Essay / 4 December 2020

The Country of Chernobyl Children

Letters from Belarus

What’s wrong with those bastards? Why are they protesting? What do they want??”, a Lukashenko’s supporter shouts into a news camera at a pro-governmental rally in Minsk. “Those bastards” are Belarusians who come out into the streets every week to peacefully express their disagreement with the results of the rigged presidential elections and the brutality of the riot police against civilians. “Aren’t they happy with what we already have in this country? We have a variety of sausages in shops, we have cheese, milk and sugar! In the times of WWII, my grandmother had nothing! She had to eat potato peels not to die of hunger!

Protest actions in Minsk (Belarus), August 16th

Twenty years ago, in Summer 2000, closing a queue of 49 minors, I stepped on board of “Belavia”, the only airline company allowed in Belarus and headed off to Europe. As a volunteering educator and interpreter of a Chernobyl aid NGO (in the Canadian initiative they’d later call us “chaperons”), I was to spend 40 days in Tuscany taking care of this bizarre gang now clutching modest chocolate boxes and poorly hidden, jingling vodka bottles their parents had generously equipped them with as souvenirs for Italian host families. All those kids lived on the territories contaminated with radiation as a result of the notorious explosion of 1986; but none of them knew what radiation actually was. How could they — with all the propaganda loosely packed onto patriotic billboards, censored-TV news and outdated Soviet school books? The country’s leader claimed radiation did not exist and that the lands surrounding “the Zone” were safe for cultivating. Their 2000s differed from the 2000s Europe was living in. In their 2000s, going to school meant embarking on a daily, several-kilometre journey — all on foot, sometimes through the forest or along desolate highways. In their 2000s, a gym could have no glass in the windows, their homes had no heating or WC. When shown a photo of the central street in the children’s hometown, one elderly Italian signore could not believe it was taken in 2002: “Really? Are you kidding? Riding horses to shop for food? But aren’t you a European country?

We are. We were. We could be one day.

Belarus is a strange, if not surreal, country to be born and to live in. Repeatedly mentioned as “the geographical centre of Europe” (Berlin-based photographer Patricia Morosan [1] explored this definition in her blurry dark images shot in seven locations between the Baltic Sea and the Urals, with Polotsk, a town in the North of Belarus, among them), it keeps bearing the debatable title of “the last European dictatorship.” Belarus has been run by the same person for almost 30 years. I remember a story of my friend’s trip to The Gambia, a country whose leader Yahya Jammeh was in power from 1996 to 2017. As soon as she entered the shabby 2-story building where she was supposed to teach writing, she was welcomed with the enthusiastic shouts of only partly ironic students, “Hey, Prof! Our friend from another dictatorship!” Letting out a sad smile, she thought that at times you wished countries had other motives for being called similar.

Yet, it is true. Dictators do have much in common. They want their people to be ignorant and obedient rather than active and free-thinking. Having overtly rigged the presidential election held in August 2020, Alexander Lukashenko imprisoned other candidates and continues to violently suppress any kind of manifestation of dissent. The self-proclaimed President Lukashenko publicly calls Belarus a country that belongs to him and assumes that people should live complying to his own definitions of life, happiness, justice, beauty, and health.

The aspirations of the Gambian dictator were close to that — in the midst of the HIV crisis in The Gambia, he was distributing his herbal bogus cure to the sick, claiming to heal them [2]. Years later, the Belarusian “leader” assured that COVID-19 could be cured with vodka and active outdoor labour.

After 20 years of work as a Chernobyl NGO volunteer, I started having the first questions about those growing Belarusian kids I yearly picked up at the airport with their chocolates, vodkas and blue passports with golden Soviet coat-of-arms on the cover — potentially Lukashenko’s perfect electorate. How would the regular trips to Europe and North America actually change them? Would they, in the long-term perspective, challenge, redefine, broaden their perception of a decent life and meaningful happiness? What would they, as adults, do with their knowledge of the world not being limited to the variety of sausages and affordability of sugar?

I often think about all the “whats” and “whys” that once directed my life path… and I always come to the same conclusion. But for my active grandmother, great-uncle and cousins who by then had already travelled to Italy as a part of Chernobyl programmes, I would now be… well, let’s take a look at an alternative scenario for my life,” — one of my ex-mentees, Dasha from a little town in the South of the country, now an Italian university graduate living and working as a translator in Tuscany, said in an interview for one photobook project related to the issue of Chenobyl and its large-scale consequences.

