Chornobyl's legacy: Remembering Oleksandra, liquidator category No. 3

On the 25th anniversary of the reactor disaster at Chornobyl, Ukrainian journalist Ihor Kruchyk remembers his mother, Oleksandra Yaroshchuk, who died after working as part of the cleanup operation.
Ihor Kruchyk and his mother Oleksandra Yaroshchuk at Tel'bin lake in Kiev in 1980, in happier times before the Chornobyl nuclear disaster.

Ihor Kruchyk is a journalist with The Ukrainian Weekly in Kiev, Ukraine. On the 25th anniversary of the reactor disaster, he reflects on his mother's life and death in the shadow of Chornobyl.

My mother, Oleksandra Yaroshchuk (née Havryk), worked in Chornobyl from 1989 to 1991  as a "liquidator category No. 3" with the nuclear disaster cleanup crew.

In 1992, she died at the age of 52.

Oleksandra Yaroshchuk in 1959.

My mother had lost her job in 1988, and couldn't find any work for a  long time. We lived  in Kiev, near the river Dnipro, in a big nine-storey building with 400 apartments. There were four of us: mother, my stepfather, a brother and I.    

One of our neighbours was with the education-labour union called "Prypyat," recruiting people to work in  Chornobyl's exclusion zone — the area around the reactor that had been evacuated due to the radiation. "Prypyat" was tasked with monitoring the dosimetry-radiation measurements and radioactive effluents, local investigative research, and infrastructure maintenance in "the zone."

This neighbour offered high wages and persuaded people that Chornobyl was no more dangerous than Kiev. 

Mother announced that she had arranged to work there. My stepfather and I tried to talk her out of going, but we couldn't sway her. After many attempts to convince her otherwise, she snapped: "Eggs don't teach  hens," and left for the zone.

Strong work ethic

Mother loved work and was very responsible. For a long time she had felt guilty about not contributing financialy to the family — the Soviet family model expected both men and women to work. 

Oleksandra Yaroshchuk (centre) with colleagues in the dining hall in Chornobyl. The hall served meals to the workers who handled the cleanup and monitoring of the area after the reactor disaster.

The payscale  at Chornobyl  seemed very substantial, and a way to improve the family's standard of living. At the same time, the Soviet  media was promoting a positive image of the work at Chornobyl, so it seemed honourable to go work there.

Mother got a job in the dining hall where work crews ate every day, right in the city of Chornobyl. She peeled potatoes, washed dishes, and lived in a co-op.

The work went from morning until late at night without any days off for two weeks, and then she returned home to Kiev for two weeks. This two-week cycle was called "vakhta," and most worked this way.

Mothers's pay turned out to be a lot more than my stepfather's and mine put together. I was an electrician at a pharmaceutical factory, making 250 rubles a month — about $125 US on the black market at the time. My stepfather made about the same, as a specialist in the bus depot. In other words, two highly qualified workers made less than one kitchen aide at Chornobyl.

My mother liked working a two-week cycle. When she was home, she celebrated by entertaining family, friends,  neighbours and co-workers. She loved to sing together with her friends. Her favourite was this famous folk song:

And my fine guests are at the table."

Mother's Chornobyl friends were great jokers, and liked to tell stories about  work. It was black humour, political and anti-Soviet. No one was afraid of the regime, and they'd quip: "They can't pack us off to any place worse than Chornobyl."

Mother's Chornobyl salary made her feel prosperous and hospitable. Somehow she was able to buy products that were scarce in the Soviet Union to share with visitors — caviar, Italian liquer, cabernet wine. At the time, Soviet President Gorbachov was waging war against alcoholism, so liquor sales were restricted by special permits. But Kiev shops were full of wine, because it was believed to detoxify the body of radiation.

Fleeting wealth

Mother also bought a new carpet, fulfilling a long-held dream. It was hard to get anything else of any value in the Soviet Union, which was on the verge of falling apart at the time. Cars, furniture, televisions or fridges were almost impossible to buy, as were everyday goods. At the end of 1990 coupons were issued to buy soap, detergent, tobacco, sugar, tea, grains, flour and other basic necessities.

Oleksandra Yaroshchuk's Chornobyl ID card, which allowed her to cross the security checkpoint into the zone.

Mother's first, and last, vacation was to the Crimea. She had always considered it unaffordable and could normally only travel to her home village.

But the newfound wealth didn't last. In 1991 Ukraine introduced its own currency: a temporary coupon  that lasted for five years. These coupons devaluated quickly and  their buying power was small. At the time no one knew about inflation and how to protect oneself from it.

Mother put her money "on the book" — in other words, she opened a savings account in the state bank. But with  inflation at 10,000 per cent a year, her saved money burned right down, devaluating completely by 1992. 

In the end, she had little to show for her work in the zone.

Radiation exposure

Sometimes I would walk mother to the bus at the Pioneer metro station, which took her to work. I kept trying  to persuade her not to go, to quit the job.

She just kept repeating that the radiation in Chornobyl was the same as in Kiev, a  widely held view among the work crews. She'd say the distance between Chornobyl and Kiev was only 100 kilometres, after all, and humoured me that her astrological sign was a dragon, an indication of her resilience.

Oleksandra Yaroshchuk's employment certificate, describing her as a 'liquidator category No. 3' at Chornobyl.

One of the side-effects linked to radiation exposure is circulatory disease. Mother always had slightly elevated blood pressure, but it began to spike after her shifts at Chornobyl. She paid it scant attention, relying on her ever-present pills, and on jokes to ease the worry.

In mid-1990, mother had a heart attack. The necessary medicine was scarce in the Soviet Union. After many months of treatment, she still walked poorly and spoke with a slur.

She returned to Chornobyl to arrange for a pension. She obtained the proper documents, and persuaded a special commission that her illness was caused by her work at Chornobyl.  

But getting a permanent invalid designation wasn't so easy, as there were many bureaucratic roadblocks. In the end she only received a temporary invalid designation. 

In December 1992, she again appeared before a commission that would decide whether she could retire on a pension, or would be required to continue working. Still battling the red tape, the following summer she had another heart attack. 

Mother died at age 52 from cerebro-vascular disease, according to her death certificate.

In our building, there aren't many left alive of those recruited by our neighbour.

Star of Wormwood

My mother was neither a communist, nor a strong believer in God. But she knew, as did most  workers at Chornobyl, about the biblical apocalyptic prophesy of the "Star of  Wormwood."

Chornobyl is the name of a type of wormwood that grows in Ukraine. After the disaster at the reactor, many — even among  the communists — began to pay serious attention to the New Testament. In "Revelations of St. John the Evangelist" chapter 8, verse 10 to 11, it is written: 

"The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of waters. The name of this star was Wormwood; and a third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter." 

At the time my mother worked in Chornobyl, there was a widespread belief among Ukrainiains that John the Evangelist had prophesied the nuclear disaster. They were convinced that the apocalypse was approaching.

Whether it was prophesy or coincidence, on my mother's certificate describing her employment as a liquidator in the zone is the number of the beast: 666. 

God have mercy on my mother's soul, and on all those touched by Chornobyl.

Ukrainian-English translation by Marijka Hurko