Voices of Chernobyl

VASILY

Show me a science fiction novel about Chornobyl. There isn’t one! Reality is stranger.

A LONELY HUMAN VOICE

I would push it into one of the tubes, the largest, which went into the stomach. He couldn’t smell things anymore. I would ask, “Taste good?” And he wouldn’t know.

VASILY

That’s why instead of writing, one must just take notes. Document it. I keep a special notebook. I write down conversations, rumours, jokes. They’re the most interesting thing, and they’re timeless. What is left of Ancient Greece? They mythology of Ancient Greece.

A LONELY HUMAN VOICE

We managed to get to the movies a few times. To kiss there. VASILY Here is my notebook: The most popular fairy tale from the Zone is that Stolichnaya vodka is the best defense against strontium and cesium.

GRIGORY

We didn’t start thinking about it until—let me get this right – probably twelve years later. One got sick, and then another. Someone died, another went crazy, another committed suicide. That’s when we started wondering.

VASILY

“Suddenly the village stores were full of things that were in short supply before. I heard a Party secretary give a speech: ‘We will create paradise for you here. Just stay on and work. We will pile on the sausages and buckwheat. You will have everything that is found in the best special stores.’

ANNA

I don’t think there ever was any Chornobyl. I think they made it up.

VASILY

Geiger counters were on sale for a month and then vanished. You can’t write about that.

ANNA

Tricked people.

A LONELY HUMAN VOICE

We were hanging by the thinnest thread. They guys were dying one after the other. And then one morning, I woke him up, gave him his robe, but he couldn’t get up. Or say anything. He couldn’t talk any longer. His eyes were so big. That’s when he got scared. Yes. We had a year left.

GRIGORY

At night I’m awakened by my mother’s voice. “Son, why don’t you speak? You’re not sleeping, you’re lying there with your eyes open. And the light is on.” I keep silent. No one can speak to me in a way that I can answer. In my own language. No one understands where I’ve been. And I can’t talk about it.

VASILY

You also can’t write about fall-out — what kind and how many radionuclides.

KATYA

I didn’t know that we couldn’t make love here. I listened to the ancient prophecies like fairy tales. I did not believe them.

A LONELY HUMAN VOICE

He died all that year. Every day he got worse and worse, and he knew that he was dying. We were living like that, too. With that thought. Ask me how people die after Chornobyl.

The man I loved, whom I could not have loved more if I had given birth to him myself, turned before my very eyes into a monster.

VASILY ‘

Don’t forget we have enemies. We have many enemies across the ocean,’ the editor threatened. And that’s why everything is good here and nothing is bad. Only special trains are being scheduled and people have seen the authorities with their suitcases ….””

GRIGORY

Items from the newspapers flashed through my mind: the academician Alexandrov, the godfather of our nuclear stations, had sworn that they were absolutely safe, that they could be built on Red Square. Safer than a samovar. But that poodle, it’s stuck in my mind. Too bad we didn’t have a bullet among us to finish off that poodle. Twenty people and not a single bullet at the end of the day. Not one.

VASILY

And you can’t write that only men were left in the villages. The women and children were evacuated. For the whole summer the men did their own laundry, milked the cows and dug the gardens. And drank of course. And got into fights. A world without women.

GRIGORY

I landed in a wild world there, a combination of the end of the world and the Stone Age. And all my nerves were raw, exposed.

SERGEI

We lived in the woods. In tents. Twenty kilometers from the reactor. GRIGORY They called us “partisans,” that is, people like me who were called up for military reserve training. Many had higher or a technical education and I am a history teacher.

VASILY
The military knew about it ahead of time, but it was all top secret.

STEPANOV

They put away the director of the atomic station for awhile and then let him out. In that system it was hard to say who was guilty.

GRIGORY

On the one hand, we had no freedom, like prison-camp inmates, and on the other, there was fear. But I didn’t feel fear. I felt as if I was observing everything that was happening to me.

VASILY

“An old woman stopped me near a police post. ‘Take a look at my house when you’re there. It’s time to lift the potatoes, but the soldiers won’t let me through.’ They had been resettled. Displaced persons, dispossessed people.

ANNA

A woman sells her apples on the street. “Apples from Chornobyl! Apples from Chornobyl!” A businessman stops her. “Don’t say they’re from Chornobyl. No one will buy them.” “Sure they do. Some buy them for their mothers-in-law, some for their bosses.”

VASILY

Rumors: they are building camps behind Chornobyl to intern those who have been exposed to radiation there. They’ll keep them, observe them and then bury them.

GRIGORY

I saw a man whose house was being buried before his very eyes……They told us never to tell anyone what we had seen. When I came back from Afghanistan, I knew that I would live. But with Chornobyl it’s all backwards: I’d be killed when I got back.

VASILY

Corpses from the villages closest to the station are brought out in bus loads straight to the cemetery, thousands buried in common graves.

GRIGORY

Burials, burials. We buried houses, wells, trees. We buried earth. We cut it and rolled it up in big sheets which lay there like coffins. I told you, nothing heroic.

A SOLITARY HUMAN VOICE

I always go to them with two bouquets: one for him and the other I put on the corner for her. She has no name, no nothing.

A LONELY HUMAN VOICE

When my husband was dying, he just looked at me. He wrote in our notebook: “When I die, burn my body. I don’t want you to be afraid.” Why? Well, you know the rumors. That Chornobyl victims glow even after death.

