Brilliant blue sky: Eye-witness stories from Chernobyl

From the Editors: On the thirty-first anniversary of Chernobyl, over one hundred people shared their eyewitness memories of the biggest man-made environmental disaster in written history. Ironed Curtains and Zarina Zabrisky hope that this publication will draw attention to the importance of protecting the environment.


May 9, Victory Parada in Grodno, Belarus, my dad and I. My mom is in the hospital, she gave birth to my brother Denis the day before. I remember that the dress was terribly itchy but I sat proudly–It’s a parade, after all! – Ludmila Vasilieva


“Everyone who thinks the EPA is not necessary and the regulations on power plants are there to stifle growth and profit should read every comment here… ”— Ilya K.

“I hope this collective memory gives Americans pause before destroying environmental protections.”—Victoria B.

“Anyone who thinks that EPA is not necessary needs an all-expenses paid trip to the FSU, period. Provided they only eat local food and drink local water.”— Inna Leonov-Kenny

“The biggest fallout from this tragedy is that people in the surrounding areas or who used to live in areas not even close but where the wind dropped radioactive precipitate still suffer the consequences. And yet there are people who deny the need for better safety measures or agencies that govern this safety. Mind boggling.” — Yelena A.

Something terrible had happened

“My father worked in the Kiev institute engaged in the design and construction of thermal power plants (TPPs). Around April 28th, nuclear scientists from another department began to hear rumors that something went wrong at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Of course, we were not told anything until the 30th of April. But two days prior, my father said that something terrible has happened and someone “from above” does not allow to tell the story…” — Eugene Berkovich

“We found out because my great aunt worked in a forensics lab where all the equipment went off and they didn’t know what happened, but they knew it was something. So she told us to stay indoors and keep the windows closed.” — O.S.

Lies, lies, and more lies

“It was very scary and I hate the government liars who took their kids and families out of harm way at the end of April, but lied in our faces from TV screens with no shame.” — Anna Kievsky

“I was about fifteen and a couple of days later, for the May Day demonstration, we were all ordered to march. In Tallinn, we had Finnish TV, and for days, we’ve been told the truth about what happened and the fact that the radioactive cloud was going right over our head.

My mother stood in the doorway crying and begging me to wear a hat. It was yet another bizarre day, when on the Soviet TV they were showing happy Ukrainians kids swimming in the rivers and the Black Sea and playing outside, when on the Finnish TV, everyone was ordered to stay home. Lies, lies and more lies continued in the most evident way. We were comparing everything with news on the Finnish TV and adjusting our lives accordingly. I was not allowed to eat any fruit from the south in the summer… my parents started working extra hard on the immigration papers… Next year, I met a girl from Ukraine, who told me that her daddy, who was a general, evacuated her from Ukraine within 30 mins of the catastrophe.” — Zlata H.

“Back then I used to work in the Pecherk city district where all the nomenklatura (authorities) lived. On Monday, some friendly residents told me that all of the fat cats and their families were out of town by the end of the day on the 27th, and only the ordinary people remained.” — Lenny Monastyrsky

“I am from Chernovtsy (Chirnivtsi), 580 km from Chernobyl. We thought we were far enough and safe. Then, in 1988, about 2 years after, it started. Children were losing hair. I would wake up every morning and the first thing I would do is to check if my hair was still there. Almost all children were evacuated. I went to Moscow to live with my uncle’s family. I remember getting tested for radiation and how nervous I felt. Spent about 4 months in Moscow, went to school there. Then went back to Chernovtsy, where for years we were not told that radiation was because of Chernobyl. They said it had something to do with the army base we had locally. Well, now we know. I check my thyroid regularly. I know that back in Chernovtsy the effects have been felt after we left in 1993, as well (there were hush hush stories about effects on adults).”—Helen Goldman

I was 50…60…70… miles away

“I was outside, seventy miles away, on a clear sunny day. Blue sky. Suddenly, a fast-moving cloud, gray with violet and green streaks… Biggest raindrops I’d ever seen… Raining hard for no more than five minutes, then the cloud had passed. Brilliant blue sky.”— Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse

“On Saturday April the 27th 1986, in the morning, I hopped on a bike, and met my high school buddy somewhere north of Kiev. We rode to Vyshgorod, and then across the dam of the Kiev hydropower plant to a small sandy island. It was a beautiful day, one of the first warm days that spring. The water was cold, so we played badminton, sunbathed for a few hours, and then rode back. I noticed the unusual traffic on the road for a weekend.

