Anya’s Chernobyl Experience

Saturday, April 26, 1986 

It was a regular day in an eight-year old girl’s life living in Kiev, Ukraine. Happy, anxiously awaiting and tirelessly preparing for the special festivities of the upcoming holidays, the holidays that are filled with tears of joy, respect, and honor. For an eight-year old girl, it meant many long days and nights practicing poems and songs for the military parade, wearing big white hair bows, starched white school uniform aprons and special-occasion shoes. And flowers. Lots of flowers! We didn’t know that this day would change the lives of so many, and the life as we know it for HUNDREDS, and perhaps, thousands, of years to come. 

We did not know this on April 27. 

We did not know this on May 1… when everybody went to the Labor Day parade with flowers, and me, with big white hair bows. When we all joyously ran around in the rain during the parade. 

Radioactive Rain

We did not know it was the radioactive rain. We didn’t know the “strange white film” covering the puddles was the radioactive dust and ash, as a result of the nuclear plant explosion. We were told it was crop fertilization that erroneously was dropped over the capital of Ukraine. Most importantly, we didn’t know what radiation was. 

I feel it’s important to note the importance of this holiday. The International Workers’ Day or Labor Day, or what’s perhaps better known here as “May Day,” was one of the most prominent Communist holidays, celebrating the working class, their hard work, sacrifice, and excellence.

Things started to appear in the news and over the radio, trivially referring to a “small fire” in Chernobyl nuclear plant, posing no danger. 

(As it later was confirmed, the “small fire” emitted over 400-500 times the amount of radiation released at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Little Boy had around 140 pounds of uranium in Hiroshima; Fat Man contained about 14 pounds of plutonium and reactor number four had about 180 tons of nuclear fuel). 

Saturday, May 3, 1986

We were told to stay indoors as much as possible, keep the windows closed and administer “wet” cleaning every day. Upon entering the apartment, we were asked to leave the jackets outside the apartment door. At school we started to learn how to sew gauze masks (you know, proper attire in case of a nuclear plant explosion!). The streets were being washed daily now. We were told not to drink raw water and to boil it for five minutes before consuming. Nothing else was said about food at this point yet. The following weeks things were changing rapidly. 

The Evacuation

I was taken out of school around the second week of May and sent to our family friend’s in a village away from Kiev for a short while. Later that month, our entire school, along with all the schools in Kiev, was evacuated to the area at Caspian Sea for the entire summer. No children remained in Kiev. 

As soon as we arrived to the camp we were first taken to a large tent. We were asked to form a line and proceed to the following stations: 

  1. Radiation checkpoint. The rapidly increasing and then slowly decreasing beeping sounds filled the room as unidentifiable adults in the full-body protective gear scanned each child. 
  2. Clothing pile. We were asked to take off all our outer clothing and dump in a pile. We would never see that clothing again.
  3. Physical exam area. Each student was thoroughly examined by a staff doctor.

It was a large camp with massive quantities of children from all over the city. At eight years of age, it was my first time away from home, away from my family. I remember being extremely lonely and completely out of my comfort zone. I remember sometime during the summer my head getting infested by lice and not knowing what to do about it. I remember receiving letters from my mom, who remained in Kiev to work, in which she described Kiev as a ghost town, with hardly anybody outside, with no children, and no sounds. She told me about cats and dogs running around with no fur. I remember learning how to swim at this camp (which was a traumatic experience all in itself!). 

My mother was a supervisor at an atelier (a sewing shop). By mid-June she was told she would be getting 20 additional workers from Pripyat’, who now would be permanently residing in Kiev. She had to come up with equipment, space, and work for them. She tells me she became good friends with many of them. Their fates varied… one lost her husband to cancer within months, another continued to struggle with cancer, and so on. The government provided newly built apartments in a new, faraway area of Kiev to all evacuees. 

