by Adolph Kharash
Science Director, Moscow State University
I first met Lyubov Sirota late in January 1988 in Kiev, in an area of the city called Troeshchino where, in November of 1986, there settled a group of people evacuated from Pripyat, the satellite city of the Chernobyl nuclear plant. They warmly greeted our group of students and professors from Moscow University in the Zemliaki club , where the children from the deserted city were taking classes in dance and drawing, and adults were meeting to recall what had been and plan what would come.
People from Pripyat very much appreciated any kind of attention. It was no joke that for almost two months after the catastrophe not a single word about Pripyat was in the central press or tv or radio–nothing about the fate of the city which was in an hour forever deserted by more than 50,000 inhabitants. Even some knew of its existence (the town was designated “special purpose” or “Secret”), nobody knew that this was the nearest city to the Chernobyl nuclear plant, only three kilometers away. I learned about the existence of this city only in June, 1986, when I went to the site. The inhabitants of Pripyat knew nothing of the explosion. They suspected nothing, took no precautions, and were exposed to the fallout from the Chernobyl catastrophe for thirty-six hours.
The City of Ghosts is how the city was called in the poems of another acquaintance from Troeshchino, Vladimir Shovkoshitny, a friend of Liubov Sirota; he had formerly worked in the Chernobyl nuclear plant and was one of the first volunteers for the cleanup of the aftermath.
Lyubov Sirota and her little son lived in the neighborhood of Pripyat closest to the nuclear plant. The night of the April 25th was very warm and clear. Lyubov couldn’t sleep. She went outside to breathe the fresh, fragrant spring air. She was one of the first–one of the few–people in Pripyat to see above the Chernobyl plant the evil flash of light, the star Wormwood (in Russian,Chernobyl ), which two thousand years ago was prophesied in the Book of Revelation, and which that night abruptly incinerated people’s hopes and plans. If she had only known then that she should have closed her eyes and run, not looking back, away from this dawn glow, from this air rich with spring blossoms.
“Nobody knew anything.”
This is how I see Lyubov; even today, though I have often met with her after that remarkable evening in Troeshchino She was the embodiment of defenselessness, and of limitless baffled anger.
“Nobody knew anything.”
She was the first to try to explain to us, the uninitiated, who came from well-protected, undisturbed Moscow, what had actually happened in Pripyat that night and in the following thirty-six hours of anxious waiting. Now, three years after we met in Troeshchino I can see the Pripyat of that time in the light of my endless pondering and in the pain in the voice of Lyubov Sirota in the poem “At the Crossing.²;
Has day died?
Or is this the end of the world?
Morbid dew on pallid leaves.
By now it’s unimportant
whose the fault,
what the reason,
the sky is boiling only with crows . . .
And now–no sounds, no smells.
And no more peace in this world.
Here, we loved . . .
Now, eternal separation
reigns on the burnt out Earth . . .
The destruction of Pripyat is the destruction of the promised land; it is a metaphor of universal destruction, a prophecy and sign of the Apocalypse. For the latter inevitable and universal catastrophe there will be in reality no one who can be called guilty. Any merely human cause is utterly petty, trifling, not worth mentioning. But for earthly tragedies earthly beings must pay the price. The perishable flesh prevents the spirit from freeing itself from earthly cares and soaring into cosmic space. Flesh drags the spirit down to the deserted hearth, forces it to grieve unconsolably for the fate of relatives and neighbors, to look into the eyes of children in which an unchildish despair is fixed.
Again and again, we torture ourselves with the living pictures of that summery April day, when the people–unsuspecting–opened the windows of their apartments, strolled about in the streets, sunbathed on the river beaches, celebrated weddings, picnicked in the nearby forests, eating ice cream which was sold in the street, the children frolicking, thrusting their bare arms up to the elbows into the foaming streams of radioactive water streaming profusely through the city streets. Again and again one seeks in torment the guilty and laments for the victims. This is why Lyubov Sirota’s apocalyptic insights are not for an instant abstract or passionless, even prophesying as they do the end of the world. These insights are deeply personal and quite mortal. They are penetrated by physical pain and inscribed with the grief for the casualities and concern for the lives and fates of mortal, living people and also by angry accusations against other people–also very much alive and mortal–who did not rush to help, did not warn of the danger, did not prevent the fatal outcome.
In one of the films of Rolan Sergienko, who created a cycle of films on the Chernobyl catastrophe, fact is uniquely combined with artistic expressiveness. Lyubov Sirota participated in making one of the films, Threshold. One scene, shot in Pripyat April 26, 1986 by a young local cameraman named Nazarenko, shows a sunlit street filled with people in the midst of their festive Saturday holiday, women strolling carelessly, wearing light, loose dresses, infants in their strollers, bareheaded men relieved of their workday burdens. Suddenly two strange and gloomy figures appear, looking like characters from a science fiction film about an invasion from another planet: two militiamen in shiny protective clothing fully covering their bodies, wearing gloves, hoods, and tightly-sealed military respirators. A passerby who meets them stands still as if petrified, looking at this fantastic vision, not trusting his own eyes, as if he had seen them in a dream. Or perhaps this is what our terrifying reality is: a dream.
