“Criticism doesn’t change anything, new inventions and initiatives could”

“In these days you go and check the internet first before you talk with your friends and family.” – Donald Polfliet, Belgium.
What about 25 years ago? The following interviewees are to show the collective memory of the students during the Chernobyl accident.

Ukrainian students try on gas masks as part of a safety drill in a school in Rudniya, just outside the Chernobyl contamination zone.

In 1986 they were studying either at school or university, which is indicated correspondingly after their names.
Ovidiu Vaida, Romania (high school) – interview by Vlad Badea; Kostadinka Georgieva, Bulgaria (graduating from high school, about to attend university) – interview by Mila Bogdanova; Donald Polfliet, Belgium (in high school)– interview by Andrej Cebela; Ana Bulai, Romania (primary school) – interview by Marius Drasovean; Ihor Franchuk, Ukraine (high school) – interview by Orest Franchuk; Florin Gherasim, Romania (university) – interview by Liliana Iuga; Juan Montes, Spain (university) – interview by German Jimenez; Alla Komich, Belarus (graduating from high school, about to attend university) – interview by Hanna Komich; Arnis Lapins, Latvia (candidate for a Ph.D.) – interview by Laura Lapina.

Ihor Franchuk, Ukraine

“At that time the Cold war was still taking place, so at school teachers thought students about the danger of nuclear bombs or a  possible war. During history classes we watched documentary movies about the explosion of the A-bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. From those movies I could only guess about the after effects. With respect to Cold war there were lessons at school where we learned how to protect ourselves from chemical contamination. People in school did not even talk about the chance of a nuclear power plant to explode, there were no evacuation plans. This reminds me of my physics teacher who was very proud that in the USSR by that time there has not been any accident. About a week later the Chernobyl catastrophe happened.” – Ihor Franchuk.
Most of the interviewees recall the time of the accident with nice and sunny weather, crystal clear sky, and final exams. Some spent the following weekend sunbathing or swimming, others outside in the nature. “It was as any other day of our lives, even for the following few months. The announcement on TV and the newspapers was very short and with no accent.” – Kostadinka Georgieva.
The news about the accident in Chernobyl brought the name for the first time in everyone’s mind. The accident was presented in a way that there was nothing to be worried about, and people were assured that everything was under control. Sources varied. “People at the time were divided in two groups – people whose work was to write propaganda and the other people who never read it. The average Soviet citizen formed his/her view based on what he heard from others instead of what they read in newspapers. My age group wasn’t enthusiastic about USSR because of the obligatory Soviet army and the prospect of being sent to the war in Afghanistan.” – Arnis Lapnis.

Juan Montes, Spain

Where the information was limited, students had their other sources – foreign radio, television, and newspapers. There were versions. However, “the silent telephone between people was working fast and soon everyone seemed to have a story about some acquaintance that had gone to Chernobyl, put a few bricks there and then came home disabled.” – Arnis Lapins. Even the ones who thought that they were not affected, as assured by the government, had changed their mind soon after. “People got strongly involved in the aid programs, hosting affected children from the area and supporting their families economically.” – Juan Montes.

Springtime was no longer enjoyed walking in the nature, picking mushrooms and berries, nor having a picnic. People were assured that there was nothing serious, but the fact that there were a lot of limitations built up confusion. A lot of rumors were spread. Chernobyl was the main topic in almost everyone’s conversation. This was not discussed with youngsters but they could feel the worry and concern of their parents. Most still remember the Doctors visits and the Potassium Iodide precautions.

Ovidiu Vaida, Romania

“I recall perfectly that very soon after the Chernobyl event occurred we, the students, were summoned to our school’s medical center to get vaccinated with something that contained iodine. But that happened with no explanations. I personally find the fact that they vaccinated us all with the same needle much more dangerous to our health than what that toxic cloud (which didn’t affect our country that much) could have ever done to us.” – Ovidiu Vaida.

The Chernobyl accident and nuclear energy were a matter to deal with in various aspects during interviewees’ further life. After graduating from the Polytechnic Institute in 1987, Florin Gherasim got his first job in Cernavoda NPP. After working there for two years, he believes that “NPPs are good if used rationally”. On the contrary, as a Mechanical engineer, Ihor Franchuk considers Green energy as a lot safer – “At least it doesn’t have the issue with the nuclear waste.”

Ana Bulai has a Ph.D. in Sociology and she is an associate professor at the Bucharest University. She remembers that “As young students in Sociology in the beginning of the 90s, Romanian National Institute for Statistics used to present separate data about Cernavoda in what regards births, infantile mortality, types of cancer etc. They wanted to illustrate that there was no difference compared to the national average.”

Alla Khomich, Belarus

Unfortunately for Alla Khomich, who is an accountant nowadays, “Terrible consequences felt years later. I don’t know what happened to me in 2001 but i started feeling strong tiredness, prostration, and headache. When I visited a doctor, I was told that i had to have my Thyroid gland removed. The doctor insisted on surgery as there was no other relief. Now I need to take Thyroxin tablet every day, and I feel the same as before the surgery.” Ovidiu Vaida who is now an Assistant Dr. in Political Science at “Babes-Bolyai” University in Cluj-Napoca remembers – “I had a colleague whose mother thought that her health weakened because she went to excursion in the mountains on May 1st 1986, when the radiation levels were higher than normal.”

“Years later it was unveiled that the then-government had a special food regime while the citizens weren’t even advised of that.” – Kostadinka Georgieva, lawyer.
Arnis Lapins who nowadays works in Public Relations believes that “Criticism doesn’t change anything, new inventions and initiatives could.” “We have to think far ahead in the future.” – Donald Polfliet, PR.
As an English teacher now, Juan Montes “doesn’t really think that his students will remember the Chernobyl accident, but it will remain in the collective memory as a clear reminder of what can happen if we don’t take this issue seriously.”

Past can’t be changed but it should be remembered in order to build a brighter future. In this century of information a person is to blame only himself for not being informed. Everyone is free to start or follow initiatives and to express their thoughts and ideas. Bad criticism does nothing but wrong, while good criticism could shape new ideas for improvement.

By Vanya Tsvetkova

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