Chernobyl Is My Inheritance, but It Has Lessons for Us All
April 26 is the anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion. I don’t need to do the math to know how many years it has been because the disaster and I are the same age. I was born in Kiev, about an hour’s drive from Chernobyl, just one month before the 1986 explosion. My mother, who had just begun her paid yearlong maternity leave (take that in, U.S. readers), was able to evacuate me and my sister to St. Petersburg where she hoped the radioactive cloud would not hover overhead. My father, a truck driver, was ordered to go to Chernobyl but refused, instead remaining in Kiev where he rinsed the radiation off his tires after every day’s drive.
“We didn’t know if we would come back,” my mother told me. Months passed and at the end of August, knowing little more than they had known when they left in early May, people began returning to Kiev. Our return might have felt like a homecoming, but Kiev would not be our home for much longer.
My family had survived a nuclear disaster. Surely they could offer lessons for surviving this pandemic.
“1986 was the last drop,” my father said. “After Chernobyl, we realized that we had to leave this country. This country had no future.” By the end of 1989, just two years before the dissolution of the USSR, my family left our motherland, without passports, finding amnesty as Jews across Europe but ultimately bound for the United States. In March 1990, we settled in the suburbs of Cleveland, where my parents still live today. The story of Chernobyl, one of survival in the face of failed empires, is tied to my family’s immigration story, to my own origin story—and to the present pandemic.
When the Chernobyl miniseries aired on HBO last spring, not only was I unable to watch it, I had to leave the house when my partner turned it on. But as the reality of the coronavirus settled in, I found myself unable to look away from the historical drama I swore I would never watch. Part of my unexpected urge to relive the nuclear disaster was bound up in a cathartic desire to go darker and deeper into crisis. More than that, I was reaching for a precedent that could shed light on the catastrophe unfolding around me. My family had survived a nuclear disaster. Surely they could offer lessons for surviving this pandemic.
Under quarantine, I finally interviewed my parents about Chernobyl. Echoing throughout the interview, especially around the connections between the two crises, were the unknowns. My mother’s refrain went like this: “Nobody knows what it is. You don’t see it, you don’t hear it, it doesn’t have any scent.”
So, we make attempts to measure it. When my anxiety builds to a fever pitch, I check my temperature. While I wait for the beep, I imagine how it would feel to see 102, a number that nearly a million people across the country have had to reckon with. So far, for me, this practice has always offered the relief I’ve been seeking, a balm in the form of double digits. The numbers calm me; they are concrete, quantifiable amid so many uncertainties.
While the toxic racism we are seeing now is endemic in the United States, so is the resistance to it.
Dosimeters, the machines that measure radiation levels, were a prominent character in the Chernobyl miniseries, their morbid clicking practically the show’s soundtrack. My parents recalled the scanning of all who disembarked the train in St. Petersburg seeking refuge. My sister’s shoes signaled an alert and were confiscated. The memory of her white sandals and the sound they produced have become a kind of archive, a recollection we can see and hear to convince us that it really happened. The radiation, though silent and invisible, leaves these marks on our memories. And as I decontaminate my shoes after every walk, my sister’s sandals and my father’s truck tires inevitably appear before me.
“People are scared, and we don’t know when it will end or what will happen next,” my mother said, drifting between Russian and English. Still, we make attempts to predict. We ask, we take guesses, we search Google: when will social isolation end?
We wonder, will we get the virus? Will we survive? Who gave it to us? Did we give it to anyone?
My parents spoke plaintively about friends who left Kiev in search of safety farther away from the fallout. They arrived at relatives’ doorsteps in Moscow and elsewhere, only to be turned away for fear of the radiation they might be carrying with them. “It was hard to blame them,” my mother said. When someone has been irradiated, they can be dangerous to others, radiation on their shoes and clothes, on the surface of their skin and hair, even within them, spreading through their sweat and spit.
I have lived this firsthand, not only as a child of Chernobyl, but more indelibly as an adult. My partner, who is not from the Soviet Union, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer a few years ago. The post-thyroidectomy treatment, horrifyingly, was radioactive iodine: They had to swallow a pill of iodine-131, one of the main radioactive substances released into the atmosphere after the Chernobyl explosion. For the weeks that they were radioactive, we were advised to remain at least 13 feet apart from each another. I didn’t know it at the time, but that distancing would be a rehearsal for the current moment. Now, as I dodge people in the street and grocery store, I sometimes forget which contagion I am trying to avoid. Radiation and the virus have become interchangeable, each functioning as a distancer, an instiller of fear.
