Enough rot, howled Anatoly Diatlov. The alarm went off at 1:29 a.m. Moving at 300,000 kilometers a second, the photons passed through the screen—rendered brick-colored by the dust—pierced the air saturated with smoke from Turkish cigarettes, and, following a straight line through the control room, smashed into his pupils just before the blare of a siren, traveling at a mere 1,200 kilometers per hour, reached his eardrums. Unable to distinguish between the two stimuli, his neurons generated an electric whirlwind that engulfed his body. While his eyes focused on the scarlet iridescence and his ears were thrashed with sound waves, his neck muscles tensed, the glands in his forehead and armpits accelerated the production of sweat, his limbs stiffened, and, without the assistant to the engineer noticing, adrenaline infiltrated his blood stream. Despite his ten years of experience, Anatoly Mihalovic Diatlov was dying of fright.
A few meters away, another chain reaction was following a parallel course. In one of the side panels, the mercury was flying to the top of an old thermometer, while the iodine and cesium particles were becoming unstable. It was as if those inoffensive elements had plotted a revolt and, instead of being suspicious of each other, had joined to destroy the bars and torture the guards. The creature wasted no time in taking control of Reactor Number Four in an open challenge to the emergency rules. It was taking revenge and accepting no excuses: It would execute its captors and establish a kingdom of its own. Ever more powerful, it sped to conquer the plant. If the humans did not take immediate steps, the massacre couldn’t be contained. Thousands would die. And the Ukraine, Byelorussia, perhaps all of Europe, would be forever devastated.
Flames were devouring the horizon. Far away, the Pripiat shepherds, accustomed only to events as severe as meteor showers, confused the columns of smoke with artillery practice or the celebration of some victory. Makar Bazdaiev, tending sheep, became tongue-tied as he watched the sky—an aftertaste of vodka in his throat—not knowing it heralded his death. Nearer to the fire, engineers and chemists, builders of stars, recognized the nature of the cataclysm. After decades of alarms and vigilance, the unthinkable had actually occurred, the often-postponed curse, the feared surprise attack. Old people still dreamed of German tanks, impaled children, and rows of graves: The enemy would decimate the forests again, burn the shacks, and drench the altars with the blood of their children.
At 1:30 a.m., Diatlov decided to do something. He’d always hated spring—the sunflowers, the songs the townspeople sang, the need to smile for no good reason. That’s why he stayed inside the plant, safe from the euphoria. Only vodka and extra work enabled him to survive the holidays. And now this! The wise men of Kiev and Moscow, cities of wide avenues, had sworn that nothing like this would ever happen. A Party boss had reproached him once upon a time: There is no room for error. You have the manual in front of you, just follow instructions.
The manual was now useless. The needles were spinning wildly, like helicopter blades, and the protective barriers erected thanks to the indefatigable will of socialism—thousands of workers had built the secret citadel—were collapsing. This is how Sodom must have looked. The night was pierced by shouts; the air was filled with the stink of scorched flesh, and panting dogs blocked the side streets. The peasants confused the black smoke with the angel of death. And all because of a whim: the desire to test the resistance of the plant, to go beyond standard precautions, to surprise the Minister.
Only a few hours earlier, Diatlov had ordered the cooling system disconnected. Just routine. Within seconds, the reactor fell into a lazy sleep. Who could suspect it was faking? Its breathing became slower and its pulse was barely perceptible: less than thirty megawatts. Finally, it closed its eyes. Fearing an irreversible coma, Diatlov abandoned common sense: We must increase power again.
The technicians retracted the barium carbon rods, which restrained the beast, and it recovered its powers. Its vital signs stabilized. It was breathing again. The technicians cheered, not knowing that those rods were the only thing that protected them: The manual stipulated fifteen as the lowest acceptable number, and now there were only eight. How stupid! That error would result in thousands of casualties. The monster’s heartbeat quickly reached six hundred megawatts, and in the blink of an eye it had enough strength to demolish the walls of its cell. Its roars shook the fir trees of Pripiat like the howl of a thousand wolves. Sand crackled and steel blistered. The nucleus of Reactor Number Four had almost attained the heat of the stars—magma pouring from its jaws—but Diatlov stubbornly insisted on floating above the void. Let’s go on with the test.
