Issue 172, Winter 2004
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.
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?
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.