When I got home my mother told me the reactor blew up in Chernobyl. I expressed serious doubt and went to bed.

That island was about ten miles from the reactor straight across the Kiev reservoir, as the crow flies. If the wind blew South instead of North, my and my buddy’s bones would already have been glowing for a while six feet under. The six months that followed were the total drunken blur.”— Lenny Monastyrsky

“I was at a BBQ with my friends in the woods near Kiev. Approximately 70 miles from Chernobyl. We all got soaked with radioactive rain that day. Of course, no one told us anything until April 30th. For months and months following the explosion we all had a sore throat and felt sleepy for most of the day. I recall the first class in my University which normally started at 8:30 am was rescheduled for 10 am because students and teachers had a hard time waking up.” — Elena C.

I was born that day

“I was born April 28th in Chernovograd. I have had leukemia three times….doctors relate it to us not being evacuated.” —  Emi Burkhanova

I was pregnant at the time

“I was pregnant at that time and was horrified cause I lived in Ukraine not too far so I spent most of the time inside of the house. My friend was pregnant too and she didn’t listen to me and was tanning outside. She delivered a dead baby because of abnormalities of her cord. It was very sad and scary time. Plus, we didn’t have ultrasound so had no idea how was my baby doing until I saw her born.”— Alla Palamarchuk

“My mom was pregnant with my sister at the time. Later on, when they thought my dad might be getting drafted to clean the zone, the worrying and stress caused mom to lose her breast milk supply.”— O.S.

“I was 7 months pregnant. I lived in Kiev, in the very center. Heard rumors that something had happened in Chernobyl, but the liars on TV announced that was “intelligentsia”-phobia and nothing big happened. So, May 1 Day parade was planned as usual and kids (huge crowds with artificial flowers) were formed under my balcony for hours waiting to march to Крещатик, central Kiev street. Weather was beautiful, no clouds, bright sun. We enjoyed the view and nice “fresh” air.

Later we were told that May 1st and 2nd were the worst days with the highest level of radiation and Kiev was lucky the wind was blowing different direction. So, the biggest impact was to Belorussia.

And we planned to go to BBQ with another pregnant couple next day. Meat was marinating for BBQ. Then my parents’ friend who had close friends in Ukrainian government called and in very indirect manner told us to close all the windows, take away all carpets and soft toys and stay the hell out of the streets. No details, but it was a very persistent message.

My ex was mad they ruined the great outing we planned, since it was “a stupid rumor”, nothing was going on officially. But we did not go… thank God!!!
Anyway, after May 5 we found out that there WAS something bad and big happening in Chernobyl … и понеслось (there it started) … I was urgently sent to relatives in Moscow on May 9 after staying in line for train tickets all night long. I spent my 2 month maternity (pre-labor) leave in Moscow and my baby boy was born there (perfectly healthy and happy). We stayed there till he was 4 months old before I saw Kiev again.” — Anna Kievsky

Babies wrapped in blankets

“I was three weeks old living in Kiev with my family. We found out from relatives in Russia. Their news sources covered it—ours didn’t express the gravity. The public wasn’t warned at all. My mom wrapped me in a blanket and closed all the windows and we left to Donetsk. We stayed there until I was five months old. My mom and I were later diagnosed with thyroid issues—I have Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.”— Kseniya Bondarenko

