On April 26, 1986, when Chernobyl’s reactor No. 4 exploded, I was a 10-year-old living 60 miles away, in the Soviet Ukrainian city of Kyiv. It was a sunny Saturday, and I had spent most of the day outside, playing with other kids from our apartment building. We squeezed through the wrought-iron gate in the far corner of the courtyard, then scaled a dilapidated wall around an archaeological site at the heart of the Old City. Hopping over the ruins, we collected wildflowers and jagged clay pieces that we thought treasures until our mothers hollered our names through open windows, summoning us to dinner.
To get to our apartment, we entered through a door that used to be for servants only, before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 made everyone equal. The bourgeoisie apartment was divided into two, each with a separate entryway — ours a steep staircase into the courtyard, the other a sloping marble staircase leading out to the street. Walnut parquet floors and pre-revolution high ceilings decorated with reliefs contrasted with the reality of Soviet communal living: Three families shared the hallway, the bathroom, and the kitchen. Three toilet seats, each marked with a family name, hung on the walls of the bathroom, and the burners of the gas stove were divided among the families.
As I ate my dinner, mashed potatoes and a ground beef patty known as kotleta, the sky was blue outside the wide-open window of the kitchen. I didn’t learn about Chernobyl for several days.
Radiation, however, was spreading through the air and through the rain. Buses brought refugees from Chernobyl into Kyiv, carrying additional radiation on the refugees’ bodies and on their possessions. I was unaware of all of it.
Our next-door neighbor Olena, a researcher at the Kyiv Institute of Nuclear Physics, came over one day. Without the usual niceties, she drew my mother into our room and closed the door behind them. She told my mother that there had been an explosion at a nuclear power plant, and that radiation was escaping the reactor in Chernobyl, reaching dangerous levels in Kyiv. She said we should keep our windows closed, and that I must stay home instead of going to school.
I wondered if Olena could be right and the government wrong. It didn’t seem possible. How could one person know more than the whole government, especially the government in Moscow, where they had the best specialists in everything? What Olena said about radiation sounded like a scary fairy tale: You couldn’t see it or smell it, you couldn’t get rid of it by sifting or boiling water, and yet it could kill you. I wiped my sweaty palms on my skirt.
A heated discussion ensued, the result of which was a unanimous conclusion that Olena was exaggerating a minor problem to flaunt her expertise. The three women, matriarchs of the families with whom we shared the communal apartment, nodded at one another and pursed their lips. They rolled their eyes at Olena’s attention-seeking. I exhaled. Everything would be fine, it seemed.
“They knew what they were doing”
A childhood is painted by a palette of illusions — that the world is safe, the adults are fair, and the future is bright. The explosion at Chernobyl blotted out my childhood. The Soviet way of dealing with problems was to soldier through with no whining or self-pity, and so I built a sarcophagus over the pain of my experience.
It took me a while to watch the HBO miniseries Chernobyl. After it began airing in May, I’d noticed discussion threads on Russian-speaking Facebook forums, every response a survivor’s story. Friends had asked if I’d seen it. When a man backed into my car in the parking lot, he asked if I’d watched the show, right after he confirmed that my last name was indeed Ukrainian. Finally, I gave in. I put my three children to bed and started streaming. I couldn’t stop until I finished all five episodes — at 2 a.m.
From the first scene, the show captured the period in the tiniest of details. We had the same blown-glass ashtray and the same bookshelves as Valery Legasov’s apartment. I wore that same school uniform (brown dress, white collar, black or white apron).
I was wearing it in the days after the explosion when, on the way to school, I saw a huge truck rolling slowly across the boulevard. Two fountains under its cabin sprayed water in its path, and a gigantic cylindrical brush rotated behind it, scrubbing wet asphalt. I’d only ever seen these machines before major holidays. At the trolley stop, the crowd of people buzzed with conversations. I heard “Chernobyl” a few times. The accordion doors of the trolley opened and I climbed through, squeezing past passengers to the ticket puncher. Two women sat under it, their faces scrunched, shoulders tense. Leaning into each other, they talked about cancer from radiation.
At school, I asked my friend with whom I shared a desk if she’d heard about Chernobyl. She shook her head. I surveyed the classroom. Three kids were missing. Were they sick, or did their parents take them away because of this radiation thing? But the teacher appeared as calm and composed as ever, and I once again breathed easy. The government, the teacher, my mother — they knew what they were doing.
On the way home, I counted reasons not to worry. Two girls played hopscotch at the entrance to a park, and children’s voices rang through the greenery. A grandmother rocked a baby in a stroller. All these people spending time outdoors can’t be wrong, I reasoned. Everything must be fine.
But each day, rumors chipped away at my certainty, even as party officials on television assured us that the “fire” in Chernobyl was under control. In the courtyard, on buses and trolleys, at the grocery stores, I heard whispers that contradicted the official news. People said the first responders who went to Chernobyl were dying. I heard that tens of thousands of people had to evacuate, leaving behind everything they owned. My mother and I didn’t have much, but I couldn’t imagine leaving behind the collection of books that lined the walls of the room we shared.
