Written below are sections from a memoir by Svetlana Alexievich. These are real testimonies by people who were directly and indirectly affected by the accident. The book is called Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, and it is a major source of information for this wiki.
A Whole Life Written Down on Doors
I want to bear witness…
It happened ten years ago, and it happens to me again every day.
We lived in the town of Pripyat. In that town.
I’m not a writer. I won’t be able to describe it. My mind is not enough to understand it. And neither is my university degree. There you are: a normal person. A little person. You’re just like everyone else—you go to work, you return from work. You get an average salary. Once a year you go on vacation. You’re a normal person! And one day you’re turned into a Chernobyl person, an animal that everyone’s interested in, and that no one knows anything about. You want to be like everyone else, and now you can’t. People look at you differently. They ask you: Was it scary? How did the station burn? What did you see? And, you know, can you have children? Did your wife leave you? At first we were all turned into animals. The very word “Chernobyl” is a signal. Everyone turns their head to look. He’s from there!
That’s how it was in the beginning. We didn’t just lose a town, we lost our whole lives. We left on the third day. The reactor was on fire. I remember one of my friends saying, “It smells of reactor.” It was an indescribable smell. But the papers were already writing about that. They turned Chernobyl into a house of horrors, although actually they just turned it into a cartoon. I’m only going to tell about what’s really mine. My own truth.
It was like this: They announced over the radio that you couldn’t take your cats. So we put her in the suitcase. But she didn’t want to go, she climbed out. Scratched everyone. You can’t take your belongings! All right, I won’t take all my belongings, I’ll just take one belonging. Just one! I need to take my door off the apartment and take it with me. I can’t leave the door. I’ll cover the entrance with some boards. Our door—it’s our talisman, it’s a family relic. My father lay on this door. I don’t know whose tradition this is, it’s not like that everywhere, but my mother told me that the deceased must be placed on the door of his home. He lies there until they bring the coffin. I sat by my father all night, he lay on this door. The house was open. All night. And this door has little etch-marks in it. That’s me growing up. It’s marked there: first grade, second grade. Seventh. Before the army. And next to that, how my son grew. And my daughter. My whole life is written down on this door. How am I supposed to leave it?
I asked my neighbor, he had a car: “Help me.” He gestured towards his head, like, You’re not quite right, are you? But I took it with me, that door. At night. On a motorcycle. Through the woods. It was two years later, when our apartment had already been looted and emptied. The police were chasing me. “We’ll shoot! We’ll shoot!” They thought I was a thief. That’s how I stole the door from my own home.
I took my daughter and my wife to the hospital. They had black spots all over their bodies. These spots would appear, then disappear. About the size of a five-kopek coin. But nothing hurt. They did some tests on them. I asked for the results. “It’s not for you,” they said. I said, “Then who’s it for?”
Back then everyone was saying: “We’re going to die, we’re going to die. By the year 2000, there won’t be any Belarussians left.” My daughter was six years old. I’m putting her to bed, and she whispers in my ear: “Daddy, I want to live, I’m still little.” And I had thought she didn’t understand anything.
Can you picture seven little girls shaved bald in one room? There were seven of them in the hospital room… But enough! That’s it! When I talk about it, I have this feeling, my heart tells me—you’re betraying them. Because I need to describe it like I’m a stranger. My wife came home from the hospital. She couldn’t take it. “It’d be better for her to die than to suffer like this. Or for me to die, so that I don’t have to watch anymore.” No, enough! That’s it! I’m not in any condition. No.
We put her on the door…on the door that my father lay on. Until they bought a little coffin. It was small, like the box for a large doll.
I want to bear witness: my daughter died from Chernobyl. And they want us to forget about it.
Nikolai Kalugin, father
Artyom Bakhityarov, private; Oleg Vorobey, liquidator; Vasily Gusinovich, driver and scout; Gennady Demenev, police officer; Vitaly Karbalevich, liquidator; Valentin Kmkov, driver and private; Eduard Korotkov, helicopter pilot; Igor Litvin, liquidator; Ivan Lukashuk, private; Aleksandr Mikhalevich, Geiger operator; Major Oleg Pavlov, helicopter pilot; Anatoly Rybak, commander of a guard regiment; Viktor Sanko, private; Grigory Khvorost, liquidator; Aleksandr Shinkevich, police officer; Vladimir Shved, captain; Aleksandr Yasinskiy, police officer.
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 felt the complete opposite of that guy. I wanted to do something heroic. Maybe it was kid’s stuff. But there were others like me. We had guys from all over the Soviet Union. Russians, Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Armenians…It was scary but also exiting, for some reason.
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. We spent a day cleaning down below, and then a day above, on the roof of the reactor. Everywhere we used shovels. The guys who went up, we called them the storks. 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. I’d never been to war, but I got a familiar feeling. I remembered it from somewhere. From where? I connected it to death, for some reason…
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 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 [Communist Youth League] IDs, other forms of identification, awards. At one place we took a television for a while—we borrowed it, say—but as far as anyone actually taking something home with them, I didn’t see that. First of all, because you sensed that these people would be back any minute. And second, these things were somehow connected with death.
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 really 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 downed a few shots and went over. So…[Silent.]
The village street, the field, the highway—all of it without any people. A highway to nowhere. Electrical wires on posts to nowhere. At first there were still lights on in the houses, but then they turned those off. We’d be driving around, and a wild boar would just jump out of a school building at us. Or else a rabbit. Everywhere, animals instead of people: in the houses, the schools, the clubs. There are still posters: “Our goal is the happiness of all mankind.” “The world proletariat will triumph.” “The ideas of Lenin are immortal.” You go back to the past. The collective farm offices have red flags, brand-new wimples, neat piles of printed banners with profiles of the great leaders. On the walls—pictures of the leaders; on the desks—busts of the leaders. A war memorial. A village churchyard. Houses that were shut up in a hurry, gray cement cow-pens, tractor mechanic’s shops. Cemeteries and victims. As if a warring tribe had left some base in a hurry and then gone into hiding.
We’d ask each other: is this what our life is like? It was the first time we saw it from the outside. The very first time. It made a real impression. Like a smack to the head…There’s a good joke: the nuclear half-life of a Kiev cake is thirty-six hours. So…And for me? It took me three years. Three years later I turned in my Party card. My little Red Book. I became free in the Zone. Chernobyl blew my mind. It set me free.
There’s this abandoned house. It’s closed. There’s a cat on the windowsill. I think—it 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.” [Closes his eyes.] I’ve forgotten everything. I only remember that I went there. And after that I don’t remember anything. I forgot all of it. I can’t count money. My memory’s not right. The doctors don’t understand it. I go from hospital from hospital. But this sticks in my head: you’re walking up to the house, thinking the house is empty, and you open the door and there’s this cat. That, and those kids’ notes.
I was called. My assignment was not to let any of the old inhabitants back into the evacuated villages. We set up roadblocks, built observation posts. They called us “partisans,” for some reason. It’s peacetime, and we’re standing there in military fatigues. The farmers didn’t understand why, for example, they couldn’t take a bucket from their yard, or a pitcher, saw, axe. Why they couldn’t harvest the crops. How do you tell them? And in fact it was like this: on one side of the road there were soldiers, keeping people out, and on the other side cows were grazing, the harvesters were buzzing, the grain was being shipped. The old women would come and cry. “Boys, let us in. It’s our land. Our houses.” They’d bring eggs, bacon, homemade vodka. They cried over their poisoned land. Their furniture. Their things.
