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‘The pain doesn’t fade’ The widow of a Chernobyl engineer remembers her husband and describes returning to work at the power plant after the 1986 nuclear accident

Source: Meduza

In 1985, Anatoly Sitnikov became the deputy chief engineer charged with operating the first and second reactors at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. During the accident in April 1986, Sitnikov examined the power station’s exploded fourth reactor, receiving a lethal dose of radiation. He died several weeks later in Moscow. Sitnikov’s wife, Elvira, accompanied him to the capital, where she also cared for other ailing “liquidators.” She spoke to Meduza about her late husband, how first responders were treated after the accident, and why she ultimately went back to work at the Chernobyl power plant.

“People live like human beings here”

In April 1975, my husband and I moved from Komsomolsk-on-Amur to Pripyat. This was when the Far East was still dust, dirt, and cold. Then we came here, and everything was blooming. I told my husband, look around, people live like human beings here.

In Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Tolya [Anatoly] worked at a shipbuilding plant, and he was highly valued there, and they didn’t want to let him go. I was the one who got him released. I remember, I went to the party organizer and said that my children were constantly getting sick because of the harsh climate, and that I should be raising them healthy for the state.

For the first two years, Tolya lived at a dormitory in Pripyat, and our two daughters and I were in Nikolaev at my brother’s. Then they gave my husband an apartment, and we moved in with him.

Tolya oversaw construction of the first reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, and was then the plant’s shift supervisor. He raved about nuclear power stations, and could disappear for days at work. The whole time we lived in Pripyat, we never once got into a car to go anywhere on vacation. One time, we agreed that we’d finally go south with our eldest daughter, Ira, who’d made a special visit from Moscow, where she studied at the energy institute. And suddenly, shortly before the trip, my husband told me, “The chief engineer won’t let me go, because everyone is on vacation, and there’s nobody to staff the plant.” And I told him, “They’re all getting their summer rest, and you haven’t ever taken a day off!” He looked at me and said, “I’m hurt that you don’t understand me.” And that’s how that trip ended.

He lived for his work. One night, he woke me up, pointing to an [imaginary] device in his hand, and said, “Keep your eye on this, and make sure the readings don’t go off the scale.” And then he collapsed back into his pillow. In the morning, he didn’t remember a thing. Another time, Tolya woke up suddenly, ran to a window that was cracked open, and said, “Look, the doors are open! They’ll loot everything, and we won’t be able to finish the reactor!” And I said, “Go to sleep. I’ll take watch.” He went back to bed, and again didn’t remember anything in the morning.

I’m telling you this because I want you to understand what kind of man he was. He was passionate about his work, and that power plant was his joy in life. He was ready to give his life for the sake of its production, and in the end that’s exactly what he did. As one of our friends once said, he was a soldier: he did what he was told.

“They’re taking your husbands away today”

That night [from April 25 to April 26, 1986], they called and got him out of bed. He told me, “I have to go, because something has happened at the station.” And he went, even though it wasn’t his reactor, and he wasn’t responsible for it. I didn’t worry. This wasn’t the first incident at the station, and it always ended up being something that wasn’t serious. But in the morning, when I woke up, there were cars zooming around, and ambulances going in every direction. And the radio was silent. Then the neighbors called me and said that something at the station… We weren’t physicists and we didn’t understand how serious the situation might be, but in any case I kept our daughter home from school, even though it was a lovely day outside.

At sometime around 11 a.m., I called the station and happened to catch my husband. He told me that he’d inspected all the rooms surrounding the reactor, on verbal instructions from the director [Viktor Bryukhanov]. He admitted to me over the telephone: “I’m feeling awful. I’m throwing up.” I told him, “Go to the medical center!” But he said, “I can’t go…” Then I called the medical center, and they told me that they had a lot of patients, so my husband needed to come to them himself. In the end, though, I convinced them to go get him.

Later, I got a call from a doctor I knew, who said, “They’re taking your husbands away today, and I don’t know where. You’d better find out.” I rushed to the hospital, but I only got as far as the lobby before some doctor grabbed me by the arm and dragged me outside. “Tell me where my husband is!” I screamed at him. And he answered, “It’s need-to-know. Now get out of here!” They were that rude to me.

[The other relatives] and I stood outside at the hospital’s main entrance, while they quietly took our husbands away through the back exit. The minute I got the idea to look toward the courtyard, I saw there was a bus parked behind the hospital, where they were loading everyone. I screamed, “Tolya! Tolya!” And he came out to me, strangely tanned. I told him, “Tolya, everything will be okay. Where are they taking you?” “We don’t know,” he said. “Don’t come looking for me. I’ll get better and come to you myself.” I looked at him and said, “I’m still going to find you!”

