Desperately looking for a way out of Kiev, I used my vacation time in the summer of 1986 to travel to Siberia with my Uncle Arkady. And so, I left the lovely but now radioactive Kiev to travel to Ukhta, the city in the Komi Republic, the land of former Gulag. In 1986 it still remained one of the primary locations for prisons in the Soviet Union.
Our ride from the railway station in Moscow to Ukhta lasted thirty-three hours. There were very few passengers on the train; the Komi Republic wasn’t a popular destination. I watched the landscape of Russian villages and fields of wheat from the window that was plain compared to the brilliant radioactive greenery of Kiev.
I spent two days in Ukhta. We stayed with a young couple that lived in a three-room apartment, of which they gave us two.
The town looked to me like suspended cold emptiness. On the streets I saw very few people. They looked haggard and tired, always trying to rush home. The pavements were cracked and uneven. The few supermarkets had almost empty shelves.
Waking along the empty streets I looked around and found no libraries or movie theatres, no posters for a concert or play; these were the things I yearned for. A couple of newsstands with a few newspapers on display were it. This frightened me even more than the intense cold. It didn’t take me long to realize that Siberia was not a place I could live.
By the end of September 1986, I returned to Kiev with my daughter, as well as the rest of my friends with kids. We were exhausted from running, from avoiding Kiev and the dangers of getting sick. We had limited financial means to search for another place to live. Life was never the same led by fear of radioactive pollution, now a part of our daily existence. We felt trapped but had to carry on living in the shadow of Chernobyl.
The first time that I was able to fill my lungs with fresh air wasn’t until March 1989, after decades of struggle to escape from the Communists. I landed in Vienna with my daughter, the first stop on our long journey to the free world.
Almost three decades later, this tumultuous and harrowing time can be found on video games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, available on Amazon for only $9.99. The game in particular allows participants to become virtual visitors of the radioactive wonderland.
Not in my wildest dreams could I see the radioactive zone as a place for nuclear tourism. Yet, in 2011, Chernobyl and the surrounding area were officially declared a tourist attraction by the Ukrainian government. While devoid of people, it became seized by wildlife that had never before inhabited the area: bison, boars, moose, beavers, even falcons running and flying free in the area, along with wild horses, the rare Przewalski’s breed, first described in the late 19th century by the Russian explorer. Those animals have more than a thousand square miles to roam.
While war and civil strife tear at parts of Ukraine, Chernobyl keeps its eerie silence.
Now, almost thirty years later, the World Health Organization (WHO) could only approximate the full extent of the damage caused by the Chernobyl nuclear explosion, in part because the Soviet government cover-up—they forbade medical examiners to list radiation as a direct cause of death. According to the latest Chernobyl statistics published by the WHO, the number of deaths related to the accident ranges from fifty-six well into the thousands; the final figure tolling as high as 4,000 civilian deaths, not including casualties among soldiers and first responders.
In Belarus, Ukraine, and the Russian Federation, nearly 5,000 cases of thyroid cancer have been diagnosed among children who were under the age of 18 at the time of the explosion. According to the Centre for Research on Globalization, between 1986 and 2004, there were 985,000 premature cancer deaths worldwide caused by the radioactive contamination from Chernobyl. The Chernobyl accident is equivalent to 500 nuclear bombs used in Hiroshima in 1945.
It is much easier to prevent a nuclear fire than to extinguish one. And so Pripyat remains, a living museum of the nuclear destruction.
Nellie Barg grew up in post-World War II Ukraine and became a speech pathologist. In 1989, she and her daughter fled Kiev. She worked for twenty years as a speech therapist for NYC Public Schools. Her essay ‘On Freedom in America: Three Decades of New Years’ appeared in Matador Magazine in December 2014. She is currently working on her memoir.