“My family was in Odessa. Nobody knew that anything was wrong, but on May Day my parents got a phone call from my mom’s uncle, who was a doctor at the local hospital, and he ordered them all to close the windows and stay inside, and to wrap me (a baby at the time) in all the blankets they had. He said he wasn’t allowed to tell them why, but to trust him.” —  Rimma Buterman

“We were in Ukraine, somewhere nearby, when this happened. My mom recently told me I shouldn’t worry though, because “she put a blanket on me” ?!?!?! I don’t know what kind of blanket it was but she and her parents all had cancer and tumors afterwards.” — DYA

Chernobyl kid

“It was two days before my tenth birthday. I was in a sanatorium in Anapa during the last quarter. My parents were going to have me stay for the summer, but after the accident all the sanatoriums were taking only Chernobyl kids. I remember being conflicted because I really wanted to stay but felt bad for Chernobyl kids.” — Natasha B.

“We were at dacha, at the coast in Riga when the Swedes started to scream about a radioactive cloud. Friends’ kids from Kiev were sent to our dacha. I later found out that the older girl did get a leukemia and died.” — M. K.

“I don’t recall the moment when I knew it happened, but I recall the aftermath. I remember my parents, neighbors, friends packing food, clothes, books into boxes to ship to the victims. Years later I found out that none of that was ever likely to reach the affected population. Who knows where it was shipped if it was shipped at all. We were near Dnipropetrovsk, about 200 km from Chernobyl, I believe.” — Ella Kerzhner

My dad worked as an evacuator

“My dad worked as an evacuator of the Chernobyl catastrophe and died in 1997.” — Bohdana Smyrnova

“My uncle was the first responder. He worked there for weeks. Got cancer later and went through multiple surgeries but miraculously survived it all. He is 77 now, lives in Minsk. Here is a picture of him on the left during some award ceremony there when some musicians visited ликвидаторов (rescuers) for some moral support.” — Yelena Potiyevskaya

“In 1992, I worked at Slavutich — artificial city especially built to replace the uninhabitable Pripyat. My boss worked specifically in the safety department of the nuclear plant at the time of the explosion. His boss went to jail but he was doing just fine. He had a couple of cars and a separately standing townhouse (big fucking deal back then) built by American volunteers for the survivors.” — Maksim

“My mom’s family is all from Chernobyl originally. One of her cousins was working at the station. I can’t remember if he was coming in or going out of the station (it happened during a change of shifts). Then he worked on clean-up for months. He is still alive and in relatively good health, living in New York.

I think one of the surprising things we learned is how resilient we are to radiation sickness. I do have family from Minsk who have had radiation-related problems though.” — Marina Basina

Giant fruit

“This summer we got very large strawberries at our dacha and threw them away.” — Maksim

“Fruits and vegetables from the contaminated areas were sold feely at Moscow markets. In fact, that summer there was quite an incredible abundance of produce and the prices were low. The levels of radiation in produce from certain areas were very high. Some of our friends who used Geiger counters to check produce at Moscow Central Market had the counters confiscated then and there.” — Anna Meschansky

“I was 18 months old and don’t remember it. My mother and I were supposed to go to Kiev the day after it happened. My grandfather used to listen to Voice of America in secret in the middle of the night and had heard news about the disaster and didn’t want us to go. In Kiev, my mother’s friend who knew people in the army and the local government told her not to go outside and to take showers and wash our clothes if we did go out. A couple of months later there would be inspectors with Geiger counters at the market checking all the produce. They would go off like crazy, but the officials still told people it was safe to eat, my mom says. ‘Nobody had any official information about any of that for a long time, so people just went on with their normal lives. The local authorities checking the level of radiation on the products at the local farmers’ markets took bribes and let farmers sell the stuff anyway. They weren’t very thorough; they didn’t really care. It was an opportunity to make some money illegally, that’s all. As long as there were not many witnesses around when they tested the produce, and meats, and milk.’”

— Victoria B.


