A technician checking radiation levels after the Chernobyl explosion. BORIS YURCHENKO / AP

I Was Drafted to Clean Up Chernobyl – and Lived to Tell the Tale

Russian-born surgeon Michael Fishkin remembers how he was rudely awakened in the middle of the night and sent to Chernobyl to clean up the nuclear reactor after the 1986 explosion



You were a “liquidator” – what is that?

Liquidators were the people who were sent to clean up Chernobyl after the accident [in 1986]. The government wanted to end this story as quickly as possible, because they saw the contamination level. They saw that the whole world was taking an interest in this event, that [Soviet] citizens themselves had also heard that there was a big explosion at a nuclear facility. What’s the cheapest commodity for the Soviet regime? People. They don’t cost money like vehicles protected against radiation or other sophisticated devices. People are available for free. So they decided to send people there to do the [clean-up] work.

So one night they knocked on your door. You were 26 and already a doctor.

It was the night between May 9 and 10, 1986 [the explosion had occurred on April 26]. I was working in a small hospital in the Russian periphery, in the Ivanovo oblast [several hundred kilometers from Chernobyl]. I lived in a dorm in a low-income housing project. At 3 A.M., someone knocked on my door. A lot of disabled and sick people lived in the building. They knew I was a doctor and sometimes people knocked on my door when someone wasn’t feeling well, so at first, when I woke up, I thought that was the case. That someone needed a doctor. When I opened the door, two people in civilian clothes were standing there. I didn’t understand who they were. I asked them if something had happened at the hospital. They said: No, it’s not related to the hospital, we need you to be ready in three minutes – there’s a bus waiting downstairs. One of them went back down and the other stayed with me while I got organized. I remember thinking how weird it was that he had stayed. Only afterward did I realize that they were afraid people would figure out where they were being taken and would escape. I packed my things. I went down to the bus. It was full of people.

Did anyone know what was going on, where you were going?

Tomer Appelbaum

No. Everyone tried to guess, but no one knew anything. We spent the rest of the night at a school in my town that had been evacuated. In the morning, we were taken to a small military airfield, given uniforms and told that we were going to participate in a large-scale exercise in Belarus.

What’s odd about your story is that you had no connection to the army. You weren’t a soldier. And also, you lived a long way away from Chernobyl.

I was the only one there who wasn’t an army person [however, because he was a doctor, he was considered to be an "officer"]. They were all reservists. I kept trying to understand, to figure out what I was doing there, but they didn’t tell me. I think I know how I got onto that call-up list. It wasn’t by mistake. A few days earlier, I had treated a senior KGB man at the hospital. He asked me not to write in my report that he had alcohol in his blood, but I refused. He was angry, and as a punishment he put my name on the list of liquidators.

That’s what you thought?

I know that’s the case. A few years later I happened to treat the daughter of a senior party official, and he confirmed my theory.

Back to the bus. So, we’re already two weeks after the explosion.

In the morning we were put on a train. In Russia the train stops constantly, people get on all the time and do inspections – but this train didn’t stop from the moment we boarded. We arrived within eight hours – a regular train would have taken at least six hours more. We got off the train and stopped in a forest for a break, because we hadn’t eaten since the bus picked us up. Canned foods were handed out. I went to walk a bit in the forest, and then something strange happened. There were really lovely flowers there. I don’t know what they’re called in Hebrew, but they’re used in making heart medication.

Digitalis [foxgloves].

Yes. A flower with a very strong smell. I bent down to pick a flower, and suddenly one of the officers said. “Don’t touch the plants. It’s dangerous.” I replied, “I know this plant, it’s not dangerous.” He said, “The plant isn’t dangerous, but the dust on it is very hazardous.”

So that was really your first clue.

I asked him, “What’s this dust? What are you talking about?” He replied, “There was an explosion in the nuclear plant here and there’s dust.” I said, “What? So why are we going to Belarus?” Then he got angry and said, “I’m not obligated to tell you anything,” and left. I understood that the situation wasn’t good. As a physician, I understood what radiation is, what radioactive dust is. Afterward, we came to a kind of tent camp that had been erected next to the power plant. They told us not to touch anything and to wait for orders.

