May, 1991: Antoliy Dyatlov Kills Himself by Way of Rope.

This isn’t true, of course. Dyatlov died in 1995 of heart failure.

* * *

There was a cartoon published in the New Yorker shortly after the incident. Two dogs are having a conversation. One dog says: “They attributed it to human error”, and the other replies: “But everything in the world is due to human error.”

* * *
“The one common thread through all of these accidents is the complete failure of the Soviet system to manage modern technology in a safe manner. This failure is due in large part to the secrecy that was endemic in Soviet society and to a lesser extent in twist Russian society before it. Society existed in compartments, with little communication between them. Secrecy was often justified by the desire to avoid panic. The rest of the world has always accused Russians of secrecy. In 1950, a letter from a British Embassy official was circulated in London which complained both about secrecy, and about the restraints upon his movements throughout the countryside. To the scientists and others visiting the Soviet Union for the first time, this seemed to describe their own experiences. But a close examination showed the date to be the late seventeenth century!

“It has been said that experience is learning from mistakes; and bitter experience is learning from one’s own mistakes. Secrecy then, is inimical to safety, for with secrecy about accidents, one can only learn from one’s own mistakes and not from the mistakes of others. The testimony of Mr Anatoly Dyatlov, deputy chief engineer at Chernobyl, that he did not know of the previous accidents at reactors of the same type seems horrifying to someone from the West, but is no surprise to a resident of the former USSR. Secrecy about the consequences of an accident also has an extraordinary effect on public trust. Two weeks after the Chernobyl accident Mikhail Gorbachev in his first television address to the Soviet people promised that all the details of the accident would be made available to the world. But abandoning a 300-year old habit of secrecy is hard.”

- Shlyakhter and Wilson, Chernobyl: the inevitable results of secrecy, 1992

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In my early youth, I wrapped myself in red. Soviet history, politics, culture, Soviet secrets, fascinated me like little else. How could something so engrained be so completely and utterly flawed? How could it operate in shadows and still gain the momentum it did? Maybe it was the hypnotizing beauty of matryoshkas that drew me to Russia. My uncle had hundreds upon hundreds of nesting dolls that filled up several bookshelves. They were so glossy, so exquisitely painted. They had big blue eyes that sparkled and tiny little smiles that said: “We know something you don’t know.” What makes a matryoshka unique of course is what lies inside, and there was no telling until you broke her open.

My Thesis, of Sorts, When the Liberties of Creative Nonfiction are Applied

When it comes to anything Soviet, suspicion of everything will bring you closer to the truth.

The Chernobyl Catastrophe//Чернобыльская катастрофа

I will not go into what Chernobyl is or what happened there. It’s been covered repetitively by sources far more legitimate than a blog that doesn’t even pay for its domain name, and I’m not so presumptuous to think I can add anything new, let alone know what is true for certain. The Soviets have complicated everything and morphed any original truths to beyond recognition.

Oksana, my tour guide, is a young woman with braided red hair tied in a bun. She has kind eyes and speaks knowledgeably about the topics at hand. But Oksana only knows what she is told.

As she explains some rules, Oksana says with a straight face: “We must treat every group as if there is one terrorist and one spy.” By the end of the day, she suspects me of being one or both. I write down everything she says, you see. And I have a nasty habit of intentionally forgetting the rules.

She gathers us around a statue of the angel Gabriel. “Chernobyl is the Russian word for wormwood”, she proudly informs us. Many remain convinced that the Bible predicted the disaster and the entire event was some sick form of celestial intervention. Contaminated water tasted bitter, like wormwood, and the trees turned red and began to reek of it. People insist the “wormwood” coincidence is proof that the accident was divinely inspired. God was angry, clearly, and someone had to be punished for retribution, but not without some black humor.

Tell that to the deformed children who didn’t yet exist in 1986.

When it first happened, people within a ten km radius were given iodine pills and evacuated almost immediately. As soon as they realized this wasn’t enough, the exclusion zone was extended to thirty km. Experts on the disaster say the winds were fortunate, whatever that means. They directed most of the radiation clouds north into Belarus and then west. Only when Sweden started noticing abnormal radiation levels around their reactors did they suspect it was coming from Chernobyl. When prodded, the Russian government admitted that there had been an accident. It was a large admission for Gorbachev to make, but he then asserted everything was under control. “Under control” meant to tell people to stay indoors and close their windows. It also meant not telling people to avoid drinking milk from their radioactive cows and eating vegetables from their radioactive soil. The population in southern Belarus was notified a week after the incident and then evacuated in a haphazard manner.

