I Saw the Sunshine, Melting
This essay first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2018 issue of TSR.
[Chernobyl] was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
— Mikhail Gorbachev, 2006
We lost a family member to Chernobyl. Lost is not a euphemism.
My beloved great-aunt Nadia was married to my great-uncle Vasil, and Vasil’s younger cousin is the one we lost. I never met this cousin, and I don’t know his name. So, I lost my great uncle’s no-name cousin to Chernobyl.
It’s worth noting here that when my Ukrainian family talks about “family” they don’t always mean in the nuclear sense, but more in a Chicago-mafia sense. Phone calls to relatives are mandatory on birthdays, anniversaries, death day anniversaries, and certain name days, regardless of how young you are. I also learned from a young age that if a family member needs help, you should write them a check, even if you’ve never met before. Such familial duty is, in a way, oddly liberating. It leaves little to whim or affection or bothersome detail like geography. In this, our Ukrainian-Chicago-mafia sense of family, blood (or blood-by-marriage) is the only prerequisite for belonging.
So, I lost a family member to Chernobyl. In 1986 he was a bus driver in Kyiv. Post-Soviet capitals like Kyiv boast an impressive array of public transportation options. There are taxis, trains, trams, subways, city buses, regional buses, and minibuses that act like big-group shared taxis and will pick you up anywhere you can hail one. These taxi-buses are called marshrutky, and they are usually painted a scorching, screaming shade of yellow. After the collapse of the USSR and the introduction of the market economy, entrepreneurs emerged from every floor of every apartment block. A savvy entrepreneur could buy one of these golden taxi- buses for 8,000 U.S. dollars and have it paid off within a year. They called this period in the ’90s the Marshrutka Boom. Driving professionally both before and after the collapse, my great uncle’s no-name cousin was a marshrutka driver.
The accident at the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant in Chernobyl happened in the middle of the night. Twelve hours after dual explosions melted the core of Reactor 4, residents of the nearby factory town of Pripyat were swimming, playing soccer, and fishing from the stream that feeds into the plant’s cooling reservoir. It wasn’t until the following day that the announcement was made: Vnimaniye, vnimaniye!...radioactive conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating...children being top priority...each apartment block will have a bus at its disposal...it is highly advisable to take your documents...
The drive from Kyiv to Pripyat is two and a half hours. The accident happened on a holiday weekend, right before the annual May Day parade—what the Soviets called “Day of International Workers’ Solidarity”—when many Kyiv-based marshrutka drivers were supposed to have time off. Instead 1,200 drivers were called up for an unusual assignment: drive north to the factory town, pick up as many people as you can, and make sure they don’t bring too much. My great uncle’s no-name cousin was one of these 1,200 burnt-yellow bus drivers, sitting in a line of traffic that stretched for miles and hours. The images from that Sunday are beautiful. The sky that weekend was pure blue, the buildings gray and square, the trees a blooming green—because again, it was springtime—and the road was a river of butter, inching lazily into the heart of the town and then away from it. I read one account in which a resident of Pripyat, who was a child at the time, said she didn’t remember the accident at all, only the buses. Another resident later described the buses as a parade of giant beetles. I imagine them more as a procession of creeping suns, each responsible for a whole, tiny world.
One might assume that a scene like this would incite panic, but from what I’ve heard and read, that was not entirely the case. Residents were told that the evacuation was temporary, that they’d be allowed to return soon. No reports were made regarding the long-term physical dangers of radiation exposure. The bus drivers, for example, were told nothing about safety. There is one story that is passed through my family in low whispers. (No one likes to talk about this cousin anymore because he can’t be easily helped.) The whispered story carries a trace of black comedy, as if it were all a horrible joke: When traffic was at a standstill that Sunday, April 27th, my great uncle’s no-name cousin and some of the other drivers got out of their vehicles, took off their shirts, and sunbathed by the stream. It was a holiday weekend, after all, so they lazed around for the afternoon, bare-chested and beaming. They were told nothing.