Your mind would turn over. The order of things was shaken. A woman would milk her cow, and next to her there’d be a soldier to make sure that when she was done milking, she poured the milk out on the ground. An old woman carries a basket of eggs, and next to her there’s a soldier to make sure she buries them. The farmers were raising their precious potatoes, harvesting them very quietly, but in fact they had to be buried. The worst part was, everything was so—beautiful! That was the worst. All around, it was just beautiful. I would never see such people again. Everyone’s faces just looked crazy. Their faces did, and so did ours.
I’m a soldier. If I’m ordered to do something, I need to do it. But I felt this desire to be a hero, too. You were supposed to. The political workers gave speeches. There were items on the radio and television. Different people reacted differently: some wanted to be interviewed, show up on television, and some just saw it as their job, and then a third type—I met people like this, they felt they were doing heroic work. We were well paid, but it was as if that didn’t matter. My salary was 400 rubles, whereas I got 1,000 (that’s in those Soviet rubles). Later people said, “They got piles of money and now they come back and get the first cars, the first furniture sets.” Of course it stings. Because there was that heroic aspect, also.
I was scared before I went there. For a little while. But then when I got there the fear went away. It was all orders, work, tasks. I wanted to see the reactor from above, from a helicopter—I wanted to see what really happened in there. But that was forbidden. On my medical card they wrote that I got 21 roentgen, but I’m not sure that’s right. The procedure was very simple: you flew to the provincial capital, Chernobyl (which is a small provincial town, by the way, not something enormous, as I’d imagined), there’s a man with a dosimeter, 10-15 kilometers away from the power station, he measures the background radiation. These measurements would then be multiplied by the number of hours that we flew each day. But I would go from there to the reactor, and some days there’s be 80 roentgen, some days 120. Sometimes at night I’d circle over the reactor for two hours. We photographed it with infrared lighting, but the pieces of scattered graphite were, like, radiated—you couldn’t see them during the day.
I talked to some scientists. One told me, “I could lick your helicopter with my tongue and nothing would happen to me.” Another said, “You’re flying without protection? You don’t want to live too long? Big mistake! Cover yourselves!” We lined the helicopter seats with lead, made ourselves some lead vests, but it turns out those protect you from one kind of ray, but not from another. We flew from morning to night. There was nothing spectacular in it. Just work, hard work. At night we watched television—the World Cup and so on, so we talked a lot about soccer.
We started thinking about it—I guess it must have been—three years later. One of the guys got sick, then another. Someone died. Another went insane and killed himself. That’s when we started thinking. But we’ll only really understand it in 20-30 years. For me, Afghanistan (I was there two years) and Chernobyl (I was there three months), are the most memorable moments of my life.
I didn’t tell my parents I’d been sent to Chernobyl. My brother happened to be reading Izvestia one day and saw my picture. He brought it to our mom. “Look,” he says, “he’s a hero!” My mother started crying.
We were driving, and you know what I saw? By the side of the road? Under a ray of light—this thin little sliver of slight—something crystal. These…We were going in the direction of Kalinkovich, through Mozyr. Something glistened. We talked about it—in the village where we worked, we all noticed there were tiny little holes in the leaves, especially on the cherry trees. We’d pick cucumbers and tomatoes—and the leaves would have these black holes. We’d curse and eat them.
I went. I didn’t have to go. I volunteered. At first you didn’t see any indifferent people there, it was only later when you saw the emptiness in their eyes, when they got used to it. 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 they appealed to our sense of masculinity. 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 the 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 yourself. I don’t want to talk anymore.
I had just come home from Afghanistan. I wanted to live a little, get married. I wanted to get married right away. And suddenly here’s this announcement with a red banner, “Special Call-Up,” come to this address within the hour. Right away my mother started crying. She thought I was being called up again for the war.
Where are we going? Why? There was no information at all. At the Slutsk station, we changed trains, they gave us equipment, and then we were told that we were going to the Khoyniki regional center. We got to Khoyniki, and the people there didn’t know anything. They took us further, to a village, and there’s a wedding going on: young people dancing, music, vodka. Just a normal marriage. And we have an order: get rid of the topsoil to the depth of one spade.
On May 9, V-Day, the 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 gave us some gas masks, but no one used them. They showed us dosimeters a couple of times, but they never actually handed them to us. Once every three months they let us go home for a few days. We had one goal then: to buy vodka. I lugged two backpacks filled with bottles. The guys raised my up on their shoulders.
Before we went home we were called in to talk to a KGB man. He was very convincing when he said 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.
What do I remember? What stuck in my memory?
I’ve spent all day riding through all the villages, measuring the radiation. And not one of the women offers me an apple. The men are less afraid: they’ll come up and offer some vodka, some lard. Let’s eat. It’s awkward to turn them down, but then eating pure cesium doesn’t sound so great, either. So I drink, but I don’t eat.
But in one village they sit me down at the table—grilled lamb and everything. The host gets a little drunk and admits it was a young lamb. “I had to slaughter him. I couldn’t stand to look at him anymore. He was the ugliest damn thing! Almost makes me not want to eat him.” Me: I just drink a whole glass of vodka real quick. After hearing that…
It was ten years ago. It’s as if it never happened, and if I hadn’t gotten sick, I’d have forgotten by now.
You have to serve the motherland! Serving—that’s a big deal. I received: underwear, boots, cap, pants, belt, clothing sack. And off you go! They gave me a dump truck. I moved concrete. There it was—and there it wasn’t. We were young, unmarried. We didn’t take any gas masks. There was one guy—he was older. He always wore his mask. But we didn’t. The traffic guys didn’t wear theirs. We were in the driver’s cabin, but they were out in radioactive dust eight hours a day. Everyone got paid well: three times your salary plus vacation pay. We used it. We knew that vodka helped. It removed the stress. It’s no wonder they gave people those 100 grams of vodka during the war. And then it was just like home: a drunk traffic cop fines a drunk driver.
Don’t call these the “wonders of Soviet heroism” when you write about it. Those wonders really did exist. But first there had to be incompetence, throwing yourself in front of a machine gun. But that those orders should never have been given, that there shouldn’t have been any need, no one writes about that. They flung us there, like sand onto the reactor. Every day they’d put out a new “Action Update”: “men are working courageously and selflessly,” “we will survive and triumph.”
They gave me a medal and one thousand rubles.
At first there was disbelief, there was the sense that it was a game. But it was a real war, an atomic war. We had no idea—what’s dangerous and what’s not, what should we watch out for, and what to ignore? No one knew.
It was a real evacuation, right to the train stations. What happened at the stations? We helped push kids through the windows of train cars. We made the lines orderly—for tickets at the ticket window, for iodine at the pharmacy. In the lines people swore at one another and fought. They broke the doors down on stores and stands. They broke the metal grates in the windows.