“We went mushroom picking and found largest mushrooms I ever saw. We refused to eat them though, doubt it helped with all the other food grown there.” — Maria Schwarz

“I was an infant visiting my grandma in Ukraine. About a month before the accident, my mom got a “bad feeling” and insisted on taking my sister and I back to Latvia early. When Chernobyl happened, my grandma was a doctor and first responder. Years later, I remember visiting her home and noting her overgrown garden. I was told not to pick the fruits or vegetables because the ground was contaminated. Fast forward to 2009, my grandma died of breast cancer. Was it caused by her exposure to radiation? Maybe…”—MG

Crazy beeping

“I worked as a counselor in a pioneer camp outside Kiev that summer. I was assigned to a group of elementary students. Some of their parents came with radiation detectors to measure radiation in the area. I vividly remember the crazy beeping noise these detectors made in the sleeping area and at the playground. Some parents pulled their kids out of camp immediately; other didn’t care that much. I can only imagine the overall exposure I got having worked there all summer. I’ve tried to block these memories for the past thirty plus years…” — Elena C.

“People who had an opportunity to travel abroad and brought Geiger counters back home also had them confiscated at the border. I remember a group of Japanese scientists who came to a conference in Moscow . They wore watches with Geiger counters that were confiscated at the airport.” — Anna Meschansky


“One of the many sad jokes of those days: Three robots from Japan were clearing the roof of the 4th reactor. In two days, one of them [went] mad, one died, and one escaped and asked for a political asylum in Sweden.” — Yuri N.

“Peaceful hills. A field. A tractor.
By the river burns reactor.” –-a folk nursery rhyme

“I was seven, my little brother was six months old. We were from Kiev but went to stay with family friends in a little town not far from Moscow. I thought the whole thing was a giant adventure; parents shielded me from the anxiety the best they could. I remember a joke from the time. Google “kolobok” — колобок—if you don’t know what it is. “Kolobok meets Fox, and the Fox says “Kolobok, I’m going to eat you!” Kolobok replies: “I’m not Kolobok, I’m a hedgehog from Chernobyl.” The Fox gets scared and runs away!” — Inna Leonov-Kenny

“Here is one, borderline comical episode, if not for the tragedy. After sending my family off to Odessa on May 7th of that year, I had to go on a regular business trip. This time to test electronics at three reactors in Lytkarino near Moscow. We knew that by then Kiev was contaminated by radioactive dust; we have been measuring the background radiation since May 2 or 3. So, right before going to the central train station I changed into freshly laundered clothes and wore a new pair of shoes. All that in order not to bring the radioactive dust along.

Fast-forward 48 hours. My colleagues (who did the same) and I are approaching the entrance at that nuke facility. While still a few steps out, we are setting the alarm off. The facility had Geiger sensors built into their gates to prevent radioactive dirt and dust to leave the nuke facility, on the way OUT. Problem was, we were coming IN… and alarm went off batshit crazy. What happened next became a legend titled “How the Ukrainians brought radiation.” (“Как хохлы радиацию привезли”) — Yuri N.

Red wine, iodine, and radiation-laced heroin

“The six months that followed were the total drunken blur. I drank anything.” — Lenny Monastyrsky

“Being fourteen, I couldn’t drink unlimited, but definitely had more than recommended table spoon [of red wine.]” — Julia P.

“I remember how my relatives from Ukraine were happy their village didn’t get so called Chernobyl pension while the nearby village did. I was thinking: the radiation was the same but they at least got extra money.” — Maria Schwarz

“I used to go to Kulikovka, 60 km away from Chernobyl, to visit my then fiancé’s family and — now take this — get poppies to take back to Leningrad to make heroin (I was a bad teen.) We were at it a few months before and after… Nobody cared and that home-made heroin was laced with radiation. I’m still alive despite of some chronic diseases.”— Zarina Zabrisky

