On a warm spring evening on the last day of April 1986, my grandmother, a doctor, rushed to my parents’ house after work.
“Don’t take Zoya outside and close the windows,” she told my mother. “Something has happened.”
Earlier that day, a colleague whose husband was a high-ranking KGB officer had whispered that an accident had occurred up north.
My grandmother had never heard of Chernobyl, the nuclear power plant operating near the small town of Pripyat.
Staying indoors was easier said than done. My parents, my sister and I lived in one room in a stuffy communal apartment in Chernivitz, Ukraine — 597 kilometers away from Chernobyl. In the next room, divided from ours only by a set of thin, frosted glass French doors, a family of five. We shared a kitchen and a toilet, when it worked. We had no telephone connection, despite having been on a waiting list for years. Water and electricity were patchy. But stay indoors I did.
Labor Day parades in cities and towns around the USSR went ahead as planned, even as a radioactive plume continued to envelope great swathes of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. In Kiev, less than 200 kilometers from Chernobyl, a high-ranking Communist official appeared on stage with his toddler grandson, smiling and waving.
Those in the know secretly dosed their children with iodine to lessen the amount of the radioactive chemical absorbed by the thyroid. But the news of the world’s worst nuclear disaster on April 26, 1986, took weeks to filter out to the general population.