Sunday, 12 December 2010

Belarus: Dark Times Under the Black Cloud of Chernobyl

Given my parameters of each book on my journey being post 1990 and set in the country of origin, it may seem rather strange that I have selected a book to represent Belarus that is about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster – as this happened in 1986 in neighbouring Ukraine.

However, the devastating impact of that event had far-reaching consequences, both geographically and in its long term effects, and “The Trace of the Black Wind”, published in 1996, examines these profound effects from the Belarussian perspective.

The disaster occurred on 26 April 1986, 1:23 A.M., at reactor number four at the Chernobyl plant, near the town of Pripyat, during an unauthorised systems test. A sudden power output surge took place, and when an attempt was made at an emergency shutdown, a more extreme spike in power output occurred which led to the rupture of a reactor vessel as well as a series of explosions. This event exposed the graphite moderator components of the reactor to air and they ignited; the resulting fire sent a plume of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere and over an extensive area, including Pripyat. The plume drifted over large parts of the western Soviet Union, and much of Europe. As of December 2000, 350,400 people had been evacuated and resettled from the most severely contaminated areas of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. According to official post-Soviet data, up to 70% of the fallout landed in Belarus.

The text of the book is made up of a series of competition-winning essays written by Belarussian schoolchildren about the disaster and its impact upon their short lives. Overall the result is profoundly saddening, and recurrent motifs are of young lives blighted by ill-health and the loss of loved-ones, as well as regret at the loss of their homeland (many areas of Belarus are still contaminated and effectively out of bounds).

What is particularly striking is the ordinariness of many of the recollections of the fateful day, April 26th 1986 – this disaster did, after all, occur many miles away and the deadly radiation that followed was undetectable to most people. Time after time, we hear accounts of children being allowed to play outdoors for weeks after the event itself, due to lack of information from the authorities. And once the scale of the disaster did begin to filter through, then idyllic childhood memories are replaced by panic stricken flight, confusion and fear, and ultimately illness and death.

It must be said that, whilst effective in some ways, the format of this book does inevitably lead to a sense of repetition:- many of the essays follow the same structure: the day of the disaster, subsequent flight from their homes and long term illnesses of themselves or friends and relatives. Whilst always affecting, this does not lend itself easily to a reading in one sitting… Similarly, the quality of the writing varies widely, and the tone can border on the contrived in some instances.

One other minor gripe is that throughout the book we are also provided with photographs and drawings made by schoolchildren; but these to not relate to the stories on the pages they appear next to, and no real context is ever given to them.

However, there are many instances here where the simplistic innocence of the child’s perspective jars with the horrific scenario with extremely moving consequences. Often it is the realistic, matter-of-fact tone of these accounts which highlight their tragedy, for instance, in ‘A Saint Martyr’ by Viktoria Kozlova:

“This is the story of the short life and quick death of a little girl from Polesye. Her father died after an unsuccessful bone marrow transplant operation. He was buried in Mitiniskoe graveyard, and a few days later his nameless daughter was buried with him. The girl did not suffer much really, they did not even have time to give her a proper name. She was christened by radiation in her mother’s womb on April 26. And now this nameless girl, a saint martyr, lies on the Chernobyl altar of innocent victims next to her father. She never knew the happiness of childhood or the joys of womanhood and motherhood.”

Another heartrending example is found in, ‘A Smell of Mint in the Air’ by Olga Detyuk.

“When Mother came home from the doctor’s and told me everything it would have been rather natural of me to cry out “Mummy, why me? What have I done?” But Mother did it for me. She burst out crying like a child, brushing her tears against her cheeks with the palms of her hands, saying over and over again, “Olya, Olya! Why you? Why do you have to die?” There was nothing left for me to do but purse my lips and keep silent. I was at a loss. I did not know what to do, for I had never been dying before.”

“The Trace of the Black Wind”
depicts a country with proud traditions and a proud people, yet this is a country devastated by radiation (many of the essay writers compare it to the after effects of a nuclear war). In many ways, what we get here is a sense of a Belarus which has been lost to the disaster, with huge areas evacuated and never returned to, land unfarmable and generations blighted by illness and death. Yet through all of this relentless tragedy, there runs a sense of hope at the determination of this young generation to address these issues, and in doing so, to begin to build a future for this benighted country.

From Belarus I now make my way to its giant of a neighbour: Russia. I shall be spending some time in Russia, as – due to the size of this country - I have split it up into its eight Federal Districts, with a book for each. I am starting with “The Sacred Book of the Werewolf” by renowned Russian author Victor Pelevin, which is set in Moscow in the Central Federal District.

Fortunately whilst the train journey from Minsk to Moscow is a long one – around 11.5 hours(!) it is at least direct, and relatively simple to organise. Although first I have to apply for my tourist visa (which is actually quite simple – you can do it online for a cost of $30 with a 24 hour turnaround). I also apply for my transit visa (allowing me to leave Belarus!) a few days in advance at a cost of $20.

I book my tickets in advance (this route is very busy) and, given the length of the journey, I fork out $150 for a first class ticket with a private sleeper car – which is actually quite luxurious - departing for Moscow from Minsk's "Passazhirskiy" Station in the heart of the city. And so I arrive in Moscow, refreshed and ready for my next port of call (although it is absolutely freezing!!).

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