What would I have if I had stayed in Belarus and had never seen what a life outside the country could be? School, university, obligatory 2 years of working for the state, a salary hardly enough to buy food and, if lucky, a pair of tights. A husband (probably, at times drunk), kids, a rented apartment. A typical Belarusian life many young people of my age now have… Somewhere a bit better, somewhere worse. There are also those who have already divorced… and, if single, are stigmatised as spinsters…”.

Why am I recalling Dasha’s words now — in the turbulent times when civilians are kidnapped in daylight by robust men in balaclavas, beaten to death, tortured, and held hostage in basements? Why now that my friends go to prison after staged trials with the same anonymous balaclaved witnesses testifying against them with false I’m-not-sure evidence, with corrupt judges in kitschy earrings? Dasha, as well as thousands of other “Chernobyl kids”, was lucky to get from their European experience much more than a boost to the immune system struggling to cope with “a regular intake of smaller doses of radiation.”

Once a foreign scientist referred to Belarus as a unique live Petri dish. Indeed, Lukashenko’s denial of the COVID-19 pandemic and the organisation of mass Victory Day parades while thousands of people were dying in hospitals from “unidentified respiratory diseases” seem to be a ruthless experiment carried out on the nation and not limited to Chernobyl.

Unlike those Belarusians, whose driving force is a fear of the past and satisfaction with the modest present, kids like Dasha saw that one’s life could be full of choices — with hard but free and beautiful paths to take. Imperfect but diverse, challenging but true — beyond Lukashenko’s version of “potatoland” and happiness restricted to “a bit better than my granny’s life” definition.

I don’t want to advertise Chernobyl programmes as a road to immigration, and Europe as a place where all would find paradise. For many of my mentees, moving from their villages to bigger towns, entering colleges and universities was a big step already. “Potatoland” is a state that exists inwardly. It is a set of values and aspirations and in order to escape from it you don’t need to physically leave Belarus. Dasha became a translator and moved to Florence, but many former humanitarian programme participants are now teachers, doctors, lawyers and engineers. Nastya, who I knew when she was eight years old, is now a mother, teaching her daughter Sophia to make pasta as they fool around the table together. Ira, an orphan I met in Dyatlovo orphanage, is now a mother of two with her elder daughter doing ballet in Minsk. But it is not really cooking or dancing they teach their offspring but sharing a family meal, loving beauty, dreaming big, and appreciating freedom. My hope for this new generation is that in order to cherish such values, they won’t have to go through the radioactive catastrophe.

Today, amongst the cruelty of balaclaved dogs, the lies of heartless officials, and the indifference of judges who send doctors, poets and musicians to prison to sleep on the concrete floor of the overcrowded prison cells riddled with coronavirus, I am asking myself a question: “Would Belarus be different if these cops, judges and civil servants had had a different education as kids? Cooked meals with their parents? Learnt the language of love and tenderness instead of “Bitch! I told you so! Eyes down!” — the words a policeman yelled at a young journalist thrown into a police van? If they had been taught to draw and brought to museums where they’d be explained to understand art? Had learnt that the only road in their home village did not end at the corner of Sovetskaya (Soviet) Street but could lead far beyond their district, their region, their job title granted by the system for silence and loyalty, their 400-USD salaries enough to buy sausage, milk and sugar and pay the bills?

I feel pity for the lost childhoods of the balaclaved aggressors. I feel pity for the stigma that will from now on be firmly associated with their names — however hard they were trying to hide their identities. But no one can be forced to love. Police batons will not form human connections. Curses will never teach patriotism.

Lukashenko boasts of having never travelled in Europe. He has been repeatedly mocked for confusing the names of famous writers, poets, and cultural workers. He wants the Belarusians to be content with what he believes to be enough for himself. But I am sure one day we will be proud to tell a foreigner we come from Belarus, the country of Marc Chagall, Mikhail Savicki, Svetlana Alexievich and Roman Bondarenko — a 31-year-old painter killed by masked plainclothesmen in his own yard on 12 November. We will be proud to say that Belarus belongs to people who are not afraid to make choices.

We already are.

November 13, 2020 – Minsk, Belarus

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