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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Recalling Chernobyl Evacuation 10 Years Later

On Sunday morning, April 27, 1986, I sat by a small lake in the Kiev suburbs, as I often did on Sundays. Small children were laughing in the first warm rays of spring sunshine, and couples strolled by hand in hand. The joggers looked odd in their funny Soviet running tights, and the fishermen reminded me of my father at home in England. It was an idyllic spring day, as had been the days before and as were many of the surreal days that followed.

That afternoon I went to the zoo and it rained. I had no umbrella and my clothes were drenched. Five days later, these same clothes were taken from me at London's Heathrow Airport, as they showed evidence of radiation contamination "in excess of clearance level."

Indeed, as I was to learn later, the rain clouds that had briefly marred our Sunday afternoon had drifted straight down from the north, where the stricken reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant had been spewing massive doses of radiation into the atmosphere for over 24 hours.

Two days after the April 26 accident at the Chernobyl power station, the British students studying at the Kiev language institute began receiving phone calls from anxious relatives. We were asked if we knew anything about a nuclear accident near Kiev. We knew nothing. Neither did our Soviet friends or teachers. We were only blissfully aware of indolent days spent skipping class and lazing by the river soaking up the sunshine.

On April 28, an acquaintance with a night job in a hospital came to us with tales of a steady stream of emergency patients who had started arriving during the night. The whole wing of the hospital where they were kept had been sealed off and there were rumors circulating that they were suffering from severe radiation contamination. Soon panic spread to most of the students. This was made all the worse by the almost total news blackout on the incident by the Soviet media and the increasingly alarming reports we were receiving from the West.

I remained stubborn until the end, refusing to believe in the accident. The weather was too beautiful, the town too calm, and I was having too much fun to be distracted by what would surely turn out to be a minor incident in the annals of nuclear history. I continued going to class with a handful of students. There we tried unsuccessfully to explain the curious hysteria that had gripped the English students to our puzzled teachers.

My language teacher, a young father, argued that a country that cared so much for its people, and especially its children, would never remain silent if there was the slightest threat to their well-being. This was surely the ultimate proof that the rumors of a terrible accident that were trickling in via panicked messages and garbled radio broadcasts from the West were probably exaggerations, borne out of the Cold War distrust of the Soviet Union. We believed him. He was convincing because he believed what he was saying.

On April 30, four days after the nuclear accident, the British Embassy in Moscow gave the order that all British students in Kiev and in Minsk should be evacuated until the situation surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear plant was further clarified. That evening, we were bundled onto a train carrying soldiers on leave from Bucharest to Moscow. I remained in the corridor, sulking, and watched the sleepy Ukrainian plains roll past. One of the soldiers stopped to talk to me. We ended up arguing gently all night about the Cold War, Stalin, communism, capitalism and Chernobyl. Not surprisingly, he did not believe in the accident, and before he left me he said: "If it ever comes to light that this terrible accident has really happened, and your people were informed before us, I will no longer be able to serve in this army. How could I trust anything they say to us any more."

The next morning I emerged rather bleary eyed from the train and the world's press seemed to be waiting for us on the platform. Before my feet touched the ground an enormous microphone was thrust into my face and the journalist blurted out: "So, how many dead bodies have you seen on the streets of Kiev?" I was stunned. We had partly hoped that once we had access to the Western press in Moscow we would know more about what was happening in Ukraine. Instead we were besieged by Western journalists who hoped that we had the answers the world was waiting for.

The press followed us all day. At Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, the Soviet press even turned up to film the British students who by now had been issued white jumpsuits by British Airways. Our travel clothes were sealed in plastic bags. Finally on May 1, looking like creatures from a nuclear holocaust disaster movie, we boarded a flight from Moscow to London.

On the plane we were treated to free copies of one of the more popular tabloids, in which a center page headline read: "British students lifted from red hell hole." I cringed as I remembered sunny Kiev, the early blossoms and the gentle rhythms of the days. I could no longer deny by then that something terrible probably had happened, but I still could not understand the mass hysteria that had gripped the media. Perhaps it was simple naivete, a refusal to believe in a danger that I could not see, or smell or touch. Only much later did I understand that after the press had spent several days up against a wall of stony silence from Soviet officialdom its imagination began to run wild.

When we arrived at Heathrow Airport, we underwent a number of tests. Some of us had radioactive clothing in the plastic bags, and this was taken away for decontamination. Although our thyroids showed evidence of contamination by radioactive iodine, it was not high enough to cause serious concern.

During the days that followed, we were able to watch the drama of Chernobyl unfold on the television screens. By now the whole world, including our Soviet friends, knew of the disaster. I thought about those we had left in Kiev, who must be so afraid and confused now. Most of all I remembered the parting words of my soldier friend in the train. They captured the essence of what Chernobyl meant for the Soviet people.

Indeed, when the scope of the disaster was finally made public, the trust that countless people had had in the system began to waver. The state had revealed that it was not always able, or willing, to put the safety of those it ruled first. For people like my teacher who had believed that come what may, his children would always be protected, the reaction was one of shock and a feeling of deep betrayal. Then came anger.

The faith people had in the set of beliefs that held the Soviet system together began to disintegrate, and soon the system itself started to crumble. Chernobyl was not only the world's greatest nuclear accident, but it was also one of the landmarks in the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.

Samantha de Bendern is a former political assistant of the Moscow delegation of the European Commission. She contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.