Then there were people from other places. They lived in clubs, schools, kindergartens. They walked around half-starving. Everyone’s money ran out pretty fast. They bought up everything from the stores. I’ll never forget the women who did the laundry. There were no washing machines, no one thought to bring those, so they washed by hand. All the women were elderly. Their hands were covered with boils and scabs. The laundry wasn’t just dirty, it also had a few dozen roentgen. “Boys, have something to eat.” “Boys, take a nap.” “Boys, you’re young, be careful.” They felt sorry for us, they cried for us.
Are they still alive?
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 forgot the bad parts and remembered 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, necessary. Freedom! And in those times 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. You were supposed to get a physical, but they just sent me without it. Someone, you know, got off, brought a note from his doctor he had an ulcer, and I went in his place. It was urgent! [Laughs.] There were already jokes. Guy comes home from work, says to his wife, “They told me that tomorrow I either go to Chernobyl or hand in my Party card.” “But you’re not in the Party.” “Right, so I’m wondering: how do I get a Party card by tomorrow morning?”
We went as soldiers, but at first they organized us into a masonry brigade. We built a pharmacy. Right away I felt weak and sleepy all the time. I told the doctor I was fine, it was just the heat. The cafeteria had meat, milk, sour cream from the collective farm, and we ate it all. The doctor didn’t say anything. They’d make the food, he’d check in his book that everything was fine, but he never took any samples. We noticed that. That’s how it was. We were desperate. Then the strawberries started coming, and there was honey everywhere. The looters had already been there. We boarded up windows and doors. The stores were all looted, the gates on the windows broken in, flour and sugar on the floor, candy. Cans everywhere. One village got evacuated, and then five to 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 collective farm 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 sewing 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. I spent six months there, that was the assignment. And then replacements came. We actually stayed a little longer, because the troops from the Baltic states refused to come. That’s how it was. But I know people robbed the place, took out everything they could lift and carry. They transported the Zone back here. You can find it at the markets, the pawn shops, at peoples’ dachas. The only thing that remained behind the wire was the land. And the graves. And our health. And our faith. Or my faith.
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 measured the radiation. Once it got dark, these guys would pull up at our little station in cars and start giving us things: money, cigarettes, vodka. Just let us root around in the confiscated stuff. They’d pack their bags. Where’d they take it? Probably to Kiev and Minsk, to the second-hand markets. The stuff they left, we took care of it. Dresses, boots, chairs, harmonicas, sewing machines. We buried it in ditches—we called them “communal graves.”
I’d go home, I’d go dancing. I’d meet a girl I liked and say, “Let’s get to know one another.”
“What for? You’re a Chernobylite now. I’d be scared to have your kids.”
I have my own memories. My official post there was commander of the guard units. Something like the director of the apocalypse. [Laughs.] Yes. Write it down just like that.
I remember pulling over a truck from Pripyat. The town is already evacuated, there aren’t any people. “Documents, please.” They don’t have the proper documents. The back has a canvas cover. We lift it up, and I remember this clearly: twenty tea sets, a big dresser, an armchair, a television, rugs, bicycles.
So I write up a protocol.
I remember the empty villages where the pigs had gone crazy and were running around. The collective farm offices and clubs, these faded posters: “We’ll give the motherland bread!” “Glory to the Soviet worker peoples!” “The accomplishments of the people are immortal.”
I remember the untended communal graves—a cracked headstone with some men’s names: captain Borokin, Senior Lieutenant…And then these long columns, like poems—the names of privates. Around it, burdock, stinging-nettle, and goose-foot.
I remember this very nicely tended garden. The owner comes out of the house, sees us.
“Boys, don’t yell. We already put in the forms—we’ll be gone come spring.”
“Then why are you turning over the soil in the garden?”
“That’s just for this fall.”
I understand, but I have to write up a protocol…
My wife took the kid and left. That bitch! But I’m not going to hang myself like Vanya Kotov. And I’m not going to throw myself out a seventh-floor window. That bitch! When I came back from there with a suitcase full of money, that was fine. We bought a car. That bitch lived with me fine. She wasn’t afraid. [Starts singing.]
Even one thousand gamma rays
Can’t keep the Russian cock from having its days.
Nice song. From there. Want to hear a joke? Guy comes home from the reactor. His wife asks the doctor, “What should I do with him?” “You should wash him, hug him and put him out of commission.” 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 roentgen 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 shit in lead.
How are doctors going to work with us? We didn’t bring any documents with us. They’re still hiding them, or they’ve destroyed them because they were so classified. How do we help the doctors? If I had a certificate that said how much I got there? I’d show it to my bitch. I’ll show her that we can survive anything and get married and have kids. The prayer of the Chernobyl liquidator: “Oh, Lord, since you’ve made it so that I can’t, will you please also make it so I don’t want to?” Oh, go fuck yourselves, all of you.
They made us sign a non-disclosure form. So I didn’t say anything. I got a good dose. We lugged buckets of graphite from the reactor. That’s ten thousand roentgen. We shoveled it with ordinary shovels, changing our masks up to thirty times a shift—people called them “muzzles.” We poured the sarcophagus. It was a giant grave for one person, the senior operator, Valery Khodemchuk, who got caught under the ruins in the first minutes of the explosion. It’s a twentieth-century pyramid. We still have three months left. Our unit got back, they didn’t even give us a change of clothing. We walked around in the same pants, same boots, as we had at the reactor. Right up until they demobilized us.
And if they’d let me talk, who would I have talked to? I worked at a factory. My boss says: “Stop being sick or we’ll have to let you go." They did. I went to the director: “You have no right to do this, I’m a Chernobylite. I saved you. I protected you!” He says: “We didn’t send you there.”
At night I wake up from my mother saying, “Sonny, why aren’t you saying anything? You’re not asleep, you’re lying there with your eyes open. And your light’s on.” I don’t say anything. No one can speak to me in a way I can answer. In my own language. No one can understand where I’ve come back from. And I can’t tell anyone.
I’m not afraid of death anymore. Of death itself. But I don’t know how I’m going to die. 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 if I got a bullet in the head. I was in Afghanistan, too. It was easier there. They just shot you.
I clipped an article from the newspaper. It’s about the operator Leonid Toptunov, he was the one on duty that night at the station and he pressed the red accident button a few minutes before the explosion. It didn’t work. They took him to the hospital in Moscow. The doctors said, “In order to fix him, we’d need a whole other body.” There was one tiny little non-radioactive spot on him, on his back. They buried him at the Mytinskaya Cemetery [in Moscow], like they did the others. They insulated the coffin with foil. And then they poured half a meter of concrete on it, with a lead cover. His father came. He’s standing there, crying. People walk by: “That was your bastard son who blew it up!”
We’re lonely. We’re strangers here. They even bury us separately, not like they do other people. It’s like we’re aliens from outer space. I’d have been better off dying in Afghanistan. Honest, I get thoughts like that. In Afghanistan death was a normal thing. You could understand it there.
From above, from the helicopter, when I was flying near the reactor, I could see roes and wild boars. They were thin and sleepy, like they were moving in slow motion. They were eating the grass that grew there, and they didn’t understand, they didn’t understand that they should leave. That they should leave with the people.
Should I go or not go? Should I fly or not fly? I was a Communist—how could I not go?
