The spring of 1986 was warm in Kiev, Ukraine. White chestnut blossoms dotted the greenery. Cotton ball–sized fluff from poplar trees rolled over the grass in the courtyard of our apartment building. April 22 was Vladimir Lenin’s birthday. All of us third-graders boarded trolleys to ride to the Lenin Museum, thrilled for the ceremony we’d been anxiously awaiting — the ceremony we’d worked so hard for. We were becoming Young Pioneers. Our parents had bought us the red kerchiefs, and we’d practiced tying them around our necks just so, puffing our chests when we caught our reflections in storefront windows.
After school, I insisted on wearing my Young Pioneer uniform (white shirt, navy skirt, red kerchief) to run to a store to buy food for my birthday party the next day, April 23. My mother and I used the dining table in our communal apartment’s kitchen, which we shared with two other families, to roll out pie dough. The heat from the oven baked my neck under the starched shirt collar.
“Are you proud, little Pioneer?” asked our neighbor Irene, summoned out of her room by the aroma of the baking pie. “You look good in red.”
“Yes,” I said, a little too loudly. I fumed at Irene’s shallowness. Red was the color of blood that the Young Pioneer heroes had spilled for our motherland! At school, we read and memorized stories of children who had died blowing up Nazi trains, poisoning Nazi officers, or smuggling vital intelligence behind enemy lines in World War II, so that we could have a peaceful childhood. I dreamed of becoming a Pioneer hero. I had imagined a Young Pioneer hero card, like the ones we had to buy and study for our political information class, with my portrait (the red kerchief perfectly tied) and a story about how I blew up an enemy plane.
On April 29, our next-door neighbor Olena came to my mother for a cup of coffee. Usually, they sat on the landing between the apartments, sharing an ashtray atop a wooden chest that stored potatoes and onions through the winter. But that day, Olena took my mother by the elbow and escorted her into our room, closing the heavy oak door behind them. Olena’s abrupt manner troubled me. I slid up the bronze shield of the pre-Revolution lock and peeked through the keyhole.
“Don’t open the windows,” Olena said, leaning forward in the armchair, brow furrowed. “Wipe everything with a damp rag. Don’t let Sophia go outside.”
If you couldn’t see it and you couldn’t smell it, then how could it kill you? The party wouldn’t lie about something like that.
My mother’s hand aimlessly caressed the chair’s wooden armrest. “They said it was just a fire. Under control.”
“They’re in Moscow, Mila, where there’s no radiation. You know I am a nuclear physicist.” She thrust something resembling a calculator toward my mother. “You see this? It measures radiation. When we’re working on the reactor, they issue these counters to make sure we don’t exceed a certain limit. It maxed out in two days! It wasn’t a fire at Chernobyl. It was a goddamn explosion.” She slammed back into the armchair and sucked on her cigarette as though it would be her last.
Breathless, I kept eavesdropping as Olena recounted her conversation with the school where her daughter and I were both in third grade. The teacher and the vice principal called her an alarmist and a saboteur for telling them about the radiation. Like my mother, they recited the Moscow officials’ statements. Nothing Olena told them about the dosimeter dissuaded them from taking us outside for recess. From then on, she wouldn’t be sending her daughter to school.
I tiptoed away from the door and into the darkness of the hallway. Radiation. I’d heard that word in the news program. They said radiation was minimal. If you couldn’t see it and you couldn’t smell it, then how could it kill you? The party wouldn’t lie about something like that. Never. They wouldn’t endanger us. And the teacher knew what she was doing.
I smoothed my red kerchief over my chest. We would be fine. The Soviet Union was the best country on earth. The government would take care of everything. Besides, Olena had always seemed a bit odd.
By the end of May, everyone in Kiev had received an informal education on nuclear reactors, radiation, and cancer. Hushed conversations drifted from crowds lined up to buy food: about the firefighters who died after coming back from Chernobyl, about the whole town of Pripyat that had been herded onto buses and driven away from their homes, probably never to return. In trams, people whispered about drinking iodine to block radiation, though they said it was poisonous if you took too much. Grocery stores began stocking canned seaweed, slimy and crunchy like green worms, and we gagged on it, because it was supposed to draw the radiation out of the body. Geiger counters became a hot commodity on the black market. Their incessant crackle echoed our growing panic.
We started tracking the origin of our milk and eggs, guessing which locales would have less radiation. More and more children were missing school, kept home or whisked away to radiation-free zones: Moscow, Odessa, Riga. All three television channels showed nothing but ballet and classical music concerts, which was a bad sign — they’d only done this when a general secretary of the Communist Party died. But the teachers acted like everything was normal, saying nothing about Chernobyl or radiation. The party officials didn’t issue any new statements after those initial denials.
Then, one day at the end of May, I came home to find my mother packing my clothes.
