Dear friends! Thanks to the selfless help of our friends in the UK and the USA, the book by Lyubov Sirota "Pripyat syndrome" has been fully translated into English. Although some money for its publication has already found, but we still do not have sufficient funds to cover the cost of printing an entire first edition.
Therefore the International public organization "PRIPYAT.com" opens pre-order the book "Pripyat syndrome" in English. We hope the book in hardcover on coated paper can be published already by February 2013.
Overall price for book+shipping via mail worldwide is $25 (w/o shipping – $15).
Pre-order conditions: 100% prepayment.
You can order the book in the online storefront here: http://www.pripyat-syndrome.
Those, who would register and pay for pre-order in December, will receive the book autographed by Lyubov Sirota.
We would welcome any assistance and any donations for the publication the book and to support the activities of Pripyat.com. For questions and suggestions please write to E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
A bit from the EDITOR’S AFTERWORD to the book by Birgitta Ingemanson:
"The book is a labor of love, first and foremost by its author, Lyubov Sirota, who as a mother and a professional experienced the tragedy of Pripyat, and as a poet felt –and could describe – its chilling abyss. Lyubov Makarovna’s words recreate not only the physical devastation of the power station itself, the city next to it, and the people’s bodies and minds that become enmeshed in illness and sorrow, but also the authorities’ desperate, unsuccessful balancing act between the need for knowledge and the shameful cover-ups. At the same time, this atmosphere of mismanagement, human errors, and cowardly avoidance of uncomfortable truths is breath-takingly held up to scorn in the completely genuine opposite reaction also shown: Ordinary people – friends, dying patients, some nurses and doctors, even kind strangers – simply decide to support and take care of each other, because their moral stance allows nothing else.
If a medical “Pripyat syndrome” exists, then it was invented by the well-known syndrome of bureaucratic lies. Even so, beyond the dying landscape of this story, a vibrant portrait of human warmth opens up: poetry and music that inspire, simple words of solace by one woman or man to another, arms stretched out in trust and love. ..."
Here's a small fragment from this book in English translation by Natalia Ryumina:
(a very short fragment from the film-story)
INSTEAD OF A FOREWORD
Everything started as in a movie. The idea to write a big prose work about the Chernobyl disaster appeared already in 1990, right after our almost daily, two-year struggle for our film The Threshold (directed by Rollan Sergienko), which managed to penetrate the “iron curtain” of denial and silence about the consequences of this disaster. The film itself was shot in an unbelievably short period of time – just six months, and the production was launched in 1988 by the then-head of the Alexander Dovzhenko Film Studios, the famous director Nikolay Mashchenko.
This was when all that I had seen, heard, and lived through – the whole four years of my post-Chernobyl experience which for a long time had not entered into my poetry – started to make its way onto the pages of my future novel or tale The Pripyat Syndrome.
Somehow sensing this process, Nikolay Pavlovich suggested at about the same time that I write a film script about the Chernobyl tragedy, and he even gave it a name – How Do I Save You, Son? But since the film studio was experiencing a deep financial crisis in those difficult years of perestroika, the work on this movie (first, it was supposed to be in two parts, then a single episode) was frozen.
Nevertheless, that particular work influenced the writing and the style of the tale that I am now offering for your attention, my dear Reader!
This tale is dedicated
to my fellow countrymen, the people of Pripyat,
and to everyone who has been affected by Chernobyl’s
sinister shadow. Although based on real events, it cannot be classified
as a documentary, for its characters are all assembled from various parts.
A tiny far-away star is pulsating in the dense purple sky. As it grows, it first transforms itself into a bright whirling star, then into a huge multi-colored sphere, which quickly approaches, leaving behind a long luminous train... Then suddenly – a blinding flash... The whole sky is illuminated by a red and yellow glow, which shivers in fever and, it turns out, has escaped from the core of the exploded reactor No. 4. The enormous ventilation pipe of the 3rd and 4th blocks of the V. I. Lenin Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station remains red-hot.
Irina suddenly wakes up. The intolerable pain that has become habitual over the last couple of years seems to be tearing apart her head and filling every cell of her being with boiling lead. Such bad timing! Just as she was about to go and pick up her son… and there are still so many things to do before that! With her disobedient hand, she reaches out for the medicine on the bedside table. She takes a painkiller, chews it and tries to reach the glass of water, but, unable to control her hand, she knocks the glass down on the floor. The water spills over the carpet and on the letters that are lying there.
The pain and bitterness make Irina flinch. She squeezes her head with both hands, making her short hair look even more dishevelled, and sits up slowly. She takes some valerian drops, picks up the soaked letters from the floor and puts them on the bedside table. She sits on her bed for a while and then struggles to stand up. She cautiously walks towards the bathroom, moaning in pain, still gripping her head with her hands.
She can hear her son’s voice, as she reads his first letter from the sanatorium:
“Hello, my dear Mommy, I’m writing this letter right after you left at 7.31 a.m. I still have a strong headache. I wish that these two months would skip by very quickly, but there are still 58 days to go. I miss you so much...”
Irina is inspecting her reflection in the mirror. Her face has become haggard by the illness.
“As I told you, I won’t be able to stand this for more than a month, they say that the weather here will be even hotter soon... Looking forward to hearing from you, Mom! Your Dennis.”
The image in the mirror is blurred, fading away. A quiet moan and a sound of falling objects can be heard.
