As I was browsing through the headlines of my habitual online newspaper this morning, a small article made my blood run cold: 30 years ago today Chernobyl happened.
Chernobyl doesn’t need an introduction. It is one of those catastrophes in human history just the mention of which fills you up with terror and which clearly cuts up time to ‘before’ and ‘after’ as only the most appalling of events can do.
Today I want to tell you about something which was more terrible and appalling than Chernobyl. Namely this was the policy of no truth which was adopted about it. In other words, the refusal of the then governments of the countries of the former Eastern Bloc to inform their own citizens about what exactly had happened at Chernobyl in the Soviet Republic of Ukraine and what were the health risks for them.
All the events described below are my personal memories and experiences. Memories and experiences of a girl growing in the Bulgarian city of Varna on the Black Sea Coast. It was 1986 – only three years before the Fall of the Berlin Wall, yet at that point in time the chance of it happening was a resounding zero percent and we were busy living a life dedicated to building a bright future where all people would be truly equal and the needs of all would be taken care of.
On paper this was the ultimate communist goal. In reality though things were rather different.
Ours was a society of silence. A society where all official news were strictly censored and subject to the control of the Party – the omnipresent Communist Party, the members of which ruled the country. Access to information was strictly on a need-to-know basis, which meant that the majority of people didn’t need to know anything at all.
As long as we all were continuously indoctrinated with the idea that the Soviet Union was our benevolent Big Brother and that the West was The Enemy, all was good in our small closed world. We could travel abroad (after stringent checks and to some countries easier than to others), we could buy the fruits of the rotten Western commercialism like jeans, bananas and Coca-Cola in the shops (only in some of them and not all the time), but freedom of speech and individual thought process were actively discouraged.
Then Chernobyl exploded and this worst nuclear plant disaster in history only proved that when you control the flow of information, you control people’s destinies and lives.
I can’t tell you what exactly I was doing on 26th April 1986. A quick check online tells me that it was Saturday, so it is likely that I was at school, as at that time school was six days a week.
What I remember is a few days after that, when all of a sudden we were not allowed to go into the schoolyard during our recess. It was a grey and uninspiring day, not really conducive to running around outside. Still, it was a bit strange when we were told to stay in the classrooms and not to venture outside.
This was not done in an official manner, there was no announcement on the school internal communication system. Just the teacher who was in charge of my class rounded us up and quietly told us to stay in. No reason was given. And we didn’t really ask why, as at that time asking questions was not really fostered.
I remember seeing a teacher peering out through the large entrance door of the school and muttering something about a cloud and wondering if the clouds she could see were part of the cloud she was expecting to see.
Nothing made sense, but, yet again, having grown in an environment where following the lead of the group was favoured over taking personal initiative, we didn’t ask what exactly was going on. Looking back, I don’t think we even thought that something was going on. We were used to half-truths, we would receive commands without questioning their rationale.
When school finished for the day, we went home (at that time we walked home from school on our own). It was mentioned to us not to spend too much time outside, but again it was all very vague. It had started to rain, so even though the walk from school to home was 5 minutes max, I got soaked. Just like everyone else who was out and about at that time not knowing at all what had happened about 1000 km away from us.
It rained on and off the next few days. Including on 1st May. Labour Day was officially one of the biggest holidays in the communist calendar. It was a non-working day when a huge parade was staged in the centre of every city and town in Bulgaria. Workers and employees from all the factories and offices around town would congregate in the centre and, carrying flags, flowers and portraits of living and defunct members of the Party, would march by a big tribune on which the local dignitaries would sit, waving at the crowds.
Fresh spring rain fell non-stop on the rows of workers and employees who had been instructed to wave enthusiastically their flags, flowers and portraits as they were passing by the dignitaries’ tribune.
At that point the general public had heard nothing about Chernobyl and the terrible disaster there. ‘Radiation’ was not a word of our day-to-day vocabulary.
In the weeks and months which followed rumours began to trickle in. People started to talk about something that had happened in Ukraine, but no-one had any specific details. These conversations were had only with people you could trust to the utmost extent. As there were those who would try to gauge your opinion on delicate topics and then report you to the special units set up to exercise thought control.
There were no official statements, no official information about staying in, avoiding certain foods for fear of contamination, of not getting wet in the rain.
In the second half of May 1986 my class was taken out of school for a day in order to go on a youth brigade. We were driven to a cherry orchard outside of Varna, given large buckets and instructed to climb on the trees and pick cherries in order to help the local agricultural cooperative with its work.
Cherries! This juiciest, tastiest fruit. My classmates and I must have eaten our weight in cherries that day. With no-one actually telling us to reign it in, as these cherries had been bathed since they were tiny blossoms by the radioactive rains following Chernobyl’s explosion.
Just the same, no-one was concerned that the contaminated cherries we were picking were destined to be sold. Just like no-one was concerned that the shops around the country all of a sudden were full with fresh vegetables and fruit, all generously irrigated by the Chernobyl rains.
People in Bulgaria actually were happy that it rained. They saw it as an omen that spring and summer would bring good crops.
Women in Bulgaria were falling pregnant and having children. How many of them were affected by the consequences of Chernobyl we would never know. Apparently, there is no official statistics for this, as it was not allowed for such statistics to be kept at all. It was not allowed even to think that the Chernobyl disaster could be a reason for any problems at all.
Plus, at that time, we were obsessed with being perfect. Communism didn’t gladly tolerate anyone with physical deformities. Such children and adults were either kept at home or sent to special institutions, often outside of town, to be ‘reared’ far from society.
It was all hidden, covered, concealed. Strict control over all information was assiduously employed.
Only many years later, after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the media started to talk about Chernobyl and people gained the courage to ask questions aloud. Questions with no easy answers, which, actually, no-one was willing to give anyway.
And it makes me angry.
Thirty years after Chernobyl, it makes me angry that there are still people who are still being taken in by the fraudulent ideal of communism. Young people who seem to think that we are all equal and that the individual should succumb to the group, that the freedom of individual expression should be sacrificed for the politically correct silence of the many.
I have come across several of these young women and men. Most recently, reading an article by a young Bulgarian girl stating that Todor Zhivkov – head of Bulgaria during its Communist past – was a ‘symbol of progress’. This was the same person under the guidance of whom Chernobyl was enveloped in the policy of no truth and the same person who left his compatriots exposed to the radioactive rains.
And a few years back, I came across a large gathering of the Communist Party of Great Britain taking place at, out of all places, Trafalgar Square in London. There were red flags galore and a chap pushed a newspaper branded with the sickle and hammer under my nose, only to quickly pull his hand away when faced with my unequivocal reply.
All these men and women, who are still being taken in, I want to ask them: ‘Do you really want to live under a policy of no truth? And, above all, if you do, what’s wrong with you?’