“They’re evacuating children,” she said, not looking at me. She moved her lips silently as she counted my underwear, socks, and dresses, and folded two red kerchiefs into neat triangles. “You guys will go to Crimea. Isn’t this great? You’ll be there with your friends, having fun, swimming in the sea. Doesn’t that sound good?”
“I want to stay home, with you. I won’t be a bother, I promise.”
She pressed her lips into a white line. “It’s not safe in Kiev!”
“They said it was, before.”
“And now they have new information, you understand? It’s for your own good, so be grateful! Honestly, I wish I could go somewhere, instead of absorbing radiation here.”
I looked at my feet.
They had lied — the party, the teachers. They’d made us go outside, in our red kerchiefs, symbols of heroism, only there was nothing heroic about catching radiation. When we lied in school, they put us in front of the class, and we had to say we were sorry. But they never apologized.
My mother didn’t come to bid me farewell as we boarded the buses to the train station. Other parents hugged their children, my friends, promising they’d write and visit. Some cried. I wanted to cry too, but there would be nobody to hug me and tell me it would be all right. I wished I’d thought to bring my mother’s photo with me. I smelled the inside of my shirt collar, catching a faint whiff of home. Through the window, I watched the crowd of parents waving and running after the rolling buses. My mother can’t come because of work, I told myself. She’ll write, though. She’ll visit.
The Young Pioneer camp sat on the steep face of a mountain, taking up a kilometer between the crest and the pebble beaches dipped into the Black Sea. Ten children to a room, we were each assigned a bed and a nightstand. Every morning we lined up at 7:30 to salute the flag, then marched to the cafeteria for breakfast kasha, the slimy mush of overcooked wheat, then practiced formations while singing military songs. At the beach, we were allowed to ease into shallow waters on the whistle, splash for 10 minutes, then come out on the whistle. No swimming. No running. No shouting. During afternoon nap time there was no reading, moving, or talking allowed, so I pretended I was an Egyptian mummy as I stared at the ceiling for two hours every day.
I envied the children whose parents took them out of Kiev on a real vacation. I guessed they had the money and we didn’t, although everyone was supposed to be equal in the USSR. The party had lied about that, too.
I wrote letters home, drawing stars and hearts on the envelopes before I gave them to the teachers to take to the post office. “Take me away from here,” I would write. “I’m begging you. Please come visit.” By mid-July, it was clear that children wouldn’t be allowed back in Kiev until fall. A caravan of parents descended into the camp to take the lucky kids away. I knew my mother wasn’t coming. In one of her rare letters, she explained that she didn’t have the money to take me out of camp, and because she didn’t want to spend time in contaminated Kiev, she would travel to Lithuania, where her friend and her husband had already used up their vacation time and now needed someone else to stay with their 8-year-old daughter until September. My mother would be killing two birds with one stone — helping a friend and taking care of her own health.
Why can’t I go to Lithuania too?
That letter may have contributed to the itch on my scalp that started soon after it arrived, but as with radiation effects, there were alternative explanations for it. Crimea was hot in the summer, and we were only allowed to take showers once a week. With the sun blazing on my thick black hair, my sweaty head became a greenhouse. It itched. I scratched it into a bloody mess. Sticky crust formed all over my scalp, scaly patches extended down my neck, spreading behind my ears, erupting between my fingers.
“It’s probably cancer,” my friend Olga said. “But you’re lucky. Skin cancer, they can cure. They’ll just have to amputate the skin that’s affected.”
I imagined myself with a horribly scarred scalp, dressed in my Young Pioneer uniform, the red kerchief around my neck. What if my cancer was already too advanced? I imagined myself in a coffin, the perfect little dead Pioneer in her white shirt, navy skirt, red kerchief. That kerchief! I hated it now. It represented a lie. The emperor was naked, and I couldn’t unsee it.
When the trains brought us back to Kiev in September, my mother was at the station, looking severe. She grabbed my bag and walked briskly toward the trolley stop.
“Your head looks like a bird’s nest,” she huffed, hardly looking at me. “Didn’t they wash you there? And another thing. I got your letter. We don’t have servants here in the USSR. I certainly am not one, so what makes you think you could send me a list of foods to cook for your return? Huh?”
She stopped dead in her tracks and glared at me in the middle of a busy square. I remembered the letter. At camp, we were all dreaming of homemade food, and everyone wrote a list of their favorites and mailed the list home. That had been weeks ago, and she never replied. I wanted to cry, but since nobody would hug me and tell me it would be all right, I simply marched toward the trolley station, left-right, left-right, left-right, just like we did at the camp.
A Young Pioneer song’s refrain rang in my head: “I must do it / It’s my destiny / If not I, then who?/ Who, if not I?” The song was supposed to inspire us to be good little soldiers, to sacrifice for the motherland and the party. Chernobyl taught me a different meaning for these lyrics: The adults had failed, and nobody was coming to save me.