It is a hot July morning in the outskirts of the capital. The number of people at the bus stop is too large even for a workday morning. The bus is probably delayed. On the opposite side of the road there appears a well-built, but unhealthily bent female figure with a hand-bag over her shoulder. This is Irina. She slowly crosses the road and approaches the bus stop. Only now does she notice the unusual gathering.
She tries to stop any passing car in order to get a lift. Eventually, one of the cars does stop and a respectable-looking driver lazily asks:
– Where’re you going?
– To the Ministry of Health, please.
– Sixty rubles.
– What!? A regular cab costs just ten!
– Are you getting in or not? – asks the respectable citizen.
Irina desperately slams the door and the car drives off without her, covering her in fumes. Depressed, she returns to the bus shelter and leans against its rough cold wall. She gets a pill out of her bag.
A woman passing by announces loudly:
– You’re waiting in vain! All the buses are late, the drivers are on strike…
Her words cause some commotion at the bus stop. Someone is upset, someone else, on the contrary, seems glad.
The crowd slowly vanishes. Irina is desperate to get to the city center today, so she decides to stay and wait for a bus. She walks up to an empty bench and sits down so as to lean her aching back against its back, which, as luck would have it, is not completely ripped off. Although she worries about the indefinite delay, deep in her soul she is glad about every single sign of change that is coming to this amazingly enormous country, known among the people by the short and simple name sovok. A strange but very familiar feeling of sweet alert reminds her of …
… the early morning of April 26, 1986. Wearing a light dressing gown, Irina is typing an article, using her old portable typewriter of the Moscow brand. She has spent all night on this article, which is quite common for her. She puts in the final period and takes out the sheet of paper which is fully covered with text. Collecting all the papers she puts them in a pile and moves the typewriter to the opposite side of her desk, covering it with the latest issue of Ogonyok magazine.
On the desk, apart from the typewriter and the manuscript, there’s also an empty coffee pot and a cup with some left-over coffee. On the very edge of the desk, right beside the bookshelf, there’s another pile of papers.
She has to share this desk with her son – he tends to use it during the day, as well as in the evening, while she gets it all to herself during the night.
Irina loves the silence of her long nights, when she can work or just sit by the window, thinking about life and eternity, disrupted by nobody, being one-on-one with the stars and the moon, which is constantly changing its appearance and manages to look so mysterious.
Irina turns off the table-lamp, since it is quite light in the room anyway. The slightly parted curtains covering the sash window look bright orange. One side is wide open and the soft spring breeze is blowing about the light tulle curtain. Irina moves it aside and inhales the pleasant, sharply-fresh morning air, while stretching her body. She is happy with the work that she’s finished, as well as the pure blue sky, the breeze that tenderly touches her long fair hair, and the waking pine forest that reaches far into the distance towards the Office of the Building Administration, and then all the way to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. This forest is also a precious part of her night vigils. Today it’s covered with a spooky greyish fog. Nice!
She wakes up her son and helps him pack his school bag, as he washes and has breakfast, clattering the dishes in their little kitchen.
More and more, the sun’s glare fills the room of their tiny, small-family studio apartment. The ray of sunlight is playing with the crystal on the clock on the bookshelf, skipping over the backs of various books, lightly touching the coffee-colored wallpaper, the decorative chandelier and a soft blanket that covers the sofa on the other side of the room. It also illuminates the complicated pattern of her cheap Moldavian carpet which, although small, manages to cover the whole floor – that’s how tiny the room is. Nevertheless, another sofa has been squeezed in by the wall opposite the window. On this sofa lies a guitar without a cover. A bit further away a white double door leads to the spacious pantry, also used as a wardrobe.
In this small Pripyat apartment, Irina and Dennis have lived comfortably for several years. Although in a couple of months they are about to move to a new, bigger flat, something that they very much look forward to, they still feel a bit sad to leave this one, for they are so used to it. Maybe for this reason – because they know that they will have to leave it soon – it seems even more sweet and precious right now. And maybe that’s why some strange melancholy is adding itself to her joyous feeling on this wonderful spring day.
Fully dressed, Dennis pops into the room to get his school bag. Irina is surprised by such promptness:
– Where are you going so early? Classes don’t start for another hour! Doesn’t seem like you at all...
– Oh, come on, Mom, – importantly replies Dennis. – We’re supposed to be on school duty today. And Seryozha’s already waiting for me outside, as we agreed, you see? We’ll take a little walk before classes... Breathe some fresh air!
– Fresh air, that’s good! – agrees Irina sleepily. – OK, off you go then. Oh, – she suddenly remembers, – Denya, you know what, last night something was hooting and crashing at the power station again – even our windows were shivering, you didn’t hear it?
– Whatever! – Dennis is on his way out already, – I’m off…
A couple of hours later Irina also leaves the apartment and, following her usual route through the courtyards, she walks toward the Palace of Culture, where her literature and theater studio is meeting today. 
She is clearly enjoying the day and for some reason everything moves her: the birds singing, the branches of maples and lindens swaying, all green; even the chestnut trees having already spread their wide leaves, revealing the little sharp buds. Everything around is so familiar, so joyous and somehow so unique today! Irina is pleasantly surprised by the sight of the foaming streams of water on the streets and sidewalks – the street-cleaning machines are visible everywhere. That’s why the air is so unusually fresh today! They probably clean the streets so thoroughly every Saturday, it’s just that she’s never noticed it before. These foaming streams are also adding a certain grandeur and festivity to the day.