When were you told where you were and what the mission was?

At first we didn’t know a thing; no one told us anything. If anyone started to feel ill because of the radiation, he was immediately evacuated to a hospital. Every day a different rumor circulated; there was no way to know what was really going on. One night we were ordered to dig a large trench. We dug all night. In the morning they collected us all, some 6,000 people [civilians and military personnel], and told us: You came here because there was an explosion in a power plant, and it’s possible you won’t be returning home again. We don’t know when we’ll release you. You are defending the state. Just as your grandfathers and grandmothers died in the wars in order to safeguard the state, this is your opportunity to do the same.

Just a few days before, you’d been at home. Suddenly you’re a soldier. Suddenly you’re being asked to sacrifice your life.

It’s hard for me to remember exactly what I felt – I think I was a bit depressed. But I was one of 6,000 people who were told that they were going to die; somehow it was less frightening. The general atmosphere was one of shock. Both the soldiers and representatives of the regime were simply flabbergasted; no one knew exactly what we were supposed to do. One morning we were told: You are going to wash down the houses [in nearby villages]. They gave us a kind of container and we were supposed to hose down the roofs of the houses, and when the contaminated water dripped down on the ground near them we had to turn over the soil.

The region had already been evacuated.

Like after a third world war. Large villages with big farms, and not a person in them. Everyone had fled. There were no more cows, chickens or pigs. They had already been killed. Most of the dogs had been killed, but cats wandered around freely. I couldn’t understand why. After all, the problem with the dogs wasn’t the radiation they’d absorbed; it was their fur, which was full of radioactive dust. They were killed for fear that they would run off and spread the dust in more and more places. But for some reason the authorities didn’t kill the cats, even though they posed exactly the same danger.

When did you get to the power plant itself?

After we’d been in the field for three weeks near the plant, they decided to rotate between officers who had been in the rear and officers who had been in the plant until then and had absorbed a lot of radiation. I was given a crew of three soldiers and we started to work in the plant.

What did you see? What did it look like?

Reuters

First of all, it was enormous. A few square kilometers in size; the surroundings were very beautiful and well-tended. Everything was full of flowers. The weather was pleasant. The sky was blue. It was impossible to guess how dangerous it was to be there. Everything looked normal. Only the beeps of the instruments that measured radiation told the true story. The first job was to clean things up. After the explosion, the lighter materials flew through the air and turned to dust, but the heavier materials, such as coal and graphite, fell to the ground in fragments, full of radiation. So at the beginning we were occupied with cleaning – we ran into the area fast, picked up a part and threw it into a special container.

What protective gear did you have?

There wasn’t any. There were a few decontamination suits, but they don’t protect against radiation. It’s also really hot inside and hard to breathe. Those who worked in the plant had no equipment.

You were exposed to radiation the whole time you were there – not only on the grounds of the plant.

Of course. We ate, slept and breathed radiation. In the first weeks, no procedures had been worked out. They only set up the disinfection sites in July – you passed through them after coming out of the plant and had to throw out your contaminated clothes and shoes. Before entering the camp you were washed again, and so were the vehicles. Up until that point, everyone who was in the plant had scattered the dust everywhere. There was an insane amount of radiation in our tents, far more than outside. As a physician I knew more, of course, but even I did not grasp all the implications. It wasn’t until I started to work in the plant that I started to understand what was really going on.

Meaning?

Our work day in the plant was six minutes long: You took a shovel, turned over some soil and ran off. That was it. You were free to go. But the cars that took us back to the camp didn’t arrive until midday. In order not to be exposed to more radiation, we waited in a basement that was also a dining room, two floors below ground. That’s where we met the plant’s staff and its managers. And also Valery Legasov [the scientist who headed the commission investigating the disaster], who is the lead character in the new miniseries [“Chernobyl,” produced by HBO].

