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Oleg Vekleko: The "4th Block" (Interview for magazine 'Greatis', Moscow, 1991)

I plumped into Chernobyl by means of military call-up. In the USSR all the adult males were army reservists.

It is from Kharkov, in particular, that many people were drafted to Chernobyl – on the very first days after the accident. In the zone I arrived as early as on May 3, 1986 – a week after the nuclear power plant (NPP) unit's explosion. And was staying there for two months. I was in charge of a mobile cinema - a truck with a driver and a projectionist. That is how it is like: you travel around the zone, carry movies – along with anything else that has to be transported. Transport vehicles were in shortage - so they would wake you any moment: “Get up! There is nobody else at hand to do it”. There was not much difference between day and night, actually.

Somehow, I didn’t get to the NPP during my first days in the zone. And I was disappointed: how come I have been here already for a week and haven’t seen yet the destroyed unit, haven’t climbed the radioactive ruins?! Well, later on it became my day-to-day job. The 25th brigade's department of political indoctrination (I with my mobile cinema was attached to it) was to go to the NPP with some military unit to “raise the morale”. That is what our “fathers-commanders” would tell us: “25 roentgen (this was a maximum permissible dose of radiation exposure, after getting which one was dismissed from the zone) – is nothing at all. 50 roentgen – is allright! 100 roentgen is survivable, too. Look, we are here, and we are fine; and back in Kiev, they are just panic mongers”. And we did think so at that time. For instance, they announce on the radio: “The wind is from the NPP. Shut the windows! Wash your head!” But where do you have to wash it, when there is no water most of the time? So we would go to the NPP itself to take shower, there were artesian wells at the NPP. So, there one could wash oneself and change the clothes. It is how it happened that we went to wash ourselves to the exploded unit. The mood was reckless. I started drawing there almost automatically to distract myself from what was going on around. The guys noticed this: “Please, make a portrait, I'll send it to my mother”. It was then that I first felt my mission as an artist. I was welcome everywhere. The drawings were hung on a special board of distinction. The commanders would bring guests to show such a spectacular sight: “An artist!”. It happened that I received letters addressed just to “Artist Veklenko, Chernobyl”.

When I returned home, everything appeared normal on the first days. But once, suddenly I felt swaying as if I were drunk. My blood was tested and I was taken to the Radiological Institute immediately. It was there that another Chernobyl started for me: ceaseless faints, dropper, 10-15 injections a day, tests, examinations... And the doctors explain nothing to you. And it is useless to ask. At the hospital I saw things which I'd rather not see. Of course, I used to see sights in the zone too: in the field tents greenish-faced guys, lying motionless and sick, vomiting from overexposure to radiation... But in the zone I had perceived it in a different way. It was in hospital that I started feeling horrified. I new Chernobyl opened for me. I felt like being at the edge of an abyss.

And I has started wildly want to survive! I started seriously taking care of my health, then jogging… I had jogged before, even in Chernobyl, - though, perhaps, it was not worth doing it there.

Later the union of the Chernobyl-affected was created in Kharkov. This was the first and largest association in the Soviet Union. For some reason it was from Kharkov that the biggest number of people were taken and overexposed to radiation. And it is here that the percentage of the sick is the highest.

Once I was asked by Chernobyl veterans to arrange an exhibition of the drawings that I made in the zone and the photos that I took. Then the guys asked me to do it once more. They helped me, though they did not have any relation to arts at all. It is amazing though how efficient they were!

That was when the idea of organizing a large international exhibition of posters and graphic works occurred to us. The idea first came to me at a biennale in Warsaw, where I saw posters about Chernobyl disaster from Germany, Japan, Israel... and not a single one from my country, the USSR. I was shocked. Well, in fact there were posters about Chernobyl in the Soviet Union, but not many. And they were mainly something like: “Chernobyl – a place for exploits!”, that is in a typical Soviet style. Abroad I saw a different discourse – with genuine care about the future of the world (in spite those words have become a clichй). That was a completely different level of conceptualization. The thing is that we were taught that poster is a one-day-long art. And there I was faced with a profound philosophical approach. So, we looked through catalogues to find out who work on the topic of ecology. Then we wrote letters and sent them. We did not have much hope. But suddenly – we were flooded, literally avalanched with letters and works. We kept running to the post office and back all the time. Even when the deadlines for submission had been over, and, moreover, even the results of the exhibition competition had been determined, - we were still receiving works in large numbers. It was utterly unexpected for us. Because of the way we had been brought up, somewhere deep inside we thought: “Damn capitalists! They keep thinking about money and nothing else”. And suddenly we found ourselves faced with such a sincere concern, sympathy! The letters were so human. We discovered another world, where everything was different. And 90 % of the works were sent as gifts… Most likely those artists had never heard about the city of Kharkiv before, but kept sending their works with no hesitation.

Of course, Chernobyl is a huge tragedy, a terrible wound for Ukraine. The people are very stressed. However, if you compare the works sent by our artists and from abroad... Our works mainly depict a plain demand: “Ban it!” or “Stand against it!” - the old-fashioned approach of the former Soviet poster art school. Whereas foreign artists’ works were less direct - but move you and penetrate your feelings in much more profound and intense way. They look for the reason of Chernobyl at deeper layers.

And it WAS lying more deeply.

I realized this at our '4th BLOCK' exhibition.

Oleg Vekleko


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