How to Make a Modest Author’s Day

I want to share the most uplifting, delightful email that hit my inbox this week:

Hi Bill,

I’m off to Chernobyl in a few weeks and so ordered your book on Amazon. I read it cover to cover over the last couple of days and I wanted to say how great I found it.

You strike a great balance between illustrating what I will see on my visit, whilst sharing the historic and human narrative of the disaster.

Thank you so much

Andrew

Thank you, Andrew, very much. Have a good trip.

30 Years On

chernobyl

This week marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Three years ago we visited Chernobyl and that visit resulted in my second book, Visiting Chernobyl, A Considered Guide. No doubt we’ll be seeing a bunch of coverage this anniversary week, so for my part, here is an excerpt from the book, and here are some photos from EarthPhotos.com.

Some readers may know that my regular day job is doing voiceovers for radio and television. I have recorded Visiting Chernobyl and it is almost ready as an audiobook, narrated by me. I’m finishing up editing now, and it ought to be up on audible.com in the next couple of weeks.

Here is the beginning of Visiting Chernobyl, A Considered Guide:

1 KINDERGARTEN

The fence fell over itself, a cascade of wooden slats. It was hard to tell with everything covered by snow, but probably the trees between here and the building grew up since the accident. Down the road radiation signs stuck out of long earthen mounds.

This was Kopachi village, not far inside the ten kilometer inner zone around Chernobyl. They buried Kopachi, almost the whole village. Maybe that was a good idea in desperate days, but burying things forced radioactive material toward the water table. So once they thought twice they stopped burying to think things through.

At first they’d bury villages whole, especially across the border in Belarus. They’d dig pits, push entire houses in and cover them up. Special trucks, who knows where they came from, sprayed water up and down the streets all the time, because all the dust that burying kicked up was radioactive.

Belarus buried more than a hundred villages. Conscripts sent down here by Minsk did it. They filled up all the wells they could find with concrete trying to protect ground water.

It’s only ten miles (16 kilometers) from reactor 4 to Belarus, and on April 26th, 1986 the wind blew straight to the border. That meant between half and two thirds of all the radiation fell on

Belarusian farmers who lived on whatever produce they coaxed from the soil, and on the family livestock.

Authorities moved over a hundred thousand Belarusians in a hurry, to places with no housing and little employment. Twenty per cent of Belarus’s agricultural land was rendered useless.

Ten years on, farmers could breed horses and cattle for beef but not for milk, and 32,000 square miles, the area of South Carolina, remained too radioactive to use. That’s nearly a quarter of the country.

•••••

They commissioned studies and they anguished and eventually they worked out how to bury things more safely. They’d dig a pit and before they pushed anything in they’d line the bottom and sides with four feet of clay. Then they’d bury the bad stuff, seal up the top with clay and add soil and grass.

It was better than that mad bulldozing they did at first. One thing though, still today they have to keep trees off the mounds. Roots make the crypts leak.

They left two buildings in Kopachi, I don’t know why. Ice lurked up under the snow, you knew it, so you crept along step by step. Bum place to slip and get hauled out to Kyiv in the militia’s ambulance up at the checkpoint.

You had to bat away tree branches to get up the walk to the kindergarten. Nobody here to chop them down. Rose bushes intruded as prickly hazards up the walk. There were no foot prints, so nobody had been here since the newly fallen snow, a day or two. Icicles hung from the window frames. No glass.

Igor held his dosimeter to the ground. 6.04 microSieverts per hour.

The kindergarten in Kopachi was a solid old thing, a brick building with four columns, fading blue paint around the wood of the windows. All over the floor papers were scattered about, workbooks with activities, kid stuff like coloring and matching similar objects.

Somebody had brought a little metal tricycle with a metal seat inside, its rubber tires gone. A spoon sat on a low table and a green poster board, I think a science project, was propped up against the wall behind it. You had to skirt a charred spot in the floor where somebody once set a fire.

A cabinet, a tea cup, a grown-up’s coffee mug. A stuffed bear leaned back, propped against a chalkboard on the little tray where the chalk would be.

Three narrow wooden doors hung crooked, kind of defiant, open and upright. Cabinets listed down at the end of the hall. Somebody had spilled their insides out all over the floor, a pretty pointless thing to do. A bottle of glue sat alone on a shelf. A tree poked right through the window.

Down the corridor bunk beds filled up a whole room, cloth safety nets around the top bunks. The original 1986 covers and pillows. They must have been. Who’d smuggle in soiled blankets?

Paint peeled in palm-of-your-hand sized slices. A children’s book was titled Barvinok. In Ukrainian that’s ‘periwinkle.’

Two girl dolls, one in long johns, the other barefoot in a pinafore, lay on one bed’s lower frame. Snow piled up on the trees. One window still had glass.

People had posed things for pictures: a book opened to a particular page on a window sill, gas masks on the floor. After 27 years this wasn’t April 1986. People had been here. Workers brought in for the clean-up effort for example (they called them ‘liquidators’), took whatever they needed wherever they found it. Families came back now and again to salvage what they could of their own things. And Kyiv let contracts to salvage scrap metal, resulting in ripped out window frames and pipes.

And the looting. Igor lamented “bad people,” and he was so innocent, such a wide eyed academic, that you thought along with him, “Yeah, those bad, bad people.” Igor had no guile. He always called it “OUR government” like a boy scout. He was utterly unaffected and you had to love him.

The government cracked down hard on the looting. You didn’t want radioactive teddy bears finding their way to Kyiv after all, or hot batteries driving around in cars.

The kindergarten wasn’t exactly a freeze frame of April 26th, 1986, but little girls’ dolls, 80s style tricycles and rusted cribs in the school? They’ll still get to you, 27 years on.

