March 01, 2021

Chernobyl Disaster

Chernobyl Disaster
The sarcophagus covering the insidious Reactor No. 4. VICTOR OSYPENKO

In an odd way, it was only after watching the HBO miniseries Chernobyl that I fully appreciated just how great a catastrophe threatened mankind on that April day in 1986. Of course, back then, thirty-five years ago, it was also terrifying – at first confusing, and then alarming. At that point, we started calling relatives in Kiev to suggest that it might be a good idea for them to come to Moscow. They gamely insisted that everything was just fine. Soon, it became less fine. The situation became so frightening that both our Kiev relatives and our friends from Zhitomir asked if they could come stay with us in Moscow for a while, since something really horrific had happened.

Soon the country started hearing Soviet – and European – experts assuring us on television that nothing terrible had happened. But long experience had taught the Soviet people: if they say prices won’t be increased, you’d better run to the store and stock up; if they say that everything is fine, brace yourself for rough times ahead; and if they tell you there’s no danger – then you’re really in trouble! Meanwhile, the Western “voices,” which were still banned in 1986 – the BBC, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle – were all talking about a radioactive cloud heading for Europe. Rumors started spreading about some people going to Chernobyl voluntarily and others being forced. A grim new term came into usage to describe those working to remediate this disaster: “liquidators.”

But this was a point in time when life was changing so quickly and so many strange and unexpected events were taking place – both good and bad – that Chernobyl rather quickly receded into the background. Perestroika was moving full steam ahead, store shelves were growing increasingly bare, there were reports of a sort we were not accustomed to hearing about ethnic conflicts in various corners of the Soviet Union, and generally, we had enough to worry about without Chernobyl. The social and political eruptions rocking the country made it hard to focus on the actual explosion of the No. 4 reactor.

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