“I was seven years old. My mom couldn’t get a vacation approval signed. My sister couldn’t get excused from her university. But by some miracle (or connections) they got out and traveled from Kiev to Donetsk. My grandparents stayed behind. Air or train tickets were sold out. We drove with another family to Zhitomir to take a train. We were stopped at each border and they measured radiation on us. If it was too high, we had to take special showers and dispose of our shoes. Stations were packed with people. The train entry was prioritized for women with small children. Mom cried as it reminded her the evacuation during the WWII. Inside of the train, we had to sit up. Children sat in their parents’ lap. People sat even in the luggage compartment. It was hot. I spent all summer in Donetsk. We were required to drink iodine drink. When I returned, my mom gave me a teaspoon of red wine. Schools continued to give iodine. Not sure when it stopped… only now I understand how scary it was.—Marianna Bovt

Beautiful paper flowers

“Few days later, our class went to the May 1st parade. We carried paper flowers. I thought they were beautiful and brought home a bunch. My mom threw them out.” — Maksim

Thyroid, thyroid, thyroid, but overall, we’re ok now

“I was born in Gomel two months after the incident. I had serious kidney issues. A doctor said it may have been the imported mineral water my mom was drinking to avoid local water that led to complications. I was too young to understand what was going on. My parents took me to better equipped doctors in Moscow and they couldn’t do anything. Thank god I got better on my own. Then we immigrated to NY to get me away from the radiation. I could rip out my hair in clumps and would laugh doing so. My parents were horrified but I didn’t know any better. Now my mom and sister have thyroid issues. My grandfather died from colon cancer which may be unrelated. I have some hormonal problems as well but, all in all, we’re okay now.” — Tanya Tokareva

“We were 50 miles away, I’m not sure where but luckily we were not affected at the time. Who knows. My mother had thyroid cancer and that was years later after living here, so possibly not related. My family’s levels keep getting checked on a regular basis and I check my thyroid for nodules too.”— Yelena A.

“My mom had two thyroid surgeries.” — Art Farber

“I know three women my age (between 30–40) who have experienced thyroid cancer. When one of them was surprised to get the diagnosis, her doctor told her they see women our age from the Soviet Union very frequently with the same. Not a coincidence.” — Z. K.

“All of my grandparents die from cancer (one last grandpa just got message from doctor that his chemo is pointless). Some of my second and third cousins (39 all together) died in early twenties. I think that the part of my family who immigrated has much better health.” — Anna S.

“Two people I knew closely got sick later. One, in Belarus, survived. The other, in the US, did not. I don’t know if it is possible to definitively link these to Chernobyl — people get this kind of illnesses (leukemia and lymphoma) without being exposed to radiation.” — Olga Gorelik

Scientists: deep and infinite kaka

“I worked at a ящик (classified institute) in Kiev in 1980’s dealing with electronics that had to withstand all sorts of radiation. We tested microchips at different nuclear facilities in Kiev, Leningrad, near Moscow, Chelyabinsk, Kharkov, Arzamas, and at a few other less known places. Visiting all these reactors and seeing how the events unfolded during the first week, I realized that we all are in a big and long term kaka. I just didn’t know how deep and how infinite that kaka became. I have stories to tell, from inside prospective as well…” — Yuri N.

“I was nearly sent to fly over the hot-air plume and measure temperature distributions to deduce the heat production at the reactor site. We even threw together some semblance of a theory, but then the plan was cancelled.” — DM

“My mother, a geneticist, had to go to Pripyat’ for research several times starting June 1986. Thank God she is okay but there are only three people from their laboratory who are still alive — I think there were about 15 of them at that time. Most had problems with thyroid and had various cancers.” — ASB

Belarus: Minsk – “But what are you going to do?”

“That day was sunny and we were at dacha near Minsk (Zelenoe). Everyone was out, enjoying the weather. We only found out days later…

My Belarusian language teacher was evacuated together with her whole town, at 3 am. They were told only to take their documents and nothing else. None of them knew why they were herded into busses in the middle of the night by militia. While on the bus ride to Minsk, everyone started throwing up (from radiation). They arrived to Minsk and were sleeping in a gym at a school for a few days while the matters were setting down. They were never allowed to return.” — Anna S.

