Almost a decade-long study of memories and various kinds of narratives about childhood in Ukraine during the period of Perestroika and early independent Ukraine in the 1990s showed that the theme of Chernobyl is global and comprehensive.
The event itself and the consequences of the Chernobyl accident deeply penetrated the life and everyday life of not only adults, but also children of that time.
In close connection with the socio-political and economic circumstances, as well as the difficulties of state reconstruction, Chernobyl acquired a special symbolic meaning, turning into the embodiment of the skill of experiencing a catastrophe: both for the victims and for the public.
The burden of individual and collective ability to abstract life experience into an aspect that enables a person to get through this experience in a new way and, possibly, in a different way, at the same time gives humanity a unique opportunity to remember.
The ability to remember is the basis for special human relations that unite and at the same time distance us from each other due to belonging to different social groups, determined by time and experience. One such layer is generation.
As you know, in order for a generation to form, members of a certain age category must have a common experience of going through the most significant social and historical events during childhood and youth.
The post-Chernobyl childhood of the average Ukrainian kid violates the continuity of the so-called “happy Soviet childhood”, giving rise to a new historical generation and a future source of social conflict.
Most children and adolescents of that time had much in common, for them the Chernobyl crisis embodies the very essence of childhood – unemployment and financial instability in the family, a shortage of goods and services, “diseases that came from nowhere”.
Such joint negative experience became the basis for the formation of a specific cultural identity – the children of Chernobyl.
Apparently, in the case of Chernobyl, the jointly experienced historical skill turned out to be common not only for the liquidators of the consequences of the accident, but also for children and youth who survived the catastrophe itself, then the collapse of the Soviet Union and the early period of the formation of independent Ukraine.
In other words, the “explosion” of Chernobyl was felt far beyond its spatial “zone”, time and age limits. The Chernobyl disaster and its consequences were felt not only by people with certificates of victims of the Chernobyl accident.
As for the children, for their consciousness, the events connected with the Chernobyl accident partially arise not as a result of reading a news feed, not from television reports or the press, but due to the semi-science fiction genre about UFO stories that were told them in childhood.
In the late 80s, combined with despair caused by the total secrecy of what really happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, information about Chernobyl became more and more of a folkloric character – legends about mutant people, animals with three heads, and so on.
Children were told about Chernobyl more in the genre of fables and moral teachings than with knowledge of the case, true facts and explanations. Chernobyl appears for children of the second half of the 80s, the beginning of the 90s, not as a concrete large-scale tragedy, but as a materialization of the idea of a bad and disturbing event.
The Chernobyl accident occurred at the time of extreme vulnerability of civil society, causing a resonance that even today, after three decades, is quite seriously felt in economics, medicine, history, and even culture. “Ukrainian Chernobyl” is slowly spreading beyond Ukraine on the post-Chernobyl global world map.
For many people abroad, the concept of “Ukrainian” means “Chernobyl”, while “Chernobyl” is “Ukrainian”. It is necessary to study many factors to understand how the Chernobyl disaster actually affected Ukraine and the world, under the conditions of the so-called “invisible radiation”. Perhaps, thanks to these studies, we will understand why each of us is a “Chernobyl person” in his own way?
“The less you know, the better you sleep”
“It is not known for sure whether background radiation affected the fish catch, but the pike in Pripyat was surprisingly large,” such say those who were twelve years old at the time of the Chernobyl accident.
Their childhood memories of Chernobyl are vivid and fragmentary: “…We are sailing with a grandfather in a boat, past huge power lines through which electricity comes from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant to Kiev home; we play with local children, we buy milk from a neighbor’s old woman “…
“The less you know, the better you sleep” has become a vital parable of several generations who grew up under the Soviet regime. The social catastrophe turned into a technogenic catastrophe – Chernobyl. And suddenly, it turned out in an instant that the “ignorance” strategy no longer works.
The catastrophic history of the twentieth century illustrates the mechanisms of collective psychological trauma of society and collective memory. One of these formulas is universal and can be applied both to personal stories and to events of a historical scale.
The Chernobyl old people, who returned to live their lives in their native places, the 30 km exclusion zone, say that, according to popular legends, the unburied and unmourned dead return to scare the alive.
If the loss is hushed up, it threatens to return in very scary forms. As it turns out later, the Chernobyl accident in 1986 was not the first; the station management was able to successfully hush up previous relatively small incidents. How can one not recall national folklore?
Millions of people have not been buried in Ukraine. Victims of wars, repressions, famine have been the objects of silence for decades. It was dangerous to talk about repressed relatives. Many of those who survived the Holodomor have never discussed this publicly.
Fear and the armor of silence passed on to children and grandchildren from generation to generation. Silence of the design flaws of the reactor allowed the accident to happen, silence of real threats made it possible to endanger people after the explosion, in particular, to drive Kiev schoolchildren to the May Day demonstration in 1986.
“What is the price of a lie?” It`s the epigraph of the famous series “Chernobyl” from HBO. Objectively, it could be rephrased – “What is the price of silence?” The reaction of civil society to the series is no less indicative in the context of our general post-traumatic syndrome.
It turned out that for many years, we could not force ourselves to look in this direction. And we needed an extraneous mirror to see and realize things that are important to us.