How being 100 km away from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster changed my life.
Before the world’s worst nuclear accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on 26 April 1986, I was full of the certainties of youth. Then, overnight, or should I say over the course of a few beautiful spring days, everything changed and I stepped reluctantly into adulthood. Those who remember those days talk of the same thing: the weather. It was unseasonably warm, hot enough to sunbathe, and the lilac blossoms came early, infusing the parks and streets of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, with an aroma of lemons, vanilla and roses. I was studying Russian there and having the time of my life. As a Russian-speaking British student in what was still the USSR in the midst of the Cold War, I was regarded by the KGB as a potential future adversary and under constant surveillance. They took it seriously, I didn’t. Indeed, here, safely ensconced behind the iron curtain, I felt liberated from a far more significant entity than the KGB: my parents. I studied hard and partied hard, high on the adrenaline of playing hide-and-seek with those who were keeping tabs on me, and, of course, on Soviet vodka. I felt totally free for the first time in my life in spite of the restrictions of a totalitarian state because none of the rules of my world applied.
So it was with tremendous irritation that I listened one Monday morning to a panicky phone call from my parents in the UK warning me about a nuclear “incident” somewhere close by. Other foreign students had received similar calls. Someone had a radio that captured BBC broadcasts warning of an unexplained radioactive cloud emanating from somewhere in Western USSR, where we were located.
I ignored the news. It was interfering with my fun. I thought it was probably no more than a mixture of over-anxious parents keen to find any excuse for their children to come home and exaggerated anti-Soviet propaganda by the BBC. I skipped class and went to the ‘beach’, a small strip of sand on the bank of the Dniepr river that flows through Kiev, for a sunbath. It was probably the worse thing I could have done.
Further North, in Sweden, high levels of radiation had been detected the day before and suspicions were growing that something very serious had gone wrong in the USSR, from where the wind was blowing. The Swedes asked Moscow for an explanation but were met with a stony silence. As radiation levels continued to rise, the Swedes began to take emergency anti-radiation precautions in areas close to the Soviet border. They advised parents to keep children away from sandpits and avoid using rainwater, as both sand and water are extremely efficient vehicles of radioactive contamination.
That was 1,100 km from Chernobyl. We were 100 km away, and the news blackout was total.
As more alarming reports began to filter through the radio and over the phone, a wave of collective hysteria began to rise among foreign students. I was still in denial, sulking with a small group of non-believers. We had distanced ourselves from the main group, but I remember seeing a lot of tears and pleas with our group leader to organise an evacuation. Eventually, on 29 April, orders came through from the British embassy in Moscow that we were to pack our bags and leave by any means possible.
It must have been about then that I started to cry. I am not really sure what triggered my tears, but once they started, they would not stop. It may have been because a friend who worked in a Kiev hospital told me that a whole wing had been cordoned off with rumours of young men with severe burns being treated there. When I asked my teacher what he thought about this ‘nuclear accident nonsense’, he said he couldn’t believe that the Soviet government would allow its children—his children—to walk the streets unprotected if they were really in danger. I saw fear and doubt in his eyes.
Worried mothers had begun dressing small children in ridiculous woollen hats to protect them from radiation. Rumour had it that vodka offered good protection—for adults. Some opted for the hats and the vodka. Tragically, simple iodine tablets would have protected the population from radioactive iodine, which gets into the thyroid gland and is particularly lethal to children. But distributing these tablets would have meant admitting a problem.
I could no longer remain in denial, but I did not want to leave either. I felt like a rat leaving a sinking ship, abandoning my friends and their children to face whatever invisible poison was seeping into our bones. I was also, selfishly, dreading going home. I preferred to face the uncertainty of danger to the certainty of boredom in an English suburban town. I did not realise then how lucky I was to have a choice. My whimsical attitude was that of a privileged Westerner who could play at tipping her toes into misery, with the certainty that she could leave when things got too uncomfortable.
It was not that easy to get out of Kiev. Foreign students needed permission from the Soviet authorities to leave the city and country. Once that was secured, we faced the additional hurdle of finding transportation. By now panic was beginning to spread in Kiev. A brief broadcast on television nearly 72 hours after the accident had mentioned a minor incident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and rumour mills had started whirring in full force. People were scrambling for tickets on buses and trains leaving Kiev to go south or east, away from the wind. Seats were hard to come by.