This is how we survive a pandemic.
The fear is one another. We are asked to stay 6 feet apart (recently revised to 13 feet), not to gather, to stay inside. We are told to wear masks, to wash our hands, to protect ourselves. Then we are told to think of ourselves as contagious, even if we don’t show symptoms; now we wear masks to protect others. Still, we give runners dirty looks when they pass, unmasked, not far enough from us. We are afraid, and we blame each other.
In a recent episode of the podcast, How to Survive the End of the World, Maryse Mitchell-Brody speaks of the U.S. government’s lack of preparedness and its spreading of misinformation to the public. Mitchell-Brody says, “It’s made what is actually about collective action into personal responsibility.” The government obscures its own failure by calling its people culpable and encouraging us to do the same. Calling it the “Chinese Virus” and telling Black and Latinx people “to step up and help stop the spread so that we can protect those who are most vulnerable,” the U.S. is spreading the most chronic, ever-adapting, and lethal virus —racism. Yet, while the toxic racism we are seeing now is endemic in the United States, so is the resistance to it. Even amid social distancing, across the country people are resisting the narrative of individualism and blame through mutual aid, collective action, and solidarity work.
This is how we survive a pandemic.
During Chernobyl, my family’s safety came in the form of neighbors who gave us train tickets to escape Kiev, in friends offering us refuge in their St. Petersburg apartment. My great-grandmother, mother, cousins, sister, and I shared that studio for four months. When we returned to Kiev, we survived with the help of networks of people who traveled far from the fallout, bringing back uncontaminated vegetables and milk, reserved especially for children like me, whose tiny thyroids could not endure much radiation.
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone encompasses more than 1,000 square miles of land, and is deemed the most radioactive region in the world. Also known as the Zone of Alienation, about 350,000 people were forcibly evacuated from this area. Most of them would never return, with the exception of about 200 elders, mostly women, who defied government orders to abandon their homes. They are samosely, or self-settlers, determined to live and die on their ancestral land, and to escape the poverty and pollution of the cities. “In Kiev I’d have died long ago, five times over,” says one of the Babushkas of Chernobyl in the documentary by the same name.
When I returned to my homeland in the early 2000s, elders stood on street corners of Kiev asking for change, their pensions unable to compete in post-Soviet capitalism. In the Zone of Exclusion, the babushkas forage for mushrooms and berries, raise chickens, and cultivate vast vegetable gardens. They ferment wine and distill moonshine. Government officials collect samples of their soil, water, and food, all of which are contaminated. The Zone of Alienation will remain radioactive for thousands of years, and yet, the babushkas survive there together, alongside deer, elk, wild boar, and wolves that have also returned to the region. One study found that those elders who rematriated to their land have outlived their evacuated counterparts.
Perhaps the most obvious echo of Chernobyl in the current pandemic is the failure of almighty governments to protect their people.
When my family arrived in the suburbs of Cleveland in 1990, my parents would stare down our cul-de-sac and ask, “Where are all the people?” It was alienating at first, although we were the ones labeled “aliens,” at least until 1996, when we were granted citizenship status, almost exactly 10 years after the Chernobyl explosion.
Today, even city streets have emptied. The current crisis orders us to stay home. We evacuate the social world, receding into our private lives, only permitted to be in proximity with our “nuclear families.” We stay home while millions of essential workers cannot, many working for low wages and with little protective gear. We stay home, if we have a home to retreat to, while hundreds of thousands of people in the wealthiest country in the world cannot, and the U.S. begins to grapple with this reality as if it has only just become a problem. We stay home, many confined with abusers, as domestic violence cases surge, already unbearably high before the pandemic. We stay home, overwhelmed and isolated, while people die outside the window of our computers. We stay home and watch; we stay home and look away.
Meanwhile, this containment has quieted the Earth’s vibrations, reduced carbon emissions and air pollution, and even hushed the oceans. Whales are expected to reproduce more as their stress-hormones drop with the decline in cruise ships. Animals are returning to the lands we had forced them to vacate. They are reclaiming the streets; they too are rematriating.