Meanwhile Irina is pleased to note how conveniently she’s dressed for such a day – jeans, a light shirt and light, colorful jacket, but most important – sneakers. This allows her to avoid the puddles easily, or just to jump over them! The fresh breeze is touching her face and hair so sweetly. Nice!
An old woman, a villager from Polesye, appears from around the corner building and, while still at quite a distance, asks Irina:
– Where’s the bus station, kiddo?
– Continue down this street, then cross the road and it’s to your right, next to that forest, just over there, see? – Irina is explaining everything carefully to the old woman, who by now has come closer.
– Do not go to the bus station! – interrupts a man in a loud voice. Irina turns around. She sees an odd and messy-looking man in a dirty uniform, standing about twenty paces away, clearly very concerned about something. – Today there’s no bus service anyway! – he yells.
The granny starts approaching him in order to find out why there’s no bus service today, and as for Irina, she shrugs her shoulders, – so there’s no service, so what! – and continues on her way.
Unusually many people are strolling happily along Lenin Avenue and on the square in front of the Palace of Culture. Even more than that – there are lots of grey police uniforms, which also seems very surprising to Irina: the festive crowds, the kiosks with ice cream and other sweets on the sidewalks – all this doesn’t look like an ordinary Saturday – a feeling of the approaching May holidays is in the air.
By contrast, the Palace is almost empty. Irina says hello to the concierge, whom everybody calls Grandma Pasha, although she isn’t even that old yet. She loves to chat with Irina and now, too, she’s about to say something. But Irina gestures that she’s late, and quickly running upstairs crosses the gracefully decorated dance hall. There are only two people in the studio. Tatyana, an engineer at the power station, recently gave birth to her third child. On parental leave now, she spends all her time writing poems and drawing. She has come here earlier than usual today to start making the wall newspaper. The other person in the room is Sophia – a professional journalist, who works for the local newspaper and part-time on the radio. She is standing by the window, smoking. Tatyana sits at the desk in front of a huge and completely blank sheet of paper.
– What’s the news? – they ask simultaneously in a friendly duet.
– What are you talking about? – Irina is surprised – Where’s everybody else? I thought I was running late!
– Oh, – Sophia exhales disappointedly, coming up to Irina and kissing her on the cheek. She wipes off the mark of her lipstick. – This kid is still in total ignorance. How do you like that, Tatyana?
Sophia returns to her unfinished cigarette that she had left on top of the ashtray by the window. She inhales the smoke, studying Irina with curiosity.
– God’s birdie knows no worry and no labor, – joins in Tatyana, but then adds seriously, – Nobody else is coming, I guess... Will you be alright with just the two of us? You can start, “governor.”
– What’s happened? – Irina asks quietly.
– We hardly know anything, – answers Tatyana, – Something’s happened at the power station. Something really bad... There are even victims...
– Stop panicking! – interrupts Sophia, exhaling the smoke. – If it was really that bad, I’d definitely have known about it by now! Don’t worry, gov, – she addresses Irina, – let’s see what we’ve got here today and then we’ll go home. I’m still a bit concerned about the kids...
– Yes, and what do you know: in School No. 3, they’re not even allowed outside today, – confirms Tatyana. Her eldest daughter goes to that school, in the fifth grade.
“So, that’s what it is,” – Irina thinks, and the unusual feeling of sweet alert possesses her, mixing with the morning’s excitement, filling every cell of her body and even tickling her nose. However, she puts herself together and continues, almost calmly:
– OK, let’s not make any guesses. Tatyana, you try to get through to the power station and meanwhile I’ll check our schedule for the evening.
– There’s no point in calling them! – mutters Sophia, sitting on the window-sill. She’s already spent half an hour on the phone trying to reach them. The atomic station keeps silent.
Irina sits down by the table and opens her calendar.
– Right. Well, what can we do? You, Tanya, are excused. Go home to your baby. He needs you more than we do now. And Sophushka, we have two shows in the residence halls tonight. Let’s do it this way. Go home now and then come back here at 6 o’clock. By that time I’ll call... or just somehow get in touch with the residence halls. I doubt they’re up for a poetic evening at the moment over at Chernobyl, but in the Builders’ Residence Hall they’ll probably expect us... You can read the poems, I’ll sing the songs, and then we’ll answer their questions, just as always! OK?
– OK! – Sophia jumps down from the window-sill, her long dark wavy hair swaying. – See you tonight! – She kisses Irina on the cheek and tenderly messes up Tatyana’s short hair.
Irina is at home. Anxious, she measures the room with her steps, from time to time popping into the kitchen to check on her lunch which is cooking. Suddenly, recollecting something, she closes the window. Her son is not home yet. The clock shows half past two in the afternoon.
At last she hears the front door open and rushes into the small hallway. The sight is shocking – her boy is covered in clay and sand. When he takes off his shoes, the piles of sand pour out on the floor.
– My god! Where have you been? – Irina is terrified.
– We had a subbotnik today ... we... swept the school yard, – Dennis is lying. The truth is, he and Seryozhka had gone to the river after school, but Irina will find that out later. She is exasperated.
– In some schools the kids were not even allowed to go outside today and in yours it’s a subbotnik, and for primary school pupils?! Unbelievable!