Two paratroopers refused—their wives were young, they hadn’t had any kids yet. But they were shamed and punished. Their careers were finished. And there was also the court of manhood, the court of honor! That was part of the attraction—he didn’t go, so I will. Now I look at it differently. After nine operations and two heart attacks, I don’t judge them, I understand them. They were young guys. But I would have gone anyway. That’s definite. He couldn’t, I will. That was manhood.
From above the amazing thing was the hardware: heavy helicopters, medium helicopters, the Mi-24, that’s a fighting helicopter. What are you going to do with a Mi-24 at Chernobyl? Or with a fighter plane, the Mi-2? The pilots, young guys, all of them fresh out of Afghanistan. Their feeling was they’d pretty much had enough, with Afghanistan, they’d fought enough. They’re sitting in the forest near the reactor, catching roentgen. That was the order! They didn’t need to send all those people there to get radiation. What for? They needed specialists, not a lot of human material. From above I saw a ruined building, a field of debris—and then an enormous number of little human shapes. There was a crane there, from East Germany, but it wasn’t working—it made it to the reactor and then died. The robots died. Our robots, designed by Academic Lukachev for the exploration of Mars. And the Japanese robots—all their wiring was destroyed by the radiation, apparently. But there were soldiers in their rubber suits, their rubber gloves, running around…
Before we went back we were warned that in the interests of the State, it would be better not to go around telling people what we’d seen. But aside from us, no one knows what happened there. We didn’t understand everything, but we saw it all.
My little daughter—she’s different. She’s not like the others. She’s going to grow up and ask me: “Why aren’t I like the others?”
When she was born, she wasn’t a baby, she was a little sack, sewed up everywhere, not a single opening, just the eyes. The medical card says: “Girl, born with multiple complex pathologies: aplasia of the anus, aplasia of the vagina, aplasia of the left kidney.” That’s how it sounds in medical talk, but more simply: no pee-pee, no butt, one kidney. On the second day I watched her get operated on, on the second day of her life. She opened her eyes and smiled, and I thought she was about to start crying. But, God, she smiled!
The ones like her don’t live, they die right away. But she didn’t die, because I loved her.
In four years she’s had four operations. She’s the only child in Belarus to have survived being born with such complex pathologies. I love her so much. [Stops.] I won’t be able to give birth again. I wouldn’t dare. I came back from the maternity ward, my husband would start kissing me at night, I would lie there and tremble: we can’t, it’s a sin, I’m scared. I heard the doctors talking: “That girl wasn’t born in a shirt, she was born in a suit of armor. If we showed it on television, not a single mother would give birth. That was about our daughter. How were we supposed to love each other after that?
I went to church and told the minister. He said I needed to pray for my sins. But no one in my family ever killed anyone. What am I guilty of? First they wanted to evacuate our village, then they crossed it off their lists—the government didn’t have enough money. And right around then I fell in love. I got married. I didn’t know that we weren’t allowed to love here. Many years ago, my grandmother read in the Bible that there will be a time when everything is thriving, everything blossoming and fruitful, and there will be many fish in the rivers and animals in the forest, but man won’t be able to use any of it. And he won’t be able to propagate himself in his likeness, to continue his line. I listened to the old prophecies like they were scary fairy tales. I didn’t believe them.
Tell everyone about my daughter. Write it down. She’s four years old and she can sing, dance, she knows poetry by heart. Her mental development is normal, she isn’t any different from the other kids, only her games are different. She doesn’t play “store,” or “school”—she plays “hospital.” She gives her dolls shots, takes their temperature, puts them on IV. If a doll dies, she covers it with a white sheet. We’ve been living in the hospital with her for four years, we can’t leave her there alone, and she doesn’t even know that you’re supposed to live at home. When we go home for a month or two, she asks me, “When are we going back to the hospital?” That’s where her friends are, that’s where they’re growing up.
They made an anus for her. And they’re forming a vagina. After the last operation her urinary functioning completely broke down, and they were unable to insert a catheter—they’ll need more operations for that. But from here on out they’ve advised us to seek medical help abroad. Where are we going to get tens of thousands of dollars if my husband makes 120 dollars a month? One professor told us quietly: “With her pathologies, your child is of great interest to science. You should write to hospitals in other countries. They would be interested.” So I write. [Tries not to cry.] I write that every half hour we have to squeeze out her urine manually, it comes out through the artificial openings in the area of her vagina. Where else is there a child in the world who has to have her urine squeezed out of her every half hour? And how much longer can it go on? No one knows the effects of small doses of radiation on the organism of a child. Take my girl, even if it’s to experiment. I don’t want her to die. I’m all right with her becoming a lab frog, a lab rabbit, just as long as she lives. [Cries.] I’ve written dozens of letters. Oh, God!
She doesn’t understand yet, but someday she’ll ask us: why isn’t she like everyone else? Why can’t she love a man? Why can’t she have babies? Why won’t what happens to butterflies ever happen to her? What happens to birds? To everyone but her? I wanted—I should have been able to prove—so that—I wanted to get papers—so that she’d know—when she grew up—it wasn’t our fault, my husband and I, it wasn’t our love that was at fault. [Tries again not to cry.] I fought for four years—with the doctors, the bureaucrats—I knocked on the doors of important people. It took me four years to finally get a paper from the doctors that confirmed the connection between ionized radiation (in small doses) and her terrible condition. They refused me for four years, they kept telling me: “Your child is the victim of a congenital handicap.” What congenital handicap? She’s a victim of Chernobyl! I studied my family tree—nothing like this ever happened in our family. Everyone lived until they were eighty or ninety. My grandfather lived until he was 94. The doctors said: “We have instructions. We are supposed to call incidents of this type general sickness. In twenty or thirty years, when we have a database about Chernobyl, we’ll begin connecting these to ionized radiation. But for the moment science doesn’t know enough about it.” But I can’t wait twenty or thirty years. I wanted to sue them. Sue the government. They called me crazy, laughed at me, like, There were children like these in ancient Greece, too. One bureaucrat yelled at me: “You want Chernobyl privileges! Chernobyl victim funds!” How I didn’t faint in his office, I’ll never know.
There was one thing they didn’t understand—didn’t want to understand—I needed to know that it wasn’t our fault. It wasn’t our love. [Breaks down. Cries.] This girl is growing up—she’s still a girl—I don’t want you to print our name—even our neighbors—even the people on our floor don’t know. I’ll put a dress on her, and a handkerchief, and they say, “Your Katya is so pretty.” Meanwhile I give pregnant women the strangest looks. I don’t look at them, I kind of glance at them real quick. I have all these mixed feelings: surprise and horror, jealousy and joy, even this feeling of vengeance. One time I caught myself thinking that I look the same way at the neighbors’ pregnant dog—at the bird in its nest…
Larisa Z., Mother
Klavdia Barsuk, wife of a liquidator; Tamara Belookaya, doctor; Yekaterina Bobrova, transferred resident from the town of Pripyat; Andrei Burtys, journalist; Ivan Vergeychik, pediatrician; Yelena Voronko, resident of the settlement of Bragin; Svetlana Govor, wife of a liquidator; Natalya Goncharenko, transferred resident; Tamara Dubikovskaya, resident of the settlement Narovlya; Albert Zaritskiy, doctor; Aleksandra Kravtsova, doctor; Elenora Ladutanko, radiologist; Irina Lukashevich, midwife; Antonina Larivonchik, transferred resident; Anatoly Polischuk, hydro-meteoroligist; Maria Saveleyva, mother; Nina Khantsevich, wife of a liquidator.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a happy pregnant woman. A happy mother. One gave birth recently, as soon as she got herself together she called, “Doctor, show me the baby! Bring him here.” She touches the head, forehead, the little body, the legs, the arms. She wants to make sure: “Doctor, did I give birth to a normal baby? Is everything alright?" They bring him in for feeding. She’s afraid: “I live not far from Chernobyl. I went there to visit my mother. I got caught under that black rain.”