I’m not sure how many looping trips back and forth to Pripyat my relative made in those days after the accident. Maybe just one, maybe 15. I do know that shortly thereafter he started to drink more and developed health problems. Perhaps, like other drivers, his eyesight failed or his teeth fell out. His alcohol abuse became so excessive that my family in the States lost contact with him. We tried and couldn’t get ahold of him, didn’t know where he went, didn’t know what happened. We lost him. My great-aunt Nadia and her husband Vasil both died a few years ago, and maybe our no-name cousin is dead too. The official Soviet death toll counted only 31 from the accident itself. But today, if they accounted for all the premature deaths—the leukemia, thyroid cancer, suicide—that number would be in the thousands, though it’s hard to measure with exactitude a thing that kills so insidiously. I don’t know what happened to my no-name cousin, but I do know that in 2016 very few of those Chernobyl bus drivers are still alive.
As for the fate of the buses, that too is unclear. In between trips to Pripyat they were hosed down in an attempt to wash away any dangerous elements before hauling the next load of passengers, before uprooting another small collection of lives. After several weeks of ongoing evacuations, I suspect authorities ordered the destruction of the buses, though I have no evidence to prove it. I hope someone mandated the burial of those tiny, glowing stars, those giant beetles. But truthfully, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Chernobyl marshrutky were still on the road somewhere, driving in sluggish circles, revolving. You can bury radioactive waste, but that doesn’t make it less radioactive.
These yellow minibuses that evacuated the town of Pripyat were all identical, manufactured by a bus company based in Budapest that, during the 1970s and ’80s, supplied the Soviet Union with something like 12,000 buses annually. This Hungarian company is called Ikarus (or, Icarus), and the bus is the Ikarus Z60, its logo a set of sleek wings. I’ve lost the name of my cousin, and so this Ikarus name is all I have to replace it. Its three syllables sound like dark humor, like a looping joke you can’t escape, this name both warning and reminder: A warning that when we mix our science and our hubris we risk flying too close to the sun. And a reminder of our melting.
It’s worth noting here that Ukrainian-Americans in general, and Chicago-Ukrainians specifically, tend to be quite vocal about issues of lineage. From a very young age, I could name a slew of celebrities with Ukrainian roots: Mila Kunis, Larisa Oleynik, Jack Palance (a distant relative, I’m told), Vera Farmiga, Mike Ditka, Chuck Palahniuk (another rumored relative), Alex Trebek. Even today it’s rare for me to be somewhere when Jeopardy! comes on the television and not announce to the entire room that vin nash—he’s one of ours. Because Ukrainian language, culture, and identity were so demonized by our Old Country occupiers (the Poles, the Soviets), when our families arrived in North America, the first impulse was to proclaim and reclaim what had been denied. We felt entitled to name things and people as ours.
And it was this milieu of dogged reclamation that engendered in me a kind of latent nationalism, pride for a place I had never lived. It was this milieu that resulted in me, an obnoxious seventh-grade know-it-all, raising my hand during Mrs. Walther’s science class to inform her that our textbook was wrong, that the world’s worst nuclear disaster had not happened in the former USSR/present-day Russian territory but rather that it had happened in the former USSR/what is today Ukrainian territory, a sovereign nation, not at all Russia. And, while we’re on the subject, a sovereign nation called simply Ukraine. Not the Ukraine.
I felt compelled to tell Mrs. Walther and my classmates (who were busy daydreaming about what to order at Taco Bell after school, and who surely couldn’t care less) that the plant had been in Ukraine, that the suffering was ours. In a technical sense, my announcement wasn’t wrong. But, if I had really known what I was talking about, I would have also told Mrs. Walther that the wind was blowing north that day. I would have told her that 70 percent of the Chernobyl fallout floated into what is now Belarus and that several million Belarusians still live on contaminated land. I would have said that this is important, dreadfully so, because for the past 22 years, Belarus has been ruled by a dictator who is desperate to rehabilitate the nuclear ideal. A dictator who, by definition, has a nasty habit of silencing his dissent. Alexander Lukashenko is a Belarusian dictator with a Ukrainian grandfather and a Ukrainian last name, though I may not have been so eager to tell my teacher that part.