Dennis is changing his clothes. Knowingly, he says:
– I know everything. Last night something exploded at the power station! We even had a teachers’ meeting at school. We were told to take some iodine pills and the grown-ups can have wine... Maybe us kids will even be e...va... taken out of town...
– Evacuated? – suggests Irina.
– Yes, that’s right! E..va..cu..ated, – he agrees, washing his face.
– Alright, my little expert! Wash yourself. Have some food. Do something nice. Read a book! I still have a couple of things to take care of tonight, so I’ll be back late. I’ll lock the door. Be good! And don’t open the window, OK?!
– OK, – sighs Dennis.
Their literary evening, dedicated to the creative works of Marina Tsvetaeva, is almost over. There’s a lot of young people in the Red Room of the Builders’ Residence Hall. It’s been going on for quite a while now, but they don’t want to release their guests just yet. However, Irina is singing her final song:
One last hour to get through.
And then – eternal longing!
Time won’t stop for us, it’s true -
Whatever’s pulling me to you -
Is not at all your doing!
It’s just the fear that all my bloom -
Will soon be going.
What is the value of an hour?
What is the weight of moments?
The shadow on a solar clock
Is moving fast.
For constellations and for us -
This hour equally will pass.
Oh, how I wish with all my heart
That it would last!
As soon as the last chords of the song have sounded, Irina and Sophia are surrounded by people with questions. For a short time, all today’s worries are forgotten. Only by 11 p.m. do they finally manage to get away from their grateful audience, carrying large bouquets of flowers.
Still inspired by the warm welcome and the wonderfully tender evening, they walk past the unfinished stadium towards the central avenue, which, as is usual for the main streets of all the cities in the USSR, is named for Lenin. It is brightly illuminated by neon slogans proclaiming “THE PEOPLE AND THE PARTY ARE ONE” above the City Committee building of the Communist Party; “HOTEL POLESYE” next to it; the “PALACE OF CULTURE ENERGETIK” on top of their own building; the “RADUGA” shop on the left; and shining from the height of a nine-story building on the right, a bit further away, the immortal phrase “LET THE ATOM BE A WORKER, NOT A SOLDIER.”
Sophia decides to take a walk with her friend, because this night is way too lovely to go home right away. And so, free of any troubled thoughts, they reach the end of the avenue. As soon as they get to the circle by the bridge, they both gasp: further away, just above the forest there’s a huge, burning glow. It flickers and trembles, as if from a scorching, open-hearth furnace. The enormous ventilation pipe of the power station is red-hot.
– Yes, – Sophia murmurs under her breath. – Looks like some serious shit!
Irina is shocked, too, but at the same time a wave of adventurous, teenage-like excitement rises in her, which is very difficult to contain:
– Let’s go closer to the bridge! I wonder if anyone will stop us?!
Sophia seems to have the same thought, so the two young women head for the bridge that leads out of town. They reach it, but no one seems to be there to stop them, so they quickly lose interest and go back, still keeping their eyes on the glow above the forest.
– Wouldn’t it be great if we could get up on the roof of a nine-story apartment building and observe everything from there?! – exclaims Irina in childish joy. – Come on! Maybe, it’s our professional duty…
– Listen, woman! Don’t you think you live too close to this “genie” anyway? I hope it won’t escape from its burning bottle at some point?! – Sophia reasons in her deep voice. – Now, listen, if anything bad happens, let Dennis run over to me with your manuscripts, we live further from here so, I guess, it’s also safer. As for you, you can observe it and put that into writing for as long as your soul desires, deal?!
– Deal! – agrees Irina.
They embrace each other, and this embrace is somehow stronger and warmer than usual. As they are about to part, they see a row of government cars, black Volgas and Zils, swiftly approaching from across the bridge, passing them and speeding towards the building of the City Committee.
Without saying a word, the girls wave to each other and rush to their homes. Each of them is dwelling on the thought of the almost incomprehensible military word – evacuation, which fills their hearts with sweet trembling.
Once at home, Irina finds her son already asleep. Without bothering to take off her shoes and jacket, she turns on the table-lamp. She opens the door of the pantry-closet and gets out her large black travel bag, then sits down, absent-mindedly scanning the room and trying to figure out what the most important things are that she needs to pack in case of…
Dennis turns over and opens his eyes:
– Mom, where are you going?
– I’ve only just come back, sonny boy!
– But what are you doing? – he asks, worry filling his voice, as he looks at the bag and the wide-open pantry.
– I’m figuring out what to put in this bag to be ready, in case of an evacuation…
– Why? Is that what’s going to happen?
– I don’t know yet, but I think so… You go back to sleep now. Sleep. I’ll wake you up if anything happens.
– OK. – Dennis turns back to the wall and straight away falls into a deep sweet sleep.
Irina energetically stands up and takes some warm clothes, extra underwear and a couple of towels out of the closet. She leaves the room, then returns with a bar of soap and other toiletries in her hands. The bag is filling up with all these things, also some letters and books. She pulls out the bottom drawer of the bookcase, searches through all her papers there, picks out their ID documents and puts them in her purse. Then she picks up a photo album, sits down by the desk, and after looking through all the pictures, takes out some of the unattached ones and puts them in her purse as well.
The photo album, which is now lying on the desk, is open at one of the most vivid pages, which illustrates Pripyat’s theater life. The pictures show rehearsals and the first performance of a very significant work, a poetic play about the life of Marina Tsvetaeva, which took eighteen months to prepare. As usual, Irina sits by the wide-open window, looking into the deaf, disturbing night. She remembers a romance from this particular play:
People are awake behind
that window with a light.