She tells us her dreams: that she’s given birth to a calf with eight legs, or a puppy with the head of a hedgehog. Such strange dreams. Women didn’t used to have such dreams. And I’ve been a midwife for thirty years.
I’m a schoolteacher, I teach Russian. This happened, I think, in early June, during exams. The director of the school suddenly gathers us all together and announces, “Tomorrow, everyone bring your shovels with you.” It turns out we’re supposed to take off the top, contaminated layer of soil from around the school, and later on soldiers will come and pave it. The teachers have questions: “What sort of protective gear will they provide us? Will they bring special outfits, respirators?” The answer is no. “Take your shovels and dig.” Only two young teachers refused, and the rest went out and shoveled. A feeling of oppression but also of carrying out a necessary task—that lives within us, the need to be where it’s difficult and dangerous, to defend the motherland. Did I teach my students anything but that? To go, throw yourself on the fire, defend, sacrifice. The literature I taught wasn’t about life, it was about war: Sholokhov, Serafimovich, Furmanov, Fadeev, Boris Polevoy. Only two young teachers refused. But they’re from the new generation. These are already different people.
We were out there digging from morning to night. When we came home, it was strange to find that the stores were open, women were buying panty hose and perfume. We already felt like it was wartime. It made a lot more sense when there suddenly appeared lines for bread, salt, matches. Everyone rushed to dry their bread into crackers. This seemed familiar to me, even though I was born after the war. I could imagine how I’d leave my house, how the kids and I would leave, which things we’d take with us, how I’d write my mother. Although all around life was going on as before, the television was showing comedies. But we always lived in terror, we know how to live in terror, it’s our natural habitat.
The soldiers would enter a village and evacuate the people. The village streets filled up with military hardware: APCs, large trucks with green canvas tarps, even tanks. People left their homes in the presence of soldiers, which is an oppressive situation, especially for those who’d been through the war. At first they blamed the Russians—it’s their fault, it was their station. Then: “The Communists are to blame.”
It was constantly being compared to the war. But this was bigger. War you can understand. But this? People fell silent.
It was as if I’d never gone anywhere. I walk through my memories each day. Along the same streets, past the same houses. It was such a quiet town. It was a Sunday, I was lying out, getting a tan. My mother came running: “My child, Chernobyl blew up, people are hiding in their homes, and you’re lying here in the sun!” I laughed: it’s forty kilometers from Chernobyl to Narovlya.
That evening a Zhiguli stops in front of our house and my friend and her husband come in. She’s wearing a bathrobe and he’s in an athletic suit and some old slippers. They went through the forest, along some tiny village roads, from Pripyat. The roads were being patrolled by police, military block-posts, they weren’t letting anyone out. The first thing she yelled was: “We need to find milk and vodka! Hurry!” She was yelling and yelling. “We just bought new furniture, a new refrigerator. I sewed myself a fur. I left everything. I wrapped it in cellophane. We didn’t sleep all night. What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen?” Her husband tried to calm her down. We sat in front of the television for days, waiting for Gorbachev to speak. The authorities didn’t say anything. Only after the big holiday did Gorbachev come on and say: Don’t worry, comrades, the situation is under control. People are still living there, working.
They herded the livestock from the evacuated villages into designated points in our regional center. The cows, calves, pigs, they were going crazy, they would run around the streets—whoever wanted to catch them could catch them. The cars with the canned meat went from the meat combine to the station at Kalinovich, and from there to Moscow. Moscow wouldn’t accept the cargo. So these train cars, which were by now graveyards, came back to us. Whole echelons of them, and we buried them right here. The smell of rotten meat followed me around at night. “Can it be that this is what an atomic war smells like?” The war I remembered smelled like smoke.
At first, they bused the children out at night. They were trying to hide the catastrophe. But people found out anyway. They’d bring milk cans out to our buses, they baked pies. It was just like during the war. There’s nothing else to compare it to.
There was a meeting at the regional executive’s office. It felt like a military situation. Everyone was waiting for the head of the civil defense to speak, because no one remembered anything about radiation aside from some passages from their tenth-grade physics textbook. He goes out on stage and begins to tell us what’s written in the books about nuclear warfare: that once a soldier has taken 50 roentgen, he must leave the field; how to build a shelter; how to put on a gas mask; facts about the radius of the explosion.
We went into the contaminated zone on a helicopter. We were all properly equipped—no undergarments, a raincoat out of cheap cotton, like a cook’s, covered with a protective material, then mittens, and a gauze surgical mask. We have all sorts of instruments hanging off us. We come out of the sky near a village and we see that there are boys playing in the sand, like nothing’s happened. One has a rock in his mouth, another a tree branch. They’re not wearing pants, they’re naked. But we have orders, not to stir up the population.
And now I live with this.
They suddenly started having these segments on television, like: an old lady milks her cow, pours the milk into a can, the reporter comes over with a military dosimeter, measures it. And the commentator says, See, everything’s fine, and the reactor is just ten kilometers away. They show the Pripyat River, there are people swimming in it, tanning themselves. In the distance you see the reactor and plumes of smoke above it. The commentator says: The West is trying to spread panic, telling lies about the accident. And then they show the dosimeter again, measuring some fish on a plate, or a chocolate bar, or some pancakes at an open pancake stand. It was all a lie. The military dosimeters then in use by our armed forces were designed to measure the radioactive background, not individual products.
This level of lying, this incredible level, with which Chernobyl is connected in our minds, was comparable only to the level of lies during the big war.
We were expecting our first child. My husband wanted a boy and I wanted a girl. The doctors tried to convince me: “You need to get an abortion. Your husband was at Chernobyl.” He was a truck driver, they called him in during the first days. He drove sand. But I didn’t believe anyone.
The baby was born dead. She was missing two fingers. A girl. I cried. “She should at least have fingers” I thought. “She’s a girl.”
No one could understand what had happened. I called military headquarters—all medical personnel have military obligations—and volunteered to help. I can’t remember his name, but he was a major, and he told me, “We need young people.” I tried to convince him: “Young doctors aren’t ready, first of all, and second of all, they will be in greater danger because young people are more susceptible to radiation.” His answer: “We have our orders, we’re to take young people.”
Patients’ wounds began to heal more slowly. I remember that first radioactive rain—“black rain,” people called it later. First off, you’re just not ready for it, and second, we’re the best, most extraordinary, most powerful country on Earth. My husband, a man with a university degree, an engineer, seriously tried to convince me that it was an act of terrorism. An enemy diversion. A lot of people at the time thought that. But I remember how I’d once been on a train with a man who worked in construction who told me about the building of the Smolensk nuclear plant: how much cement, boards, nails, and sand was stolen from the construction site and sold to neighboring villages. In exchange for money, for a bottle of vodka.