I spoke to them and gradually assembled the information, crumb by crumb. Everyone gave me something. It was impossible to understand the whole picture. One day, someone from Moscow came to the plant, a very senior party figure. That’s how it was the whole time – suddenly someone from the top would show up, maybe he would know what to do. This man wanted a doctor with him at all times, so I went with him everywhere. One morning he decided that he wanted to see the site of the explosion. We drove there. It was really scary.

What’s at [the center of] the site? Just a pit.

Just a pit. For sure. From which substances were still being emitted. We went there in a car armored with lead. We got closer and closer. There was a Geiger counter in the car. I remember the sound it made – tuk, tuk, tuk – and when we got closer and closer it wasn’t a broken sound anymore, it was one long tuuuuuu. When we reached the very edge of the pit, the car’s engine died. We were stuck. We realized we were in big trouble. Our clothes were drenched with perspiration from the fear. We knew that at the level of radiation there, within five minutes we were all dead. It was quiet in the car, and suddenly the engine came back to life. The driver jumped, put it into reverse full blast, and we got out of there. I thought about it: You’re in a car and you know that in five minutes you’re gone.

That’s another difference between you and the others who were recruited for the mission: You realized what you were up against, you understood the damage.

Yes, I understood. It was very hard, because the soldiers were always asking me how hazardous it was, and I couldn’t lie to them. Even there, at the pit, in the silence that fell after the engine stopped, I said, “Comrades, I think we should say goodbye to one other.”

I keep thinking about how it must be to know that at any given moment someone can knock on your door and take you away and you can't do anything about it.

Look, I was born and raised in the period of that government. It seemed natural. It was obvious from age zero that you must not speak ill of the party. Television and radio were government tools. When you’re born into a life like that, you simply don’t understand that there is anything else. This is how it is, period ... To risk your life isn’t seen as problematic, because life has no value from the start. The lies also weren’t something out of the ordinary. That’s the reality. Goebbels already said it long ago: A small lie is not good, only a very big lie can work as truth. The Soviet Union understood that better than Goebbels. The method is to lie all the time. When there are so many lies, people get used to the idea that this is how it’s supposed to be. There’s no difference between lie and truth, and that’s part of life. You feel it all the time. Everyone lies to everyone, you know it. You just need not to get caught.

Were you able to identify with the narrative they tried to sell you? To the thought that you were saving the state?

A very tough question. I can’t answer it. I think that part of the time in Chernobyl, I felt that I really did want to help.

Help the state or help people?

People. Look, I wasn’t disappointed by the lies. I knew I was being lied to and that the lies were part of life. What really was hard for me to understand was how little they cared about our lives. Instead of trying to protect the soldiers, they went on lying. For example, one of my jobs as an officer was to measure radiation on the ground every day. The measurement was nonsense. I measured radiation in a certain place, but 20 meters away it might be much stronger. It was convenient for the government if we reported a low figure, so the soldiers would be able to stay. I tried to measure in places where I saw that the values were high. I knew that other officers were doing the opposite. I asked them how much radiation they were measuring and they said it was 10 percent of the real figure. Why? Because that’s what was good for the state. Better for the soldiers to work as much as possible, and it makes no difference what happens to them later. I reported high numbers, even though I knew they would check me, and I knew that I could go to jail, because I would be to blame for the discharge of people who could still work. It was hard for me that the soldiers’ lives were held in such contempt.

But you say that you were habituated to think like that from age zero.

True, but I always felt resistance to the idea.

AP

You were conflicted.

All the time. Look what they’re doing. One day we were given the task of sealing the plant with concrete: Because the soil continued to emit radiation and it was no longer possible to turn it over, the decision was made to pour concrete over the whole area. The soldiers and I stood and waited for the truck with the concrete, [while we were] exposed to insane radiation – I saw the numbers in the Geiger counter. The truck was very late. When it did show up, we were all supposed to have been out of there long before because we’d absorbed so much radiation, but we stayed and went on working. I kept saying to the commander: How can you behave this way to people? Many years later I spoke to him about what happened there, and he said, “We all worked joyfully, everyone did his part, it all went like clockwork.” There was no joy and no clock. He was simply a party member. Even now he’s probably thinking of himself and about his vested interests.