And of all the possible things there were to fear, what the government feared most was panic. They feared unruly mobs of scared sick people. Secrecy, in their view, was needed to avoid panic. I can imagine Soviet leaders looking into a mirror while slowly repeating this to themselves, until the lot of them became entirely convinced that hiding radioactive clouds in effect makes them disappear.

Pripyat: Ukraine’s First and Most Glamorous Atomic Town

Pripyat was a town that mushroomed into existence exclusively to house power plant workers and their families. As soon as it was established in 1970, living in Pripyat was widely considered to be a dream, a highly idealized perfect place for a highly idealized perfect life. The first atomic town became known to be the forefront of energy, technology, and what the Soviets considered to be progress. People wanted to work there, live there, have babies there, be happy there. And for sixteen years, they did. At its peak, fifty thousand people called Pripyat home. The average age of denizens was 26. One thousand babies were born each year.  Young couples would stroll down International Friendship Street (the USSR had a way with nomenclature) with their newborns to fetch some ice cream and see a show. The town was a paradigm of leisure: it had a boxing arena, a shooting gallery, and an amusement park. Things were just grand.

Isn’t it funny how things change?

The supermarket.

Portraits of Soviet Generals. I call this photo: A Proper Place for Proper Pigs

Due to the high annual birth rate, there were twelve kindergartens and five schools. This one is staged for tourists. The rest of the indoor photos I obtained in secrecy (!) and without permission.

Oksana says the Ferris wheel was never actually used. It was scheduled to open on May 1st, 1986, or five days after Reactor Four blew up. Some say the Ferris wheel was used a couple times to distract people from the loud bang they heard in the night. Some say that, even though it directly contradicts what others say, that Pripyat was evacuated immediately.

The “distraction” rumor seems a little more Soviet to me.

Evacuate the Dream

Pripyat was promptly abandoned. It is now a famous ghost town.

The night of the incident, people were told to take only money, documents, and warm jackets because there was a possibility of having to spend the night in the open air. Thousands of buses were deployed. Soldiers went through the town to ensure that everyone had left. They found twenty people hiding in their houses. They believed it was just a drill and that everyone would return in a couple days. The squatters were subsequently forced out.

The soldiers returned to rid the town of its food supply. Had they not done so, Oksana says, Pripyat would be subject to plague and would be uninhabitable even today.

A special brigade of soldiers was commanded to shoot every animal they found, lest a contaminated cat or dog innocuously wandered off.  A shot could be heard every minute.

The majority of evacuees are either dead or living elsewhere. But contrary to popular belief, a small number of people returned to their homes in the exclusion zone. About 130 “re-settlers”, they’re called, returned. They’re all very old. There are no young people because they don’t enjoy the effect radiation has on reproductive systems and also there is no work. Understandable.

One extremely old woman lives alone in an isolated area of the exclusion zone. She eats her pierogi with a side of Plutonium. Every morning soldiers knock on her door to make sure she’s still breathing.

A Chernobyl Heart and A Soviet Mind

To have “Chernobyl Heart” is to have two holes in your heart. I’ll take it further, though. “Chernobyl Heart” means to have missing parts.

As with Dyatlov, Chernobyl Hearts are much more likely to stop pumping prematurely.

* * *

At one point, I ask Oksana about the birth defects and general health found in Chernobyl children. Her response is shocking. She jumps to the catastrophe’s defense as if it were a close friend who was wrongly accused of a misdeed. She says that ill-trained doctors use Chernobyl as an excuse for any health problem they cannot properly and confidently diagnose. She says that women who drink and smoke during their pregnancies blame Chernobyl for the poor health of their babies. In short, Oksana claims that any remaining impact the disaster had on people’s health is negligible if not completely absent and fabricated.

Meanwhile in the world that isn’t the former USSR, it’s a well-known fact that the health of the people in the region has dramatically changed since the incident. Generally, it’s much poorer. But people also don’t respond to medication in the same way. They’re chronically fatigued; children are chronically fatigued. Annual cases of thyroid cancer and heart defects and genetic aberrations remain at exponential levels compared to what was seen before 1986. In his book, Chernobyl: The Ongoing Story of the World’s Deadliest Nuclear Disaster, Glen Alan Chaney explains the problem in greater detail: 

“One doctor at a pediatric hospital expressed the problem well. He said that every case of illness, and its treatment, is unique. Measles in one child is different from that in another. The information in textbooks is not valid. The treatments developed after years of experiments with laboratory animals are no longer valid. Doctors must practice what they call “catastrophe medicine,” offering untried treatments and waiting to see how the patient responds. In effect, the patient is an experimental animal, though without the benefits that such animals normally receive: a sterile environment, a balanced diet, and uncontaminated food, water and air. The doctors are calling the problem “Chernobyl AIDS.” It is, literally, an acute immune deficiency syndrome, though it is not related to HIV and is not contagious. Though doctors are scientifically hesitant to blame radiation for every case of cancer and genetic abnormality, they are virtually unanimous in concluding that radiation is the cause of the syndrome.”

