Friday, April 25, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Chernobyl’s Other Victims Increasingly Forgotten

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 25 – With each passing year, Chernobyl’s other victims – the thousands of people who exposed themselves to extraordinarily high levels of radiation while taking part in the clean up -- find themselves not only sick as a result but largely forgotten by the successor governments to the regime which ordered them there without the protective gear they needed.
In an article in yesterday’s Vostochno-Sibirskaya Pravda, Irina Alekseyeva recalls what she says were the “tragic contrasts” of the day, 22 years ago tomorrow, when the Chernobyl nuclear power station accident occurred, contrasts between “life and death” and between “truth and lies” (
Unfortunately, she continues, both those contrasts continue to this day, with many of those who were dispatched to clean up the accident, people Soviet, Russian and Ukrainian writers have typically referred to as “liquidators,” facing aspects of each even as they are increasingly forgotten by the people living around them.
The explosion at Chernobyl, which the entire world except for those living under Soviet power, found out almost immediately – Mikhail Gorbachev’s regime acknowledged it only on May 10 after the May Day holiday – touched thousands of lives across the entire Soviet space and even more broadly.
The Voctochno-Sibirskaya Pravda account provides evidence of just how broad: In that distant Siberian region, there are today more than 3,000 “liquidators” who remain among the living and some 670 members of the local “Memory-Chernobyl” organization which attempts to defend their interests.
Its president, Yuri Varlamov, recounted his experience during the clean up in 1986. Soviet officials took him and his fellow “liquidators” from the places where they were housed first in “clean” buses and then in radioactively “dirty” buses as they approached the damaged reactor.
Like most of the others, Varlamov told the Irkutsk paper, he had little idea what radiation was, how reliable dosimeters were, and what the impact of radiation on health in fact would be. Soviet officials did not provide much information, and Soviet people at that time generally trusted what officials said.
But Chernobyl as the beginning of the end of that for many, and the sad record of lies and then broken promises means, he continued, that few people involved in the cleanup are prepared to believe anything official ever again – a change highlighted three years ago when the regional “Chernobyl Union” kicked out its leader because that official had never been a liquidator at all.
Despite or perhaps in part because of this suspiciousness, the surviving liquidators from year to year have been getting less and less support from officials, with their “lawful interests” for housing, access to medical care, and other services routinely violated according to local liquidator leaders.
In Irkutsk oblast alone, 182 liquidators still have not received the housing they were promised 20 years ago, and 126 have not even received compensatory housing subsidies. Still worse, in the last three years, officials have not even bothered to respond to complaints from liquidators and their families about why the promised assistance has not been forthcoming.
That represents a serious deteriorating since the late 1990s when, the country’s economic difficulties notwithstanding, the authorities provided certain benefits like telephones, medicines and the like. But since Vladimir Putin came to power and Russia’s economy took off, “these benefits have gradually been taken away,” Chernobyl liquidator activists say.
Irkutsk is far from the only place where liquidators are having problems in securing their legal rights to assistance. The situation in Belgorod is so bad that the central Russian media have reported that liquidators this year are staging a hunger strike in the hopes that this will force officials to talk to them.
Nonetheless, it does appear that the situation in Irkutsk is especially bad, perhaps because it is so far from Moscow. This year, that region’s social security department organized “A Day of memory for Those Who Died in Radiation Accidents and Catastrophes” on April 22, clearly a holiday on which the government might be expected to address the problems of the liquidators.
But what did regional officials do? Instead of providing any assistance, they handed out “souvenirs” and suggested that liquidators who have problems should be turning not to the Irkutsk authorities but to officials in Moscow, thousands of miles away and probably even more inaccessible than the local ones.

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