My Memory of Chernobyl

Last April marked the thirty-third anniversary of the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.  This date is devoted to many publications of memories from participants in the aftermath of the accident and ordinary residents who lived close to the site of the tragedy.  The release of the series Chernobyl on HBO caused a sensation not only in the U.S. but also in Ukraine.  Judging by the reviews in the Ukrainian segment of Twitter, the film made a massive impression on Ukrainians.  They note its veracity and attention to small details.

I also have my memories of the Chernobyl disaster, although I was far from the scene of the event.  In the fall of 1985, I was called to serve in the Armed Forces of the Soviet Union.  I want to remind you that in the Soviet Union, there was obligatory military service for men from the age of 18.  I was enlisted into the civil defense regiment located in the Carpathian Military District in the City of Drohobych, Lviv Region, in Western Ukraine.  It was a bit of great luck because, according to some obscure rules, the military department preferred to send recruits to places of service away from the places of residence to other climatic conditions.  So my unit had soldiers from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.  Some of the recruits were from Ukraine, including me.

Drohobych was a five-hour drive from Khmelnytskyi, where I lived with my parents.  It was a bit of double luck, because all the recruits had a chance of going to Afghanistan.  Nobody wanted to go there despite the efforts of Soviet propaganda about the strategic need for a military invasion of the country and the impulse to fulfill the international duty.  The people who had been taught about the Kremlin's adventures understood that this was an unnecessary undertaking and vain human sacrifice.

I was enrolled in the chemical and radiation protection platoon, and since I had an incomplete higher education, I was assigned the rank of junior sergeant.  Monday, April 28 was a typical day.  After breakfast and roll call, the platoon moved to field classes.  The topic of the day was the study and principles of operation of the military radiation dosimeter.  The platoon commander, Senior Lieutenant Kabanov, gave me the device and ordered me to show the soldiers how to operate it.  I equipped the device, put on the headphones, turned on the power, and brought the bar to the surface of the decommissioned combat vehicle.  There was an intense crash in the ears, and the arrow went off to the right.  I switched the mode, but I got the same result.  If the instrument indicators were to be believed, then the decommissioned infantry vehicle was emitting quite a lot of radiation.  I reported the results to the lieutenant, and he decided to double-check.  On his face were both astonishment and horror.  He told the platoon that the device probably needed to be calibrated and that we needed to go back to the classroom quickly.

Sometime around noon, the silence of the class was interrupted by an alarm.  We ran to the location of the platoon to retrieve weapons, ammunition, gas masks, and other property.  In full gear, we assembled on the parade grounds.  The regiment commander announced that he had received an encrypted telegram from the district headquarters about a technogenic disaster at a strategic facility.  He did not say where the accident had occurred, but he ordered us to be on full alert.  At the same time, we had to act according to the schedule and wait for further orders.

The regiment commander called all the officers to headquarters for a meeting.  About an hour later, our lieutenant left the headquarters and approached me.  I asked him: "Rivne or Khmelnytskyi" (these being the two facilities nearest us).  He replied: "Chernobyl."  The lieutenant asked not to say anything before the official announcement.

We did not hear the official announcement that day.  Later in the evening, the weapons were put into the armory, and after dinner, everyone went to the compulsory viewing of the Time TV program.  In addition to news from the fields, the successes of socioeconomic acceleration, reports of labor collectives on the early over-fulfillment of the plan to mark the holiday of all May Day workers, there was no word of the Chernobyl disaster.  But for the Soviet, everything became clear.  If the government is silent, then something serious must have happened.

The next day, increased combat readiness was canceled, as well as classes with dosimeters.  All military personnel were instructed to do business in the framework of improvement of the military unit on the eve of May Day.  Well, I naturally went to lay curbs.  May Day was calm and even festive; the soldiers were given extra food and dessert.

But the next day, everything turned upside down.  A general, the head of the chemical service of the Carpathian Military District, arrived at the regiment.  He spoke about the Chernobyl disaster and ordered intensive preparations.  In the center of the explosion, first, they had thrown out the civil defense regiment of the Kyiv military district.  We were supposed to replace them.  The mood of the officers and the soldiers deteriorated sharply.  In the platoon, talks began that it would be better to get into Afghanistan than to be hit by invisible radiation.

However, after a couple of weeks, the general again arrived at the unit and, after consulting with the officers, issued the following verdict: first of all, only the fire brigade will go to Chernobyl; chemists and sappers remain in place.  The reason for this decision was as follows.  The bitter experience of the Kyiv regiment's military showed that chemical and radiation cleaning vehicles turned out to be useless for combat missions.  They were large tanks with chemicals or just water and various hoses with brushes.  Machines were not covered with lead and did not produce a powerful water jet.  Thus, they could not come close to objects with strong radiation.  It was a useless design among many Soviet inventions.  But the fire engines had a powerful water cannon and could handle contaminated objects from a relatively safe distance.  Thus, the guys from the neighboring fire platoon were sent to Chernobyl, and we remained in standby status.

The captain, the chief of the chemical service of the regiment, went along with the senior firemen.  He loved to drink — or, instead, he was an alcoholic.  He could be seen more or less sober in the morning but no longer by the end of the day.  Perhaps that is the reason why he was sent on a long trip for three months.  On returning, he told us the following: "Of course you know that I like to drink.  This is, of course, bad.  But there is a positive moment.  I am the only officer who has a minimum dose of residual radiation compared to the others.  And I drank a lot and continuously." This is certainly not an exact scientific fact, but I want to believe that alcohol has some positive effects in certain situations.  People began to say liquor removed radiation from the body.  Perhaps this also contributed to the increase in per capita alcohol consumption in the USSR.

By the way, if we talk about scientific facts, recently, I came across a study by Japanese scientists about the effects of radiation on people after the atomic explosions in Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  It turns out that survivors who received a low dose of radiation have a longer lifespan and fewer cancer deaths than the rest of the Japanese population.  This is due to the effect of radiation hormesis, whereby low doses of ionizing radiation are beneficial as they activate cell repair mechanisms.

That's how I discovered increased background radiation after a day and a half at a distance of 390 miles from the epicenter of the explosion.  Luckily, my platoon was not sent to Chernobyl.  The Swedes revealed on the same day that the increased radiation background emanated from the USSR.  Military and party leaders knew what was going on and evacuated their families immediately after the explosion.  An official statement for the residents of Kyiv was made only on May 6.  My relatives quickly gathered and evacuated the children from Kyiv to Khmelnytskyi since my room was conveniently empty.

As evidence of the usefulness of a small exposure to radiation, we recently celebrated the ninetieth anniversary of my aunt, who survived Chernobyl.