The Pripyat’ announcement

Speaking of evacuation… let me deviate slightly from my personal story and take you back to April 27 for a minute. As we learned from my mother’s new employees, the evacuation of Pripyat’, began in the afternoon of April 27 at 2 pm (approximately 38 hours after the explosion). The evacuees were relocated to nearby cities, mainly to Kiev and Zhitomyr areas. Pripyat’ residents were ordered to take ONLY their documents and a few personal belongings, as it was thought they would be returning just several days later. They had to line up outside and wait for their bus (while being exposed to extremely dangerous levels of radiation). 1,200 city buses (many borrowed from Kiev) were used in evacuating approximately 50,000 residents. I recently read that the buses arrived in Pripyat’ 12 hours before the official evacuation began. As a result, in the process of evacuation, now, radioactive buses further spread radiation to other areas. 

I spent the first semester of the next school year with relatives in Russia, in the Caucasus region. While in Russia, I remember my cousin’s friend, then 25 years old, was preparing to be a liquidator in Chernobyl. He boasted about the salary that he was promised to receive – approximately four times the average monthly salary. I remember asking him about their protective gear and procedures. He was not properly trained to protect himself. He also heard that vodka would protect him from radiation poisoning so he was designing a device to smuggle vodka into the zone. I heard he had been diagnosed with cancer recently.

Returning to New Normal

I returned home after eight months being away from my family. Many of my classmates looked different. Some with much less hair. Some with much sicker-looking skin. 

In the autumn of ’86 and for many autumns to come, the leaves were buried and not burnt, never burnt. The streets were constantly washed. We got used to panicking every time it rained and immediately seeking shelter. We got used to boiling water every time and asking farmers at a city market where the potatoes were from… and hearing lies. 

Despite the government’s continual denial of the severity of this tragedy and its horrifying effects, cancer rates continued to climb across the nation. Horror stories of human and animal birth defects and deaths were spreading. Water and food supply was limited and we were never sure if what we were consuming was safe. Radiation levels were consistently reported… but we never knew if they were accurately reported. Many facts were downplayed and hidden from population. Interestingly, we didn’t fight too strongly to find out the truth. It was more comforting to believe things were OK.  

My family lived in a “Venice” area of Kiev, called Rusanovka. It gained its nickname because it is completely surrounded by water: the river Dniper on one side and a man-made canal around the rest of the island. We always heard that the radiation levels in Rusanovka were within normal because the water acted as the shield from radiation. We certainly were happy to believe that. 

The Impact

Many years later, after I came to the United States as a university student, I remember watching an American-produced documentary on Chernobyl for the first time after the accident in my biology class (it was approximately 1996). 

In this documentary, many officials were interviewed, including a director of the birthing center near Pripyat’. Although the undercover cameras showed many birth defects in both human and animal population, the director of the birthing center continued to deny any changes in birth rates or in the overall health of the newborns or mothers. I couldn’t watch the rest of the documentary and had to leave the class. 

I felt both deeply hurt and angry for being lied to for so long yet deeply embarrassed, for my nation, for my people… for ignoring the lessons, for being scared, for losing our humanity. As loyal, selfless, and heroic the Soviet people were, as equally corrupt, selfish and coward its leadership was that, just like a ruthless machine, continued to destroy any sign of humanity, honesty, and integrity to secure a path to corruption. 

For years to come, people’s lives would be changed, and in many cases, they were changed forever. There are many numbers floating around about the official death toll, some ranging anywhere from 50 to 100,000 to, possibly, many, many more. 

It’s been reported that pregnant women were somewhat protected from the radiation due to their fetus absorbing it. My cousin was 9 months pregnant in Kiev when the accident occurred. As soon as the early reports started to appear in the news, she left on May 2 (she flew out without a ticket and without a seat on the plane, standing the entire journey). She left six days after the accident. Those first six days were the most dangerous with the highest level of radiation exposure. The baby was born later that month in Russia. He was born, seemingly, healthy. And remained so, until he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 19. He lost his battle at the age of 32, leaving behind his family, his wife and two 1-year old twins, Mark and Margo. 

Nobody knows the exact cost of this tragedy. 

But we all paid the price.

Editor’s note: File under “It’s a small world” – Anya went from sewing masks for “radiation protection” as a child in Ukraine to organizing a large group who sewed masks for COVID virus protection as an adult in Indiana. Anya is a member (and Parish Council President) at Joy of All Who Sorrow. She and her husband Nick have two sons. Her greatly beloved mother Nellie lives with them.

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