This is a story I hoped to have posted on April 26th, the 30th anniversary of the devastating and demoralizing explosion at Chernobyl. I am writing in honor of my good friend’s brother Anatoliy Zarko. But, I also am writing in memory of the invisible victim – the potentially hundreds of thousands of people whose current poor health or deaths are the result of the explosion. Damn to any country’s leaders that choose to sacrifice their citizens in order to hide the truth.
I never met Anatoliy, but if he could return to earth I think he would be happy to see how his family lived. I met his son, and he conveys a kind strength that I so admire when young men can achieve it. Babushka Lida, Anatoliy’s mom, was the sun, giving off so much warmth and love. Her eyes were so sweet, and she never brought any harm to anyone. Anatoliy’s brother Yuri, my dear friend, is one of the most beautiful souls on this planet. He has been called to be a leader in Ukraine after the revolution; he is their future.
I never got the full story about Anatoliy from Yuri, and what I have is my wife’s translation of a very complicated situation. Yuri’s tale is cryptic. I asked Yuri more questions, but I never got an answer. Knowing the family, perhaps it still hurts too much to discuss; it certainly would be for me. With minor grammatical edits from myself, here is what Yuri wrote:
“Unfortunately, the tragedy of Chernobyl disaster has hurt almost every Ukrainian family and especially my family because I lost my brother. I got to know about the disaster on April 26 not from the mass media but from by brother Alexandr. He came to visit my family and me from Uzhhorod (Ужгород) that day and, while passing through Kiev (Київ), he saw many people at the train station who were trying get out from the city. Somewhere. Just anywhere.
Somewhere around May 10th I went to Kiev to study. The capital of Ukraine met me with almost empty streets… no people. The roads and foot walks were washed two to three times a day, when usually they are not washed at all. I saw a line of special cars going directly to Chernobyl. I’ve donated my blood (400 grams each time) to make plasma.
[Because of the tragedy] my older brother Anatoliy (Tolik) went to the military office and signed on as a volunteer. He had always been very [audacious] (foolhardy was the translated word I received, but it does not fully convey his bravery). For example, before his death in the 1990’s he was the first who hung a Ukrainian flag over the roof of a house in his village. The KGB looked for the one who did it for a long time. I am sure if he was alive today he would be the first one to go fight in the War in Donbass.
When he served in the military [before] (every healthy young man had to serve in the USSR military for 2 years), he used to drive anti-tank rocket trucks. Therefore, in Chernobyl he was ordered to drive an armored personnel carrier to the most dangerous places [to help Dosimetrists measure the level of radiation there.] [He was asked if he would conduct a mission] on the roof of Reactor #4. He could reject going there, but didn’t. He asked: “Who will do this if I wouldn’t?” Each person from that group had to wear a special lead costume and they were shown at the monitor what they would have to get done. My brother had a mission to take [rubble] and throw it from the roof into the reactor. He had to get this done in 30-40 seconds. He was prohibited to look down at the reactor, but I think he did. Before going on the roof each of those guys got a new [dosimeter] to measure the radiation level. When my brother came down from the roof, the device was off the scale. [Officials] told my brother the device was broken and he got a new one. He spent another month in Chernobyl after this had happened.
Two years later my brother started to feel bad. He began to swoon often. In 1989 an oncologist diagnosed Anatoliy with cancer, but he didn’t tell us about this. Tolik had always tried to be strong or to look strong as if he never had any sicknesses.
At that time, I just came back from France and illegally brought back to Bilopillia (Білопілля) books of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. The books of a writer Solzhenitsyn were prohibited in the USSR, but I wanted to bring back Solzhenitsyn’s book “Cancer Ward.” My brother began to read this book, but later quit. I understood the reason why he did this sometime later. Month after month he felt worse and worse. On February 2nd 1991 he committed suicide by shooting himself with a Winchester gun. He left his wife and two sons, who were born in 1981 and 1983. My brother was 32 years old. After the doctors opened his body they told my brother had degeneration of all inner organs.
Later my father had to spend almost two years proving that Tolik’s death was connected with Chernobyl disaster. There was an order from the [Russian] government to not show any real numbers of death. Following the order, medical cards and military documents often were destroyed so nothing could be proved.”
Anatoliy was one of those men they now call “The Liquidators.” The radiation was so bad that the mechanical robots failed, and so Russia’s only answer was to use humans as “biorobots” to clean up enough of the mess so that a tomb could be constructed over Reactor Number 4. From what I understand, none of these men understood that their task likely would be lethal. None of them fully understood the dangers of radiation.
But, this story is so odious that it almost obfuscates our senses to the real crime. It wasn’t that officials were not cognizant of design flaws with Chernobyl’s RBMK. They were. Quoting Georgi Kopchinsky, then director of the Soviet central committee
on nuclear energy in Ukraine: “We knew this…Three years earlier we’d sent out a warning to all plants with reactors [of this type]. But no actions had been taken. This was our arrogance at the time. We believed we were the masters of the atomic reactions. It was a horrible mistake.”
In fact, there were flaws in every aspect of the reactor’s development and operation. As noted in the IAEA’s 1992 INSAG-7 report, “The accident can be said to have flowed from a deficient safety culture, not only at the Chernobyl plant, but throughout the Soviet design, operating and regulatory organizations for nuclear power that existed at that time.”
But more heinous was the Soviet response to the accident. As the plant was run by authorities in Moscow, the government of Ukraine did not receive prompt information on the accident. Even eight hours after the explosion, all that Ukraine’s acting Minister of Internal Affairs knew was “that there had been a fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, but it was extinguished and everything was fine.” When asked how the people were he replied “that there was nothing to be concerned about: Some are celebrating a wedding, others are gardening, and others are fishing in the Pripyat River.”
On what is now called “The Bridge of Death,” residents of Pripyat (При́п’ять) watched the reactor burn as if it were a fireworks display, absorbing radiation at two and a half times what is considered a lethal dose. By the evening of the 26th, 52 residents were hospitalized and two had already died. Upon evacuation on the 27th, residents were told it would be for three days only.
The Soviets spent years hiding the truth as to the severity of the problem. None of the surrounding countries were adequately apprised of the explosion, and the initial evidence of spreading radiation was discovered by Sweden only because it registered atmospherically. Over 14% of the landmass of Belarus and over 10% of the landmass of Austria were affected. In total, over 162,000 square kilometers of landmass were affected over thirteen countries. To this day, there is no good assessment of the actual number of victims from the disaster; millions still live and eat food grown on contaminated land. It was not until Ukraine separated from Russia that KGB documents were declassified, offering a glimpse into the extent of the damage. Potentially millions will develop cancer or be born with birth defects over the years to come, and will take roughly 3000 years for radiation levels to subside in affected regions such that it is safe to use the land again.
I personally want to thank the Zarko family for sharing this story as we never should forget the vile hubris of the powerful that so often destroys people’s lives. I am grateful for getting to know a little about Tolik through his brother. I am sure I would have loved him as much as Yuri.