“Ninety kilometers away from a modern industrial city with an atomic substation, people still wove their own clothes, lived on their own natural means, and even confessed to their own pre-Christian gods… During Easter, instead of carrying the specially baked bread to church, they offered it to the setting sun, confessed and prayed before a sacred tree for prosperity and a good harvest. All the old ways were preserved there like nowhere else.”

– Lydia Grigorevna Orel, ethnographer, in A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland (Kate Brown, 2005)

It is the first day of spring, and oddly enough, fate has loaded springtime with the anniversaries of three crimes against nature: Fukushima Dai-ichi, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl. The gods, or the humans must be crazy. It will soon be thirty years since the explosion of Chernobyl Reactor Number 4 on April 26, 1986. Anyone who cares enough to mark this 30th year is likely to know much about the catastrophe already. As the years pass, this act of remembering becomes a problematic, recursive hall of mirrors. Remembrance is painful and sadistic, but necessary. It conjures up remembrances past, and causes us to reflect on how the catastrophe ripples through time, affecting the old, the young and new generations. Many of the older victims have died, leaving the memories to be carried by younger survivors. They pass the story down to others who will tell it second and third hand, until the event becomes history, then legend, then myth of the distant past.

Remembering requires us to know what happened thirty years ago, but also to know how interpretation and remembrance have evolved with the passing of each April 26th. How can we begin to make sense of the changes over time? What was there before the USSR transformed it into a modern bedroom town for nuclear workers? What changes have been wrought, from the Chernobyl of 1986, in the Soviet republics of Belarus and Ukraine, to the Chernobyl of 2016, situated between the political and economic disasters of independent Belarus and Ukraine? From Cold War I to Cold War II, what have we learned, and how does Chernobyl figure into all of it? As a starting point for this year’s remembrance, we point to the following excerpts from three articles published by Eurozine on the 20th and 25th anniversaries of the Chernobyl catastrophe. These are samples of the limited number of English translations of eyewitness accounts of Chernobyl, by people who wrote and spoke in Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian. Much more seems to have been translated into German and French. The Japanese also had a keen interest in Chernobyl, but as the saying goes, they didn’t go there to study history; they went to study their future. Readers can follow the links to the full articles on the Eurozine website, or go deeper into the subject with books such as The Truth about Chernobyl (Grigori Medvedev, 1991) Voices from Chernobyl (Svetlana Alexievich, 2006), Chernobyl: Crime without Punishment (Alla Yaroshinskaya, 2011) or the source of the quotation above, A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland (Kate Brown, 2005), a remarkable book that that situates Chernobyl in its broader historical and ethnographic context.

-Dennis Riches, guest editor

March 21, 2016

September 1986, Chernobyl, Ukraine --- Chernobyl - The Aftermath --- Image by © Igor Kostin/Sygma/Corbis

September 1986, Chernobyl, Ukraine — Chernobyl – The Aftermath — Image by © Igor Kostin/Sygma/Corbis

The big lie: The secret Chernobyl documents

by Alla Yaroshinskaya

In 1990, journalist Alla Yaroshinskaya came across secret documents about the Chernobyl catastrophe that revealed a massive cover-up operation and a calculated policy of disinformation. The state and party leadership had knowingly played down the extent of the contamination and offered a sanitized version to the outside world. In 1991, five years after the accident, a series of laws was adopted to protect the victims of radiation; now, scientists have begun to find serious flaws in these too. As recent studies show, the human and environmental damage shows no sign of abating.

Despite the changes brought about by Mikhail Gorbachev’s vaunted perestroika and glasnost, the catastrophe at Chernobyl remained a classic Soviet cover-up, one that survived the collapse of the USSR in 1991. The number of people radically affected by the explosion was kept secret and the result was far greater mortality and suffering. Only in recent years have researchers and scientists begun to uncover the full truth of Chernobyl. In the night of 25-26 April 1986, there was a catastrophic explosion in the fourth unit of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. The reactor involved was of RBMK-1000 type and had been operating for three years. The effects of this accident will have profound effects on the ecology of the planet for many hundreds of years to come. In spite of its expanding nuclear energy programme and nuclear weapons tests, the USSR was the only nuclear country in the world without its own nuclear safety laws. Other countries had adopted such laws early in the nuclear age – France, for example, in 1945, the USA and the UK in 1946. At present, all developed countries have nuclear legislation. A nuclear safety bill was drafted in the USSR two years before the Chernobyl accident but was never implemented, even after the accident, as a result of bureaucratic routine. There was no legal entitlement to compensation in spite of the dozens of accidents every year at military and civil nuclear installations; despite their frequency, these were kept secret, not only from the outside world, but also from Soviet citizens. Under the Soviet system, it was quite natural that neither the government of the Soviet Union nor the local authorities were prepared to take legal responsibility for the ecological, social, and other problems caused by Chernobyl – even though Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika were already in place. However, the scale of the accident and the changes that had taken place in the society by that time made it impossible to conceal the fact of the accident altogether; people in the affected territories repeatedly demanded the introduction of legislation to cover their health problems, ecological damage, and compensation for material losses arising from the accident. In April 1990, the Supreme Soviet reviewed the situation concerning the consequences of the liquidation of the Chernobyl accident and noted:

“The accident at the Chernobyl NPP in its consequences is the gravest disaster of the present time, affecting destinies of millions of people residing in a vast territory. The ecological effect of the Chernobyl accident has made the country face the necessity of solving new, exceptionally complex, large-scale problems affecting virtually all spheres of social life, many aspects of science and manufacturing, culture, ethics, and morality.”

The Chernobyl that Nobody Wants

by Barys Piatrovich

Twenty-five years after the Chernobyl disaster, Barys Piatrovich recalls the tension of unknowing during the days that followed, his desperate attempts to contact his relatives in the zone, and the arrival of evacuees during Easter celebrations in his parents’ village. Today, barely any of the Chernobyl evacuees are still alive. Dispersed throughout Belarus, they died alone and unnoticed, statistically insignificant.

It was difficult for me to write this text. I’ve been working up to it for over twenty years… More than once I have started to write but given up after the first few lines. It’s because I just wanted to talk about the things that I had experienced myself, and not to write an essay about Chernobyl with information culled from other books and the Internet. Writing about personal matters is always very difficult…Finally I managed to make the effort and wrench the text out of myself…The hesitation and uncertainty that run through the whole text will in the end drive me to despair as to whether it is worth publishing at all. Just as nothing appeared to be happening at the time in Belarus, so nothing happens in this text either, just as there was no clear understanding of the tragedy then, so there is none now in the text. In short the result is a kind of diary of those events with annotations made more than twenty years later. All that is left is perhaps the hope that mentioning those events will stir some people’s memories and they will recall that scorching, rainless May and its hot winds, the decontamination and the resettled “Chernobylites”…We all know that time blunts many of our emotions, but the general mood still remains. That’s how it was: we didn’t understand at the time what Chernobyl would bring, and even now we still don’t understand what the tragic consequences will be. Radiation is a terrible thing: it doesn’t burn, doesn’t sting – it kills silently, without leaving a mark. Amnesia is a terrible thing – it also kills silently. Except that it kills a nation, not just individual human beings…A whole nation…First it kills one nation and then what? The whole of humanity?

The vodka was supposed to cleanse our thyroid glands

Christine Daum, Igor Kostin*

Igor Kostin took the first photo of the exploded reactor in Chernobyl and later joined the “liquidators” clearing away contaminated debris. Later he documented the evacuation of people from the thirty kilometre zone, and over the next seventeen years photographed the visible and invisible consequences of the contamination. Here he talks about his life work.

I went to all the regions and took photos of all aspects of the catastrophe that it’s possible to take. I was at the epicentre of the disaster. I saw down into the reactor, it was fifty metres underneath me. I saw the colours and the unbelievable light. I’d never seen anything like it before – no one in the world had seen that before. But I also understood Chernobyl differently. What I was doing there was history, history written in the objective. For me, that was the most important reason to keep going back. I felt that history was being played out there, and that someone had to devote themselves to it seriously. My pictures are like an instruction manual for the next generation, so that something like it can never happen again. Today, my position is that other energy sources should be considered that aren’t so dangerous. Otherwise the next disaster will happen. And that’s something we shouldn’t allow. The political leaders might be able to protect themselves, but not the ordinary people. It’s criminal to claim, like the IAEA does, that you can live there again… There’s no development and no progress. I was there four months ago, four years ago, and ten years ago. The houses are empty, the villages are ghost towns. The streets are overgrown. There will never be progress there, not in ten years, nor in twenty years, nor in a hundred years. It’s just dead.

*Igor Kostin died in a car crash in 2015 at the age of 78.