Maybe they are drinking wine
in this sleepless night.
Maybe sitting still, and
simply holding hands –
A window just like this
is anywhere, my friend.
A cry of meetings and goodbyes –
yes, that is what you are!
Lighting up a thousand candles,
perhaps just one afar…
There is no peace, no rest,
no calmness for my mind,
In my house, too, there is
a window of this kind.
Say your prayer, my dear, for this sleepless night
and for the window with a light.
Meanwhile, behind their windows, in the darkness of the night, the road to the power station is full of ambulances and fire engines that rush back and forth with their sirens off, also black Volgas with dark tinted windows.
Around 3 a.m., someone knocks softly on the door of their apartment, then a bit more loudly.
– Who is it? – asks Irina.
– The Office of Housing. Open up, – quietly answers a creaky voice behind the door.
Irina opens it. The stranger standing there is almost whispering in his squeaky managerial voice:
– Be ready for evacuation. Do not sleep. Just wait…
– Where? – asks Irina.
But the stranger ignores her question, already scratching away at the other doors. In the long poorly lit corridor Irina notices a few other families, silently standing along the walls with their belongings, looking like shadows.
Returning to her apartment, she wakes up her son and helps the sleepy boy dress in the clothes that she had already prepared. Dennis puts on his jacket and shoes. They leave their apartment and wait by the door for a while, just like the others, becoming silent shadows themselves.
The air in the corridor is so dense that they even have a taste of metal in their mouths. People start talking to each other – first, in carefully suppressed whispers, then louder, where fragments of phrases may be heard:
– ...they say the buses are already on stand-by at Shepelichi...
– …how long must we wait?!
It surprises Irina that everybody is managing to stay quite restrained and reasonable. There’s no panic or hysteria which, according to works of fiction, would be very appropriate for these kinds of situations. Still, Irina can hear the faint weeping of Antonina, the wife of a policeman, from the next-door apartment. It’s perfectly clear why – her husband, Tolik, is staying in town no matter what.
Tolik hastily comes out of their apartment, looking worried, nods to Irina and rushes off. The blubbering Antonina follows him. Catching sight of Irina, she comes up to her, quietly begging:
– Irochka, could you please look after Anka for five minutes! I’ll be right back...
Barely able to restrain herself, she walks toward the stairs and then starts running. A barmaid, Vera, appears from one of the other apartments, carrying a one-year-old baby.
– So you managed to pick up your little one at the hospital? – Irina asks instead of greeting her.
– Yes, I did, last night, – quietly replies her neighbor.
– Thank God that you managed, – sighs Irina, – at least you’ll be able to stay together now.
The cute little face of three-year-old Anyuta shows up in the door on the left. Such faces one can usually see on the containers of baby food. Her large blue eyes are wide open.
– Where’s mama? – she whimpers.
– Come here, my lovely one, – Irina calls out to her, picks her up and kisses her on the cheek. – Your Mom will be back in a minute... Everything’s fine... Everything’s fine, honey…
Antonina is back. She looks very pale and distressed.
– Thank you! Anna, let’s go home and pack our things!
Some of the children can’t stand the long wait and are beginning to run out into the courtyard. Dennis, in a whisper, asks Irina to let him go, too. She hesitates a bit, but then gives in and so he, joyfully hopping, disappears down the stairs.
Some parents also follow their children into the yard.
Irina returns to the apartment, putting her things in the hallway. Again she sits on the window-sill, and from the height of the second floor is able to observe what’s going on downstairs, at the front door. On the benches and all around them are suitcases, travel bags, tote-bags, backpacks. People are gathered in little groups and everyone is dressed any which way. They are discussing the events of the previous day, also guessing, suggesting and arguing about what’s going to happen next. A fat man in a warm tracksuit is trying to prove to everyone that their clothes are supposed to be sporty. He says he knows exactly what it’s going to be like: they’ll be taken out of town, ten kilometers or so, to some camp-ground. They’ll spend two or three days there and then they’ll all come back home, so it’s not worth taking a lot of unnecessary stuff along.
The children are running around after each other. The youngest ones, including Anyuta, are playing in a sand-box. Dennis and a couple of other boys his age (they’re about nine-ten years old) disappear into the building and then run away from there with matches in their hands. Irina screams:
– Dennis, what are you all doing with those matches?! Are you going to burn something?
– No, Mom, – he answers loudly. – We’re just collecting matches that have already been used. We’re playing this game. Look...
He and Seryozha, a chubby boy with grey eyes, demonstrate their game. Each takes a match and holds it with two fingers of their right hand, then they crash them against one another and he whose match breaks loses.
– See, I won! – happily yells Dennis.
– Alright! Go on, keep on playing, – Irina waves them away and looks up at the sky, from where she hears a loud roar of an approaching helicopter. It’s already past five in the morning and in the brightening sky she can clearly see the military chopper. It flies by very low, then lands either by the bus station or in the old stadium, disappearing from her sight. Some boys rush after it, but their parents are alarmed:
– Stop! Where are you going?!
– We just want to see where it landed and then we’ll be right back, – replies one of the boys.
Irina rushes out of her apartment and swiftly runs down the stairs. On the ground floor by a window several girls are sitting around playing a game. Stopping for a moment, Irina asks them:
– What’s the news, Natalka?
