On Chernobyl

Sergei Vasilyevich Sobolev, Deputy Head of the Executive Committee of the Shield of Chernobyl Association

The following oral history, “Monologue about Lies and Truths,” is taken from Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (2005), by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Keith Gessen. It was first published on this website in March 2011. On October 8, 2015, Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

They’ve written dozens of books. Fat volumes, with commentaries. But the event is still beyond any philosophical description. Someone said to me, or maybe I read it, that the problem of Chernobyl presents itself first of all as a problem of self understanding. That seemed right. I keep waiting for someone intelligent to explain it to me. The way they enlighten me about Stalin, Lenin, Bolshevism. Or the way they keep hammering away at their “Market! Market! Free market!” But we—we who were raised in a world without Chernobyl, now live with Chernobyl.

I’m actually a professional rocketeer, I specialize in rocket fuel. I served at Baikonur [a space launch center]. The programs, Kosmos, Interkosmos, those took up a large part of my life. It was a miraculous time! You give people the sky, the Arctic, the whole thing! You give them space! Every person in the Soviet Union went into space with Yuri Gagarin, they tore away from the earth with him. We all did! I’m still in love with him—he was a wonderful Russian man, with that wonderful smile. Even his death seemed well-rehearsed.

It was a miraculous time! For family reasons I moved to Belarus, finished my career here. When I came, I immersed myself into this Chernobylized space, it was a corrective to my sense of things. It was impossible to imagine anything like it, even though I’d always dealt with the most advanced technologies, with outer space technologies. It’s hard even to explain—it doesn’t fit into the imagination—it’s—[He thinks.] You know, a second ago I thought I’d caught it, a second ago—it makes you want to philosophize. No matter who you talk to about Chernobyl, they all want to philosophize. But I’d rather tell you about my own work. What don’t we do! We’re building a church—a Chernobyl church, in honor of the Icon of the Mother of God, we’re dedicating it to “Punishment.” We collect donations, visit the sick and dying. We write chronicles. We’re creating a museum. I used to think that I, with my heart in the condition it’s in, wouldn’t be able to work at such a job. My first instructions were: “Here is money, divide it between thirty-five families, that is, between thirty-five widows.” All the men had been liquidators. So you need to be fair. But how? One widow has a little girl who’s sick, another widow has two children, and a third is sick herself, and she’s renting her apartment, and yet another has four children. At night I’d wake up thinking, “How do I not cheat anyone?” I thought and calculated, calculated and thought. And I couldn’t do it. We ended up just giving out the money equally, according to the list.

But my real child is the museum: the Chernobyl Museum. [He is silent.] Sometimes I think that we’ll have a funeral parlor here, not a museum. I serve on the funeral committee. This morning I haven’t even taken off my coat when a woman comes in, she’s crying, not even crying but yelling: “Take his medals and his certificates! Take all the benefits! Give me my husband!” She yelled a long time. And left his medals, his certificates. Well, they’ll be in the museum, on display. People can look at them. But her cry, no one heard her cry but me, and when I put these certificates on display I’ll remember it.

Colonel Yaroshuk is dying now. He’s a chemist-dosimetrist. He was healthy as a bull, now he’s lying paralyzed. His wife turns him over like a pillow. She feeds him from a spoon. He has stones in his kidneys, they need to be shattered, but we don’t have the money to pay for that kind of operation. We’re paupers, we survive on what people give us. And the government behaves like a money lender, it’s forgotten these people. When he dies, they’ll name a street after him, or a school, or a military unit, but that’s only after he dies. Colonel Yaroshuk. He walked through the Zone and marked the points of maximum radiation—they exploited him in the fullest sense of the term, like he was a robot. And he understood this, but he went, he walked from the reactor itself and then out through all the sectors around the radius of radioactivity. On foot. With a dosimeter in his hand. He’d feel a “spot” and then walk around its borders, so he could put it on his map accurately.

