text by Mána Taylor Hjörleifsdóttir
On April 26, 1986, more than forty years after the end of the Second World War, another catastrophe devastated Ukraine and Belarus, part of the former Soviet republic. The explosion of the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant led to the radioactive contamination of most of the area. The land became uninhabitable, the formerly fertile soils could no longer be used for agriculture, and those living in the area were made to evacuate. This was an unprecedented disaster because of the scope of contamination and the population’s unpreparedness for it. In the Soviet Union, nuclear technologies were still new. Hailed as an excellent solution to the nation’s energy needs, they were being developed on a major scale around the country. This tragic event, however, revealed the darker side of nuclear power and the Soviet’s government’s lack of will to provide information about its dangers to those who had to operate the reactors or live nearby. They hadn’t been properly taught about their working environment, its hazards, and the possibility of the disaster. Not only were the dangers never articulated, safety measures were not put in place, either. This is why, in the aftermath of Chernobyl, people suffered both from the physical consequences of the radioactive exposure, and the inability to explain and reconcile what happened to them and their land.
Radioactivity does not appear in material form, but it affects bodies and nature. Since most Chernobylites and liquidators (Chernobylites: name for those who were affected by the disaster, and liquidators: civil and military personnel called upon to extinguish the burning reactor, who were blackmailed, cursed, bribed to go to the danger zone) lacked understanding of what radiation meant, they also could not come up with words or willingness to speak about it. By the time the disaster happened, World War II had been accepted as the primary social trauma the Soviet people had to deal with collectively. Chernobylites, who needed prior historical experience to compare their pain to, chose it as a moment in history to rely on. They borrowed terms of suffering from it. The war provided mnemonic, often vividly visual flashbacks, to offset the hardship they faced at present. They felt they were “at war” with it.
Chernobyl was turned worse by its cover-up, delay, and the inability to quickly communicate about the danger of a nuclear power plant on fire. The government did not want to address Chernobyl’s consequences other than by saying there was contamination and that the residents were in danger. Its withholding facts about the disaster – the water was undrinkable, plants could not be eaten, children and animals had to be kept indoors, and no one was supposed to touch the radioactive debris, etc. – is what caused so much damage. Chernobyl was later named a “man-made disaster” since more people were killed by misinformation than by the explosion or its immediate liquidation. People were also dislocated, they lost their homes and families because the government did not want to point out specific dangers at the right time. While the Soviet media stated that only 31 people died because of Chernobyl, it is now estimated that over thousands endured radioactive-related illnesses, including cancers, with many of them dying a year, two years, or even decades later. Before the disaster, before the explosion, barely any safety standards existed. The concept itself of safety was not commonly spoken about. The government denied their own lack of knowledge of the disaster.
In the Soviet media, Chernobyl was also silenced. The radio played days of classical music instead of announcing information, ignoring the radioactivity destroying bodies. Nearly two weeks passed before Gorbachev made a formal, public speech acknowledging and speaking about the event. Soviet media relied on repeating official party reports rather than giving a true account of the post-Chernobyl suffering. They did not want to report on the tragedies, and instead focused on heroic acts performed by those who sacrificed their lives to contain the Strontium, Cesium, Uranium particles already destroying everything. Now, the word itself Chernobyl, is no longer just the name of the town. It’s the name for the disaster. The two are now inseparable, and the word uttered can no longer mean anything else than the event on April 26, 1986.
I began thinking about the Chernobyl disaster as our current disaster started becoming a part of our everyday lives. A virus, invisible like the radioactivity, made worse by the lack of immediate action. On Friday the 13th 2020, I still had to go to work. I walked home at noon, from my training shift, and watched a frustrating parade of day-drinkers savoring their last moments at bars in the eve of a complete shutdown. They cared more for celebration than protection. I remember counting the days backwards after that, as we knew of the two-week incubation period, and worried for the spike from all those who celebrated Saint Patrick’s day.
I watched media spread photos of loved ones separated by a glass window, I cried when I scrolled through images of coffins piling up. The people of Coronavirus become data, countries identified by the numbers of cases, individuals identified by their positive or negative test results, dots on a map. An invisible virus floats in the air, one we could catch on the bus, from a neighbor, a handshake. And right now, the solution is to remain isolated and wait. I try to flashback to the beginning. I remember my partner flying to Europe and asking me if he should wear a mask on the plane. This was in early February. I didn’t think it was necessary then. I compare blurry beginnings, and think about how there is no clear line of before and after. I didn’t know then what I know now. I also don’t know what will come next. I know the world will be a very different place, I am worried about my favorite bookstores, music venues, art galleries. I wonder how long we will have to wait for the curve to flatten out. I wonder what will be the first social event I attend. We repeat our new languages: quarantine, self isolation, social distancing. Watching the world from a screen.
Mána Taylor Hjörleifsdóttir is a writer, researcher, and musician based in Chicago. She is also the co-founder and editor of The Documentarian.