People from the Party would come to the villages and the factories to speak with the populous, but not one of them could say what deactivation was, how to protect children, what the coefficient was for the leakage of radionuclides into the food supply. They didn’t know anything about alpha- or beta- or gamma-rays, about radiobiology, ionizing radiation, not to mention about isotopes. For them, these were things from another world. They gave talks about the heroism of the Soviet people, told stories about military bravery, about the mechinations of Western spy agencies. When I even mentioned this briefly in a Party meeting, when I doubted this, I was told they’d kick me out of the Party.
I’m afraid of staying on this land. They gave me a dosimeter, but what am I supposed to do with it? I do my laundry, it’s nice and white, but the dosimeter goes off. I make some food, bake a pie—it goes off. I make the bed—it goes off. I feed my kids and cry. “Why are you crying, Mom?”
I have two boys. They don’t go to nursery school or kindergarten—they’re always in the hospital. The older one—he’s neither a boy or a girl. He’s bald. I take him to the doctors, and also to the healers. He’s the littlest one in his grade. He can’t run, he can’t play, if someone hits him by accident and he starts bleeding, he might die. He has a blood disease, I can’t even pronounce the word for it. I’m lying with him in the hospital and thinking, “He’s going to die.” I understood later on that you can’t think that way. I cried in the bathroom. None of the mothers cried in the hospital rooms. They cry in the toilets, the baths. I come back cheerful: “Your cheeks are red. You’re getting better.”
“Mom, take me out of the hospital. I’m going to die here. Everyone here dies.”
Now where am I going to cry? In the bathroom? There’s a line for the bathroom—everyone like me is in that line.
On May 1, on the day of memory, they let us go into the cemetery. They let us go to the graves, but the police forbid us from going to our houses and our gardens. From the cemetery at least we looked at our homes from afar. We blessed them from where we were.
Let me tell you about the sort of people who live here. I’ll give you one example. In the “dirty” areas, during the past few years, they were filling the stores with Chinese beef, and buckwheat, and everything, and people said, “Oh, it’s good here. You won’t get us to leave here now.” The land became contaminated unevenly—one collective farm might have “clean” fields next to “dirty” ones. People who work in the “dirty” fields get paid more, and everyone’s raring to work there. And they refuse to work the “clean” fields.
Not long ago my brother visited me from the Far East. “You’re all like black boxes here,” he said. He meant the black boxes that record information on airplanes. We think that we’re living, talking, walking, eating. Loving one another. But we’re just recording information!
I’m a pediatrician. It’s different for children. For example, they don’t think that cancer means death—that connection hasn’t been made for them. And they know everything about themselves: their diagnosis, the medicines they’re taking, the names of the procedures. They know more than their mothers. When they die, they have these surprised looks on their faces. They lie there with these surprised faces.
The doctors warned me that my husband would die. He has leukemia—cancer of the blood. He got sick after he came back from the Chernobyl Zone, two months after. He was sent there from the factory. He came home one morning after the night shift:
“I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“What are you going to do there?”
“Work on the collective farm.”
They raked the straw in the fifteen-kilometer zone, collected the beets, dug up the potatoes.
He came back. We went to visit his parents. He was spackling a wall with his father when he fell down. We called an ambulance, took him to the hospital—he’d received a fatal dose.
He returned with one thought in mind: “I’m dying.” He became quiet. I tried to convince him it wasn’t true. I begged him. He wouldn’t believe me. Then I gave him a daughter, so he’d believe me. I’d wake up in the morning, look at him: How am I going to make it by myself? You shouldn’t think a lot about death. I chased the thoughts away. If I’d known he’d get sick I’d have closed all the doors, I’d have stood in the doorway. I’d have locked the doors with all the locks we had.
We’ve been going from hospital to hospital with my son for two years now. I don’t want to hear anything, read anything about Chernobyl. I’ve seen it all.
The little girls in the hospitals play with their dolls. They close their eyes and the dolls die.
“Why do the dolls die?”
“Because they’re our children and our children won’t live. They’ll be born and then die.”
My Artyom is seven, but he looks five. He’ll close his eyes, and I think he’s gone to sleep. I’ll start crying, since he can’t see me. But then he says, “Mom, am I dying already?”
He’ll go to sleep, and he’s almost not breathing. I’ll get on my knees before him, before his bed. “Artyom, open your eyes. Say something.” And I’ll think to myself, “You’re still warm.”
He opens his eyes, then goes back to sleep again, so quietly, as if he’s dying.
“Artyom, open your eyes.”
I won’t let him die.
Not long ago we celebrated the New Year. We had everything, and it was all homemade: smoked goods, lard, meat, pickles. The only thing from the store was the bread. Even the vodka was ours. Of course “ours” meant that it was from Chernobyl. With cesium, and a strontium aftertaste. But where else are we going to get anything? The village stores are empty, and if something appears in them, we can’t buy it on our salaries and pensions.
Some guests came over, our neighbors, very nice people, young; one is a teacher, the other is a mechanic on the collective farm who was there with his wife. We drank, had some food. And then we started singing. Spontaneously we sang all the old songs—the revolutionary songs, the war songs. “The morning sun colors the ancient Kremlin with its gentle light.” And it was a nice evening. It was like before.
I wrote about it to my son. He’s a student, he lives in the capital. He writes me back: “Mom, I pictured the scene to myself. It’s crazy. That Chernobyl land, our house. The New Year’s tree is sparkling. And the people at the table are singing revolutionary songs and military songs. As if they hadn’t gone through the Gulag, and through Chernobyl.” I became frightened—not for myself, but for my son. He has nowhere to come back to.
The Shovel And The Atom
I tried to commit those days to memory. There were many new emotions—fear, a sense of tearing into the unknown, like I’d landed on Mars. I’m from Kursk. In 1969, they built a nuclear reactor nearby in the town of Kurchatov. We used to go there to buy food—the nuclear workers always received the best provisions. We used to go fishing in the pond there, right near the reactor. I thought of that often after Chernobyl.
So here’s how it was: I received a notice, and, being a disciplined person, I went to the military recruiter’s office the next day. They went through my file. “You,” they tell me, “have never gone on an exercise with us. And they need chemists out there. You want to go for twenty-five days to a camp near Minsk?” And I thought: Why not? It’ll be a break from my family and my job for a while. I’ll march around a bit in the fresh air.
At 11 A.M. on June 22, 1986, I came with a bundle and a toothbrush to the gathering spot. I was surprised by how many of us there were for a peacetime exercise. I started remembering scenes from the war films—and what a day for it, June 22, the day the Germans invaded. All day they tell us to get in formation, then to break up, and finally as it’s getting dark we get on our buses. Someone gets on and says: “If you’ve brought liquor with you, drink it now. Tonight we’ll get on the train, and in the morning we’ll join our units. Everyone is to be fresh as a cucumber in the morning, and without excess baggage.” All right, no problem, we partied all night.
