What would you say is characteristic of Ukraine? At the beginning of the 2000s, an ordinary European, even if aware that Ukraine was not Russia, would inevitably answer with just one word – Chernobyl.
April 26th 1986 was a hot day in Kyiv. Tourist books called it the greenest city in Europe at that time. Nature was blooming; it was a buoyant spring. It always is in Ukraine. The city was abuzz with expectations: on the following day, local heroes Dynamo Kyiv were to face Spartak Moscow. A 100,000 strong crowd at the stadium. A man sitting behind me starts talking about a friend of his, a bus driver: he is missing the game – he was taken out on the emergency call at night, somewhere to the North. A big fire or something; up along the Dnieper river. A man sitting ahead nods – one of his relatives, also a bus driver, went too.
The May Day holidays, street-cleaning cars wash the roads non-stop and many people are coughing. The First of May demonstration in central Kyiv. The Soviet “Young Pioneers” parade, flags, horns, drums, as usual. The whole array: caps, shirts, and ribbons, all scored very highly above the radiation norm when measured later in June. So did the toys of children who played in the kindergartens and school grounds.
“All is norm” – the party and ministers remain unanimously confident.
“You must leave” – the loudest whisper ever. Someone has a friend, a pilot in Leningrad. Another one’s uncle is a boss at a military plant near Moscow. Someone else’s neighbour is a doctor at the special hospital for apparatchiks. They all heard it “up there”; they all say the same.
May 12th: the railway station and platforms are crammed full; people plead with the conductors on every train to take them aboard – all tickets are long gone. Panic. Kyiv was a very masculine city in the summer of 1986 – no children and almost no women.
Yegor Vasylyev is an analyst specialising in politics and transition of post-Soviet states. He holds an LLM in European Law from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he was a British Chevening Scholar in 2009-2010, following five years in the Ukrainian civil service.