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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No Holiday Fireworks in Muslyumovo

"Most Russians do not regard the day when Russia's sovereignty was declared as a turning point in the country's history — 32 percent of those surveyed replied that this date means nothing to them." —

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Independence in Moscow was greeted with fireworks, but in Muslyumovo, 1,700 kilometers to the east, there was only grief, pain and misery.

There, men and women suffering from leukemia and heart disease went about their business in their irradiated back yards. As on any other day, they took their cattle to graze on floodplains that emit four times the radiation level considered acceptable for humans. As on any other day, they ate their radioactive bread. As on any other day, they met in the streets to discuss their latest ailments, their tiny pensions, their dying children.

As on any other day, they felt betrayed by the government — the Soviet government that secretly poured radioactive waste into their river 50 years ago.

Until the late 1980s, the Soviet government told them nothing about the waste that had irradiated at least 31,000 people. Nor did it tell them about a massive explosion at a nearby plutonium plant that had irradiated 250,000 more people. The Soviet government never counted those who died of radiation.

The Soviet government was too busy making A-bombs.

Authorities in the region now willingly admit the terrible accidents that happened at Mayak — the plutonium plant that now reprocesses spent nuclear fuel — 30, 40 or 50 years ago. They admit the ugly coverups, too. That government did it, they say. That government did not care about the people.

People in other parts of Russia, Moscow included, know nothing about Muslyumovo. They know precious little about Mayak. They do not know that Mayak continues to dump its nuclear waste into a nearby lake because it cannot afford more environmentally friendly reprocessing techniques.

But Mayak is not in the news. Today's news is about the government's plan to import 22,000 more tons of spent nuclear fuel in exchange for billions of dollars. The fuel will go to Mayak. It does not bother the government that Mayak cannot reprocess this fuel without polluting water and land. It does not bother the government that by sending in more waste, it will further endanger the lives of people already irradiated and ill who live on this sick, irradiated land.

The government is too busy making cash.

The government is also busy massacring civilians in Chechnya, detaining them for ransom and looting their homes. The government is busy jailing scientists and journalists who speak up about its anti-environmental activities. The government is busy silencing the media.

Finally, the government is busy setting the sky ablaze with fireworks to mark the anniversary of an obscure holiday with a complex name: Day of the Passage of the Declaration of State Sovereignty.

The fireworks in Moscow — what celebration did they mark? Polls show that more than 30 percent of Russians do not know the answer to this question. Certainly the people in Muslyumovo do not know, nor do they care: There are no fireworks in Muslyumovo.

And, as I look at the map of Russia — its beautiful mountains raped by wars, its cold rivers polluted by radiation, its people living in poverty and despair, military checkpoints sprinkled along its steppe roads — I realize that I do not know the answer, either.

Maybe it is time to declare sovereignty all over again.

Anna Badkhen is a freelance journalist in Moscow.