In the morning we found our unit in the forest. They put us in formation again and called us up in alphabetical order. We received protective gear. They gave us one set, then another, then a third, and I thought, This is serious. They also gave us an overcoat, hat, mattress, pillow—all winter gear. But it was summer out, and they told us we’d be going home in twenty-five days. “Are you kidding?” says the captain who came with us, laughing. “Twenty-five days? You’ll be in Chernobyl six months.” Disbelief. Then anger. So they start convincing us: anyone working twenty kilometers away gets double pay, ten kilometers means triple pay, and if you’re right at the reactor you get six times the pay. One guy starts figuring that in six months he’ll be able to roll home in a new car, another wants to run off but he’s in the army now. What’s radiation? No one’s heard of it. Whereas I’ve just gone through a civil defense course where they gave us information from thirty years before, like that 50 roentgen is a fatal dose. They taught us to sit down so the wave of the explosion would miss us. They taught us about irradiation, thermal heat. But about the radioactive contamination of an area—the most dangerous factor of all—not a word.
And the staff officers who took us to Chernobyl weren’t terribly bright. They knew one thing: you should drink more vodka, it helps with the radiation. We stayed near Minsk for six days, and all six days we drank. I studied the labels on the bottles. At first we drank vodka, and then I see we’re drinking some strange stuff: Nithinol and other glass cleaners. For me, as a chemist, this was interesting. After the nithinol, your legs feel cottony but your head is clear, you give yourself a command, “Stand up!,” but you fall down.
So here’s how it was: I’m a chemical engineer, I have a master’s degree, I was working as the head of a laboratory at a large production facility. And what did they have me do? They handed me a shovel—this was practically my only instrument. We immediately came up with a slogan: Fight the atom with a shovel! Our protective gear consisted of respirators and gas masks, but no one used them because it was 30 degrees Celsius outside, if you put those on it would kill you. We signed for them, as you would for supplementary ammunition, and then forgot all about it. It was just one more detail.
They transferred us from the buses to the train. There were forty-five seats in the train car and seventy of us. We took turns sleeping.
So what is Chernobyl? A lot of military hardware and soldiers. Wash pots. A real military situation. They placed us in tents, ten men to a tent. Some of us had kids at home, some had pregnant wives, others were in between apartments. But nobody complained. If we had to do it, we had to go it. The motherland called and we went. That’s just how we are.
There were enormous piles of empty tin cans around the tents. The military depots have a special supply in case of war. The cans were from canned meat, pearl buckwheat, sprats. There were herds of cats all around, they were like flies. The village had been emptied—you’d hear a gate open and turn around expecting a person, and instead there’d be a cat walking out.
We dug up the diseased layer of topsoil, loaded it into automobiles and took it to waste burial sites. I thought that a waste burial site was a complex, engineered construction, but it turned out to be an ordinary pit. We picked up the earth and rolled it, like big rugs. We’d pick up the whole green mass of it, with grass, flowers, roots. And bugs, spiders, worms. It was work for madmen. You can’t just pick up the whole earth, take off everything living. If we weren’t drinking like crazy every night, I doubt we’d have been able to take it. Our psyches would have broken down. We created hundreds of kilometers of torn-up, fallow earth. The houses, barns, trees, kindergartens, wells—they remained there, naked. In the morning you’d wake up, you need to shave, but you’re afraid to look in the mirror and see your own face. Because you’re getting all sorts of thoughts. It’s hard to imagine people moving back to live there again. But we changed the slate, we changed the roofs on houses. Everyone understood that this was useless work, and there were thousands of us. Every morning we’d get up and do it again. We’d meet an illiterate old man: “Ah, quit this silly work, boys. Have a seat at the table, eat with us.” The wind would be blowing, the clouds floating. The reactor wasn’t even shut down. We’d take off a layer of earth and come back in a week and start over again. But there was nothing left to take off—just some sand that had drifted in. The one thing that did make sense to me was when some helicopters sprayed a special mixture that created a polymer film that kept the light-moving bottom soil from moving. That I understood. But we kept digging, and digging…
The villages were evacuated, but some still had old men in them. To walk into an old peasant hut and sit down to dinner—just the ritual of it—a half hour of normal life. Although you couldn’t eat anything, it wasn’t allowed. But I so wanted to sit at the table, in an old peasant hut.
After we were done the only thing left were the pits. They were going to fill them with concrete plates and surround them with barbed wire, supposedly. They left the dump trucks, cargo trucks, and cranes they’d been using there, since metal absorbs radiation in its own way. I’ve been told that all that stuff has since disappeared, that is, been stolen. I believe it. Anything is possible here now.
One time we had a scare: the dosimetrists discovered that our cafeteria had been put in a spot where the radiation was higher than where we went to work. We’d already been there two months. That’s just how we are. The cafeteria was just a bunch of posts that had these boards nailed to them at chest height. We ate standing up. We washed ourselves from barrels filled with water. Our toilet was a long pit in a clear field. We had shovels in our hands, and not far off was the reactor.
After two months we began to understand things a little. People started saying: “This isn’t a suicide mission. We’ve been here two months—that’s enough. They should bring in others now.” Major-General Antoshkin had a talk with us. He was very honest. “It’s not advantageous for us to bring in a new shift. We’ve already given you three sets of clothing. And you’re used to the place. To bring in new men would be expensive and complicated.” With an emphasis on our being heroes. Once a week someone who was digging really well would receive a certificate of merit before all the other men. The Soviet Union’s best grave digger. It was crazy.
These empty villages—just cats and chickens. You walk into a barn, it’s filled with eggs. We’d fry them. Soldiers are ready for anything. We’d catch a chicken, put it on the spit, wash it down with a bottle of homemade vodka. We’d put away a three-liter bottle of that stuff every night in the tent. A person can get used to anything. One guy would get drunk and fall down on his bed to sleep, other guys wanted to yell and fight. Two of them got drunk and went for a drive and crashed. They got them out from under the crushed metal with the jaws of life. I saved myself by writing long letters home and keeping a diary. The head of the political department noticed, he kept asking what I was writing, where was I keeping it? He got my neighbor to spy on me, but the guy warned me. “What are you writing?” “My dissertation.” He laughs. “All right, that’s what I’ll tell the colonel. But you should hide that stuff.” They were good guys. I already said, there wasn’t a single whiner in the bunch. Not a single coward. Believe me: no one will ever defeat us. Ever! The officers never left their tents. They’d walk around in slippers all day, drinking. Who cares? We did our digging. Let the officers get another star on their shoulder. Who cares? That’s the sort of people we have in this country.
The dosimetrists—they were gods. All the village people would push to get near them. “Tell me, son, what’s my radiation?” One enterprising soldier figured it out: he took an ordinary sick, wrapped some wiring to it, knocks on some old lady’s door and starts waving his stick at the wall. “Well, son, tell me how it is.” “That’s a military secret, grandma.” “But you can tell me, son. I’ll give you a glass of vodka.” “All right.” He drinks it down. “Ah, everything’s all right here, grandma.” And leaves.
In the middle of our time there they finally gave us dosimeters. These little boxes, with a crystal inside. Some of the guys started figuring, they should take them over to the burial site in the morning and let them catch radiation all day, that way they’ll get released sooner. Or maybe they’ll pay them more. So you had guys attaching them to their boots, there was a loop there, so that they’d be closer to the ground. It was a theater of the absurd. These counters weren’t even going, they needed to be set in motion by an initial dose of radiation. In other words, these were little toys they’d picked out of the warehouse from fifty years ago. It was just psychotherapy for us. At the end of our time there we all got the same thing written on our medical cards: they multiplied the average radiation by the number of days we were there. And they got that initial average from our tents, not from where we worked.