•••••

“Our Crimea” Cologne

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The smell of patriotism,” popularly priced at just 45 rubles per 85ml. bottle.

Via The Interpreter: “Crimean Anschluss Supporters Now Can Show Their Feelings with Special Eau de Cologne. A special eau de cologne has now gone on sale in Russian shops. Called “Our Crimea,” it is intended to remind the wearer and those around him or her of his support for Putin’s annexation of Crimea.”

Istanbul to Odessa by Overnight Ferry

Withsome of the world’s most important headlines coming from Turkey and Ukraine this week, here is a short look back at a trip a few years back by Ukrainian ship between the two countries.

Palmyra

Today we’d sail on the Yuzhnaya Palmyra, a ship of the UKRFerry shipping company, on once weekly service Istanbul to Odessa. It was to be an approximately 28 hour crossing of the Black Sea south to north, although we’d have to see about the timing.

Departure was set for 9:00 on the web, 10:00 on our ticket (a hard copy they insisted on sending via DHL for $70 from Ukraine to the U.S.), and 11:00 by the people at the hotel, who made some calls on our behalf. So arrival as well, I suspected, ought to be approximate.

We presented ourselves down at the Karakoy docks shortly past 8:00 a.m. “Actual Time,” as the reception clock had it. We had ample time for a spin up and down ship, stem to stern, and an extended goodbye to the mosques filling the Istanbul skyline, lying at anchor, as we were, just meters across the Golden Horn from Topkapi and Sultanahmet. There would be breakfast service before heaving ho, part of the “three meals a day provided all passengers.”

It may have still been Istanbul outside but it was full Ukraine in the песторан (restaurant). Most of the good Ukrainian women were fat as those Americans they worry about on the news, most everyone smoking wherever possible, and a bunch of smoking and horseplay over a 9:30 breakfast of Slavic breakfast staples, cheese and meat slices, an egg dish and a sausage, a tea bag and aching-sweet juice the color of kvass.

Kvass was a Soviet era concoction a young man named Еѵгєлу (Evgeny) once showed me how to sample back in 1986 in a kiosk outside Red Square – served with the nice Soviet touch of a single, shared glass. Here each got our own glass. Mirja and I shared our table with a family of three women, all in print dresses, and a video-taping man.

Even as you gazed out onto working ships with good Turkish names like the Turgut and The Osman, and teeming local ferries of the Tur Yol line, here came women indefinably Ukrainian, with name tags Iruna and big ‘ol Svetlana, slinging plates for six or eight stacked right up their arms. There were pats of butter, and a jug of кетчуп (ketchup) on every table.

Syrupy ballads from the steppes blared straight out of Slavic central casting. They were just enough too loud to notice they were a little too loud.

It took half a year for word to reach the Atlantic coast that gold had been discovered in California. Here, it took three minutes to be jostled by regular, abrupt announcements, way too loud. In the style of receptionists back home, whose announcement echoes across, say, the parking lot of the car dealership, they never thought to put the handset down gently, but instead rattled it around in search of its cradle.

Turkish, Turks will tell you, is useless outside his country’s borders. Even inside in this case, as even at the Istanbul dock, the only announcements were in Ukrainian with just an occasional partial English translation.

Further humiliating, the Ukranian home currency, the hyrvna, and the dollar were just about the only ones in play. I had extra Turkish lira, and while they’d trade in them on the Palmyra, I put them away in the (probably idle) hope I could convert them later at a less usurious rate than on the ship.

Lots of smiles among the passengers. A country crowd, I thought, except for young men, most in sleeveless T’s or undershirts which apparently pass for cool or maybe virile hereabouts, all painted with the permanent scowl of defiance you see on 17 or 20 year olds worldwide.

I wish I could have telepathically conveyed, on behalf of every other man, the simple notion, “We don’t want your (brightly painted) woman.” Continue reading

Post Soviet Politics Never Stops

riga

A rift has opened up across post Soviet Europe in the wake of the Riga Summit, (that’s Riga across the Daugava River, above) with all the former Soviet states lining up according to their perceived interests. Armenia and Belarus resist the final declaration in Riga, each beholden to Moscow for various protections, while Georgia, the Baltics and Ukraine clamor to camp under the EU umbrella.

The best way to decide what you think is to listen to respected scholars, but they line up equally on both sides. Andrew Michta and Judy Dempsey call the EU feckless while Stratfor and Brian Whitmore put President Putin on the back foot.

Who’s right? And with the injection of the US instigated FIFA controversy and the opportunity it affords the US to scold Russia and vice versa, what’s next? 

The Fire at Chernobyl Is a Real Danger Right Now

chernobyl

Articles with titles like Ukraine Fire Near Chernobyl Disaster Site Brought Under Control create an incorrect impression. They probably mean to reassure by suggesting that the sarcophagus that contains the ruined reactor four is not under threat.

But as I’ve been tweeting this afternoon, it’s not that simple. The forests around the Chernobyl nuclear facility have been irradiated since the event itself in April of 1986, and the forests are still toxic. A study has shown that radioactive cesium 137, for example, with a half life of 30 years, “isn’t disappearing from the environment as quickly as predicted.”

Ukrainian authorities established the exclusion zone in the first place to keep people away from dangerous materials like cesium 137, strontium 90 and others. Visitors to the exclusion zone are made to sign an agreement not to wander into the woods and disturb the ground. We were instructed not even to rest a camera bag on the ground while changing batteries.

Fire needn’t reach the reactor proper to cause the dispersal of cancer causing material. It can be lifted from the forest floor into the air in clouds of smoke from the fire. People in Kyiv, Minsk and rural areas of Ukraine and Belarus must be careful not to breathe smoke from this fire.