In spring the city of Kyiv refuses to contain its jubilant nature. Chestnut trees extend their candle-like blooms and the air turns sweet with anticipation of longer days and warmer nights.
Coming to the capital of Ukraine for a mid-term break in the spring of 1986, my 20-year-old aunt Tetyana and her four friends did not want to stay indoors. They went to the zoo and botanical garden, strolled along Kyiv’s luxuriantly green boulevards, sunbathed, and marched with the crowds on Labour Day, returning to the dormitory only to sleep. Around 130km to the north, a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power station was burning.
What does “the world’s worst nuclear disaster” mean to people who marched through it, and to those born in the affected territories afterwards? What does it mean to us in the year when western imagination has been captured by a top-rated mini-series and three major books about Chernobyl? And why now, 33 years after the explosion, can’t we help but look back?
What happened in Chernobyl on 26 April 1986 ought to have remained in Chernobyl. With the blazing reactor spitting radiation into the air, the Soviet leaders were set against sharing the news. First to sound the alarm were the Swedes, who detected radioactive clouds brought to Scandinavia from the other side of the Baltic Sea on 28 April.
On 29 April the wind changed direction, pushing the radioactive front south towards Kyiv, the capital of Soviet Ukraine, where the annual Labour Day parade was to be held. Pictures of smiling children and socialist labourers appeared, with the aim of stifling western rumours about the Soviet-made nuclear apocalypse.
The party’s decision to proceed with the parade was more than questionable because of the record-breaking levels of radiation in Kyiv on 1 May, measuring 100 times higher than pre-explosion norms. The radiation concentrated around the capital’s low-lying central street – and so did the festive crowds, Tetyana and her friends among them.
Bullied by Moscow into holding the parade, Ukrainian leaders waved from the podium to their grandchildren marching under the banner Our Future Successors.
When we talked recently about that spring break, Tetyana was still convinced that the Chernobyl fallout had not reached the capital until 3 May. “People started whispering about a radioactive cloud,” she recalled. Coincidentally, that was the day when she and her friends boarded a train home to industrial Zaporizhzhia, polluted in a way that suddenly seemed familiar and tame. Kyivans rushed to the railway station in alarm and escaped the verdant city that would, come autumn, bury fallen leaves as radioactive waste.
Within a year, Tetyana had developed food allergies and gastrointestinal problems. Although radiation damage is known to cause digestive illnesses, it has not been possible to determine whether her newly acquired health issues were related to the exposure in May 1986 or to the fact that shortage-driven Soviet agriculture continued to process goods from contaminated areas.
Radiation harm is difficult to isolate, particularly in an ecologically unsavoury place like Zaporizhzhia, which is packed with metallurgical and chemical plants.
The elusive, prolonged, multifaceted impact of radiation exposure is one of the reasons the number of Chernobyl fatalities recorded amounted to fewer than 50 first responders.
To see past this number, we need to trace again the path of the wind from Chernobyl. Before turning south towards Kyiv at the beginning of May, it had been blowing north-east from the plant towards Moscow. To prevent a radioactive thunderstorm deluging the capital of the Soviet Union, Soviet air force pilots were ordered to intercept and seed the clouds over rural Belarus.
On the twentieth anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, major Aleksei Grushin, who led the operation, received an award for bravery from the hands of Vladimir Putin. As a result of that human-made rain, the south of the Belarusian Republic was covertly blanketed with a radioactive soup.
Continuing to work in the fields, unsuspecting farmers received radiation doses exceeding the annual permissible limit in just a few weeks. It took the Belarusian government three years to start a partial evacuation from some of the poisoned territories.
In her astonishing investigation into the disaster’s long-term health effects, Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future, Kate Brown writes: “Of all categories of Chernobyl-exposed, those living on contaminated ground today have the most health problems and highest mortality rates – more than cleanup workers and more than evacuees.”
The fate of those people has barely entered the grand Chernobyl narrative, which guides us away from the dreadful accident and the sacrifice of firefighters to today’s touristic afterlife of the 30km exclusion zone. As Brown elucidates, many parts of the power station are cleaner than spots in the Belarusian Mogilev province, 400km away, where the radioactive material landed with rain.
Brown’s book is part of the great Chernobyl renaissance we have witnessed in 2019. The sensational television show Chernobyl catapulted the catastrophe back into the limelight. British reporter Adam Higginbotham reconstructed the accident and its immediate aftermath in his book Midnight in Chernobyl. Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy preceded this resurgence of interest with his outstanding book Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy, in which he analysed the disaster’s innate link with the operation and collapse of the Soviet empire.
Rightfully exposing the paranoia, dilapidation and cannibalism of the Soviet system, these accounts tend to portray Chernobyl as a uniquely Soviet event. Let us not be reassured, however, by its chronological and geographical distance.
Radioactive contaminants are global travellers, reluctant to leave our bodies, water and soil. They derive from nuclear accidents in high-tech countries like Japan and the US as much as from the nuclear bomb tests that have been conducted on more than 2,000 occasions between 1945 and 1980 and have collectively released the power of 29,000 Hiroshima bombs. Today the world is on the threshold of a new nuclear arms race.
While we were marvelling at the unrivalled Soviet lunacy and its atomic climax as presented by the US television network HBO, Russia and the US suspended their obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
For more than three decades, the treaty had been curbing the two countries’ stockpiling of nuclear weapons. One of the sites where Russia is now flexing its military muscles is Ukraine. This former Soviet republic used to have the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, but it gave it up under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in exchange for security assurances from the UK, the US and the Russian Federation.
Twenty years after signing the document, the Russian Federation annexed the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula and unleashed the war in the east of the country that has so far taken 13,000 lives.
When asked about the Labour Day festivities in the vicinity of the exploded reactor, my aunt shrugged. “What do I care about 1986?” she retorted. “Putin threatens to pave a land corridor to Crimea via Zaporizhzhia one of these days.” However, both threats remain potent and connected through their origins in the imperialist Soviet project, now in its revanchist phase.
Today, extending international solidarity beyond the crumbling economic sanctions against Russia is vital not only for the existence of Ukraine, which hosts five nuclear power stations, but also for any hope of nuclear disarmament and for the future of the whole planet. The wind from Chernobyl pulls us inexorably into the future, and it can no longer be ignored or contained.
Dr Sasha Dovzhyk is a London-based cultural researcher. She divides her time between teaching, freelance writing, and campaigning for political prisoners. This article was first published in Resurgence & Ecologist magazine.
Image: Stijn D'haese, Flickr