The beast took no pity on him or his crew. It attacked its guards and devoured their guts; then, angrier and angrier, it began its pilgrimage across the plant’s galleries, spreading its fury through the ventilation system. Disregarding orders from his superiors, Vladimir Kriachuk, a thirty-five-year-old technician, pushed the AZ-5 key to stop the entire process. Two hundred carbon rods cascaded into the body of the intruder—vainly. Instead of succumbing, it went back on the offensive, becoming even more dangerous.
It’s out of control! Olexandr Akhimov, the team leader, wasn’t lying: The monster had won. It plucked out Yuri Ivanov’s eyes and smashed Leonid Gordesian’s skull like an almond shell. Two explosions signaled its victory. Reactor Number Four ceased to exist.
The plant was the pride of the nation. In secret, over the course of toilsome months, an army of workers, supervised by hundreds of functionaries from the Ministry along with various security groups, built the reactors, the electric transformers, the water distribution system, the telephone lines, the workers’ houses, the schools for the workers’ children, the community centers, the firehouse, and the local centers for the Party and the secret service. A city in miniature, an example of order and progress that was self-sufficient; a perfect system erected in a place that didn’t appear on any map—a genuine utopia, proof of Communism’s vigor.
Besieged in the rubble, Diatlov ordered the activation of the emergency cooling system (his hands were trembling like wheat in a gale). He thought that water, as it did in ancient eras, would defeat the fire.
Comrade, the pumps are offline. It was the voice of Boris Soliarchuk. Diatlov remembered that he had ordered them disconnected only the day before. What is the radiation level? The maximum our instruments can register is one millirem, and we went beyond that hours ago.
That was a hundred times the allowed norm. Diatlov furrowed his brow and imagined a cortege of cadavers.
Viktor Petrovich Briuhanov, the director of the plant, slept a sticky sleep. Every night he tossed and turned without waking up: His conscience was as fluffed up as a goose-down pillow. When the telephone rang, he was dreaming about a toy ambulance: He only answered after the third ring. But he heard no one at the other end of the line. Finally, Diatlov’s voice stuttered to life with a justification of his mistakes. How can anyone explain that he’s opened the doors of hell?
Briuhanov buttoned his shirt. He thought: It can’t be that serious. Then: There has to be a way to fix things. As he walked out of his house, his optimism disappeared. The columns of smoke, as high as skyscrapers, were threatening to fall on top of him, and the wind was clawing his lungs. He travelled the three kilometers from Pripiat to the plant thinking he was living in a nightmare; only the heat, the heat which would ultimately kill him, kept him from losing his way.
Diatlov was waiting for him at the command post, his face covered with soot and shame. Olexander Akhimov and Boris Stoliarchuk didn’t bother to let him ask. In their opinion, the catastrophe was irreversible.
Once the damage was confirmed, Briuhanov ran to the telephone and dialed the Ministry; then he called the Regional Committee and the Central Committee of the Party. He mumbled the same sentences over and over, the same formal greetings, the same excuses, the same pleas: We need help—something terrible has happened in Chernobyl.
As the nuclear fuel burned, the bureaucrats in the Ministry could only repeat the news to one another. Briuhanov addressed his subordinates, demanding calm, fortitude, and faith in socialist destiny, but he couldn’t believe his own words. Someone in Moscow, the city of wide avenues, would know how to stop the meltdown. (At the other end of the plant, in the turbine room, half a dozen employees were fighting the fire. Protected by useless conventional fire equipment. They were trying to protect the gasoline supply. Their fingers were falling off piece by piece.) Briuhanov bit his lip: His city was collapsing. For some reason, he remembered a tune from his childhood and began to hum it. Indecisive, he waited several hours before authorizing an evacuation. Only when every watch said it was 3:00 p.m., and the radiation had infiltrated the cells of his subordinates, did he order the building emptied. At his side stood Diatlov, Akhimov, and Stoliarchuk, resigned to the fact that their mothers would have to receive their Hero of the Soviet Union medals.