Perhaps the most obvious echo of Chernobyl in the current pandemic is the failure of almighty governments to protect their people. Their investment in their own “exceptionalism” had convinced the USSR in 1986 and the U.S. in 2020 that the imminent was impossible. And even when they realized that the “impossible” had transpired, they denied, delayed, and downplayed.
My parents, like most other Ukrainians, heard about the Chernobyl explosion through whispers from comrades, while their government remained silent. Thirty-six hours had passed and radiation levels continued to spike before the Soviet Union so much as evacuated Pripyat, the town surrounding the power plant. By that point, Sweden had already detected radiation and pinpointed its origins. Frenzied phone calls rang in from relatives and friends on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The world already knew the gravity of the explosion, but the USSR merely reported that a reactor had been damaged, assuring its citizens that there was no cause for alarm. As Western media outlets declared a nuclear disaster in the East, Kiev hosted its annual May Day parades. My parents recalled the Peace Race, an international cycling competition held in the streets of Kiev on May 6, nearly two weeks after the explosion. The government kept up airs of normalcy while the radioactive air poisoned its people.
Throughout January in the United States, as scientists and public health experts sounded the alarm, Trump ignored their repeated warnings, even in the face of predictions that a half-million Americans could die of coronavirus. Trump reassured the U.S., blamed other countries, and issued travel bans. Yet, not unlike white nationalism, which claims far more lives than the “foreign terrorists” Trump likes to invoke, coronavirus was already ravaging the United States, spreading among Americans who had not left its borders. Finally, in mid-March, the White House announced social distancing guidelines, and even still a half-dozen states resisted safety restrictions. Less than a week later, as Trump denied the real and lethal shortage of medical supplies and tests, the U.S. surpassed every other country in confirmed coronavirus cases. And in a now-typical rewriting of history, Trump claimed, “it snuck up on us,” later adding that the coronavirus was “a very unforeseen thing.”
This is what happens when you layer a public health crisis on top of the crisis of late-stage capitalism.
“The Soviet Union didn’t give the real numbers, didn’t tell the truth about how many people were affected and what happened to them,” my mother said of Chernobyl. “And here too, we won’t know the full extent, because we don’t have enough tests.” After a long silence my mother continued, “The results of this catastrophe will be unknown for generations.” I wasn’t sure which catastrophe she meant.
From the vantage point of 1986 Kiev, the toll of Chernobyl, like the explosion itself, was beyond belief. My family, with the help of countless others, had accomplished an impossible feat. They not only survived Chernobyl, they outlived a seemingly-invincible empire that had quietly poisoned its people.
Mikhail Gorbachev admitted in 2006, “The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl [ . . . ] was perhaps the main cause of the Soviet Union’s collapse five years later.” He spoke of the disaster as a “turning point” that meant: “the system as we knew it could no longer continue.” Yet, the capitalist oligarchy they replaced it with was equally unlivable. The babushkas of Chernobyl had to perform a double evacuation, first forcibly, out of nuclear fallout, and then again, out of the poverty and pollution of post-Soviet cities.
Here in the United States, we watch a failed state crumbling around us—and the rest of the world watches too. It is not just the predictable failures of Trump to prepare for this pandemic. The world watches as the coronavirus lays bare our country’s deep and old fault lines, now rumbling into full-blown quakes. This is what happens when you layer a public health crisis on top of the crisis of late-stage capitalism.
So, how do we survive this? And what will be on the other side of survival? Will it be a return to business as usual, accompanied with the ultimate gaslighting? “Nothing could be worse than a return to normality,” Arundhati Roy writes. “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
For my parents, Chernobyl was a gateway to the U.S., the Soviet Union collapsing behind them. For me, Chernobyl is an inheritance, a handbook for surviving apocalypse. We have entered this portal together, and while we can look to our past, there is no going back there. This is the moment when we allow ourselves to imagine our world anew. Can you envision it? My parents could not imagine outliving empire, and yet they did. Perhaps we can too.
Nataliya Braginsky is a Ukrainian immigrant who owes her life and this piece to her parents’ survival of disasters. A public high school history teacher, she lives in New Haven with her partner and their dog. Nataliya also publishes under a pseudonym.