“Nobody knew anything,’ repeats Lyubov Sirota, but this does not apply to everybody–not to those who in one way or another knew about the April tragedy. The citizens of Pripyat, who should have been informed in the first place so that they could immediately take care of their own safety, knew nothing about it,. But those who made decisions knew everything about the catastrophe–or almost everything. As can be seen from the posthumously published notes of academician Legasov prove that by four o’clock A.M. of April 26, 1986, in the Kremlin, a thousand kilometers from carefree and defenseless Pripyat, they already had sufficient information about all elements of that night’s catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Those authorities took care to have the militiamen dressed in special protective clothing; the unsuspecting citizens were given only counseling. The official declaration by the important bureaucrats from the Ministry of Health was that the evacuation was carried out in time, and that none of the city’s inhabitants had suffered any harm. Their fears and concerns were declared unnecessary, groundless, labelled with the sinister psychiatric term “radiophobia.’
The event in Chernobyl inspired special documentary films such as Rolan Sergienko’s movies and also the writings of the poets from Pripyat. Works in this genre are difficult to understand if you do not consider their factual basis. The poem “Radiophobia,” which stands out in the poetic work of Lyubov Sirota, belongs to this genre.
“Don’t promote this terrible word radiophobia!”
This was the first request made to us that evening in Troeshchino by the citizens of Pripyat. For those who were at the epicenter of the Chernobyl cataclysm this word is a grievous insult. It treats the normal impulse to self-protection, natural to everything living, your moral suffering, your anguish and your concern about the fate of your children, relatives and friends, and your own physical suffering and sickness as a result of delirium, of pathological perversion. This term deprives those who became Chernobyl’s victims of hope for a better future because it dismisses as unfounded all their claims concerning physical health, adequate medical care, food, decent living conditions, and just material compensation. It causes an irreparable moral harm, inflicting a sense of abandonment and social deprivation that is inevitable in people who have gone through such a catastrophe.
Does the term “radiophobia” console anyone? Yes, of course. First, it calms public opinion , suggesting that only a handful of victims of Chernobyl ecxists. And what are tens or hundreds of thousands of people, or even several million, in such a large country, or measured against all of humanity? A handful of super-sensitive individuals who gave in to panic. Most important, the term excuses the authorities from worrying, relieves them of responsibility for the destructive effects of the Chernobyl catastrophe on human organisms, and helps them to “conserve&” huge material resources.
That meeting in Troeshchino went on late into the long winter night. “Look, he’s fallen asleep,” said Liubov” Sirota, looking at her son as he napped in a corner. “He’s tired. Before the war he sat in front of the TV until long after midnight.” [These words have a special meaning: “before the catastrophe” as they are used by those who happened to be in the area contaminated by radioactive rain of cesium, plutonium, and strontium. People call that period in history, which began for them on the night of April 25th, 1986 and which stretches into the present– “the war.”]
“My apartment is not in order,’ she apologized when I unexpectedly visited Lybov Sirota one week later in her small two-room apartment in Kiev’s Kharkov district. She added bitterly, “I’m still young, a little over thirty, but have no energy to clean the floors properly, no energy.’ This is also the voice motherly anxieties, the voice of physical exhaustion which came Unbidden. The fate of children and adults burned by the invisible fire of Chernobyl became a very heavy burden.
This is how we live.
The body is heavier and heavier,
the spirit is subtler and narrower.
It can enter the deserted house;
it circles like a bird above Pripyat in the night . . .
and you often wish that it would leave the inept body
and not days but years flow away
and numberless are the losses.
But one has to live,
and for the sake of the children,
to efface the old age in children’s eyes
with the hope for a cure.
These lines are not printed in the copy of the collection Lyubov gave me. She wrote these lines by hand on the last page as a personal gift from the poet. But one has to live.
In her poems Lyuba entrusts her soul to other people. She believes that people will carry on this burden and help her, as she herself is ready to help everyone who lives on earth. The source of her faith is a crystal-clear spring of love, friendship, comradeship, mutual understanding, which penetrates her lyrics from the beginning to the end.
We are with you, dear reader; while people live on earth, hope is alive, hope for a better future, and this is what the poet wrote on my copy of Burden.From dead Pripyat comes the voice of living suffering, of a living soul, living hope. This hope is the underlying current of the creative impulse that inspires the poetry of Lyubov Sirota, the sacred meaning of her lyrics. I am enormously happy that this voice will sound for thousands of readers whose friendly help will no doubt ease the uneasy burden one poet. Perhaps this is also a small foreshadowing of the message about the better future for which Lyubov Sirota hopes.
Translated by Arkady Rovner, with Paul Brians, Birgitta Ingemanson, and Elizavietta Ritchie.
The Chernobyl Poems from Burden by Lyubov Sirota