The Anniversary of Disaster

This week, as G is off doing a week long school field trip, I am doing the school pick-up and drop-off: a blessing and a curse given I’m typically an insomniac which is worse when I’m not working making getting up before 8am especially difficult.

Today I was happy. I had leftover pizza which the girls always beg to have for lunch, and we had plenty of fruit too.  Score! Easy lunch for the kids.  I got up, tossed together lunch, and got the kid to school (the other kid gets herself to school).

On the way home, they were talking about the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster.  Tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of the meltdown.  They were describing on NPR how the government responded.  And I sat there in my car laughing.

No, nuclear disaster is not funny.  However, history of it 30 years later is.

A good 15 years ago, I had to take a work trip of work to Norway.  A year before, the company I worked for had acquired a company there; so I was sent to go meet with the IT managers in Norway to understand their operations and work through some issues between our policies and their policies.  Off to Norway I went.

One of the managers at the new company was an ex-Soviet (his term) with an Israeli passport.  He was an inflexible man who had a knack at riling up most of the rest of IT while I sat there and just laughed at him.  I knew his tactic was to question the validity of a policy until people got so frustrated they finally just gave into his way of thinking.  People would give into it while cursing his name as an asshole.  He would do this with me, and I would calmly ask if he was going to shut up until he got his way or would we actually be having a conversation about what was right for the company?

I was his favorite person.

On the first day of our trip, everyone took us out to lunch where he joined up.  The rest of his team was surprised.  I asked why, and they explained he never ate lunch with the rest of his team.  He was too busy chain smoking.  He sat down and immediately interrupted the conversation.

“You know, I was growing up in Chernobyl when the meltdown happened.”

His peers stopped talking given he was not only there but was participating in conversation.

“Really?” was my response.  That was the only encouragement he needed.

He proceeded to explain that he was 14 or 15 when it happened.

“When the government finally told us what had happened, they had the typical Soviet response.”

“What was that,” I asked.

“Burn your clothes and drink lots of vodka – you’ll be fine.  You could not find vodka anywhere.  Then they explained that anyone within 50km of the meltdown was immune to radiation because they had already been exposed – so they didn’t need to worry anymore.  The rest? They didn’t need to worry because the radiation would never reach that far.”

His parents were not so stupid to believe what they were being told. They bought 2 tickets for him and his sister to go to Moscow where there were family members to look after them.

“So here we are on a train from Chernobyl with many people when we arrive at Moscow.  It was like someone realized that maybe they should care that these people on the train may have radiation on them.  They used geiger counters to check us.  We were full of radiation, so they told us to go home, burn our clothes, take lots of hot showers, and drink vodka and we would be fine.”

The other Norwegian managers were in shock – this guy never told anyone about where he came from  or his life.  Yet here he was telling us all about his time as a teenager dealing with the Chernobyl disaster.

“Was vodka the solution to everything,” I asked.

“Pretty much.  They later told people that they would be fine to return because they were now immune to radiation.  That is the soviet way.”

This conversation is why I was laughing.  As I’m listening to the radio reporting about the Russian response and how they restricted people access to the area around Chernobyl – didn’t allow people to go back after they evacuated them – and it was totally a different account of what I heard about it 15 years ago from someone who lived there.  The sanitized version of history thirty years later where the Russian government response was appropriate just not timely in terms of reporting it to the world.

Yet, the story took an interesting turn – one that seems to align a bit with what my cohort told me.  Apparently when the older women tried to return to Chernobyl and their homes, the Russian government allowed it figuring they are old, they will die soon anyway.  Ironically, most have outlived those who were affected by Chernobyl and moved away.  Hearing this story – the logic behind their permission to return – I believed my cohort’s story a bit more.

I will leave you with these photos

And this is the documentary NPR was talking about.  I would love to see it because the women make me smile.

BTW: I should mention that the rest of the guys at the lunch after hearing the story started telling us all about how their governments responded and reported the information to them.  They spoke of weird sized produce, radiation being found in their reindeer meat, and other things.  It’s a disaster whose impact is still being felt – even 30 years later.

What do you think?

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