And what about the soldiers who worked on the roof of the reactor? Two hundred and ten military units were thrown at the liquidation of the fallout of the catastrophe, which equals about 340,000 military personnel. The ones cleaning the roof got it the worst. They had lead vests, but the radiation was coming from below, and they weren’t protected there. They were wearing ordinary cheap imitation-leather boots. They spent about a minute and a half, two minutes on the roof each day, and then they were discharged, given a certificate and an award—one hundred rubles. And then they disappeared to the vast peripheries of our motherland. On the roof they gathered fuel and graphite from the reactor, shards of concrete and metal. It took about twenty to thirty seconds to fill a wheelbarrow, and then another thirty seconds to throw the “garbage” off the roof. These special wheelbarrows weighed forty kilos just by themselves. So you can picture it: a lead vest, masks, the wheelbarrows, and insane speed.

In the museum in Kiev they have a mold of graphite the size of a soldier’s cap, they say that if it were real, it would weigh 16 kilos, that’s how dense and heavy graphite is. The radio-controlled machines they used often failed to carry out commands or did the opposite of what they were supposed to do, because their electronics were disrupted by the high radiation. The most reliable “robots” were the soldiers. They were christened the “green robots” (by the color of their uniforms). Three thousand six hundred soldiers worked on the roof of the ruined reactor. They slept on the ground, they all tell of how in the beginning they were throwing straw on the ground in the tents—and the straw was coming from stacks near the reactor.

They were young guys. They’re dying now too, but they understand that if it wasn’t for them . . . These are people who came from a certain culture, the culture of the great achievement. They were a sacrifice. There was a moment when there existed the danger of a nuclear explosion, and they had to get the water out from under the reactor, so that a mixture of uranium and graphite wouldn’t get into it—with the water they would have formed a critical mass. The explosion would have been between three and five megatons. This would have meant that not only Kiev and Minsk, but a large part of Europe would have been uninhabitable. Can you imagine it? A European catastrophe. So here was the task: who would dive in there and open the bolt on the safety valve? They promised them a car, an apartment, a dacha, aid for their families until the end of time. They searched for volunteers. And they found them! The boys dove, many times, and they opened that bolt, and the unit was given 7000 rubles. They forgot about the cars and apartments they promised—but that’s not why they dove! Not for the material, least of all for the material promises. [Becomes upset.] Those people don’t exist anymore, just the documents in our museum, with their names. But what if they hadn’t done it? In terms of our readiness for self-sacrifice, we have no equals.

I met this one man, he was saying that this is because we place a low value on human life. That it’s an Asiatic fatalism. A person who sacrifices himself doesn’t feel himself to be a unique individual. He experiences a longing for his role in life. Earlier he was a person without a text, a statistic. He had no theme, he served as the background. And now suddenly he’s the main protagonist. It’s a longing for meaning. What does our propaganda consist of? Our ideology? You’re offered a chance to die so that you can gain meaning, and be raised up. They’ll give you a role! That’s the high value of death, because death is eternal. This is what he proved to me, this fellow I was arguing with.

But I reject this! Categorically! Yes, we are raised to be soldiers. That’s how we were taught. We’re always being mobilized, always ready to do the impossible. When I finished school and wanted to go to a civilian university, my father was shocked: “I’m a career military officer, and you’re going to go around in a suit jacket? The motherland needs to be protected!” He wouldn’t talk to me for several months, until I put in an application to a military college. My father fought in the war; he’s dead now. But he basically had no material belongings, just like the rest of his generation. He left nothing after him: no house, car, land. And what do I have of his? A field officer’s bag, he got it before the Finnish campaign, his battlefield medals are in it. Also I have a bag filled with 300 letters he wrote from the front, starting in 1941, my mother saved them. That’s all that’s left after my father. But I consider these articles invaluable.

