The Human Cost of Putin’s Ego

Pardon me for a little of what we used to call a “reporter’s notebook” story.

An old truism exists in broadcast journalism that “there’s a story around every corner.” I first learned that in 1996 but, unfortunately, I just learned it again today. Russian bombs and bullets, and Putin’s psychotic ego, have destroyed one of the very few good things to come out of a worldwide disaster 35 years ago.

In 1996, I covered the 10th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Through contacts with the Swedish missionary caring for the families of the Chernobyl firefighters who died during the meltdown, my team had exclusive access inside one of the two then still operating nuclear reactor control rooms at Chernobyl. It sounds incredible now, but ten years after the first meltdown, the need for power in the aftermath of the Soviet Union was so great that two of the four original Chernobyl reactors were still operating.

It’s easy to get coldhearted and jaundiced after decades of covering disaster after disaster but being the only Western journalists allowed within 30 miles of the plant, actually being inside the plant, interviewing a senior reactor operator who was on duty the night of the meltdown ten years earlier created lasting memories. His description of what really happened the night of the meltdown is a story for another time.

Disasters often create heroes. Six firefighters stayed inside the intensively radioactive building trying to contain the nuclear Armageddon. Within 3 hours, they paid for their heroism with their lives. The physician who remained at the plant, trying to save them and the lives of others, was also a true hero. Luckily, he survived. As an acknowledgment of his dedication and the severe physical limitations caused by his radiation exposure that night, he was later made medical director of what we would call a nursing home on the outskirts of Kyiv.

One of the core concepts of the Soviet Union was every comrade was equal and “enjoyed” the same level of misery. This nursing home was an exception. It was clean, the patients well cared for, the food was good, and patients enjoyed regular activities and entertainment. Due to the lack of even the most basic medical supplies, the medical director was forced to practice what he called “low-tech, high touch” medicine. He didn’t have medical miracles to offer them, but he knew every one of the 250 patients by name, saw each every day, and would always kiss each one on the cheek or forehead when leaving. American physicians cramming as many patients as possible into every hour could learn a lot from him.

Two particular events will stick in my mind forever. First, as we interviewed one patient who spoke some English, another man approached us. The word “journalist” (with a French-sounding pronunciation), is well understood worldwide. The old man asked me one question; “Jurnaleest?” I answered, “Da, da, da. Americanski journalist.” Suddenly, the old man seemed to grow 6 inches in height and promptly proclaimed himself “Rodina (Motherland) Journaleest!”

He rushed to his room and returned with a scrapbook of weathered photographs. With translations provided by a nurse, the old man explained he was Marshall Zhukov’s personal photographer. This weathered old man had fought his way from Stalingrad to Berlin, photographing the horrors of war as he did. His darkroom was a poncho-covered foxhole on moonless nights. You could watch him drift back in time as he gazed at the pictures. He would eventually remember the names, and then sadly remember how and where they died.

Image: Russian destruction in Ukraine. YouTube screen grab.

Regardless of the side on which they fought, something about old soldiers makes them very special. Regardless of whether history approves or disapproves of their cause, there is honor in being willing to defend that cause with your life.

When we left him, the nurse told us he was terminally ill with cancer, with about a month to live. She said, however, by listening to his stories, we were the best thing that had happened to him in a year. She said, “You Americans have helped this proud old Ukrainian man die with the dignity he deserves.”

The memories don’t stop there. After lunch, a youth group from a local synagogue came to entertain the residents. These kids, with their bright, shiny faces, were dressed in traditional Ukrainian garb. Just seeing them put smiles on the faces of the old, infirm patients packing the auditorium.

The teen group performed a traditional Ukrainian folk dance for the first number, complete with musical accompaniment. The patients were delighted and applauded politely at the end of the performance.

The second musical number was something entirely different. The small vocal group broke into an English-language rendition of the 1950s’ rock ‘n’ roll hit “Rock Around the Clock.” Suddenly, every patient who was not in a wheelchair, and even some who were, leaped up and began to dance wildly in the aisles. Visually, you could have been at a 1957 high school sock hop. Patients who a minute earlier seemed barely ambulatory suddenly became teenagers again. John Travolta in “Grease “had nothing on these oldsters. It was like watching a replay of Kevin Bacon in the last scene of “Footloose.” If the Ukrainian government could have bottled the energy in the room at that moment, they could’ve replaced all the power they lost when Chernobyl exploded.

At the end of the song, the patients all sat, or actually, “plopped” back into their seats for another folk dance.

But just when we thought nothing could top “Rock Around the Clock,” the kids from the synagogue broke into “Hand Jive.” Suddenly, the audience was all dancing teenagers again. It was as if their old bodies had been recharged. Life was fun again!

So, although our exclusive access to the Chernobyl plant created a great story, with incredible video, the other “story around every corner” of the nursing home is the one I will never forget. It was the one “good” story of the week.

But although that memory will remain with me forever, the source of the story is now demolished. Mr. Putin’s need to inflict terror and carnage on the Ukrainians drove him to bomb and destroy that nursing home and most people resided there. Putin’s bombs hit it repeatedly Thursday night. Some claim there were no casualties. I doubt it. Bombs kill people, especially old people.

Much of the past two weeks of terror has been so Putin can look in the mirror and see a “tough guy,” even if the rest of the world sees a murderous psychopathic thug.

Many of the residents in their now-destroyed last home were old soldiers, both men and women, the last remnants of those Ukrainians willing to give their lives to protect Rodina in what Russians call the Great Patriotic War, WWII. And now many are dead so Mr. Putin can prove to doubting Russians and his mistresses that he really is a tough guy.

Some may actually think of Putin as a tough guy. But, to me, he is nothing but a murderous son of a bitch, and I know where the bodies are to prove it.

Ed Sherdlu is the pen name of a former CBS television network reporter.  He uses a pen name because his mother would be so embarrassed to know that Ed's 12-Step Journalism Recovery Program had been a failure.

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