I tell Oksana this. I told her I’ve read numerous medical reports and articles, all of which express strong correlations between radiation poisoning and the region’s plummeting health. And while these things are exceptionally difficult to quantify due to botched statistics, it simply isn’t unheard of.

Her lovely smile goes away as she says: “let’s move on.”

At this point, the amount of lies in this whole endeavor of mine hits me as if her words are wearing brass knuckles.

Many of the things Oksana says I have no reason to doubt. But the information she dishes seems obviously rehearsed and incomplete. To me, at least, a Chernobyl enthusiast who knows more than the average person but also altogether very little, I get a strong feeling that the whole story isn’t being told, not even close. Valery Legasov, the chemist who lead the investigation of the accident, famously told the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Vienna, “I did not lie, but I did not tell the whole truth.” Legasov eventually killed himself by way of rope in a stairwell.

I have so many questions and I’m the only one in the group who seems to be asking any. She grows more and more impatient with me.

One of Oksana’s answers goes as follows: “I cannot answer your question because the government will not tell me.”

And in one second, I have a reason to doubt everything.

“For Those Who Saved the World”

… is written on a monument dedicated to the 28 firemen and workers who died as a direct result of the blast.

* * *

National Geographic has routinely covered Chernobyl and its aftermath ever since that cloudy morning in April 1986. So as a long-time consumer of the magazine, I became aware of the catastrophe very early on; about ten years ago I decided I needed to see it. I became fascinated by its Soviet mystique and utter darkness. I marveled at the seemingly unwavering courage of the liquidators who worked to remedy the situation despite their rapidly declining health, despite the painful and guaranteed death sentence. They excavated the site wearing thin lead suits that likely offered no protection against fatal dosages of radiation. A dose of 400 roentgens is lethal. Liquidators and firemen were exposed to up to 18,000. Within a couple hours, they began tasting metal in their mouths. Next, their skin changed color. Then their organs failed and their nervous systems shut down. Then they collapsed.

I tried to wrap my tiny brain around the massive effects one explosion could have on millions of living things decades, even centuries, down the line – physically, chemically, biologically, psychologically, politically, economically, it can go on forever. I was absorbed by the event just as the moss absorbs the radioactivity from the soil and the catfish absorb it from the water.

Indeed, I studied Chernobyl. I studied it with the safety of chronological, geographical, and emotional distance.  And as such, I never truly understood. And there was no way I could. I studied it as a child might curiously inspect a squashed bug: no stake in a bug’s death whatsoever but still fascinated by its crumpled wings and legs. Is there a point when extreme intrigue becomes offensive?

Meanwhile, the children of Chernobyl are being born to die, like the rest of us, but with horrific Chernobyl brands, unlike the rest of us. Children with ghastly deformities that either shorten their lives to only a few years or impact their entire lives to a degree I cannot fathom. Babies born crippled, sprouting extra limbs and tumors, born with a guarantee of cancer and/or chronic illness, born gasping for breath forever, immobile, emaciated, physically and mentally deformed, pick your favorite.

I romanticized Chernobyl. It was callous and naïve of me. Because those who saved the world killed themselves to do so. And because those who saved the world didn’t really save it.

Dec, 1995: Antoliy Dyatlov dies of heart failure brought on by radioactive exposure.

While this tour of Chernobyl is not a tell-all exposé of the USSR’s darkest secrets that surround the disaster, I do walk away with concrete perspective. I go home knowing that fear of the truth is worse than the truth itself.

But that’s the thing with Russia and its former satellites. Soviet Syndrome is the hardest malady to cure.  Imagine yourself in the position of wanting to ascertain some piece of information, any inconsequential thing at all. You’re presented with a brick wall with colorful flyers and bulletins that may answer your question or may answer around it or may avoid it completely. Either way, that is what you will receive. If a flyer is torn down, that’s one less source to work with. Never mind the potential hell or Eden that may lie behind the wall. Any old matryoshka can be filled with poison.

If Soviet secrets were unceremoniously unleashed unto the world in their entirety, seven billion jaws would collectively hit the ground. There are that many, and they’re now so well woven into half-truths and half-lies that there is no telling what is truth and what is lies.

I was told that Antoliy Datylov, Chernobyl’s vice chief engineer and supervisor of the very experiment that went awry, hanged himself five years after the incident, presumably due to the unfathomable amount of guilt that he harbored. But independent research tells me otherwise.

What to believe then?

Whichever lie suits you best.