Now do you understand how I see our museum? In that urn there is some land from Chernobyl. A handful. And there’s a miner’s helmet. Also from there. Some farmer’s equipment from the Zone. We can’t let the dosimeters in here—we’re glowing! But everything here needs to be real. No plaster casts. People need to believe us. And they’ll only believe the real thing, because there are too many lies around Chernobyl. There were and there are still. They’ve even grown funds and commercial structures

. . . Since you’re writing this book, you need to have a look at some unique video footage. We’re gathering it little by little. It’s not a chronicle of Chernobyl, no, they wouldn’t let anyone film that, it was forbidden. If anyone did manage to record any of it, the authorities immediately took the film and returned it ruined. We don’t have a chronicle of how they evacuated people, how they moved out the livestock. They didn’t allow anyone to film the tragedy, only the heroics. There are some Chernobyl photo albums now, but how many video and photo cameras were broken! People were dragged through the bureaucracy. It required a lot of courage to tell the truth about Chernobyl. It still does. Believe me! But you need to see this footage: the blackened faces of the firemen, like graphite. And their eyes? These are the eyes of people who already know that they’re leaving us. There’s one fragment showing the legs of a woman who the morning after the catastrophe went to work on her plot of land next to the atomic station. She’s walking on grass covered with dew. Her legs remind you of a grate, everything’s filled with holes up to the knees. You need to see this if you’re writing this book.

I come home and I can’t take my little boy in my arms. I need to drink 50 or 100 grams of vodka before I can pick him up.

There’s an entire section of the museum devoted to the helicopter pilots. There’s Colonel Vodolazhsky, a Hero of Russia, buried on Belarussian ground in the village of Zhukov Lug. After he received more than the allowable dose of radiation, he was supposed to leave right away, but he stayed and trained thirty-three more helicopter crews. He himself performed 120 flights, releasing 230 tons of cargo. He made an average of between four and five flights per day, flying at 300 meters above the reactor, with the temperature in his cabin up to 60 degrees Celsius. Imagine what was happening below as the bags of sand were being dropped from above. The activity reached 1800 roentgen per hour; pilots began to feel it while still in the air. In order to hit the target, which was a fiery crater, they stuck their heads out of their cabins and measured it with the naked eye. There was no other way. At the meetings of government commissions, every day it was very simply said: “We’ll need to put down two to three lives for this. And for this, one life.” Simply, and every day.

Colonel Vodolazhsky died. On the card indicating the amount of radiation he received above the reactor, the doctors put down 7 becs. In fact it was 600!

And the four hundred miners who worked round the clock to blast a tunnel under the reactor? They needed a tunnel into which to pour liquid nitrogen and freeze the earthen pillow, as the engineers call it. Otherwise the reactor would have gone into the groundwater. So there were miners from Moscow, Kiev, Dniepropetrovsk. I didn’t read about them anywhere. But they were down there naked, with temperatures reaching fifty degrees Celsius, rolling little cars before them while crouching down on all fours. There were hundreds of roentgen. Now they’re dying. But if they hadn’t done this? I consider them heroes, not victims, of a war, which supposedly never happened. They call it an accident, a catastrophe. But it was a war. The Chernobyl monuments look like war monuments.

There are things that aren’t discussed by us, this is our Slavic modesty coming through. But you should know, since you’re writing this book. Those who worked on the reactor or near it, their—they—it’s a common symptom for racketeers also, this is well-known—their urino-genital system ceases to function. But no one talks of this out loud. It’s not accepted. I once accompanied an English journalist, he had put together some very interesting questions. Specifically on this theme—he was interested in the human aspect of the story—how it is for people at home, in their family life, in their intimate life. But he wasn’t able to have a single honest conversation. He asked me to get together some helicopter pilots, to talk with them in the company of men. They came, some of them were already retired at the age of thirty-five, forty, one of them came with a broken leg, his bones had softened because of the radiation. But the other guys brought him. The Englishman asks them questions: how is it now with your families, with your young wives? The helicopter pilots are silent, they came to tell about their five flights a day, and he’s asking about their wives? About that? So he starts asking them one by one, and they all answer the same: we’re healthy, the government values us, and in our families all is love. Not one, not a single one of them opened up to him. They left, and I feel that he’s just crushed. “Now you understand,” he says to me, “why no one believes you? You lie to yourselves.” The meeting had taken place in a café, and we were being served by two pretty waitresses, and he says to them: “Could you answer a few questions for me?” And they explain everything. He says, “Do you want to get married?” “Yes, but not here. We all dream of marrying a foreigner, so we can have healthy kids.” And he gets braver: “Well, and do you have partners? How are they? Do they satisfy you? You understand, right, what I mean?” “You saw those guys,” the waitresses say, laughing, “the helicopter pilots? Six feet tall. With their shiny medals. They’re nice for meetings of the presidium, but not for bed.” The Englishman photographed the waitresses and to me he repeated the same thing: “Now you understand why no one believes you? You lie to yourselves.”