“I had my appendix removed and was at Children Surgery Center (I was fourteen and therefore deemed a child). A lot of wild rumors. And since I’m hypochondriac by nature, I certainly wasn’t immune to them.” — Pasha Nixon

“My mother was a librarian at some secret “watch” factory (in reality, some kind of ammunitions plant,) so she knew pretty quickly. She rushed home, made me come indoors and drink a iodine solution. The only thing I remember from after that, was checking the dates on canned goods to make sure they were canned before. I don’t remember what we did with all the food that was grown at the dacha.” — Lina

“I was nine and on a train school trip to L’vov, Minsk and Kiev over May 1–3 holidays with my mom. We lived in Kishinev and didn’t know anything until arriving into Minsk where we had relatives with family in the US. They were hunkered down at home and the entire city looked like it was on a shutdown. The next day in Kiev a totally different story — people out everywhere, no idea about what happened.” — Nadya Sasonkin Gaskill

One word- cluelessness. I was 17. I remember sitting outside on campus on the day of or maybe the day after and talking about the rumors of an accident, wondering to myself, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t be outside. Nah, we are too far.’

The news was slow and unreliable. We heard rumors that people out there were taking iodine, but I didn’t know anyone who did nor where to get the kind of iodine you can take inside — obviously not the kind my dad once accidentally burned my finger with. It was too late by then anyway.

I went on a week-long backpacking trip later in May. A thought that it might not be safe did cross my mind, but I figured we were going South WEST from Minsk, not South EAST, so we should be ok.

Later that summer sunbathing on a riverbank at my grandparents’ small town with a nagging thought that maybe I shouldn’t be doing this. Nah, I am to the NORTH East of Minsk, not SOUTH East.

Went на картошку (a compulsory collective farm work for all USSR citizens, harvesting potatoes) for a month. Like that was a choice. On days off binged on fried potatoes with mushrooms of which there were so many in the nearby woods. With an otherwise steady diet of mashed potatoes with bits of сало (lard) we were always hungry. Plus, we were to the NORTH of Minsk.

And then it came to light that 75 percent of radiation went our way and Belarus had contamination spots all over. If fact, that place we were at may have been one of them. That’s when panic started to set in, but what are you going to do?”  Olga Gorelik

Ukraine: Kiev – “Make of it what you want”

“I was 14. We found out that ‘something happened’ at the station on the same day from three different sources. One neighbor worked at the pharmacy and they were instructed to gather all iodine they had. A friend’s mom was a chef and they were mobilized to cook for the incoming troops. And an uncle who was a truck driver was asked to volunteer to drive the trucks and buses in and out.

“Mom was panicking, and that’s when dad told her that during his army days he was in a special construction group in Kazakhstan, participating in the nuclear tests. She screamed at him for two hours. She said, ‘If I knew, I wouldn’t have kids with you’. Luckily, my sister and I turned out okay.

The days that follow were the same as everyone’s — wet cleaning, drinking red wine, Kagor.

We went on shashliky (BBQ) on May 1st. Weeks later mom took my Keds to work to check the radiation levels — they had 1000x more than the norm…

We are not allowed to give blood — apparently, they were adding something to our bread that’s supposed to help remove radiation from the body but it affects other things.” — Julia P.

“I was 16. High school. Kiev. The next day after the explosion one of my classmates told us that his dad (a military officer) was notified in the middle of the night about some really bad explosion not far from Kiev.

‘It’s like a nuclear bomb or something,’ he said. We all thought it was cool as shit.
I do not remember exactly when the official announcement came in. Few days, maybe. Of course, no one knew what exactly happened for quite a while. They were trying to keep it under wraps for as long as possible to prevent panic.”

Soon after newspapers and TV got flooded with stories about the first responders — fireman, who climbed on the roof of the reactor and kicked pieces of burning graphite rods with their feet (graphite rods are used to cool off the reactor). I think all the firemen died a few weeks later.