In fact, at Chernobyl you became a dissident.

I became a dissident while I was still there, and when I got home I said to my father: That’s it, I don’t want to stay here, I’m leaving. My father was very angry with me. He was a professor, director of a department in a hospital. He said that if I left I would ruin his life. So I waited. I didn’t leave until after he died.

What did you learn from the Chernobyl mission?

I understood where I was really living. Before that I was a patriot. I loved the country very much. The ideas were important to me, the ideology. I returned from there a full-fledged dissident. I couldn’t stand that life any longer. I couldn’t listen to the news. There’s a law in the Russian army that soldiers have to listen to the news. Every evening at 9 they listen to the authorities’ news. They brought us these small televisions with generators and placed them between the tents, and at 9 o’clock all the soldiers had to come out of their tent and listen. Suddenly you see how there’s no connection between what they’re telling you and the reality on the ground. In early June they were already reporting on the news that the event was over, there was no radiation, soon the whole population would return to their homes. And I’m there, I know it’s all nonsense. I think that most of the soldiers who were there started to hate the state. They were very angry.

It was impossible to accommodate the lie.

I stopped believing, not even one word. Even when the regime was replaced and everything changed, I didn’t believe a thing.

Tell me a little about how it was to go back home.

It was hard to get back to a regular life. I had dreams at night. I felt fear. All kinds of things that happened came back to me. The girlfriends I had left me. They knew I was exposed to radiation, that there might be problems if there would be children. They weren’t going to take a husband like that. Damaged. I met my wife on a vacation [in Russia]. When I saw that the relationship was getting serious, I said to her: “Listen, a year ago I got back from Chernobyl. I absorbed radiation, I could have fertility problems, there might be problems for the children.” She asked me what the chances were of that happening. I told her there was a chance, I didn’t know how much of one. She said that there are chances of all kinds of things. I understood that I could continue with the relationship. But when she became pregnant we were in a state of anxiety. When a healthy girl was born, it was a genuine miracle. It’s said that there could be problems for grandchildren, too, but in the meantime there are no grandchildren.

What you’re actually saying is that people who returned from Chernobyl were marked?

Certainly. Before we were discharged all our equipment was taken from us – watches, cameras, anything that could give off radiation. We left there with nothing and we were told that it would be better if we didn’t talk about what we had seen. “Don’t tell anyone that you were even here.”

Today you're a surgeon at Dana-Dwek Children's Hospital [part of Ichilov Hospital, in Tel Aviv]. How is your health?

I think that, relatively, I got off easy. I have unpredictable attacks of weakness, when I simply can’t move. I’m sick a lot, I catch every virus there is.

Do you know how much radiation you absorbed?

The immune system is very weak. Blood tests that I do aren’t good. I don’t know how much radiation I absorbed. But for sure it’s a lot more than the number that appears on my discharge certificate. After I immigrated to Israel [in the early 1990s] I was sent to be examined in a special department in a hospital in the south. I underwent many tests, but they wouldn’t give me the results. Another time I was asked to come to a hospital in the country’s center. Half a tooth was taken from me, to examine how much radiation I absorbed. I cooperated, but they wouldn’t give me the result, either. They said they weren’t allowed to, that it was a secret.

In 2012 a law was passed in Russia concerning the rights of the "liquidators." Did you actually receive anything?

They succeeded in passing a law, but we only get a recuperation allowance of 5,570 shekels [about $1,500] a year. Those who stayed in Russia were allowed to take early retirement, at the age of 50. Here the authorities have refused even to give me tax breaks.

How do you feel now, when Chernobyl is back in the headlines, when stories about what happened there are surfacing again?

A few years ago, I got some very good advice from someone who worked with me. He told me to write down everything that happened to me, that it would help me cope. So I wrote and printed a small book, in Russian. It really did help me. Before writing it, I had difficulties with my thoughts and memories, but after I wrote them down I started to feel better. My dream is to translate the book into Hebrew.

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