In 2011 I moved to Belarus on a Fulbright grant, though truthfully I knew little about the place save for its geographic and cultural proximity to Ukraine. Before moving, I read whatever I could find about the country in English (which wasn’t much), and noticed an obvious, recurring theme: Chernobyl. Though the disaster was mentioned in every book and article, the threat of existing radiation seemed somewhat negligible. Most sources indicated that, for a temporary resident of Minsk, as I was to be, the risks were minimal. They did discourage drinking tap water and consuming local dairy products, particularly in the south; they said to avoid forest fruits and wild mushrooms, which are notorious for soaking up radioactivity. But beyond these few mild suggestions, little noise was made about any present-day danger. I was undeterred by the idea of Chernobyl and its forbidden fruit. If anything, I was vaguely compelled by it. This is, of course, the gross privilege of a western traveler: I was inclined to romanticize the dictators and disasters of other places, almost as if they existed for the purpose of adding texture to whatever adventure I was writing for myself. Why else was I attracted to contamination? To corruption?
While English-language sources were quick to associate Chernobyl with Belarus, I lived in the capital city for just under one year and didn’t hear much about it. Chernobyl wasn’t a daily topic of conversation, though it did come up occasionally. I remember sitting with my friend Lila on a bench outside the university where we both worked. She was waiting to go to a gynecologist appointment and when I asked if everything was okay, she told me that it was normal for women in Belarus to go twice a year, that it was encouraged. The air is bad here—from Chernobyl, she said nonchalantly, as if this were ample explanation. Another time one of my co-workers told me about a brilliant pianist she knew of. According to her story, the pianist’s wrist bones had become very frail and would break whenever she tried to play the piano. She would be playing Moonlight Sonata or some solo, and her bones would crumble like rotten cookies. Cookies dusty and brittle with worms. My co-worker said that of course it was just radiation. This is how Chernobyl would sneak into conversation: casually, matter-of-factly.
For Belarusians, the world’s worst nuclear disaster had been sapped of its drama. It was just another environmental circumstance, like how Minnesotans expect snow and Floridians are accustomed to humidity. Sure, it was unpleasant and would sometimes cause bad things to happen, but mostly it was a plain fact of life. My Belarusian friends waited on benches before doctor appointments, as I fought the impulse to sensationalize their lives.
In Minsk I made friends with a local college student named Anya. She was shockingly tall and slender, with thick, shiny hair that fell to her lower back, and the build of a ballerina. She was teaching herself English and studying tourism and hospitality. She wanted to leave Belarus. In a few years, Anya would find a job on a cruise ship and post photos from every continent, her ballerina body bikini-clad on beaches of searing blue. But, for now, Anya was still landlocked. She had never left Belarus save for a trip to Russia and Ukraine which, according to her, doesn’t really count. For now, Anya lived vicariously through the foreigners who passed through town.
It was April when Anya invited me to dinner at her family’s home where she lived with her parents and sister. I took the metro out to one of the farthest stations and emerged from the underground to a cluster of grey Soviet bloc-style apartment buildings. Anya’s neighborhood looked like most Belarusian suburbs. Inside her family’s flat, it was clear that Anya and her mother had been cooking all day for me, the foreigner. The table’s spread was imposing with upwards of 10 different dishes, Russian champagne, fine crystal, and an intricately embroidered tablecloth. It looked too lovely to eat.
After several minutes of fawning over the table, Anya, her mother, and I began sampling dishes and chatting in our part-English, part-Russian. Anya’s father was there too, but as we ate, I noticed he wasn’t touching the food. Anya must have noticed me noticing because she said that her father’s stomach was bothering him today, as it often did. She went on to explain that her father had been a Chernobyl liquidator, that for five months after the accident he had served in the exclusion zone as part of a government cleanup crew. I stopped mid-bite. It felt rude to enjoy potato pancakes and pineapple-chicken salad in front of him.