From Pripiat, the plant seemed wrapped up in celebration. A beam of blue light rose from its center like a mast. The only things missing were the scarlet banners, the military salutes, the hammers and the sickles.
Far, far away, in a tranquil meteorological outpost in Sweden, a group of scientists confirmed the readings from the meters. There was no doubt. The radiation invading the Scandinavian forests was not coming from their reactors. A disaster must have taken place behind the iron curtain.
That same day, long-haired Paisi Kaisarov found out he would indeed fight in a war. He slipped out from under the sheets silently, in order not to disturb his woman: He would soon be the father of a little girl. Until then, his work had seemsed slow and boring. His comrades were overjoyed whenever they put out a fire. But now the enemy was taking them by surprise. What was he supposed to think, when the Pripiat firehouse itself had been burned to the ground?
A few hours later, the eleven members of his squad were shoulder to shoulder, fighting the flames around the plant. By then Reactor Number Four was a mirage, and in its place stood a foreshortened image of an overcast sky. They would have to fight to the death to defend Reactor Number Three. Doomed to defeat, Kaisarov and his comrades trained their water cannon on the beast, but all the water in all the seas wouldn’t have been able to bring it under control. The flames might die, but a shard of graphite was all it took to reanimate its fury. The firemen swallowed the smoke, and their veins swelled up like snakes. They all fell on the battle field.
It took time for the reinforcements from neighboring republics to converge on the outskirts of Pripiat because they were unable to communicate with one another, as if a curse had put a spell on their radios. Two regiments of Ukrainian sappers camped around the town. Who could have imagined them fighting the wind when they’d been trained to fight in trenches! Their commanders set the attack plans, checked the maps, and calculated the losses. The fights took place one after another all afternoon—the squads demolished by invisible hands—until the fire finally seemed under control.
Matvrei Platov, officer in the Seventh Air Army, flew over the vicinity of the plant without knowing who the enemy was. Despite his insistent questions, his commander had refused to reveal the nature of his mission. Platov felt the clouds and stopped wondering, fascinated by the Ukrainian plains—that yellow ocean—unable to imagine the plague that was being scattered over them. This time his mission would not be to spy on NATO aircraft or to frighten the Japanese or the Chinese. This time his plane was loaded with enough sand to build a stockade, and his mission was to defeat discharges no one could feel. Matvrei Ivanovich, an expert watchmaker, dropped a storm of cobblestones on the beast’s incandescent skin. Hundreds of pilots dropped their bomb loads through the air in the same mission.
In their improvised headquarters three kilometers away, Colonel Liubomir Mimka drew a star each time a load released by one of the pilots hit the target. At midday on April 27th, Mimka informed the appropriate person in the Government of the total success of the offensive. The radiation had diminished to tolerable levels. But the cheering didn’t last long. A messenger revealed the bad news: The monster was caged but was still alive. And wounded, it is even more dangerous.
Reactor Number Four was a dormant volcano: Everyone knew that there were still 190 tons of Uranium-235 in its guts, enough to generate a miniature big bang.
The radio broadcast fiery speeches, like Stalin’s harangues against Hitler: Old people, children, and women must mobilize in defense of the nation. Meanwhile, the air force continued the bombardments, adding borax and lead to their loads. After sweeping their objective, the pilots would return to base to be disinfected. Unlike those who lived around Pripiat, they could use an iodine solution to weaken the effects of radiation.
The town turned into a field hospital. The bodies were piled up in plastic bags—shiny Communist shrouds—and, told nothing, the wounded silently waited for the helicopters that would carry them to Leningrad and Moscow. Most had their stomachs eaten away, the skin burned off their chests, and wounds on their hands. None would last more than a few weeks. In Polaskaie, 150 kilometers away, mothers and widows were not even allowed to see the faces of their sons and husbands. The military sealed the corpses in zinc coffins and buried them in secret.
Routine took control in Pripiat and the surrounding area. Those living there got up before dawn, put on asbestos suits, and, after a breakfast of bread and milk (the only food their stomachs could tolerate), went off to do the day’s work. Their families, exiled to the outskirts of Kiev and other cities, passed the time doing crossword puzzles or watching ballet on black-and-white television.