– They say if we’re not evacuated by 9 a.m. then we’ll all stay here. But the reactor is so burning hot that if you spit on it, it will explode in less than a moment! – the oldest girl announces gladly.
– I see, well, thanks for the information! – retorts Irina and rushes forth.
She catches up with her son, almost at the stadium, where the noise from the helicopter can still be heard.
– Come home right away! – she tells him off. – And all the rest of you as well – go home. Haven’t you seen a helicopter before? Go on, off you go!
About ten boys unwillingly drag themselves back toward their own yard, constantly looking up at the big military machine. On the way, the exhausted and sleepy Dennis asks:
– Mom, so are they going to execute us or not?!
Amused by his mistake, Irina nevertheless answers seriously:
– I don’t know any more than you do. They say that the buses are on stand-by order in Chernobyl and in Shepelichi, but there’s no official information yet...
– What does that mean – “official”?
– Well, nobody said anything on the radio... So, it’s just rumors, see?
– Yep, – uncertainly answers Dennis.
– I’m so tired, Mom, – he says after they return to their apartment. – Can I sleep a bit more?
– Of course, you can. In fact, you should! That’s a whole lot better than chasing helicopters. Don’t take your clothes off though, just in case…
Dennis falls asleep right away. Irina locks the door and rushes to the phone booths at the bus station, hoping to get through to the Palace of Culture, to the City Committee, to the editorial office, anywhere at all, just to find out what’s going on, with more or less certainty. Not a single phone is working. They’re all switched off, – concludes Irina.
She walks around her apartment building for a while, hoping to find out anything at all, burning with desire to run to the Palace of Culture herself, but at the same time dreading to go far from home – she doesn’t want to be separated from Dennis in case of a sudden evacuation.
The sun has risen quite high by now. Little by little, everyone who was woken up in the night disappears back into their apartments. Along the sidewalk toward the Yanov train station, Irina sees a group of seasonal laborers walking in a single line, carrying bags and suitcases. Obviously, they have received their departure permits. There are several thousand people like this in the town, engaged in building the fifth and sixth blocks of the Chernobyl Power Station.
They are followed by loud inquiries from the balconies of the surrounding buildings:
– Where are you going in such haste, fellows?
– Nicht verstehen, – somebody answers jokingly.
People from the neighboring buildings are trying to communicate with each other, shouting across the courtyards:
– Hey, neighbor! Come over here!
– No, you come to us! We’ve got some homemade vodka!
“A feast during the plague,” – thinks Irina. She is in a curious state of half-drunken excitement, which may be caused by the uncertainty, or maybe by the compressed sour air. An unknown force is making her circle around the building with such ease that sometimes it seems as if her feet are not even touching the ground.
By midday Irina finally decides to tear herself away from her home and almost flies along her usual path toward the Palace of Culture. From time to time she rubs her eyes and cheeks hard, because they are itching like hell – her whole face is stinging slightly. But this she hardly notices, for her attention is focused elsewhere. She wants to memorize absolutely everything: the sharp chestnut leaves sticking out from below the buds, the warm colors of the high-rise apartment blocks that are placed as if on a chess board, the beautiful kindergarten with its amazingly convenient playgrounds, and the yard of the school that her son attends. Everything around seems so unusually compact – as if there’s an invisible cupola, or a ceiling, above the town, which now, being compressed by the atmosphere, looks like one huge, wonderful, cozy apartment.
A young couple meets Irina, staring at her animated face as she runs past them. They look at each other and the guy whispers to his girlfriend:
– See, some people are jogging. And you were worried... Everything is fine!
And Irina keeps running.
On the square in front of the Palace is gathered almost all the “artistic flowering of the town.” Even from far away Irina notices the curly hair of tall, always joyous and witty Vasily – the disco manager. As always, he stands in the center, surrounded by others. There are Oleg and Seryozha – guys from a rock band; God’s little flower, Verochka – administrator of all the clubs and amateur associations; stately Nadezhda – choir conductor; quick and sharp-tongued Olga – head of the children’s drama group; good-natured, near-sighted Valya – leader of the propaganda team, who despite her advanced pregnancy has joined her own people to find out what has happened. A bit further away there’s lanky Kolya – Nikolay Nikolaevich, whom all his colleagues among themselves call nothing but Nik-Nik. Head of the amateur film studio, he is now busy taking snapshots of the lively streets.
– Wow, all the familiar faces! – exclaims Irina, shaking hands. – Tell us what you all know!
Unfortunately, even here nobody can give a certain answer.
– Do you really think that if we summed up all our “knowledge,” we’d be rich with information? Oh, no! – says Vasily with bitter irony. – We’re ordinary mortals. We can only stick to the rumors…
– Listen, it was awful to play and sing at the wedding yesterday, watching everyone drinking, eating and dancing, when we already knew that somebody was dying at the power station at exactly the same time! – says Oleg, emotionally. For a moment tears sparkle in his grey eyes.
– Yes, that’s a pretty shitty feeling, – agrees Vasily. – Our discotheque was also at a wedding yesterday…
– That’s it! I’m going to the City Committee! – Nadezhda is unable to
contain herself anymore. – I’ll try to reach my brother-in-law, who’s our “minister of culture” after all. At least he should know something.
Straightening up her stately figure, she walks proudly over toward the Party headquarters. Like a Tsarina, fresh-looking Sophia is approaching the gathering from the opposite direction, holding hands with her two dressed-up daughters.