There were a lot of whispers and rumors. We were told that the main radiation cloud was blown toward Belarus, so Kiev was mostly okay.

In 1989, I worked at a Kiev Documentary Studio (UkrKinoChronica) and got to know a lot of people who went to Chernobyl to film the disaster site days after the explosion. They had a lot of fascinating stories to tell. Those who were still alive, that is.

In any event, I seem to be doing fine, but my mom, her sister and their mom (my grandma) died of cancer here in the States in the late nineties and early oughts. Make of it what you want.” — Maksim

“My first concrete memories as a child were that spring, evacuating Kiev and being gone for half the year. My father was a Nuclear Physicist and he told me (years later) how all of their detectors in the lab went off and they couldn’t figure out what was going on until they spoke to the director. He later worked on many of the samples from the affected area and its more than likely that this led to his health issues and later death from ALS.” — Ilya K.

A long stream of loud trucks in Kiev

“My cousin lived on Naberezhno-Kreschatitska street. He was awakened by a long stream of loud trucks that went along the Dnieper river bank. We would later find out that these trucks (and buses) were carrying the evacuated people of Chernobyl.” — Eugene Berkovich

“On Monday morning of April 28 at about 8 a.m., I went to work. The Nuclear Research Institute (if I remember the name correctly) was situated at the very end of проспект Науки (prospect of Science) который остряки называли тупик науки (some jokers called it the dead end of Science.) It was an arrow-like boulevard of 3–4 km long starting at the Railway Square (Автовокзальная площадь на Сталинке.) Here is what I saw as soon as trolley #1 curled that square and started up the Prospect of Science.

Both sides of it were lined up with buses. Dozens upon dozens of them, parked bumper to bumper. People were streaming out of them endlessly. Most wore house coats, pajamas, sport suits, tapochki (slippers), майки (wife beaters), кацавейки (vests), тренировочные штаны с пузырями на коленях и на заднице (training pants stretched out on the knees and butts)…. Very few passengers had as much as a purse on them. To add to the eeriness of this picture, it was almost silent.

The trolley had to stop and I walked all the way to the institute mingling with these unusual and unwilling passengers. They were evacuees from Pripyat’.

Their destination was that same facility I was heading to. Reason: decontamination. It was only one place that can handle it en-masse.

I remember marching with them in a very solemn procession. Not like a funeral one, rather a trip to a “then what?” destination. People talked in hush tones, kids didn’t jump and yell, even infants were uncharacteristically quiet.” — Yuri N.

Russia: Moscow – “Five lines, small script”


“It was in May when my father noticed a tiny article — probably about five lines of small print — in a newspaper telling about an accident at Chernobyl nuclear power station — and screamed. Being a scientist, he immediately realized what that meant — the scope of it. We listened to Voice of America that night about Chernobyl.

Most of the people in Moscow did not realize for months the scale of the catastrophe. The government kept it quiet and initially denied that the accident was of any significance. People certainly had no concerns about the areas that were out of the immediate vicinity of the reactor.

Some of my parents’ friends — physicists and doctors — had access to Geiger counters and brought them home to check radiation levels. They were normal in Moscow but rumors started to circulate (eventually confirmed officially but much later) that the radiation traveled towards the Black Sea with the water of Pripyat river, and that the clouds carrying deadly radiation brought a deadly rain to Belarus and that radiation reached some parts of Europe. (I remember some Scandinavian countries and Bulgaria).

At that point, under the pressure from the European governments, Soviet government admitted that there was an ongoing leakage of radiation from the largest nuclear accident in history. However, on the local level, we kept getting reassured that there was no danger.

