A day for the future of remembrance

“It was a usual day. Natalya was spending it in a vacation outside Lviv with her mother. Natalya didn’t remember that something was unusual, except the big wind, which was blowing in the back, and a big sun shinning in the front. The day was really very hot”.

Natalya Verbytska, Ukraine

Jana “remembers that the weather was beautiful and that she spent hours after the work walking in the nature”.

Niholay Vakulchik, Belarus

Nikolay “woke up, as always, in 5.45 in the morning and run on the river Muhovets in beach area to do body exercises. The sun was shining and its reflection in water was especially fine. One neighbor in the house and the employee of his chair came to do body exercises and swim”.
Anna “got to know that she got pregnant, so she already expected her first child”.
Iljuk “was at some scientific conference, not very far from Chernobyl”.
Frank remembers that at that time “there was an eastern Version of Tour de France, the so-called Friedensrundfahrt through Warsaw, Prague and Berlin taking place every May. That very year this Friedensrundfahrt was supposed to take one-time a detour to Kiev. All racing cyclists and their bikes were supposed to be taken to Kiev by plane to race through the city”.
Hans “was elected headmaster of the teacher’s seminary Marzili in Bern”.

One can easily see that there are different approaches on the day of April 26. There is a group represented by Nicholay Vakulchik, Belarus – interviewed by Elena Sermaksheva; Jana Pojarová and Boris Iljuk, Czech Republic – interviewed by Vojtech Pojar; Tiiu Rätsep, Estonia – interviewed by Marie Heinluht and Natalya Verbytska, Ukraine – interviewed by Ivan Kendzor. This group, situated on the first circle of proximity, has the most vivid and emotional memories about the accident and has a strong eye witness narrative aspect.
A second group is formed by Zdravka Stefanova, Bulgaria – interviewed by Vanya Tsvetkova; Anna Przeperska-Kochaniak, Poland – interviewed by Michal Przeperski; Frank, Germany – interviewed by Rebecca Hartje. Situated on the second circle of proximity, the approach to the accident is diluted, but still emotional, with a descriptive aspect.

Hans Peter Müller, Switzerland

The third group situated on the third circle of proximity is represented by Hans Peter Müller – interviewed by Lorenz Hilfiker, and Margarete Müller-Winter – interviewed by Clara Muller, both from Switzerland. By this time the approach is retrospective.
These three groups of respondents who were teachers at the moment of Chernobyl accident, in accordance with the informational background accumulated in the educational process, based on the political views publicly expressed or fearful whispered at the time of the accident, tributary to gossips and rumors, have different approaches on the accident.
The information regarding the catastrophe from Chernobyl was gradually constructed. On a first level, taking into consideration the lack of official information, the rumors flew “He has told that he heard that the atomic power station in Ukraine has blown up. Nikolay hasn’t given special value to these words”; “At institute where in that day Nikolay had two lectures, he too has heard that in Chernobyl the nuclear station has blown up, that there were radioactive ashes and that a train Gomel-Brest which came that morning from Gomel was carefully washed, clearing of a radioactive dust”, but nobody knew how trustful they might be.

Thus, the gossip was quickly institutionalized among people “the people did talk, but no one still knew anything”; “People were joking – Government again conducts nuclear experiments in Semipalatinsk. The first gossips among the people appear in 9th of May. Natalya remembers when people said, that Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded”.

Jana Pojarová, Czech Republic

The official information presented in a very defective manner in newspapers and media by communist regimes has added a new element: the distrust. People knew “as much as they were told which was very little. The gravity of the situation was greatly reduced and all that was mentioned was <<a little explosion in a power plant>>, nothing about a nuclear catastrophe. She did feel like she would have liked to know more about what had happened, but there was no one to ask and certainly not anyone who’d answer”.
A third level is represented by international free broadcasting such as: The Voice of America and Radio Free Europe (which were listened most often in the Communist countries), but also Radio of Sweden, ARD and ZDF televisions. The information broadcast by these media was doubled by the fear of speaking freely in the Communist Block “Having come back home, Nikolay turned on the receiver and got on radio of Sweden. The announcer said that in some places of Sweden radiation level has increased in 8 times and that, possibly, on one of the Soviet atomic power stations there was a big emission of radiation”; “The only independent source of information was radio – <<Voice of Amerika>>. It was an illegal radio in USSR, but those who had good radio transistors were able to listen it”; “The official media of course remained silent. But there were other sources of information: Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America, which started providing unbiased information and which people listened. At the time of „perestrojka“, listening to foreign radio broadcasting wasn’t that dangerous as earlier before”.
This mixture of informational sources, most of them distrustful, made the respondents, at the time of the accident graduate students, to conduct their own research on the possible consequences of the catastrophe “She also searched for information in encyclopedias and academic books in order to get to know how harmful the radiation might have been”; “She also remembers her mother, very worried, looking for her old Physics school books to find more information what the consequences of that kind of an accident could be”.

Boris Iljuk, Czech Republic

Since not all of them had access to proper bibliography on the topic, the discussions within the family and small groups of friends and acquaintances proved to be a reliable source of information “Ms. Stefanova heard about the Chernobyl accident from close friends, who have read about it in “Workers Affairs” newspaper. She was meeting them for dinner and that was the main discussion topic”. But this type of information exchange has a negative reverse: not being well informed on a specific issue, one might tend not to consider the threat at its real value “The issue was disputed within the circle of family, but she thinks that most of the people were unaware of the real threat constituted by Chernobyl accident”.