VASILY

Children from Chornobyl have an unknown liquid instead of blood. A

LONELY HUMAN VOICE

If the dead fear the dead, what about the living? VASILY There are scientists who say that the apes grew so intelligent because they lived in areas of high radiation.

GRIGORY

I destroyed their houses. Their secrets. I buried them.

A LONELY HUMAN VOICE

Something black grew over him. His chin vanished, so did his neck, his tongue lolled out of his mouth. Blood vessels would burst and he would bleed. In all directions.

VASILY
Someday they’ll find the remains of some very strange burials. Graveyards for animals are called bio-cemeteries by the scientists. These are modern-day temples.

A LONELY HUMAN VOICE

It was horrible. The whole pillow would be covered in blood. I’d put a basin under the bleeding. The streams would strike it like milk hitting a bucket. That sound – so peaceful and country like. I can hear it at night even now. When he was still conscious, he would clap our hands – that was our signal. Call an ambulance! He did not want to die. He was forty-five.

GRIGORY

I haven’t told you anything. Just fragments.

A LONELY HUMAN VOICE

He would scream in pain. Scream all day long. I found something that helped: I would use the syringe to pour a bottle of vodka into him. He would forget the pain, then. It wasn’t my idea, other women told me.

GRIGORY

There is a story, about a resident of Jerusalem, whose house was on the route that Christ took to the cross. He saw everything and heard everything, but he had a toothache then. He saw Christ fall as He was carrying the cross, fall and scream. The man saw all that, but his tooth hurt and he could not follow and be a witness.

KATYA

My daughter. She’s not like everyone else. And when she grows up, she’s going to ask me, “Why am I like this?” When she was born…..it wasn’t a baby but a living sack, closed on all sides, without a single crack. Only the eyes were open. The medical chart read female; born with multiple complex pathology: aplasia of the anus, aplasia of the vagina, aplasia of the left kidney. In ordinary language it means no peepee, no poopoo and only one kidney.

STEPANOV
I feel humiliated on behalf of the homeland. What a superpower it was. The whole world watched us. Some trembled with fear, some envied us. Damn it! And now? If Chornobyl had not blown up, the country would not have collapsed. A superpower! Damn it! A loaf of bread under the communists cost 20 kopeks and now it’s 2000 roubles. I used to buy a bottle of vodka for three roubles, and had enough left over for a snack. And now, with the democrats? They’ve sold everything! Signed it all away! Our grandchildren will still be paying off our debts.

KATYA

My daughter sings and dances and recites poetry by heart. Her mental development is normal, she is no different from other children. But she has other games. She does not play shops or schools, she plays hospital with her dolls. She takes their temperature, prescribes an IV. And when the doll dies, she covers it with a white sheet.

GRIGORY

Two days later when his toothache was over, he was told that Christ has arisen, and he thought, “I could have been a witness, but I had a toothache.”

KATYA

They made an anus for her. They’re forming a vagina. After the last operation her urination stopped completely. They couldn’t get the catheter in, and she needs a few more operations. But now they suggest we continue abroad. And where are we supposed to find tens of thousands of dollars, when my husband makes 120 dollars a month?

VASILY

With this pathology your child is of great interest to science. Write to foreign clinics. They will be interested.

KATYA

I am writing. I write that every half hour I have to squeeze the urine out by hand, the urine comes out through a pinpoint opening in the area of the vagina. If you don’t do it, her only kidney will malfunction. Where else in the world is there a child who has to have her urine pumped out by hand every half-hour? And how long can she take that? No one knows the effect of low doses of radiation on humans, on children. Take my little girl, even if it’s for experimentation. I don’t want her to die. I’m willing to let my daughter become a guinea pig, to experiment on like a rabbit or a frog, if that will keep her alive. I have written dozens of letters.

A LONELY HUMAN VOICE

There are private things. He had desires. Even then. In the mornings I would look at him and not believe what had happened during the night. A

SOLITARY HUMAN VOICE

Whenever I passed a school, I would stop and stare. I could watch children all day. I want to have a baby. I am afraid to be alone.

SERGEI

I was covering a summer festival, on the Black Sea, and asked about the vacation homes on the horizon. “Be careful of those,” a local told me. “They bought the wood from Chornobyl.”

A LONELY HUMAN VOICE

The final weeks were the worst. It took him half an hour to urinate into a half-litre jar. He couldn’t look up. On the last day, this happened: he opened his eyes, sat up, smiled, and said my name. He died alone.

SERGEI

I remember in fragments. It was a very dry May. Where there had been a dusty road, they were suddenly laying asphalt—and two or three layers thick. They were expecting big shots. And I saw those big shots, who walked very carefully only on the fresh asphalt and not a centimeter off the road. I didn’t film that.

A LONELY HUMAN VOICE

I did not tell you that when he died, no one dared go hear him, they were all afraid. And yet relatives aren’t supposed to prepare the body for burial.

SERGEI

49doesn’t behave as they write in books. I’ve never found a manlike that. Never. On the contrary. Man is no hero. We are all sellers of the apocalypse. Big and small. KATYA That is my knowledge of the world.

A LONELY HUMAN VOICE

We’ll wait together.

KATYA

And that, I think that breaks the heart.

SERGEI

I want to make a movie from the point of view of an animal. St Francis preached to the birds. He talked with the birds as if they were equals. Those birds talked to him in their language, he wasn’t talking down to them. He understood their secret language.

A LONELY HUMAN VOICE

I stopped the clocks in the house. Seven in the morning. And all these years later, we can’t start one of them.

GRIGORY

I could have been a witness.

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