The night that the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded, my father, then 24 years old, welcomed some friends who were visiting him in Kiev.
Reactor number 4 blew up at 1:23 a.m. April 26, 1986. Viktor Zilbermints and his friends walked through a park, talking and laughing, until 4.
My mother, Viktoriya Zilbermints, finishing her final year of college in Moscow, had arrived in Kiev to see her parents the previous day. She was at a wedding with her then-boyfriend, who was from Chernobyl, when his family began receiving phone calls from home.
Don’t come back, they said. There’s been some sort of accident at the power plant.
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The boyfriend and his family laughed. There was always some sort of accident happening at the power plant.
No, his family said, afraid of speaking freely on the phone but trying to convey the gravity of the situation. Really. Don’t come home.
Growing up, I heard about Chernobyl from my parents who at the time were in Kiev about 80 miles from the disaster. Eighty miles was far enough for them to avoid the horrible health problems that plagued those living nearest the plant.
But 80 miles is plenty close enough when you’re talking about radiation floating through the air. It’s plenty close enough when the region where the explosion occurred was a major agricultural center for Ukraine.
I heard their memories in bits and pieces. As I read the articles on the 30th anniversary, I asked them for the full story.
Rumors of a disaster started almost immediately. On April 27, my father’s father, who held a position in the local party, was called to a meeting.
He and others were told that there had been a minor accident at the Chernobyl plant. A fire in an underground chamber. Everything had been contained. Everything was fine.
That’s what they should tell their families and subordinates, they were told. So that’s what he told my father.
Still, the rumors continued. Rumors that children of high-ranking party officials were being bused out of Kiev in the middle of the night.
My mother’s father refused to believe the rumors.
“If there was a real danger, they would tell us,” he would say. “It’s the health of their citizens. I don’t believe it.”
The week that Chernobyl happened was an idyllic, spring week.
May 1 was the annual May Day celebrations and parades. A few days later, a major bicycle race across eastern Europe cut through Kiev. Nothing was canceled. Everyone spent the days outside.
There was just one odd thing that my father noticed.
The large trucks that drove frequently through the city spraying down the streets and sidewalks now had the water nozzles turned upwards, spraying the walls of buildings and the tops of trees.
A week, two weeks, after the disaster, there was still no official word. People were drinking iodine, poisoning themselves, in an effort to protect against radiation poisoning.
“We were basically in the dark and on our own as citizens of that country,” my mother told me.
On May 5, my mother went to the train station to return to Moscow to finish school.
“When I got to the train station, it was like an evacuation. There were so many people without tickets and they were trying to get tickets anywhere. They didn’t care, they just wanted to get away,” she said. “That was my worst memory of that. It felt like a war evacuation. It felt like people were running from something. It was horrible.”
My father stayed in Kiev. There were no official explanations of what had happened until May 10. No real confirmation of the seriousness of the disaster until the end of May. Even then, the true extent of what had happened wouldn’t be known.
“Kiev was interesting then. There were not very many people,” my father said. “And through the streets, they would keep driving those machines. Washing, washing, washing.”
My mother’s family had a dacha, a summer home, which in that area was not a luxury but a common way for many families to grow fruits and vegetables to sustain them all year. The first summer after Chernobyl, my grandpa got a Geiger counter, which measures radiation.
“I remember that day when he was measuring radiation in the dacha, the Geiger counter got crazy. The sound it makes is very annoying and unique and it was going nuts,” my mother said.
That first year they packed jars and jars of preserves and sent them to a company that would measure radiation levels. The company told my family that the food was safe to eat. Still, they didn’t eat it. Those jars sat on shelves until my mother, father, me and my grandparents left for the United States, seven years and three days after the explosion.
They scrubbed floors and walls and dug up the fire pit and every year my grandpa would measure radiation levels on the property.
After that first year they began eating the food grown there again. I ate that food. I used to lie under the strawberry bushes, eating the berries and scaring my grandmother when she couldn’t see me from the kitchen window.
“Thanks a lot,” I laughed to my mother. “So you’re saying you fed your daughter irradiated food?”
“We ate it,” she said. “We didn’t have any other choice. We either didn’t eat anything or we ate what we grew.”