– Oh, right! We were supposed to have a performance of the Kiev Puppet Theater today, weren’t we, – realizes Valya, noticing the big poster in front of the Palace and, as always, pulls funnily at the corner of her right eye, “tuning up her focus” on Sophia and the girls.
– Hey, you! You’re not on your way to the theater, are you?! – jokes Irina.
– Why? We’re staunch people! We can go to the theater – yes, we can! – says Sophia, grim now, and kisses Irina on the cheek, shaking hands with the others.
It turns out that Irina has more information than anyone else. Only their district had been woken up in the night, because it was the nearest one to the atomic energy station. Everyone else was serenely asleep.
The tall, slim director of the Palace of Culture approaches. Everybody’s attention turns to him now, because he’s just been THERE – at the City Committee.
– So?! – the choir of voices wants to know.
Flattered by such attention, the director pauses for a long time, fixes his soft grey hair, and only after that, slowly stretching out the words and sounding conspiratorial, he announces:
– There was a danger of a big explosion... The reactor could have been badly damaged... Then everything would have been much more serious... But now – the fire has already been extinguished. So, everything is getting back to normal...
– You’d better tell us if there will be an evacuation or not! – Olga interrupts him straightforwardly.
– Maybe there will be… But maybe not today…
– And what about the discotheque tonight? – Vasily cleverly narrows his blue eyes.
– If the town is not evacuated by this evening, then, undoubtedly, the discotheque will be held. Everything is supposed to be as usual. No panic! –answers the director with great authority.
– As if you’ve seen even a hint of panic here!? – exclaims Sophia, proudly showing off and pointing to the festively crowded avenue and the square which is full of dressed-up people.
– Vitaly Vissarionovich, – Irina breaks the pause, – don’t you think that mass events, considering the given circumstances, are inappropriate and unacceptable?!
– I do, I do! – the director replies nervously. – However, I’ll repeat for those who did not understand – if there’s no evacuation, then not a single event will be cancelled! – He turns and walks rapidly toward the Palace of Culture.
– Boys-and-girls, look! Everyone’s rushing to the grocery store! Shall we, too?! – Sophia tries to relieve the awkward moment.
– Let’s go for it! – hums their “creative circle” and they all move along toward the grocer’s, which is on the first floor of the recently built two-story shopping center.
Nadezhda catches up with them, literally out of breath:
– For two days and nights already the government commission has been in session, they just can’t decide what to do with us. My brother-in-law orders us to go home. He says that kids will definitely be taken out of town; as for everyone else – that’s still uncertain.
– Well, at least they’ll take care of the children, thank God for that! Though I wish they’d tell us what to do. Otherwise it’s just like – oh, something’s going on somewhere... someone is extinguishing a fire somewhere... as if all this does not concern us at all! – angrily complains Irina.
– By the way, I just saw them filling bags with sand near the docks, – says Nik-Nik, adjusting his glasses.
– See, – agrees Olga, – and we are like clowns in a fire! “Not a single event will be cancelled,” – she imitates the voice of the director.
– So where’s our famous civil defence?! – tiny Verochka is exasperated. – Remember, a couple of months ago they stirred up the Palace with their grandiose practice session? and now, for the second day in a row, nothing is heard from them!
– Stay calm, stay calm! – Vasily is calming everyone by means of bitter irony. – Yesterday we had weddings, today – a discotheque... so, have fun, folks! And meanwhile, the authorities will decide what to do with us. The Giraffe is big, - and looking towards the building of the City Committee, – he sees things better!
– That’s right, Vasily! – Sophia supports him. – Let’s do this – if our children are evacuated, all of us will gather at your disco tonight, OK? Everybody heard that?
– And what’ll we do there, Sophia Petrovna? – Nik-Nik almost sings these words with a sweet deferential smile, adjusting his glasses again.
– Lots of things, Kolya! We’ll be doing lots of things! – cheerfully answers Sophia as they enter the spacious hall of the supermarket with its numerous departments, where the usual lines are already in place at each counter.
– My God! They’re spoiling us today! – Oleg is surprised by the abundance
of food on the shelves.
Indeed, in addition to several kinds of smoked sausage and other scarce treats (uncommon even in the government-supplied military and nuclear towns), today the central Pripyat supermarket is full of rare, almost “exotic” provisions, including sour cream and other dairy products in new, never-before-seen convenient plastic containers.
– What does it mean?! – Nik-Nik is surprised, too. He takes off his glasses and wipes the lenses.
– It’s probably for the May holidays, – suggests Valya, focusing on the butcher’s counter, which is almost embarrassingly overloaded with beautifully packed chickens and varieties of beef and pork.
– Oh no, kids! It all looks as if they’ve made such an effort because they’re expecting the arrival of some high-profile guests, – remarks Sophia.
– Exactly! – agrees Vasily.
– Poor darlings! Did they really have to empty all their Party reserves?! – Irina attempts some irony.
– Ha! Do you really think they’d manage to harm their own comforts?! Hold your pocket wide open, girl! – bites Olga.
– True, something’s not quite right here, – agrees Sergey, who is unusually taciturn today.
– Quite right or not, don’t worry about it! Feasts like this are rare in our lives. So, let’s swoop down while it’s still there! – Sophia is buzzing like a noisy beetle and heads toward the line at the deli’s sausage counter.