He and I went to the Zone. It’s a well-known statistic that there are 800 waste burial sites around Chernobyl. He was expecting some fantastically engineered structures, but these were ordinary ditches. They’re filled with “orange forest,” which was cut down in an area of 150 hectares around the reactors. [In the days after the accident, the pines and evergreens around the reactor turned red, then orange.] They’re filled with thousands of tons of metal and steel, small pipes, special clothing, concrete constructions. He showed me a photo from an English magazine that had a panoramic view from above. You could see thousands of individual pieces of automotive and aviation machinery, fire trucks and ambulances. The biggest graveyard is next to the reactor. He wanted to photograph it, even now, ten years later. They’d promised him more money if he got a photograph of it. So we’re going around and around, from one boss to the next, one doesn’t have a map, the other doesn’t have permission. We ran and ran, until suddenly I realized: that graveyard no longer exists. It’s just there in their account books, but it was taken apart long ago and carried off to the market, for spare parts for the kolkhoz and people’s homes. Everything’s been stolen and moved out. The Englishman couldn’t understand this. I told him the whole truth and he didn’t believe me. And even I, even when I read the bravest article, I don’t believe it, I sometimes think to myself: “What if that’s also a lie?” It’s become a cliché to mark the tragedy. A way of greeting! A scarecrow!

[He is in despair, then is silent.]

I drag everything to the museum. I bring it in. Sometimes I think, “Forget it! Run away!” I mean, how am I supposed to take this?

I had a conversation once with a young priest. We were standing at the grave of Sergeant-Major Sasha Goncharov. He’d worked on the roof of the reactor. It’s snowing and the wind is blowing. Terrible weather. The minister is reading the mourning prayer without a hat on his head. “It’s like you didn’t feel the weather,” I said to him afterward. “It’s true,” he said. “In moments like that I feel all-powerful. No church rite gives me so much energy as the mourning prayer.” I remember that—the words of a man who was always near death. I’ve often asked foreign journalists, some of whom have been here many times, why they come, why they ask to get into the Zone? It would be silly to think it was just for money or for their careers. “We like it here,” they say, “we get a real burst of life-energy here.” It’s an unexpected answer, no? For them, I think, the sort of person we have here, his feelings, his world, are something undiscovered and hypnotic. But I didn’t ask them to clarify whether they like us ourselves, or what they can write about us, what they can understand through us. Why do we keep hovering around death?

Chernobyl—we won’t have another world now. At first, it tore the ground from under our feet, and it flung pain at us for real, but now we realize that there won’t be another world, and there’s nowhere to turn to. The sense of having settled, tragically, on this land—it’s a completely different worldview. People returning from the war were called a “lost” generation. We’re also lost. The only thing that hasn’t changed is human suffering. It’s our only capital. It’s invaluable! I come home after everything—my wife listens to me—and then she says quietly: “I love you, but I won’t let you have my son. I won’t let anyone have him. Not Chernobyl, not Chechnya. Not anyone!” The fear has already settled into her.

—Sergei Vasilyevich Sobolev, Deputy Head of the Executive Committee of the Shield of Chernobyl Association

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