Why? I asked, not exactly sure what I was asking. In general, Anya’s father had a very serious, even grim-looking face, but at my question it cracked a little. He smirked at my naïveté, at my foreignness.
I had no choice, he said, dryly. They made us.
He then stood up and took a medal out of a nearby cabinet and handed it to me. It was a medal of honor, issued by the Soviets, for his liquidation work. The medal had the Greek letters for alpha, beta, and gamma—three types of radiation—suspended over a drop of blood. The background was bright blue.
Father has a lot of health problems, mostly in his stomach, Anya said to me, in English. But because of his status we’re higher up on the list to get a new flat from the government. When she said this, her voice didn’t sound hopeful. This was, after all, 26 years after the accident. Probably Lukashenko will cut these benefits soon anyway, she sighed. Though I wanted to ask more questions about this, I could tell the family was not interested in further articulating these gloomier bits of reality lurking just below their perfectly-laid table. Their reluctance reminded me of my own Ukrainian family, our impulse to point loud fingers at Alex Trebek while speaking in hushed tones about our own cousins. Some things were easier to name than others.
Rather than dwell on her husband’s health issues, Anya’s mother briskly changed the subject and began telling me—in Russian—about how she won the English Olympiad back when she was in school. She loved English class, she said, and she had been the best at it. She could even recall her favorite line from an English poem that her teacher had made them memorize decades ago.
I saw the sunshine in the blue sky, she half-squealed, in a thick Russian accent. I saw the sunshine in the blue sky, oh my! Anya’s mother laughed hysterically, as if tickled by the sound of her own voice.
That’s really great, I said. Do you know any more lines?
I saw the sunshine in the blue sky. I saw the sunshine in the blue sky, oh my!
No, Mama, Anya said in Russian. She wants to know if you remember the rest.
I saw the sunshine in the blue sky, her mother replied in English before switching. No, that’s all. It is so nice to have an American to listen, isn’t it?
I nodded and said something about how impressive her memory was. She smiled at me, taking a small sip from her flute. Over the course of our dinner, Anya’s mother proudly delivered her line—I saw the sunshine in the blue sky, oh my, oh my!—at least a dozen times.
After dessert and more champagne, I began to feel sleepy. I offered to help cleanup, but Belarusian superstition wouldn’t allow it. (Do you want us to have bad luck forever? Anya asked.) As I put on my scarf to leave and take the metro back downtown, Anya’s father pulled something else out of the glass cabinet. He handed me a heavy silver coin. It was worth one ruble and had Lenin’s profile on the front. On the back were the hammer and sickle, the USSR’s state emblem, and a commemoration: “One Hundred Years Since the Birthday of V. I. Lenin, 1870-1970.” I held the coin delicately and looked at Anya.
What’s this for? I asked. She turned to her father.
You can keep it, he said in Russian. I know foreigners always love this Soviet stuff. At this Anya and her parents laughed. It was a kind of joke, but at whose expense I’m not sure. Mine maybe? Theirs? Lenin’s? Anya’s father was right: I was a foreigner who loved collecting Soviet kitsch. Several months earlier, when I met Anya’s grandmother, she had stolen my heart by gifting me an ashtray commemorating the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution. When I protested that it must be old and valuable and sentimental and that she should keep it, Anya’s grandmother said pointedly, We don’t care about that crap anymore.
