’s too bad I didn’t get any photos of myself in it, on the armor. Like I said, it was romantic. The ensign, who commanded the vehicle, was constantly radioing the base: “Eagle! Eagle! We’re continuing our work.” We’re riding along, and these are our forests, our roads, but we’re in an armored vehicle. The women are standing at their fences and crying—they haven’t seen vehicles like this since the war. They’re afraid another war has started.

We run into an old lady.

“Children, tell me, can I drink milk from my cow?”

We look down at the ground, we have our orders—collect data, but don’t interact with the local population.

Finally the driver speaks up. “Grandma, how old are you?”

“Oh, more than eighty. Maybe more than that, my documents got burned during the war.”

“Then drink all you want.”

I understood, not right away, but after a few years, that we all took part in that crime, in that conspiracy. [She is silent.]

People turned out to be worse than I thought they were. And me, too. I’m also worse. Now I know this about myself. [Stops.] Of course, I admit this, and for me that’s already important. But, again, an example. In one kolkhoz there are, say, five villages. Three are “clean,” two are “dirty.” Between them there are maybe two or three kilometers. Two of them get “graveyard” money, the other three don’t. Now, the “clean” village is building a livestock complex, and they need to get some clean feed. Where do they get it? The wind blows the dust from one field to the next, it’s all one land. In order to build the complex, though, they need some papers signed, and the commission that signs them, I’m on the commission. Everyone knows we can’t sign those papers. It’s a crime. But in the end I found a justification for myself, just like everyone else. I thought, The problem of clean feed is not a problem for an environmental inspector.

Viktor Latun Photographer

Not long ago we buried a friend of mine who’d been there. He died from cancer of the blood. We had a wake, and in the Slavic tradition we drank. And then the conversations began, until midnight. First about him, the deceased. But after that? It was once more about the fate of the country and the design of the Universe. Will Russian troops leave Chechnya or not? Will there be a second Caucasian war, or has it already started? About the English royal family and Princess Diana. About the Russian monarchy. About Chernobyl, the different theories. Some say that aliens knew about the catastrophe and helped us out. Others that it was an experiment, and soon kids with incredible talents will start to be born. Or maybe the Belarussians will disappear, like the Scythians, Sarmats, Kimmeriys, Huasteks. We’re metaphysicians. We don’t live on this earth, but in our dreams, in our conversations. Because you need to add something to this ordinary life, in order to understand it. Even when you’re near death.

Vladimir Matveevich Ivanov Former First Secretary of the Stavgorod Regional Party Committee

I’m a product of my time. I’m a believing Communist. Now it’s safe to curse at us. It’s fashionable. All the Communists are criminals. Now we answer for everything, even the laws of physics.

I was the First Secretary of the Regional Committee of the Communist Party. In the papers they write that it was, you know, the Communists who were at fault: They built poor, cheap nuclear power plants, they tried to save money and didn’t care about people’s lives. People for them were just sand, the fertilizer of history. Well, the hell with them! The hell! It’s the cursed questions: What to do and whom to blame? These are questions that don’t go away. Everyone is impatient, they want revenge, they want blood.

Others keep quiet, but I’ll tell you. The papers write that the Communists fooled the people, hid the truth from them. But we had to. We got telegrams from the Central Committee, from the Regional Committee, telling us: You have to prevent a panic. And it’s true, a panic is a frightening thing. There was fear, and there were rumors. People weren’t killed by the radiation, but by the events. We had to prevent a panic.

What if I’d declared then that people shouldn’t go outside? They would have said: “You want to disrupt May Day?” It was a political matter. They’d have asked for my Party ticket. [Calms down a little.] They didn’t understand that there really is such a thing as physics. There is a chain reaction. And no orders or government resolutions can change that chain reaction. The world is built on physics, not on the ideas of Marx. But if I’d said that then? Tried to call off the May Day parade? [Gets upset again.] In the papers they write that the people were out in the street and we were in underground bunkers. I stood on the tribune for two hours in that sun, without a hat, without a raincoat! And on May 9, the Day of Victory, I walked with the veterans. They played the harmonica, people danced, drank. We were all part of that system. We believed! We believed in the high ideals, in victory! We’ll defeat Chernobyl! We read about the heroic battle to put down the reactor that had gone out of control. A Russian without a high ideal? Without a great dream? That’s also scary.

But that’s what’s happening now. Everything’s falling apart. No government. Stalin. Gulag archipelago. They pronounced a verdict on the past, on our whole life. But think of the great films! The happy songs! Explain those to me! Why don’t we have such films anymore? Or such songs?