In Moscow, the Party silenced all rumors. They told the international media that there was a minor leak, no reason for alarm. The vigorous Secretary-General even crossed his arms when an Austrian journalist dared to ask about the number of dead.
On May 9th, 1986, thirteen days after the leak, the monster seemed liquidated. Yet another triumph of Communism! The Party ordered the shops stocked to the rafters with vodka and Georgian wine so the pilots, bombardiers, and liquidators could dull their consciences a bit. Glasses burst in mid-air amid insane cheers and long-lives concealed the absence of the fallen.
To your health, comrades!, toasted Boris Chenina, chief of the government commission in charge of the catastrophe.
Suddenly it was as if nothing had happened. Around Pripiat, the birds again slipped through the sky and the hillsides displayed their bushes and trees while a red sun tranquilized the anguish of the deer. If it hadn’t been for the smoking ruins of Reactor Number Four—and the mysterious absence of voices and songs—anyone might have imagined it was paradise.
On May 14th, at noon, the Secretary-General again held a press conference: The situation was under control, there’s nothing to fear. And then, using the same rhetoric as executioners and traitors, he attributed the rumors of a tragedy to the dark forces of capitalism. But the victory was an illusion. Though the beast had been chained up, its venom was spreading across the globe. Wind and rain were carrying its humors toward Europe and the Pacific, its dregs were piling up in lakes, and its semen was filtering its way through the geological strata. The monster was in no hurry. It was patiently planning its revenge: Every baby born without legs, without a pancreas, every sterile sheep, dying cow, every rusty lung, every malignant tumor, and every eaten-away brain would celebrate its revenge. Its curse would go on through all eternity. Ultimately, the explosion would leave 300,000 hectares of land in a putrefied state, seventy towns emptied by force, 120,000 people expelled from their houses, and an incalculable number of men, women, and children contaminated.
Mikhail Mikhailovich Speranski, with intense gray eyes, had just joined the Armada. Held back in school because of mathematics and spelling, and prone to bullying his brothers, he celebrated his recruitment: He was seventeen years old, and the only things that mattered to him were money and women. When a sergeant suggested he join the special labor force that was working in the Ukraine and Byelorussia, and promised him extra rubles every week, he abandoned the wide-cheeked girl whose bed he shared and went off in search of adventure.
Transported in obscure military trains, he reached his objective after three days: an improvised encampment on the Ukrainian plain. By then, hundreds of volunteers were dreaming of long hours of combat. A tall, thin sergeant explained the mission to his squad. At 5:00 a.m., an army truck drove him and four of his comrades to a spot seven kilometers form Pripiat. The moon was shinning through the trees. Their orders were blunt: They were to kill every animal and clear the land—that’s right, the whole place—to free it from the plague. They were no longer soldiers but butchers. The local peasants called them liquidators.
Speranski almost wept when he shot his first deer, a doe only a few months old, but after a few weeks of constantly emptying his rifle, he barely took note of his victims. The corpses of sheep, cows, cats, goats, chickens, ducks, and hounds carpeted the meadows before being doused with gasoline and burned like heretics. The liquidators had to eradicate everything the monster hadn’t devoured. Within a radius of ten kilometers, all cities and towns were demolished, the trees cut down, the animal life decimated, the grass taken away. The only way to guarantee the survival of the human race was to make the plain into a desert. Mikhail Mikhailovich went about his task with the same blankness as the executioners who put his grandparents to death in the Kolyma camps. After contributing so faithfully to the massacre, Speranski found life less than attractive. Soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, he would be executed for armed robbery.
Piotr Ivanovich Kaganov, from a village in Byelorussia, was ordered to remove the debris on the roof of Reactor Number Three. Wearing a rudimentary astronaut suit, he was carried by a combat helicopter and abandoned in that swamp dotted with balls of incandescent graphite, each one of which weighed ten or twelve kilos. His job was to pick up as many as possible in the time allotted to him, but after a few seconds his boots burst and his skin cracked like clay. The army had tried to execute the maneuver with small Japanese robots, but their circuits melted instantly.