In the days after the accident, the main information about the catastrophe regarded the nuclear drifting cloud that haunted across Europe. The messages transmitted regarding the food restrictions were similar all over Europe. But the interpretation of these messages was different. We can have a clear image on people’s alimentation habits at the time of the accident, by taking a closer look again at the circles of proximity mentioned above. In fact, the food retsrictions are closely connected with the fear and panic. And the fear and panic are increasingly diluted as we move away from the “ground 0” of the accident.
On one side we have an active involvement in the issue, that denotes interest and concern for the topic “The authorities didn’t recommend any safety measures except the prevention of inadmissibility to use in food mushrooms and berries which aren’t checked up in laboratory on the maintenance of radio nuclides”; Natalya remembers when “people said that it is dangerous to stay under the rain, it better not to drinking milk, avoid mushrooms, and some people advised to drink vodka”; Jana “stopped picking mushrooms and eating them. When they were with children on a camp in nature, the children picked some mushrooms and gave them their teachers as a gift. The teachers cut and dried the mushrooms (and later probably ate them), but she disposed her mushrooms in the garbage can”; “Ms. Stefanova and her family tried to avoid fresh fruits and vegetables, and were taking iodine containing pills as well”.

On the other side one can notice a more detached and relaxed manner of relating to food restrictions, manner that denotes that the fear and panic are visibly diluted to non-existent as we move away from the area of the accident “Frank remembers that in the GDR the people were told that all foods were safe, while they saw on TV that western German farmers destroyed their whole harvest for that summer by plowing the fields. People in the East were unsettled by this; however Frank reports that they did not change anything in their digestion. He was also not especially afraid about the health of his two little sons and they were given the same milk to drink and the same vegetables and meats they had always gotten. (…) People said something like: <<“We eat these things and we are still alive, so the people in the west can do that, too. No need of plowing fields>>.”; Müllers remembers “authorities advising people not to eat any lettuce.. Being asked whether they didn’t eat any salad at all, he is not quite sure. <<I guess so.>> (…) However, Müller says, he was not really afraid, not even for his children. (…) The way in which Hans Peter Müllers life was most directly affected by the accident is his passion for picking mushrooms. Within several years after the accident mushroom-pickers were advised not to eat particular sorts and not to eat more than 200 g mushrooms per month”; “The authorities advised people not to collect mushrooms but Margareta never did that anyway. Some people also avoided lettuce. In spite of that, my grandmother’s family continued to eat vegetables from their own garden.”
Everyone sees what he wants and how he wants. In this regard all the respondents agreed that Chernobyl accident should not be repeated anywhere in the world and every government should take precautionary measures in order to prevent such catastrophes, even if one might think that the level of safety is high and such measures are not necessary. Respondents opinions on nuclear energy are divided. Some believe that it is useful as long as energy demand worldwide is high and thus the energetic dependence can be reduced, some consider it a threat and as such are supporters of alternative forms of energy.

Zdravka Stefanova, Bulgaria

What about the consequences of the catastrophe on respondents’ daily life afterwards? It is once again seen from different perspectives and in all the cases the perception is tributary to personal feelings and experiences related to the event. Those who were witnesses of the event have strong emotional memories which are remembered by the negative effects on their lives on long term. Those who were contemporaries of the event simply remember it as an accident without precedent that generated “the feeling to be powerless towards something that had been released miles and miles away. The feeling that anybody was powerless”, as Hans remembers.

“On the 1st of May, Natalya and her pupils were forced to the open parade. In the 9th of may was another parade, dedicated to the end of the World War 2, and in this day Natalya felt iron smack in her tongue, she also had noticed that trees were blooming and air was artificial”.
“The next days the small nausea, pains in a stomach, desires on vomiting began to be felt, tears flowed from eyes. In Nikolay’s health there were irreversible changes”
“A couple that Stefanova knew, who lived near Chernobyl at the time of the accident and expected their first child, have lost it. Her mother passed away from Leukemia years later”.
Iljuk remembers “how leaves falling from the trees were quickly gathered and driven away, that next to the forests were planted signs reading: <<No entry>>”.

Anna claims “that the only real direct outcome of the Chernobyl disaster was her increasing care for the baby”.
“The way in which Hans Peter Müllers life was most directly affected by the accident is his passion for picking mushrooms. (…) Apart from that, he quite quickly forgot about it as soon as it was not in the daily news anymore”.
“Frank says that Chernobyl did not really change anything in his life. He only thinks about the Chernobyl accident when he happens to see it in the media. There was one point in time when Frank searched for more information about Chernobyl, that was when he decided about giving funds to the club called <<Help for Chernobyl>> helping children affected by the accident”.
“There weren’t any direct consequences to her life, since she lived far enough but she was still frightened about what had happened.(…) Mrs. Rätsep believes that the accident didn’t effect her health in any way and wasn’t afraid of outdoor activities”.
“Chernobyl only affected my grandmother’s life in the way that Margareta is even more decisively against nuclear power plants today than she had already been before”.

By Marius Draşovean

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