In the papers—on the radio and television they were yelling, Truth! Truth! At all the meetings they demanded: Truth! Well, it’s bad, it’s very bad. We’re all going to die! But who needs that kind of truth? When the mob tore into the convent and demanded the execution of Robespierre, were they right? You can’t listen to the mob, you can’t become the mob. Look around. What’s happening now? [Silent.] If I’m a criminal, why is my granddaughter, my little child, also sick? My daughter had her that spring, she brought her to us in Stavgorod in diapers. It was just a few weeks after the explosion at the plant. There were helicopters flying, military vehicles on the roads. My wife said: “They should stay with our relatives. They need to get out of here.” I was the First Secretary of the Regional Committee of the Party! I said absolutely not. “What will people think if I take my daughter with her baby out of here? Their children have to stay.” Those who tried to leave, to save their own skins, I’d call them into the regional committee. “Are you a Communist or not?” It was a test for people. If I’m a criminal, then why was I killing my own child? [Goes on for some time but it becomes impossible to understand what he’s saying.]

Vasily Borisovich Nesterenko Former Director of the Institute for Nuclear Energy at the Belarussian Academy of Sciences

On that day, April 26, I was in Moscow on business. That’s where I learned about the accident.

I called Slyunkov, the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Belarussian Communist Party, in Minsk. I called once, twice, three times, but they wouldn’t connect me. I reached his assistant, he knew me well.

“I’m calling from Moscow. Get me Slyunkov, I have information he needs to hear right away. Emergency information.”

It took me about two hours to finally reach Slyunkov.

“I’ve already received reports,” says Slyunkov. “There was a fire, but they’ve put it out.”

I couldn’t hold it in. “That’s a lie! It’s an obvious lie!!”

On April 29—I remember everything exactly, by the dates—at 8 a.m., I was already sitting in Slyunkov’s reception area. They wouldn’t let me in. I sat there like that until half past five. At half past five, a famous poet walked out of Slyunkov’s office. I knew him. He said to me, “Comrade Slyunkov and I discussed Belarussian culture.”

“There won’t be any Belarussian culture,” I exploded, “or anyone to read your books, if we don’t evacuate everyone from Chernobyl right away! If we don’t save them!”

“What do you mean? They’ve already put it out.”

I finally got in to see Slyunkov.

“Why are your men [from the institute] running around town with their Geiger counters, scaring everyone? I’ve already consulted with Moscow, with Academic Ilyin. He says everything’s normal. And there’s a government commission at the station, and the prosecutor’s office is there. We’ve thrown the army, all our military equipment, into the breach.”

They weren’t a gang of criminals. It was more like a conspiracy of ignorance and obedience. The principle of their lives, the one thing the Party machine had taught them, was never to stick their necks out. Better to keep everyone happy. Slyunkov was just then being called to Moscow for a promotion. He was so close! I’d bet there’d been a call from the Kremlin, right from Gorbachev, saying, you know, I hope you Belarussians can keep from starting a panic, the West is already making all kinds of noises. And of course if you didn’t please your higher-ups, you didn’t get that promotion, that trip abroad, that dacha. People feared their superiors more than they feared the atom.

I carried a Geiger counter in my briefcase. Why? Because they’d stopped letting me in to see the important people, they were sick of me. So I’d take my Geiger counter along and put it up to the thyroids of the secretaries or the personal chauffeurs sitting in the reception rooms. They’d get scared, and sometimes that would help, they’d let me through. And then people would say to me: “Professor, why are you going around scaring everyone? Do you think you’re the only one worried about the Belarussian people? And anyway, people have to die of something, whether it’s smoking, or an auto accident, or suicide.”

Natalya Arsenyevna Roslova Head of the Mogilev Women’s Committee for the Children of Chernobyl

That great empire crumbled and fell apart. First Afghanistan, then Chernobyl. When it fell apart, we found ourselves all alone. I’m afraid to say it, but we love Chernobyl. It’s become the meaning of our lives. The meaning of our suffering. Like a war. The world found out about our existence after Chernobyl. We’re its victims, but also its priests. I’m afraid to say it, but there it is.

And it’s like a game, like a show. I’m with a caravan of humanitarian aid and some foreigners who’ve brought it, whether in the name of Christ or something else. And outside, in the puddles and the mud in their coats and mittens, is my tribe. In their cheap boots. And suddenly I have this outrageous, disgusting wish. “I’ll show you something!” I say. “You’ll never see this in Africa! You won’t see it anywhere. Two hundred curies, three hundred curies.” I’ve noticed how the old ladies have changed, too—some of them are real movie stars now. They have their monologues by heart, and they cry in all the right spots. When the first foreigners came, the grandmas wouldn’t say anything, they’d just stand there crying. Now they know how to talk. Maybe they’ll get some extra gum for the kids, or a box of clothes. And this is side by side with a profound philosophy—their relationship with death, with time. It’s not for some gum and German chocolate that they refuse to leave these peasant huts they’ve been living in their whole lives.

—translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen

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