They were called liquidators, and were the Soviet Union - and indeed, the world’s - first line of defense against transcontinental radioactive contamination.
Twenty years on, in an easy-going conversation with the editors of Bellona Web and other Bellona staff, Mirnyi wished to shed the aura surrounding the word “liquidator,” a noun that in contemporary Russian needs no explanatory footnote as it connotes a mix of survivor, victim and hero.
The typical camaraderie among Chernobyl liquidators is as strong as brothers-in-arms, and the notoriously under-compensated victims and those rushed to clean up after the catastrophe are a daily fixture in Russian news.
But Mirnyi wished – in processing the disaster for himself – to step back from all of that, and reach unique conclusions on why Chernobyl still affects the national and international consciousness so deeply.
This is not to say that he denies the profundity of the event, or that it does not continue to shape his life now. It did, in fact, give birth to his literary career, and, to date, he has published two books available in English, numerous articles and short stories and is completing a novel he is writing in his native Ukrainian.
The nature of disaster and a life in letters
“Disasters of this scale divide us into thinking about the way things were before and the way they are afterward,” he said. “When 9/11 occurred, many of the same feelings I had about the Chernobyl disaster surfaced, and I knew the world was now a different place – this is a valuable stage in processing disaster.”
Disasters, he said, need to be recollected and culturally processed. His two books are, in fact, born out of his experience in Chernobyl. The first, entitled “Chernobyl Liquidators’ Health as a Psycho-Social Trauma,” details the emotional and social distress of those who survived and helped contain the calamity’s fallout.
His second, “Worse Than Radiation and 7 Odd Chernobyl Stories,” takes a lighter anecdotal approach about his time as a liquidator, and is written in that a funny-thing-happened-to-me-at-work-today style. But the dry humour is at once a belly-laugh and an almost tragic struggle to come to terms with the spit and string methods one only had to resolve that cataclysm.
“Chernobyl is still not understood – it is off the social scale and off the cultural scale,” Mirnyi said. “Disasters are dramatic points into understanding the real world versus the day-to-day reality that we are all comfortable with.”
The holiday was over
At the time Chernobyl’s fourth reactor blew up, releasing a radioactive cloud over Eastern Europe that reached as far as Scandinavia, Mirnyi was coming up on a vacation and preparing for the relaxation and revelry of the May 1st holidays.
But as a Soviet Army reserve officer – like his colleagues at Kharkov universities and institutes – he was called to Chernobyl when the explosion occurred. But the order was taken with a grain of salt. Knowing little of what to expect when they got there, the mobilised officers and soldiers brought the air of the May 1st celebrations with them.
‘Even the pros didn’t know what to do’
Only when they arrived did they begin to comprehend what all the commotion was about.
“Even we professionals didn’t know what to do after the explosion and could not understand its ramifications,” Mirnyi said. “Here we were, experts in our fields and in radiation, and we didn’t know where to begin or even recongise the scale of the disaster.”
|Former Soviet Premier Gorbachev said that even the top decision-makers in the USSR could not make sense of what happened at Chernobyl.|
|An abandoned stuffed animal in a Pripyat school room.|
Sometimes, liquidators would wait several hours before being handed a task for the day, if they got one at all, said Mirnyi.
"The government over-flowed the number of liquidators into the zone," he said.
The Politburo, meanwhile, was doing its best to keep a tight lid on what had happened, denying Scandinavian reports of rising radiation levels.
|Pripyat's deserted amusement park as photographed 20 years after the Chernobyl accident bears testimony to what was once a bustling city.|
Debris – which consisted of highly radioactive fuel from the exploded reactor core – was manually removed from the roofs of buildings adjacent to reactor four by liquidators wearing rubber suits and respirators.
"Live men proved to be the only reliable mechanisms able to get this debris down," said Mirnyi. "The radio-controlled vehicles failed: irradiation breached the semiconductors inside them. It was the best plan we had."
Mirnyi and his men were assingned to surveying the dead lands of the zone surrounding Chernobyl in armoured patrol vehicles, measuring radiation and planting yellow flags in irradiated spots. The flags also contained special pockets in which the surveillance crews where to put notations recording the time the irradiated area was discovered and how much radiation was gauged.
After several months, huge trucks with cocrete started to arrive almost non-stop, and the famous sarcophagus that covers the threatening ruin of the fourth reactor was built.
Today, according to Bellona research, leakage from cracks in the cement is becoming more frequent, and Russian and international agencies are fielding designs for containment chambers to replace the sarcophagus. For now, a recent Bellona visit to Chernobyl revealed, the cracks are simply spaded over with more cement.
The 45,000 residents of town of Pripyat, located 1.5 kilometres from reactor four, were told they would be evacuated just for three days after the explosion occurred. Pripyat was the town in which Chernobyl workers and thier families lived. In fact, they were evacuted forever. Only several months later were some of them allowed to return and collect some of thier belongings from their looted and dust-blasted homes, provided they were not contaminated above pemitted levels. For 20 years, this once booming city of Cherobyl's workers has remained a ghost town.
Sergii visited the Chernobyl five years ago while participating Kiev conference on the health consequences of the catastrophe.
"It was surprisingly calm there. It was almost a totally different place from the one I used to know - devoid of people, a thicket at the site of our tent camp," he said.
"In the end, the visitors were brought to the enormous field still littered with all the irradiated vehicles, cranes and helicopters that were used in the clean up effort and later parked in this field, called 'the burial ground.'"
Suddenly, he spotted the armoured patrol vehicles of his platoon.
"I was overwhelmed by a flood of feelings when I suddenly saw the large familiar white numbers on the dark-green plates of side armour. It was like meeting friends because the armoured patrol vehicles ... were in fact our actual homes during the long hours and days and nights of riding around in them. I was really very moved," he said.
He added that he is not in touch with many of his colleagues from those days, and added that he has not made any special effort to keep up with them.
One of his comrades, Mirnyi knows, died in a tree-felling accident some years ago. Others, he has heard, are alive and healthy. But he lost contact with most of them after the work was finished. He expressed a desire to gather with his fellow liquidators one last time and toast the work they did those many years ago.
|Pripyat's deserted amusment park as photographed 20 years after the Chernobyl accident bears testament to what was once a bustling city. (Igor Kudrik/Bellona)|
“It’s a part of my history, it happened 20 years ago, but I don’t want to become a spokesman for liquidators,” he said. “As much as you can have real contamination from a disaster, you can also have information contamination.”
Mirnyi said he had lived with a kind of “cognitive schizophrenia” – a condition in which he is willing to accept and appreciate the horrors of the Chernobyl accident, but is also able to embrace a life where the trauma of the disaster plays no role.
“Disaster overwhelms all reactions that were normal in a society before it takes place,” he said. “The actual disaster starts after the CNN moment, and the camera crews pack up and go – then the people are left alone and alienated.”
This is the first article in a two-piece series on the work of Sergii Mirnyi. The second installment, to be written by Igor Kudrik on Mirnyi’s presentation in the European Parliament, will appear soon on Bellona Web.