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Remembering Chernobyl

Eighteen years ago today, disaster struck Chernobyl and the world turned to the news—similarly as it has for North Korea’s recent train crash, with just as much misinformation.

On April 23, one day after the North Korean train explosion, a BBC World news anchor talked live to Stanislav Varivoda, a Pyongyang correspondent for ITAR-TASS, Russia’s largest state-owned news agency. With an accent that sounded Korean to me and Ukrainian to my husband, Varivoda described one of the side effects of the secrecy surrounding the disaster: the atmosphere of total normalcy in the North Korean capital. When the anchor asked the Russian journalist about the nature of the regime’s secretiveness, Varivoda, instead of going into a routine analysis of the Communist ways of suppressing information, mumbled something about Chernobyl and how 18 years ago, the Soviet authorities took forever to find the guts to admit something horrible had happened there. The BBC anchor didn’t seem satisfied with the answer, so she pressed Varivoda some more—but he remained vague and, after a while, she was forced to interrupt the conversation, somewhat coarsely.

Varivoda’s Chernobyl reference may have sounded like a non sequitur to the British anchor, but it made perfect sense to me. Watching the inadequate reports on the train explosion, I kept thinking, ‘Oh, so this is how it must’ve felt to be ‘on the outside’ in April 1986: All they could do was take wild guesses and speculate about what was happening inside the Evil Empire.’ When the alleged number of the North Korean dead went down from 3,000 to 54 overnight, my husband said he remembered foreign newspapers being shown on Soviet TV after the Chernobyl explosion stopped being a secret: The headlines claimed there were thousands of corpses strewn around Ukraine. (In reality, 31 people died on site or within weeks of the explosion, but there is no unanimous opinion on how many more have been affected by the radioactive fallout, and to what extent.)

Since we were only three days away from the 18th anniversary of Chernobyl, I couldn’t help focusing on what it was like to be ‘on the inside’ in 1986. The official Soviet news outlets were the last thing you’d turn to for news; foreign radio stations were being jammed, as always. At some point, we began using the grandson of the Ukrainian Communist Party chief as our radiation-measuring device: My parents kept calling their well-connected acquaintances to check whether Vova Shcherbitskiy, a 12-year-old just like me, was still in Kiev, about 60 miles south of Chernobyl. He was, and for a while this calmed us—until someone wisely pointed out it was insane to expect this privileged grandson to be evacuated, no matter how high the radiation level: So many eyes were on Vova that the moment he skipped a day of school, panic would have emptied Kiev of its residents (and boy, what a shame that would have been!).

Eventually, some three weeks after the explosion, Kiev school kids were moved to Crimea; I had been sent to Moscow a week earlier. That summer, my father wrote in a letter to me: ‘The most striking thing about Kiev now is that there is not a single child visible in the streets. Just imagine, not a single child in the city with a three million population.’

North Korea’s death toll is rising again (several hundred people are now reported to have been killed and thousands injured), and I feel so sorry for them and their families. The cover-up attempted by the authorities is both sickening and frightening. But there are two things I’m almost happy about: The casualties are still not nearly as high as first reported (I did think about Sept. 11 briefly when I saw the 3,000 figure), and, even though the damage is immense, it can hardly be classified as anything but local (unless, of course, the trains secretly carried some kind of deadly nuclear waste—which, I hope, is unlikely).

As for Stanislav Varivoda’s tiny BBC fiasco, he just seemed to talk as someone who is used to a different type of audience: an audience not expecting explanations of government folks’ mysterious ways, an audience that takes for granted that those who run their country—or a country that reminds them of their country, as it used to be a few decades ago—have all kinds of heavily-guarded secrets, small and large. I’m not sure Varivoda was aware of this difference between the Western and post-Soviet audiences, nor do I think BBC World’s anchor had any idea why her guest’s comments sounded so out of place. ‘Poor guy,’ I said to my husband. ‘He should’ve asked her to explain why Britain needs the Queen.’