Then I asked him why he went to the fourth reactor, even when it wasn’t his responsibility. And he said, “There was nobody who knew the reactor better than me, you see? If it weren’t for us, it would have been the end of Ukraine definitely, and maybe half of Europe, too… You need to understand this.” But how was I supposed to understand? I was left with two children, and they were taking away my husband. What was I supposed to do? It was only later that I understood. Maybe he was thinking then about the children and me for the first time, and only later about everyone else.

Within an hour or so, they put our husbands on a plane to Moscow. It was the evening of April 26. Our home was on the outskirts of the city, nearest to the power plant. We watched the tower’s beautiful glow: a pillar of light rose into the sky. We didn’t know what it was. We weren’t warned [about the radiation]. At that moment, on April 26, they brought in a car from Kiev loaded with cucumbers, which were in short supply, and beer. And they started selling it, knowing about the elevated background radiation. People walked the streets, there were weddings around the city, and everyone was dancing.

Later on, at the trial, I asked the director [Viktor Bryukhanov] why they didn’t immediately say over the radio that we should have closed the windows and kept our children indoors. He shrugged, and said, “I reported it….” I don’t even care anymore where he reported it. I believe this was a serious crime. This is what should have been punished. But in the end they punished the ones who'd already suffered.

The trial against the managers of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, July 1, 1987
Vladimir Repik / TASS

A messenger for the station workers

On the morning of April 27, they announced to us over the radio that there would be a mass evacuation, and we needed to pack our things. I already had a train ticket leaving that evening to go to my husband in Moscow [purchased after doctors finally told the wives where their husbands had been taken]. That’s why I didn’t open up, when police officers started going door to door. While everyone was leaving, my daughter and I sat in our apartment, quiet as mice. Outside, meanwhile, buses kept coming and going. My daughter counted 812 buses, before she got bored.

We left Pripyat with one suitcase. We took only a few things — just some changes of clothes, some underwear and shirts. It was summer, it was warm, and we didn’t think we were leaving for long. At first, I didn’t even want to take my savings with us. We had a wooden owl hanging on the wall in our apartment, and I stuffed my necklaces and rings into it. Then a neighbor told me, “Have you lost your mind? Take anything valuable with you. We don’t actually know how long we’ll be gone, or who will be here.”

I came to Moscow on April 28, and went immediately to my eldest daughter at her dormitory. When I got there, all the kids from Pripyat studying at her institute ran up to me and asked, “What happened? Why can’t we get through to our parents on the phone?” I told them, “Guys, do you see me standing here? Am I alive? Well, so are they. Don’t worry.” And I managed to calm them down a bit.

The next day, I found Hospital No. 6, where they’d brought my husband. Of course, they didn’t let me come anywhere near him. The rules were strict. But I managed to pass him a note, and I got a reply from him. I remember riding back on the subway, crying my eyes out, and thinking: let [the other passengers] think what they want, what matters is my Tolya is alive.

Later, through our ministry [the Soviet Energy and Electrification Ministry], I got access to the hospital. I brought the guys newspapers, bought things for them, mailed their letters, and straightened their blankets and pillows. When they found out that I was from the power plant, and that I was also the wife of a man like Sitnikov, they were very happy, and they’d look forward to my visits, like I was their own mother. They were all put in separate rooms, and they weren’t permitted to meet. I’d give them news about each other. I was their messenger.

I remember, there was this guy named Sasha in one of the rooms. I dropped in on him once, and he yelled at me, “Mrs. Sitnikova, don’t look! I’m lying here naked!” And I told him, “Oh, Sasha, sweetie, you’re shy around me! That’s great! It means you’re alive!” The next morning they told me he’d died overnight. Immediately afterwards, I ran into his wife in the hallway. She’d just arrived in Moscow. She ran up to me and asked, “Well, how is my Sasha?” My breath left me. How could I tell a wife that her husband was dead? And then, fortunately for me, the doctor called her into his office, and I wasn’t the one who had to tell her that Sasha was gone.

“Now we’ll be infected!”

Nobody told me that I couldn’t touch my husband or the other guys because of the radiation. That it was dangerous. But I knew it myself, and I wasn’t scared. You don’t think about it, especially when it’s happening to the person you love most. I couldn’t even fathom how I would live without him. But many others were afraid. One time, a nurse screamed at me: “You shipped all your husbands here, and now we’ll be infected!” I ignored her. What mattered to me was my husband’s survival and all the other guys pulling through.