And so the friends spread out and start shopping. They fully use this lucky chance, going through various lines and spending all the cash they have. Accident or no accident, the holidays indeed are not that far away.
As soon as they leave the supermarket with their bags full, a cheery woman’s voice starts transmitting the official announcement through the powerful loudspeaker at the Palace of Culture:
– Attention! Attention! Dear comrades! The City Council of People’s Deputies is announcing that in connection with the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, unfavorable radiation conditions are forming in the town of Pripyat. Necessary actions are being performed by the Party and Soviet organizations; special precautions are being taken by the military divisions. However, for the purpose of providing full safety for everyone and first of all, for the children, it is necessary to conduct a temporary evacuation of the people to nearby villages in Kiev Oblast. In order to do that, today, April 27, starting at 2 p.m., buses accompanied by police and representatives of the City Executive Committee will come to every apartment block. It is recommended that you take your personal documents, the most necessary things, and also, some food... Our leaders of enterprises and institutions have identified a group of workers that will stay in Pripyat, in order to ensure the normal functioning of the town. During the evacuation, all buildings will be guarded by the police.
Comrades! Whilst temporarily leaving your living quarters, please do not forget to close all the windows, turn off all electric and gas equipment, and close the water taps!
Please, maintain calm and order during this temporary evacuation!
– Girls! – exclaims Sophia, interrupting the general numbness. – What if our boys will still have to stay in town?! Quickly, whoever’s got any spare food, give it to the disco guys, so it won’t be too sad for them to die here! – she jokes bitterly.
They all embrace and rush in different directions. Irina is running home, holding a fresh loaf of bread and a couple of today’s “rarities”: a triangular carton of milk and a shiny container of sour cream. Her throat keeps tickling. Meanwhile, the loudspeakers are transmitting more information:
– Attention! Attention! Residents of Pripyat who own their own transport may leave the city independently!
– Of course, – mutters Irina as she runs, – less hassle for the authorities.
Even in such haste to get home, she can’t help noticing that the world around her seems to be collapsing. The wide chestnut leaves are now hanging down, pitifully dangling below the buds. And again that same strange wave of anxiety is overwhelming her whole being with aching melancholy.
– That’s it, Dennis, evacuation! – Irina shouts as she opens the door to her apartment.
 The relatively short passages of text within these graphic signs take place in the present, that is, during a few days in summer and early fall 1991. The longer texts are flashbacks to the aftermath of the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, southeast of the City of Pripyat in Ukraine five years earlier, on April 26, 1986.
 Information on the many variations of Russian and Ukrainian proper names and nicknames may be found at the end of the book.
 The country is the Soviet Union, or, officially, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Now an independent country, Ukraine at the time of this story was still one of the fifteen Soviet republics.
 This is a clock of the brand Mayak Crystal, decorated with facetted glass. (Note by the author.)
 Although this was a Saturday, Soviet children, like in many European schools, attended classes for part of the day.
 The Soviet Palaces of Culture were, and continue to be, community centers for all kinds of cultural, political, and amateur activities.
 Three geographic names in this book are closely related: Polesye, a large area located on both sides of the Belarus-Ukraine border, also reaching into parts of Russia and Poland, and made up of forests and the vast wetlands called the Pripyat Marshes; Polessky, a town not far from Pripyat; and Polesskoe, a settlement in the same vicinity.
 May 1 is celebrated all over Europe both for political reasons (International Workers’ Day), and, simply, as a festive spring holiday, often with one or two extra days off from work.
 In addition to indicating relatives by blood or marriage, titles such as Grandma (or Granny), Aunt (Auntie), and Uncle can also be used as a polite address to a woman or man older than the speaker.
 “Wall newspapers” are announcements and illustrated news items fastened on bulletin boards for everyone to read.
 The subbotniks (from Russian subbota = Saturday) were days of volunteer work, mostly organized for cleaning the streets of garbage, fixing public amenities, collecting recyclable material, and other community services. (Note by the translator; from Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subbotnik.)
 The Red Room (or Red Corner) was the Soviet analogue to the place of honor in the Russian log hut (a corner with an icon), a specially allocated place intended for ideologically-educational influences as a means of communist education. These were primary centers of propaganda work. The Red Corners were run by the general management of the party, the trade unions, and the communist youth organization, the Komsomol. (Note by the translator, from The Russian Humanitarian Encyclopedic Dictionary.)
 The poems of beloved Russian poets are often put to music and performed, both by professional singers and informally among friends. This poem is by Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) whose work became increasingly known and loved after glasnost, Mikhail Gorbachev’s easing of the Soviet censorship laws. Tsvetaeva left the Soviet Union in 1922, living with her family in several European cities, including Paris and Berlin, but returned home in 1941. Later that year she committed suicide. The translations of poetry here and later are by Natalia Ryumina.
 An energetik is an engineer specializing in diverse aspects of physical or mechanical energy, including, here, atomic energy. The shop’s name that follows, raduga, means “rainbow.”
 The places that those evacuated from Pripyat will be taken to were towns and villages in the countryside near their city, including, for example, Shepelichi (or Novoshepelichi), Ivankov, Kopachi, Obukhovich, Kicheevo, and Chistogalovka.
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The continuation will be in the published book!!!
© Lyubov Sirota "Pripyat syndrome", Pripyat.com, 2009
© Yuhimenko, A. (design of the cover), 2009
© Ryumina, N. (translation), 2013
© Ingemanson, B. (afterword), 2013