Ghosts of Chernobyl

by Peter Coles

4 April 2022

Ukraine is in the news, for all the wrong reasons (apart from the resilience of its people). And it was in the news, for all the wrong reasons (apart from the resilience of its people), when I went there 35 years ago, in 1995, as a journalist.  I was commissioned by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) to document the six Community Development Centres for Socio-Psychological Rehabilitation, two in each of the neighbouring countries of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, it had built to support communities most severely affected by the Chernobyl nuclear power station catastrophe of 26 April 1986.

Watching Ben Fogle’s recent Channel 5 documentary Inside Chernobyl prompted me to revisit my own archives, as I had followed a very similar trajectory to Fogle’s, just nine years after the disaster. Some of the photos I took back then have never been published, nor have the interviews with some of the so-called ‘liquidators’ I spoke to, who had been involved in the immediate clean-up operations to contain the radiation escaping from the damaged reactor. I felt this might be an opportunity to bear witness to the sacrifices made by these young, and middle-aged men, few of whom will probably be alive today.

Inside Chernobyl

The 1986 catastrophe at the Vladimir Lenin nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine, has been minutely documented but, to recap, was an explosion in the core of reactor No 4, provoked by a reckless experiment to test the reactor’s performance limits, by overriding emergency safety systems. The resulting explosion and fires projected highly radioactive particles into the atmosphere, where it was carried on winds as far away as northern Britain and France.  A 30-kilometre radius ‘exclusion zone’ around the power station is likely to remain in force effectively for ever, as the half-life of Plutonium-241, one of the escaped nucleotides, is 24,100 years.

The ride from Chernobyl village to the power station in a special minibus, which never left the site, passed through what had become known as the ‘red forest’, felled and surreally buried, because it had become a source of radioactive contamination. Nine years later, young pine trees were growing from their ancestors’ seeds.

Rows of rusting helicopters stood in fields, where they had been parked after flying over the burning reactor to drop sand and cement. Here and there an old lady could be seen in the garden of her cottage, having refused to leave, or having returned, determined to die where she’d lived her whole life.

In his Channel 5 documentary, Ben Fogle visits the control room of Reactor No 3, decommissioned in December 2000 and now a deteriorating ghost museum, much of its removable gadgetry pillaged as trophies. But in February 1995, when I was there, it was still operational. I even had a cup of tea and a bun in the power plant canteen. I was not given any special protective clothing, or a dosimeter, and my guide, the reactor’s manager, was rather ‘creative’ with the whole-body scan we had to pass through to get in and out of the control room. I never knew how much extra radiation I’d received, and I think he really didn’t want to know what his own dose was.

Community Centres

The new (back in 1995) UNESCO community centres were intended to be places where local people could talk about their fears and anxieties with social workers and psychologists. This kind of support would have been unheard of in the former Soviet Union, which had finally been dissolved in December 1991. The Centres were also often the only sources of reliable information about the effects of radiation and how to mitigate them. There was still a popular idea that vodka and red wine would stop a person getting sick.

Some communities had seen an influx of displaced refugees from contaminated areas, which, in a period of uncertainty and poverty immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, sometimes created its own tensions. As state-run industries collapsed, opportunistic officials took over, pocketing the proceeds, later to become the first wave of billionaire oligarchs.  Poverty and corruption went hand-in-hand.

In Ukraine, Community Centres were built in Ivankiv, Borodyanka, and Slavutych in the Kyiv oblast (Ukraine). There were others in neighbouring Belarus and Russia, which were also affected by radioactive fallout carried by winds and rain in the days after the disaster. One of these Centres was in the mining town of Uzlovaya (Russian Federation), 100 km south of Moscow and due east of Minsk (Belarus). It was here that I met some of the so-called ‘liquidators.

The Liquidators

In Uzlovaya’s only restaurant, Marsha - the little babushka who sat at the counter of the cloakroom - asked me if I could feel the radiation. A few days after the Chernobyl power station exploded, 500 kilometres away, heavy rains had soaked the town with fallout. Even if the levels of contamination were greatly reduced nine years later, Marsha still believed that was why her bones were aching.

Not far away, across the road from the town hall, a fine turn-of-the-century building housed the law-court and the local newspaper, Znamya (The Flag). On the ground floor was the office of the Uzlovaya Chernobyl Group - a club for the 90 local 'liquidators' from the corps of 600,000 men from all over the former Soviet Union who dealt with the Chernobyl explosion and its aftermath. These men were often seriously irradiated and international authorities estimated that, by 1995 (when I was there), between 4,000 and 8,000 had since died.

The Club's president was Vladimir Vasilyevich Gromov, a sad-faced, quietly-spoken man of forty-five. Vladimir had been a miner at one of the local collieries and volunteered at the end of May 1986 to help dig a tunnel under the smouldering reactor at Chernobyl in order to install refrigeration equipment to cool the core. “I stayed for two weeks,” he said. “There were eight teams each working for three hours, 24 hours a day. We had no special clothes. There were some masks, but we did not use them. It was very hot - about 60°C. I was worried about my health.” He did not know how much radiation he’d received but was already crippled by a heart problem and now unable to work.

Nikolai Avdeev, another liquidator, worked alongside Vladimir at Chernobyl. “All forty of the Club's members who went to Chernobyl in 1986 are now sick,” he said. Eight had died, another fifty, who had gone to Chernobyl later, were still working. This was evidence of just how toxic it had been to work near to the smouldering reactor in the days after the explosion. “We set up the club with one aim – to help each other.”

Unable to work, most of the men would spend hours in their principal refuge – one of the scores of ‘garages’ that served (and perhaps still do) a vital function in the lives of most families in the town. A mix of storage space, meeting place, and somewhere to pickle local (then radioactive) mushrooms, these were rather like allotment sheds without the allotment.  They certainly weren’t garages, as almost no-one owned a car.

In a sinister way, the radioactive cloud from Chernobyl mocked national borders, uniting people from different countries and communities in a common struggle. The present invasion and destruction of parts of Ukraine – not least several of the places I visited – has, in the space of four weeks, paradoxically made these national borders more important than ever.

Peter Coles is Visiting Research Fellow in CUCR at Goldsmiths, University of London. He tweets @PcolesPeter.

︎ Images by Peter Coles.