Disasters of Chernobyl’s magnitude test people and institutions. Some rise to the occasion. Many come up short. The HBO miniseries Chernobyl, surprisingly popular among Western viewers, may have been so successful precisely because it showcased how failures of a few individuals, combined with the failure of the Soviet system, added up to the catastrophe. “We understand the horror of what we're seeing when the people onscreen don't. And that's a much more comfortable place than thinking about being among them, unaware of just how bad things are going to get,” Alison Willmore writes. With its black-and-white portrayal, Chernobyl made it easy to assign blame from the safety of our couches.
For me, the horror of Chernobyl lurked in the eerie quiet of the weeks and months after the explosion, when the adults around me grappled with more pedestrian dilemmas than those of the Chernobyl characters. On the smaller scale of my childhood, their smaller failures combined into a disaster.
My relationships with my mother and my country never recovered from the damage inflicted by Chernobyl. At 18, I jumped at the opportunity to travel to the United States as part of a student exchange program, and once I was there I made sure to stay.
Over the years, when I learned of relatives back in Kiev dying of cancer, I wondered if Chernobyl was to blame. Each one of my three childhood friends had given birth to babies with mild congenital anomalies. I’m still not sure if the dermatitis I developed at camp in Crimea had something to do with the handful of rain showers I was exposed to in the aftermath of the explosion, or was just a reaction to stress, but it didn’t return. I counted my blessings: For the most part, I had left my contaminated past behind.
But decades later, I still find Chernobyl burning in me.
With extreme weather events pummeling my chosen country, the present US administration’s avoidance and outright denial of scientific evidence that an environmental disaster wrought by climate change is upon us reminds me of April 1986 in the Soviet Union, when the Soviet government said we would all be fine. In Kiev, we hadn’t witnessed the glowing fire of the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl. The radiation was invisible, its damage slow to transpire. The government’s reassurance was far more appealing than the scientists’ dire assessments. We embraced government lies then for the same reason many do now — because the threat was subtle, and the truth costly.
We embraced government lies then for the same reason many do now — because the threat was subtle, and the truth costly.
As a psychologist, I know people do irrational, stupid things to maintain the status quo, denying the evidence of their own eyes, endangering themselves and others. One famous experiment, and an apt metaphor, showed participants failing to exit what they thought was a burning building, simply because others around them acted as though everything was fine.
The comparison between Chernobyl and climate change may seem in some ways far-fetched: Chernobyl was an unexpected, localized event that resulted from bad decisions of a handful of people, whereas climate change is a slowly unfolding global issue that stems from the choices of billions. The striking parallel I see is not in the top officials’ actions but in an average person’s reactions. Both in the USSR of 1986 and in the USA of 2019, too many people choose complacency and compliance over alarm and action.
For many people in the US, the threat of climate change is still distant and intangible, the potential cost to their lifestyles too steep and immediate. Hoping the government will take care of them, they choose ignorance, or ambivalence. After all, record temperatures and snowfalls, hurricanes and floods are easy to dismiss as random and unrelated, bad luck, acts of God. They have happened before. They have always happened. That’s what the president of the United States said. That’s what they said about cancers and birth defects after Chernobyl. But unlike Chernobyl, climate change is not limited to a 300-kilometer radius. Where will we evacuate when the effects of climate change make it impossible to continue our lives uninterrupted — a dilemma that many around the world already face?
A recent report from the UN scientific panel estimated that without drastic measures, climate change would result in a global environmental catastrophe by 2040. After my initial grip of panic eased, I tried to imagine what my children’s lives would be like in 2040. I hoped they would have had the chance to find fulfillment, love, and happiness before then. I hoped they would live after.
Today, the average age of my three children is about 10, the age I was when Chernobyl exploded. Struggling to limit their exposure to pesticides, pollution, and plastics, I wonder if I am doing enough to shield them from the Chernobyl of their lifetimes. As I teach them to recycle and to conserve, I often feel as though I am spooning water out of a sinking boat. Perhaps my resigned perseverance is a hallmark of parenting: repetitive, seemingly futile actions that one hopes will eventually lead to a desirable outcome — like telling them to pick up their socks. Or maybe my efforts reveal a survivor’s hypervigilance — similar to the way survivors of hunger hoard food in times of plenty. Whatever the reason, I see climate change as a test of my parenting.
Watching Chernobyl, I was moved by the storyline about the firefighter, Vasily, and his wife, Lyudmila. They didn’t have degrees in physics, or government positions. As ordinary people, they couldn’t stop the disaster, or contain its fallout. But they did their best, and they loved each other through everything. I know climate change is beyond my control. All I can do is stand by my children and fight for their future, loving them through everything. In the end, it may be the only thing that matters. ●