The five-part HBO miniseries “Chernobyl” premieres on May 6. I was a kid in the USSR at the time, and I still remember when it happened.
In 1986, if we knew anything at all, we still only knew it from the foreign radio. The first time I heard about Chernobyl was from my mom. It was something about how the BBC reported there was a nuclear explosion somewhere around Kiev, and we needed to decide what to do.
I remember her face. The only emotion I could read was slight disappointment. Her voice was quiet and constrained.
My best guess is that the day was April 28, two days after the explosion. I remember it being nighttime, and adults in my family were fully focused on the “Vremya” program, which was the main Soviet TV news source. That broadcast featured a brief comment about the explosion, and the adults, who already knew anyway, had been waiting to see how the Soviet outlet would handle the situation.
Although the Communist Party bosses were informed about the incident immediately, their initial reaction was silence. The evacuation of the nearby town of Pripyat didn’t start until the following day, and in the immediate aftermath the residents went around their business, enjoying the April sun. The firefighters summoned to extinguish the flames in the hours after the explosion were not informed about the danger of their mission. Many died quickly.
Even after the disaster was mentioned in prime time, the apparatchiks in Kiev declined to cancel the annual May Day parade. As efforts to keep up appearances go, this one was anguished and desperate: they shortened the procession in half, from four to two hours. The footage from the parade was featured prominently on the May First “Vremya,” and I remember my grandmother being incensed by a citizenry so inept at reading between the lines of Soviet propaganda, they didn’t only remain in Kiev, but hung out on the streets. It confirmed her worst suspicions about parade attendees.
She placed the ultimate responsibility on the Kremlin, of course, but that was nothing new with her. She just had a certain pity for the brainwashed of Russian intelligentsia.
The pictures of that May Day parade in Kiev have become symbols of the regime’s cruelty and obduracy, and played their part in its speedy undoing. Chernobyl took place in the beginnings of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, and as the censorship was loosening, the country very soon found it possible to discuss current events. The regime might have gotten away with the lies if not for the reforms already underway.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the images of revelers dressed in Ukrainian national costumes for that May Day parade, along with the abolition of Zapozhian Sich and Holodomor, became a central argument for Ukrainian independence. It reminded of the Soviet Potemkin village covering up genocidal totalitarian mismanagement and destruction of the homeland’s ecosystem. That emergence of national consciousness didn’t take place until nearly a decade later.
In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, however, nobody seemed to understand what to do. We lived in the north-eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkov, which was a ways from Kiev. Hours before the disaster, the wind had changed direction to blow north-west, away from us. We were spared.
Radiation particles flew all the way to Sweden, where they set off nuclear alarms, prompting Western media attention, and forcing an admission out of the Soviet Union within two days of the accident. What were those unseen particles with potential to kill the living, and cripple the bloodlines of survivors? What is to be done and who to trust? Can someone reliable measure radiation levels here?
Rumors swarmed. Don’t eat unusually large fruits and vegetables because they are full of emissions; they wouldn’t grow so big otherwise. Don’t eat strawberries and mushrooms, those are porous, and therefore absorb radiation. That’s all adults talked about that summer.
My mom went through a quiet agony deciding what to do about me and my sister. We were on orders to stay indoors as much as possible. I’m not sure we obeyed. Mom thought about sending us to Moscow to stay with relatives, and she was on the phone with my uncle a lot.
She eventually decided against it when a friend of family, a doctor, assured her that additional risks to us were minimal, and that we should simply treat 1986 as a year of high solar activity.
Within months that gentleman passed away from brain cancer. The following year, one of my close childhood friends, Nadya Krylova, also passed from brain cancer. She was the coolest goofball I’ve ever met; we did theater together. She was an only child of older parents.
These deaths could have been coincidental. I can tell you what was not a coincidence: My uncle, Mikhail Moshin, was a teacher at a trade school, and soon after the explosion his entire trade school was called up to do nuclear cleanup. Someone had to do it, so he went. His teenage students went too, as ordered.
They didn’t stay in Chernobyl very long, but in 1990 he died of radiation sickness. The death was not officially acknowledged as being caused by his rescue work, so his widow is not entitled to an additional pension. His heroism is still not properly acknowledged.
After much consideration, my mom, who didn’t feel it was safe to stay in Kharkov that summer, but also believed that we couldn’t go north to Estonia, where we’d gone on vacation three times in a row, finally decided on the Crimean city of Kerch. I don’t know how much sense it all made, because she’d initially ruled out Crimea because it was sunny, but her brain must have been paralyzed by panic.
She wasn’t the only one who was terrified and confused. Even beyond the Soviet borders, where people were in a better position to make rational decisions, European women began aborting perfectly healthy babies. The fear of mutant children is believed to be the cause of the spikes in abortion rates in countries as far away as Greece and Italy.
In Kerch, we were rooming with a middle-aged lady whose daughter was going through a horrible divorce. Their son must have been around six years old then. Her husband had a car, a luxury in the USSR, and her in-laws had promised the boy he’d eventually get the car if he went with daddy. So the boy didn’t want his mom anymore. The landlady told us her daughter had threatened to go to Chernobylsk for clean-up work.
“Chernobylsk?” My mom asked.
“Yes, Chernobylsk,” repeated the landlady. “They are recruiting at her work.”
“But isn’t it… Chernobyl?”
“Well, that’s Chernobyl, but they have said Chernobylsk.” Obviously somebody was lying to someone, but who and why? I don’t know how that story unfolded, because our vacation ended first.
Unfortunately, HBO’s “Chernobyl” is a disaster/action film, which is not wrong, but I think of the incident as horror. Invisible vapors poisoning the landscape, causing the birth of five-legged pigs, just like propaganda poisons the minds of the faithful — that’s horror, of course.
In the late ’80s, we talked of Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” as a prophetic movie that prefigured Chernobyl. Filmed in 1979, the Soviet sci-fi classic tells the story of a man who guides visitors into a mysterious restricted Zone. Did you know you can visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone now? Tours are available; just don’t touch anything, and don’t linger.
Sometime after returning from Kerch, I asked my dad to help me tune into the foreign radio. I was a teenager, and had little use for their newscasts, but was interested in rock-n-roll. My dad showed me how to tune in, and helped figure out the schedule.
We in the Soviet Union made through it somehow. A sense of humor helps. Here is one of the jokes: A boy asks his grandfather: “Is it true that in 1986 there was a explosion at a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl?”
“All true,” says grandpa, striking the boy’s head.
“Is it true that there were no consequences?”
“All true,” says the grandpa, striking his other head.
Chernobyl was the chapter in Soviet history filled with the numb panic of stoic and tragic people who, often despite their deep-rooted cynicism, were often capable of enormous self-sacrifice.