Then more information surfaced about the people who lived in Chernobyl who were not evacuated for days and weeks being told there was no danger — while the local nomenclature (authorities) rushed their families away immediately.”— Anna Meschansky

“Few days after the accident I was hanging out with friends when I ran into Moscow-based reporter for Philadelphia Inquirer. My family knew him from other side of the family in U.S. I asked him what he was doing there on his day off all by himself. He said that he was trying to get reaction from regular folk about explosion in Chernobyl and nobody knew anything. That’s how I learned and almost didn’t believe him.” — Natalia Suslik

Russia: Leningrad – “Afraid of Acid Rain”

“In the fall the best students from my class, including me, went for a class trip to Leningrad. We were all checked for radiation at the Leningrad train station. Some of us were sent to wash our shoes and we were all forced to throw all the food we brought with us into a big metal barrel.” — Maksim

“I remember that day vividly although we were in Leningrad, pretty far away, everybody was still freaking out and buying iodine.

There were actually some Dutch folks who were raising money for a hospital in Leningrad that was treating those kids for leukemia. My mom was involved as a translator and a “middle-man”. So, I only remember some tangential exposure. Some moms showing up at our house to pick some help packages up and then those moms coming after their kids passed. I remember many of them and many of their parents, and none of course survived…

I remember my mom being super-pissed because the hospital administration acted like total jerks and were super-annoyed by the Dutch who would come with their help packages (including meds that were not available in Russia then) at an “inconvenient time.” And overall, I remember her saying they acted like they were doing the Dutch a big favor by accepting the help. But that’s about it. My mom passed away since, so I’d not be able to get any more details on what was going on.” — Vera

“I was eight. My cousins from Kiev were sent to spend the summer with us. I remember everyone being afraid of the acid rain and we were not allowed to play outside.” — Marina Epstein


“We were in Estonia and my brother was young and played outside a lot when everyone was supposed to stay inside, when the cloud was going over our heads. He died of cancer at the age of twenty-seven. No one knows why… there was no cancer in the family. I sometimes wonder, if it was because of that radioactive cloud, but that’s probably not scientific. I’m not a scientist.”—Zlata H.


“I had a client with Chernobyl-related PTSD. He was the only survivor of the team who had been ordered to go there to deal with the aftermath of the disaster. Nobody had warned them about the danger. He himself was a breast CA survivor later in the US.” — TU

“Five years later, in the US, I was asked to interpret for a group of children who were affected by radiation and were brought to the US for a summer camp, all expenses paid. The firm I worked for was one of the sponsors. There were about fifteen kids — all children had parents who held significant positions in the government.”— Anna Meschansky

I travelled there last summer

“I traveled there as an interpreter on a research trip by one of my colleagues just this past summer. What really struck us was how many people actually live and work there. Chornobyl [Ukranian spelling] itself, some 15 km from the NPP at Prypyat, has a population of about 4,000 workers that service the exclusion zone. We stayed in a “hotel” there and radiation levels were lower than in Kyiv. On top of that there are countless tourists, scrap metal thieves, stalkers, and security personnel.” — Eugene


*compiled and edited by Zarina Zabrisky; gratitude to the Anti-Trump Soviet Immigrants Group and Olga Shafran


  1. Anyone who thinks that the EPA regulates the safety of nuclear power plants in the US should know that it’s actually done by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.


  2. Lazy framing in the lead-in from the editors. Yes 3000 to 4000 dead is horrendous and should always be remembered as a disaster. But “world’s biggest”? The Banquaio Dam collapse for example killed 171,000. Bhopal killed 4000. And the continued expansion of coal, while not related to a identifiable “disasters”, is clearly disastrous, killing many hundreds of thousands a people a year through respiratory disease alone. It’s the kind of throwaway line that people say without thinking, but editors are paid to think before they write.


  3. […] In another article, titled “Lenin’s Eco-Warriors,” the author wonders, “How did Russia — hardly considered a cradle of environmentalism, given Joseph Stalin’s crash program of industrialization — become a global pioneer in conservation?”, evidently never having been to Russia, where everyone pisses in the street near apartment buildings, in apartment buildings, and where littering in national parks and squares is a national sport, a country where gangs of feral dogs roam near high-rises looking for bags of potato chips, a country that managed to decimate an entire sea, and mutilate hundreds of thousands of people. […]


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