But Tolya gradually got worse and worse, and then he had a pulmonary edema. The last evening I spent with him, he said at one point, “You know, just go home…” But what was there for me to do at home? There was nobody there waiting for me. “You don’t understand,” Tolya told me. “You need to get up at five in the morning and go to the guys. They really need you. While they’re here in the hospital, you should be here.” Then he called for the doctor, they gave him an injection, and he fell asleep.

The next morning, I came to the hospital again, and ran into a nurse in the hallway. She was one of those people who always wants to be the first to report any news. She said to me, “Oh, your husband died!” That was May 31, 1986.

They buried Tolya in the Mitinskoe Cemetery in Moscow. I didn’t even know where to buy a black scarf to cover my head. There was nothing in the stores. I called the ministry and said, “I hope you’re ashamed of the fact that I’m going to my husband’s grave without a headdress.” And the next day they brought us all black scarves.

At first, I just wanted to pass out on some pills and sleep. I was in agony. Then I thought everything over: I have two sisters, both of whom are good women. I could have handed my kids over to one of them, but she’s very sensitive. If she gets offended, she won’t talk for a week, and the children would be gone. My other sister also loves the girls, but she loves cleanliness, too. It’s “take off your shoes here,” and “come inside here.” My children would lose it. It’s less strict at our place. And then I realized that I needed to live, to make sure the girls landed on their feet. That was it. That alone saved me. My kids pulled me through it.

The day after the funeral, I was back at the hospital. One of the guys told me then, “I can’t look you in the eyes. I’m ashamed… You just buried your husband, and then you came back here.” “He was the one who asked me not to abandon you,” I told him. I might not have been able to do it on my own. But this also helped me come back to life, because I was constantly busy. Maybe one of the guys survived thanks in part to my help.

I remember there was this guy named Sasha, who’d been brought from Pripyat together with my husband. I’d come up to him, while he was in and out of consciousness. Once I said, “Sasha, try to look at me, sweetie. Do you recognize me? Sasha, remember: everyone’s already left here. They’ve been at the ‘Goluboi’ [rehabilitation center] for some time now.” “And Mr. Sitnikov?” he asked. I nodded, even though Tolya was long ago buried, by then. “Everybody’s already out of the woods, you see? Now it’s your turn. You’re young and strong,” I told him.

Years passed, and with another April 26, came another anniversary. Standing at my husband’s grave, someone came up behind me and put his arm around my shoulders. I turned around, and there was Sasha. “Mrs. Sitnikova, if it weren’t for you…,” he said. “It wasn’t me. It was all Tolya… He asked me to help at the guys,” I told him. In the end, Sasha managed to live another 20 years.

Dosimetric monitoring in the area outside the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s fourth reactor, August 1986
Valery Zufarov and Vladimir Repik / TASS

Returning to Chernobyl

I was widowed early, of course. I told all the young [widows of the Chernobyl plant workers]: Live your lives! Remarry! Life is for the living! I was already at an age [45] that I preferred children and grandchildren. And I didn’t see any men around who were like Tolya. We’d lived together for 22 and a half years. I hope to God every family can live like that.

I felt so old back then. Even now, at 77, I think I feel better. After my husband’s death, I was like stone. My face was like a mask; I couldn’t talk to anyone; I couldn’t sleep; and I was miserable. I broke down. [After my husband’s death and the subsequent period of caring for the other Chernobyl victims in Moscow] I spent two months at a neurosis clinic. After I was discharged, I returned to the Chernobyl power plant’s metrology laboratory, where I worked before the accident. I needed money to get my children on their feet, to stop relying on others for help. So I had to earn for myself and for their father. Until 1988, I worked at Chernobyl on a rotational basis: a month at the station, and then a month off in Moscow.

Our lab was located near the second reactor in a concrete room. I don’t know what kind of radiation was outside. Why should I know this? I worked like a zombie: I got up at five in the morning, went to the cafeteria, then boarded a bus that brought us to the “dirty zone,” we’d transfer to another bus, and ride that one to the station. I’d work a six-hour shift, and come home. Afterwards, I didn’t do anything. I didn’t go anywhere. I know [pop star Alla] Pugacheva came to town, but I didn’t go to her concert. I was in such a state that I couldn’t think about distractions. I just thought about whether I wanted to keep living. And about how to get out of all this.

They say pain fades with time. It doesn’t. It slows down, and then you start remembering, and everything surfaces again. Maybe it would have consoled me some, if I’d remarried. The pain isn’t going away. But I forgave everyone. You can’t live your whole life with the feeling that you’ve withheld forgiveness. Now everything is fine: I have wonderful daughters, of whom Tolya was very proud, four grandchildren, and a great grandson. Life goes on, you see.

Recorded by Katerina Kuznetsova

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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