A classmate whose father was a policeman swore a bunch of us to secrecy at recess, then told us about the protective gear the military was using when dispatched into Chernobyl, and of the special chemical showers they had to take on the way out. Every day, more children missed school. More windows remained closed in the heat of May, or opened to reveal white gauze stretched over their frames. Trucks washed the streets morning and night, creeping in the darkness, their brushes shushing like reminders to keep quiet.
Through her connections with black-market traders known as speculants, our neighbor Irene procured a Geiger counter and hauled it home one night. We hovered its wand over milk, eggs, bread. Everything crackled, contaminated with radiation. We wondered out loud if the device was defective. Irene had to return the counter the next day, but its crackle stayed in my mind, a soundtrack to my worries.
Finally, an evacuation
One by one, the cars usually parked in our courtyard disappeared. The babushkas who guarded everyone’s morals from the benches recounted the owners’ exodus. They were heading as far from Kyiv as possible to escape radiation. Nobody in my family owned a car, a rare luxury in the USSR. My father, by then newly remarried and residing in Riga, more than 500 miles from Chernobyl, hadn’t expressed any desire to take me in. It was just as well, because train tickets were sold out, and speculants resold them at exorbitant prices: 200 rubles, twice the average monthly salary.
It wasn’t until late May that the government announced a mandatory evacuation for school-age children. They didn’t say for how long.
My mother sewed a duffle bag for me using an old parachute’s lightweight, sturdy fabric and a zipper she’d salvaged from my grandfather’s jacket. As she packed my clothes, she explained that she wouldn’t be able to take me to the train station because of work, but I was a big girl and should understand.
I’d read about evacuation in books on World War II, grim stories of sick, starving children getting lost in train stations. I wanted to stay home.
But I was a big girl. I understood. When my mother’s coworker took me to school, where buses rumbled, ready to transport us to the train station, I didn’t cry.
On the train ride to Crimea, I found solace in its rocking, in my classmates’ familiar faces, in the sweet tea we were served in aluminum mugs with glass inserts. Maybe it wouldn’t be so terrible, I thought. Maybe we would be there for a month, like a vacation, and then we would return home.
I was wrong. The evacuation lasted three months, and it was more of a boot camp than a vacation. On the first day, we learned myriad rules that governed every moment of our lives. We weren’t allowed to venture past a certain perimeter. A rigid schedule kept us occupied from dawn to dusk. Every day, we practiced marching formations and sang military songs. After that, we marched down a concrete road bleached by the sun and flanked by cypress trees, to the beach. On the whistle, we were allowed to walk (not run) into shallow waters cordoned off by bright-red buoys. We weren’t permitted to swim. Reading was considered a solitary activity, and since we were tasked with building the collective, there were no books.
In my letters, I begged my mother to take me away. In July, the government announced that children would not be allowed back in Kyiv until September, and some parents came to collect their kids. I was among those who stayed. My mother had written that it would be too expensive to get me out.
I thought of escaping the camp and walking back to Kyiv. But when I tried to convince my friends to join me, they smiled weakly and shrugged. They liked the idea of the adventure but worried about the details — where would we sleep, where would we get food, what if the police caught us. They’re no Three Musketeers, I thought, dismayed.
I itched to get away.
I itched all over. At night, I scratched my head until I felt warm, sticky blood under my fingernails. Scabs covered my scalp. Scaly patches spread between my fingers and in the creases of my elbows.
Months later, I’d learn I had developed dermatitis, an autoimmune condition that can be triggered by stress. It was also a common effect of radiation exposure. But then, at the camp, I was sure it was cancer.
Just as well, I thought then. Nobody cared about me anyway, not my parents, not the teachers. The government had lied about Chernobyl, saying it was safe. I’d played outdoors all through May, getting drenched in radioactive rain showers, digging in radioactive dirt, eating radioactive food.
After a lifetime of pain, a diagnosis
The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen criticized Chernobyl’s portrayal of Soviet officials as unrealistically humane. Soviet people wouldn’t question the party’s official position, as chemist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) does in the series, asking, “Is this really how this works?”
“The fact of the matter is,” Gessen wrote, “if he didn’t know how it worked, he would never have had a lab.” Similarly, Ulana Khomyuk, played by Emily Watson, was unlike the Soviet scientists she was meant to represent. Instead, her truth-seeking and speaking truth to power, Gessen wrote, “appears to embody every possible Hollywood fantasy.”
Indeed, in 1986, I saw nothing but blank stares and stiff upper lips from adults in charge. That’s why I am so grateful to Chernobyl for every one of those deviations from the Soviet script. Finally, I was watching the reactions I’d yearned to see when I was 10 years old. Someone back then should have pounded on the table, gaped at the government lies, yelled at the hypocrites. Because nobody did, my own emotions seemed capricious. Because nobody ever showed remorse, my grievances seemed unjustified. Watching the series felt like receiving a diagnosis for a subtle but devastating malady, one that’s hard for those not afflicted to appreciate, or even believe. It felt validating.
For the Western viewers, the show invites a downward comparison. The United States is so much better than the USSR, the government transparent and accountable to the people. Chernobyl could never happen to them.