So I nodded and thanked Anya’s father and descended back into Minsk’s shallow metro system. I admired the intricate tiles on the floor of the train tunnel while rubbing the silver coin inside my purse. Today, five years after that dinner, I still keep the Lenin coin in my purse. It has moved to three countries with me and passed through many more states; it has been on every trip to the post office and grocery store. It’s a heavy coin, and I like to feel its thick edge when I reach inside my purse pocket for a pen. I’m glad when I remember that it’s there, quietly serving as some sort of strange luck charm. And the Lenin coin is itself a reminder: of Anya’s grandmother, her swollen legs rocking to the pulse of the television, a garish Russian variety show. Of Anya’s father, slouching, his chair pushed back from the table, barely enough to notice. Of Anya’s mother, distracting us with her blue sky and her sunshine. Of Anya, this child of Belarus, poised for flight.
Is it also a warning, this Lenin-faced coin? Sometimes I stand it on edge and roll it across the hardwood floor. It spins round and round, as if it will go forever.
The only other sustained conversation about Chernobyl I can remember from that year in Minsk was one I had with a co-worker named Sveta. It was her birthday and we were having coffee at some café in the center of town. I don’t recall now how it came up, but I probably asked something about where she was from. Sveta said she was born in Gomel, in the far southeast of Belarus, but left at a young age. Gomel region sits just north of Pripyat and shares a long border with Ukraine. Because of the northerly wind that day in April 1986, Gomel got the brunt of the fallout. Chernobyl happened when Sveta was 2 years old and her parents, concerned for her health, sent her to live with relatives in Moscow for a while.
I’m not sure what Sveta’s parents did for a living, but, unlike many, they had the means to leave. After Sveta’s stint in Moscow, the whole family resettled to Smorgon, a small town in the northwest corner of Belarus, about as far away from the station, and the fallout, and the glowing mushrooms as they could get without emigrating. Smorgon, then, is where Sveta spent most of her youth. As she’s telling me this over the steam of coffee and tea, I notice her blue eyes turn both dreamy and alarmed-looking, like she had just remembered the stove was left on. She smirks, even laughs a bit before saying, And now Smorgon is where Lukashenko has decided to build Belarus’ first nuclear plant. She pauses, digesting her own words. It’s ironic, yes?
In 2002 Lukashenko stated that he was against the construction of a nuclear facility on the territory of Belarus. But, in 2007, after an energy dispute between Belarus and Russia—who supplies most of its neighbors with energy and routinely uses price hikes as a political arm—Lukashenko changed his tune. He is quoted as saying that having a domestic energy source is an issue of “national security,” and given that Russia is the sole supplier of gas to Belarus, he’s not wrong. The country needs to diversify its energy supplies.
But Lukashenko’s executive decision to build a nuclear plant a mere 50 kilometers from Sveta’s home in Smorgon is steeped in even more irony than she expressed that day in the café. Because Belarus can’t afford the project on its own, they have taken out a 9 billion dollar loan from the Russian government. It was also decided in 2009 that a Russian company would build the plant. The first reactor vessel, weighing over 700,000 pounds, was delivered by train to the construction site in February 2016. It, too, was built by a Russian manufacturer.
The new Astravets Nuclear Power Plant, as it’s called, has not gone unprotested. Belarusian groups have campaigned against Russian involvement in the project while others have objected to the use of any and all nuclear energy on the territory of Belarus. Every year on April 26th there is a Chernobyl anniversary rally in Minsk and at these demonstrations people loudly voice opposition to the Astravets project. Most years, the Chernobyl anniversary rally ends with police intervention, the detainment of protesters and journalists, and zero media coverage on state-owned TV channels.
State media instead shows only government-sanctioned Chernobyl meetings and memorials. For example, in 2011 on the eve of the anniversary, a group of liquidators was invited to meet with parliamentarians at the House of Representatives. The liquidators gathered in a conference room, wore mostly blue suits with striped ties, their hair all gray, and white, and sharply cut. They sat on plush seats and were each handed an enormous bouquet of red flowers, roses so big and red they didn’t look real. Government officials spoke into microphones and said things like altruism, bravery, professionalism. They said things like fight for normalcy, ensure public order. One firefighter was invited to tell his story from that day at the plant. He explained how his crew was on the roof of the station for 90 minutes before they started fainting. Many of those who worked alongside me died a painful death, the liquidator said. Their skin turned black.
