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Should the city of Pripyat be saved?:

The Chernobyl Poems of Lyubov Sirota

During the ten years that I worked on my book, Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, 1895-1984, I corresponded and spoke with experts from all over the world, and even traveled to the Soviet Union.

In 1990 I found myself at a remarkable Soviet-American conference in Newport, Rhode Island, called "Facing Apocalypse II," where I met Soviet scientist and Chernobyl activist Dr. Adolph Harash. His impassioned attack on the authorities who allowed the disaster to happen and who then tried to cover it up or dismiss it as unimportant was in striking contrast to the tone of the rest of the Soviet delegation.

For me, the high point of Dr. Harash's speech was the reading of a poem by a woman who had been victimized by the explosion: Lybov Sirota. Working as director of a writing program for children near the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station, she had never written poetry before April 25th, 1986. Seeking a breath of fresh air in the middle of that night, she went out on to her balcony in the city of Pripyat and watched the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explode in front of her.

The dead city of Pripyat

In the days that followed, she and her son grew gravely ill from heavy doses of radioactive contamination. To express her grief and rage, she turned to writing poems, and collected them in a small book entitled Burden.

It was published in Kiev, the city (now in Ukraine) where she had fled along with the other refugees from Pripyat. She later became involved in documentary films about the disaster and went to work as a film editor at the A. P. Dovzhenko Film Studio in Kiev.

However, repeated hospitalizations for fatigue and pain (typical results of radiation exposure) increasingly interfered with her work. She continued to write, mostly in Ukranian, but it was Dr. Harash's kind efforts which continued to spread word of her work.

I recruited American poet Elizavietta Ritchie to translate the poems and asked Dr. Harash to write an introduction to them, which in its turn had to be translated. It was fortunate that Both Lyubov Sirota and Dr. Harash know some English, for I know no Russian. Selections were read to music on the National Public Radio program Terra Infirma on April 1, 1992; the poem "Radiophobia" was published in the August 5, 1992 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association; one other poem was published in New York Quarterly, all the poems and a revised version of the introduction appeared in Calyx, Winter 1992/1993, and in Life on the Line: Selections on Words and Healing edited by Sue Brannan Walker & Rosaly Demaios Roffman (Mobile, Alabama: Negative Capability Press, 1992). "Your Glance Will Trip on My Shadow" was reprinted in A Fierce Brightnesss: Twenty-Five Yars of Women's Poetry, ed. Margaret Donnelly, Beverly McFarland, and Micki Reaman (Corvallis, Oregon: Calyx Books, 2002). One poem has been included in a major anthology from W. W. Norton: Perspectives from the Past: Primary Sources in Western Civilizations,Vol. 2, Second Edition, ed. James Brophy et al.

The article by Dr. Harash has also appeared in the Canadian magazine Woman's World.

My hope was to generate enough interest in her case to bring her and her son to the U.S. for a round of examinations and treatment by American doctors, combined with a series of public readings. However, I was not able to accomplish this.

As the months went by, she continued to grow sicker and weaker, and was at last unable to travel. Doctors told me that at this late date there would be little they could do for her anyway. She developed cataracts and a brain tumor, both probably caused by the radiation. She has been operated on repeatedly in Kiev, and spends much of the year in the hospital.

Fortunately her son Alex (nicknamed "Sasha") has done much better than his mother and was sponsored by Greenpeace International on a lecture tour in 1996. He has also visited the now-abandoned town of Pripyat and taken some moving pictures which you can view here. In the spring of 2000 he persuaded his mother to make her own pilgrimage to their former home, taking further pictures which you can also view here.

Sirota's most fervent hope is that her poems will continue to remind people of the need to prevent further tragedies like Chernobyl. To that end, the poems and Dr. Harash's article about her are made available on the Web, with the kind permission of translator Elizavietta Ritchie.

If you would like to correspond with Lyubov Sirota, you can write her at the following address:


Keep in mind, however, that she doesn't have the strength to keep up much of a correspondence and cannot answer all of her mail. Ho wever, it cheers her greatly to know that people around the world are reading her work.

On December 15, 2000, the remaining active reactor at Chernobyl was finally shut down. However, many reactors similar in design to the one that exploded are still in operation in the former Soviet Union.

First mounted June 19, 1995.

Last revised May 5, 2003.


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