Piotr Ivanovich summoned up all his courage and dropped onto the roof like a child riding a sled. Despite his precautions—he’d put sheets of lead in his socks—the soles of his feet burned as if he were walking on hot coals. His breath became short and, trapped in his helmet, he could barely make out the shape of his hands. He used up his time before he could move a single ball of graphite. The helicopter reeled in the cable he was attached to, and Kaganov rose up into the sky, defeated and half dead. Luckily, hundreds of conscripts were standing in line to replace him.
After weeks of racking their brains, the wise men of Moscow finally came up with a plan to stop the disaster. A team of engineers drew up the plans over the course of four days and nights before submitting the project to the scrutiny of their superiors. Architects, physicists, geographers, and other experts gave their blessing to the project: The only way to conquer the beast was to bury it. Designed at top speed, the building would look like a shoe box, and it would have to be built from a distance—the radiation made it impossible to work in the immediate area—with the help of scaffolding, cranes, and other heavy equipment. Three factories began to manufacture enormous slabs of cement eighty meters high and thirty centimeters thick. Bulldozers, cranes, and tractors came to Pripiat from every corner of the nation, while more than twenty-two thousand liquidators were assigned to the actual construction. A new phase of the war had begun: To carry out the promises of the Secretary-General and the Party, the fortress would have to be finished in only a few weeks.
Valery Lagasov had dedicated his life to atoms. As a boy he’d fallen in love with those tiny universes, and for years he did nothing but draw scale models. As a member of the Kurchatov Institute, he’d unceasingly praised the virtues of atomic energy and had convinced his superiors to build more and more nuclear plants. Instead of using atomic energy for evil, as the allies did at Hiroshima and Nagasaki—he constantly repeated—the USSR had the obligation to illuminate hundreds of cities. Thanks to his persistence, scores of reactors appeared on the maps.
When he found out what happened in Chernobyl, Lagasov gave an interview to Pravda: He conceded the seriousness of the damage, but at the same time said he was convinced that the catastrophe would make Soviet industry stronger. Exactly one year after the explosion, on April 27th, 1987, the scientist composed a document titled “My Obligation is to Speak,” in which he contradicted his earlier statements. He was wrong: The nuclear industry was not only a danger for the USSR but for the entire planet. After signing it, Lagasov blew his brains out.
The government commission ordered a rapid investigation of the events. After accumulating evidence, hundreds of items, a special group within the KGB arrested Viktor Briuhanov, the Director of the plant; Nicolay Fomin, Assistant Director and Chief Engineer; Anatoly Diatlov, Assistant Engineer-in-Chief; Boris Rogoikin, head of the night guard; Olexandr Kovalenko, in charge of Reactors Two and Three; and Yuri Lauchkin, Inspector for Gosatomnadzor, the company responsible for developing the Ukrainian plants. The six were tried in secret, accused of carrying out the tests that led to the disaster without receiving authorization from Moscow, of not taking the measures necessary to bring it under control, and of waiting too long to call the rescue teams. The former directors testified, but the judges had no need to listen. Briuhanov, Fomin, and Diatlov were sentenced to ten years in prison; Rogoikin to five; Kovalenko to three; and Lauchkin to two. As far as the Party was concerned, they were the only guilty individuals.
To Lieutenant Mavra Kuzminishna, a demolitions expert, the ruin of Reactor Number Four, surrounded by cranes, looked like a tarantula. Its amazingly high legs folded around its mouth, feeding it borax as its only food. An amateur climber and member of the weight-lifting team of the Eighth Land Army, she came to Pripiat to supervise the laborers. The gigantic wall was going up piece by piece around the plant: More than 100,000 cubic meters of cement. The project was moving along right on schedule. Soon no one remembered the dead, the explosion would be forgotten, and families from Siberia or the Caucasus would repopulate the area around Pripiat. Mavra Kuzminishna thought that, if the world were different, she too would like to live in the area. The prefabricated slabs piled up like a child’s blocks; the cranes raised them up—counter-balanced by sixty-ton weights—and placed them on the remains of Reactor Number Four. Lieutenant Kuzminishna thought of an ancient temple. The satellite photos showed a very different image: an eighty-meter-high sarcophagus. The final legacy of Communism.
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