The last to speak was Anatoly Rubinov, the parliament’s Chairman of the Council. Chernobyl should not become a black mark on the path of modern day energy development in Belarus, he said into the microphone. The 25-year-old tragedy must not influence our decision to build our own nuclear power station. Rubinov concluded the meeting by thanking the liquidators and reiterating that they deserve the utmost respect for their work. Camera and film crews lined the perimeter of the wood- paneled room. From these official photos, you can see the liquidators’ eyes, all blue and shining.
That same year, just six months after the meeting with Rubinov and seven after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, liquidators in Ukraine were protesting. Nearly a thousand people, liquidators and family members, gathered on November 1st outside Ukraine’s parliament in Kyiv to express their anger at a proposed bill that would cut their benefits. There is a black metal gate and a line of Berkut special forces officers standing between the liquidators and the parliament building. Shame! Shame! Shame! the protestors chant as they break down the gate, wrestle with the men in blue camouflage uniforms, and eventually flood the steps of parliament. One liquidator is interviewed from the crowd. I came because I don’t have anything to buy medicine with, he says. We’ll take parliament down brick by brick. And hang the MPs one by one.
While liquidators were promised reasonable benefits immediately after their service—subsidized medical care, university admission, a guaranteed pension, sanatorium privileges, etc.—many of these have since been eliminated or drastically reduced. Today, most liquidators residing in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia receive between 100 and 200 USD a month, a paltry sum in the face of chronic medical bills. And, like Anya’s father, most were never granted the adequate housing they were once promised. The more than 700,000 liquidators who served in the months after the Chernobyl accident helped spare Europe from excessive radioactive fallout. But in recent years, it has not been uncommon for those same liquidators to stage protests and pursue legal action in the struggle for some kind of just compensation.
A few weeks after protesters stormed the parliament building in Kyiv, a group of 40 liquidators in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk declared a hunger strike and pitched tents outside the pension fund building there. The men gathered around makeshift fire pits for warmth and tied white bandages to their foreheads, the words Я ГОЛОДАЮ—I’m starving—written in careful letters across the front. Several weeks into the demonstration, a midnight skirmish erupts as Donetsk police officers attempt to forcibly dismantle the tent city. It’s been 25 years since the accident and Ukrainian authorities have lost their patience, are tired of providing for these veterans; by now, they hope people have forgotten, or have chosen to forget. We don’t have time to be reminded of this failure in vision. We don’t have time to interrogate old ideology when everyone is starving. We don’t have time for this. We’re tired.
During the midnight altercation one man, Gennady Konoplyov, who had been complaining earlier of chest pains, is shoved by police and dies on his way to the hospital. Two days later, the liquidators carry an empty, burgundy-draped coffin through the streets, a symbolic funeral for the 70-year-old whose thick, white hair once stood straight up like grass from his protest bandage. I’m starving. The casket thudding hollow as the pallbearers’ stomachs.
It is winter, and while the liquidators march with Gennady’s coffin they are bundled from head to toe in dark, heavy clothes. They wear only grays, browns, black. Some women walk alongside, dabbing their faces with handkerchiefs. Others carry glowing red votive candles. The mourners inch slowly in this most solemn of parades, the backs of their worn leather overcoats shining in the frozen light. Shining, I suppose, like a line of beetles.
Every year at Christmastime, my Chicago-Ukrainian family takes up a collection. I write a check to Marina and Yarosh, my grandmother’s cousins who still live in our village in rural Ukraine. Though I have met these cousins a few times, most of my relatives who contribute to the annual Christmas fund never have. We are decades and oceans away from the Old Country—from the accident—but duty is a feeling we still can’t shake.
When Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in 2016, I took it as an opportunity to reread her book, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of A Nuclear Disaster. In it there is a monologue by a woman named Lyudmila Polenkaya, a village teacher who was evacuated from the exclusion zone. She talks about the holiday celebrations that week after the accident in 1986. “We all dressed up our kids and took them to the May Day demonstration,” she says. “We could go or not go, as we pleased. No one forced us to go, or demanded that we go. But we thought it was our duty. Of course! At such a time, on such a day—everyone should be together. We ran along the streets, in the crowd.”
Lyudmila goes on to tell how she remembers seeing the secretaries of the regional Party committee there at the parade. She remembers the young daughter of the first secretary, how the girl was standing up for people to see. The secretary’s daughter was wearing a raincoat and hat, even though it was sunny out. This is very important to Lyudmila—that the children of Party leaders were there that May Day, beaming in the bright open air. She concludes her reflection: “It’s not just the land that’s contaminated, but our minds.”
Why am I drawn to contamination? To corruption? Maybe this sense of duty to the motherland is an inherited thing. Maybe writing a check to a stranger is like writing a story about a stranger is like driving a bus full of strangers. Of course, I know, this is a conflation of things that should never be conflated. Who am I to sketch such crude comparisons, after all? Who am I to scream into the frozen light that vin nash—he is ours?
There is another story (or perhaps a joke) about a man with no name. It is Saturday morning, it is springtime. He is shirtless, working in the yard of his modest village home. Sunrays on his skin feel so pleasant after the long, lonely winter. He is outside for just 15 minutes, but his chest and arms have already bronzed. The man, both pleased and puzzled, runs inside the house to show his wife what a beautiful tan he’s acquired in so little time, oh my! Fifteen minutes after that, he is vomiting.
Acute radiation syndrome is first marked by nausea and dizziness. The worst of the skin burns don’t develop until later. They are more like boils really, like your skin is boiling, like there are volcanoes swelling from your skin. They crack into so many different colors. There are rainbow-stained volcanoes all over your chest and arms. You stepped outside to feed the chickens and to survey the apple blossoms and now your body is melting from the inside out. Your body is a meltdown.
At what was once the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant in Chernobyl, the infamous Reactor 4 is shrouded in a concrete sarcophagus. According to experts, the Soviet-era containment structure is leaking and badly in need of replacement. They are working on that, fixing a new tomb with international funds. This New Safe Confinement arch was constructed just a few hundred meters away from the Reactor. At the end of 2016 they moved the 850-foot-wide, 35,000-ton arch along a Teflon-coated track and secured it atop the plant, earning it the distinction of the world’s largest manmade object to ever move on land. It was made to withstand tornadoes and earthquakes and is expected to last for 100 years. The new tomb rises high above the gray apartment blocs and irrepressible green of the now-abandoned Pripyat. From far away, the shiny arch looks more like a modern concert venue, a place to gather for Independence Day shows, maybe, than it does a nuclear coffer. It is an unexpected thing to celebrate.
But beneath the old sarcophagus and inside the core of Reactor 4, there remains a black, molten mass. The mass has a name, though I’m not sure who named it. (Only a few people have seen it in person, and it’s unclear if any of them are still alive.) They call this black, molten mass the Elephant’s Foot, and if you look at it for more than five minutes, it may be the last thing you see. The blackened lava has solidified in parts and formed rings, loops like the bark of a tree. At its center, the Elephant’s Foot continues to burn. Thirty years later the wolves and deer and wild boars have returned, the sun is scorching, the mushrooms are scraping their fresh caps against the sky, oh my, oh my! And the core is still melting.
My family would rather I stop talking about our no-name cousin out there somewhere, melting from the inside. We can’t help him anymore, and this depresses us. As Americans, we like to accomplish things—make phone calls, write checks—and then move on with our day. We don’t have time to wallow over old ideology. We don’t have time to be reminded.
But I am stubborn. I want to find my no-name cousin. I want to find him and fill his empty belly with potato pancakes and place cold washcloths on his swollen skin. I want to look him in the rainbow-stained eyes and call him family. Soon, on our way to the revolution, we will learn each other’s names.