We got two hours to rest. I’d lie down under some bush, and see that the cherries are in bloom, big, juicy cherries, you wipe them down and eat them. Mulberry—it was the first time I’d seen it. When we didn’t have work, they’d march us around. We watched Indian films about love, until three, four in the morning. Sometimes the cook would oversleep and we’d have undercooked buckwheat. They brought us newspapers—they wrote that we were heroes. Volunteers! There were photographs. If only we’d met that photographer…
The international units were nearby. There were Tatars from Kazan. I saw their initial court-martial. They chased a guy in front of the unit, if he stopped or went off to the side they’d start kicking him. He’d been cleaning the houses and they found a bag full of stuff on him, he’d been stealing. The Lithuanians were nearby, too. After two months they rebelled and demanded to be sent back home.
One time we got a special order: immediately wash this one house in an empty village. Incredible! “What for?” “They’re filming a wedding there tomorrow.” So we got some hoses and doused the roof, trees, scraped off the ground. We mowed down the potato patch, the whole garden, all the grass in the yard. All around, emptiness. The next day they bring the bride and groom, and a busload of guests. They had music. And they were a real bride and groom, they weren’t actors—they’d already been evacuated, they were living in another place, but someone convinced them to come back and film the wedding here, for history. Our propaganda in motion. A whole factory of daydreams. Even here our myths were at work, defending us: see, we can survive anything, even on dead earth.
Right before I went home the commander called me in. “What were you writing?” “Letters to my young wife.” “All right. Be careful.”
What do I remember from those days? A shadow of madness. How we dug. And dug.
Ivan Zhykhov, chemical engineer
Alyosha Belskiy, 9; Anya Bogush, 10; Natasha Dvoretskaya, 16; Lena Zhudro, 15; Yura Zhuk, 15; Olya Zvonak, 10; Snezhana Zinevich, 16; Ira Kudryacheva, 14; Ylya Kasko, 11; Vanya Kovarov, 12; Vadim Karsnosolnyshko, 9; Vasya Mikulich, 15; Anton Nashivankin, 14; Marat Tatartsev, 16; Yulia Taraskina, 15; Katya Shevchuk, 15; Boris Shkirmankov, 16.
There was a black cloud, and hard rain. The puddles were yellow and green, like someone had poured paint into them. They said it was dust from the flowers. Grandma made us stay in the cellar. She got down on her knees and prayed. And she taught us, too. “Pray! It’s the end of the world. It’s God’s punishment for our sins.” My brother was eight and I was six. We started remembering our sins. He broke the glass can with the raspberry jam, and I didn’t tell my mom that I got my new dress caught on a fence and it ripped. I hid it in the closet.
Soldiers came for us in cars. I thought the war had started. They were saying these things: “deactivation,” “isotopes.” One soldier was chasing after a cat. The dosimeter was working on the cat like an automatic: click, click. A boy and a girl were chasing the cat, too. The boy was all right, but the girl kept crying, “I won’t give him up!” She was yelling: “Run away, run little girl!” But the soldier had a big plastic bag.
I heard—the adults were talking—Grandma was crying—since the year I was born , there haven’t been any boys or girls born in our village. I’m the only one. The doctors said I couldn’t be born. But my mom ran away from the hospital and hid at Grandma’s. So I was born at Grandma’s. I heard them talking about it.
I don’t have a brother or a sister. I want one.
Tell me, lady, how could it be that I wouldn’t be born? Where would I be? High in the sky? On another planet?
The sparrows disappeared from our town in the first year after the accident. They were lying around everywhere—in the yards, on the asphalt. They’d be raked up and taken away in the containers with the leaves. People weren’t allowed to burn the leaves that year, because they were radioactive, so they buried the leaves.
The sparrows came back two years later. We were so happy, we yelled to each other: “I saw a sparrow yesterday! They’re back.”
The May bugs also disappeared, and they haven’t come back. Maybe they’ll come back in a hundred years or a thousand. That’s what our teacher says. I won’t see them.
September first, the first day of school, and there wasn’t a single flower. The flowers were radioactive. Before the beginning of the year, the people working weren’t masons, like before, but soldiers. They mowed the flowers, took off the earth and took it away somewhere in cars with trailers.
In a year they evacuated all of us and buried the village. My father’s a cab driver, he drove there and told us about it. First they’d tear a big pit in the ground, five meters deep. Then the firemen would come up and use their hoses to wash the house from its roof to its foundation, so that no radioactive dust got kicked up. They wash the windows, the roof, the door, all of it. Then a crane drags the house from its spot and puts it down into the pit. There’s dolls and books and cans all scattered around. The excavator picks them up. Then it covers everything with sand and clay, leveling it. And then instead of a village, you have an empty field. They sowed our land with corn. Our house is lying there, and our school and our village counsel office. My plants are there and two albums of stamps, I was hoping to bring them with me. Also I had a bike.
I’m twelve years old and I’m an invalid. The mailman brings two pension checks to our house—for me and my granddad. When the girls in my class found out I had cancer of the blood, they were afraid to sit next to me. They didn’t want to touch me.
The doctors said I got sick because my father worked at Chernobyl. And after that I was born. I love my father.
They came for my father at night. I didn’t hear how he got packed, I was asleep. In the morning I saw my mother was crying. She said, “Papa’s in Chernobyl now.”
We waited for him like he was at the war.
He came back and started going to the factory again. He didn’t tell us anything. At school I bragged to everyone that my father just came back from Chernobyl, that he was a liquidator, and the liquidators were the ones who helped clean up after the accident. They were heroes. All the boys were jealous.
A year later he got sick.
We walked around in the hospital courtyard—this was after his second operation—and that was the first time he told me about Chernobyl.
They worked pretty close to the reactor. It was quiet and peaceful and pretty, he said. They took off the topsoil contaminated by cesium and strontium, and they washed the roofs. The next day everything would be “clicking” on the dosimeters again.
“In parting they shook our hands and gave us certificates of gratitude for our self-sacrifice.” He talked and talked. The last time he came back from the hospital, he said: “If I stay alive, no more physics or chemistry for me. I’ll become a shepherd.” My mom and I are alone now. I won’t go to the technical institute, even though she wants me to. That’s where my dad went.
I used to write poems. I was in love with a girl. In fifth grade. In seventh grade I found out about death.
I had a friend, Andrei. They did two operations on him and then sent him home. Six months later he was supposed to get a third operation. He hanged himself from his belt, in an empty classroom, when everyone else had gone to gym glass. The doctors said he wasn’t allowed to run or jump.
Yulia, Katya, Vadim, Oksana, Oleg, and now Andrei. “We’ll die, and then we’ll become science” Andrei used to say. “We’ll die and everyone will forget us” Katya said. “When I die, don’t bury me in the cemetery, I’m afraid of the cemetery, there are only dead people and crows there,” said Oksana. “Bury me in the field.” Yulia used to just cry. The whole sky is alive for me now when I look at it, because they’re all there.