In 1986 I was a Russian student on my year abroad from university in London and was spending a semester at the Pushkin Pedagogical Institute in Moscow when the nuclear accident at Chernobyl happened. At the time the information we were getting from the British embassy and others varied from scant to nothing, despite screaming hysterical headlines back in the UK claiming stuff like ‘2000 dead!’ in and around the site of the meltdown. This was in the very last reaches of the Cold War, and within a few years Perestroika and Glasnost, the breaking down of the Berlin Wall and revolutions or wars in Romania, Hungary, former Czechoslavakia and Yugoslavia would change what we had known as the Eastern Bloc for ever. But at that moment paranoia was still very much alive and kicking in the USSR, not least of all within the foreign community whose number back then was tiny.
Since we felt a bit left in the dark I was desperately trying to piece together whatever info I could – was it even still safe for us to be in Moscow? The British embassy, who had brought us all out there and acted as our official address and caretakers had announced nothing and had not initiated any evacuations, even from Kiev, which was so close to Chernobyl and at which university my dear friends from home were studying.
Then on April 30th I somehow found out via the grapevine at the Pushkin Institute that the Kiev students had been evacuated and were on their way to Moscow although no one could confirm what shape they were in. The next morning, May Day was a huge public holiday in the USSR, and our student group leader had advised us not to head into town, but I did anyway. What follows is a word for word journal ramble I scribbled late at night several days later while I was babysitting for Phil Kaufman and Felicity Barringer at their Moscow flat. At the time they were NY Times Moscow correspondents, and they strongly encouraged me to write a first person set of notes about my May Day. So I did that, late in the evening after I’d got Phil and Felicity’s boys to sleep. Here it is, unedited, alongside scans of the original pages…
Well, I’ve known some odd and varied May Days in my life before, but nothing has ever, or probably will ever supersede what happened today. I got up very early on this public prazdnik with everyone either still asleep or in the centre for the parade. The local streets were almost deserted – I got the metro and alighted at Biblioteka Imeni Lenina [The Lenin Museum metro station] where I was met headlong by the May Day parade, going in the opposite direction to the one I was heading for – that of the British embassy. When I finally managed to get onto the bridge I was stopped from continuing my trail as I was walking against the march. I descended onto the embankment and walked the length of the South Kremlin bounds, with our embassy across the Moskva river facing me. I arrived at the bridge south of St. Basil’s and headed across, and this time I was walking in the general direction of the crowd.
When I came to the steps descending Morisa Toreza embankment I was held back by a barricade of militia men. In my insistence I was very nearly in tears but to no avail – I would have no choice but to continue my walk to the very end of the bridge and descend onto the island and try and find the rear entrance of the embassy. To my immense frustration, once I had eventually found this entrance, it was locked. I quizzed the militia men stationed thereby but they jocularly/in their nastoyenni prazdnik informed me I would simply have to find my way back to the Morisa Toreza embankment entrance and try to get in through the front entrance.
By now extremely frustrated, tearful, and, may I say, quite desperate to get to the embassy to see our Kiev students, I ran at haste through a pereulok past festive tables where babushkas and young devushki drank sok and smiled in pride at the wonderful atmosphere created by this May Day prazdnik commotion, all as if knowing that the sun could have done nothing short of shining so zealously for them on that day as it did.
Having simply walked through a barricade and continuing to ignore the half-hearted calls of the militia men enquiring as to my reasons for heading so hastily in such an anti-prazdnik style across the embankment, I reached the gates of the British embassy to be confronted by jolly militia men jokingly advising me that the embassy was closed and that nobody was working. I angrily took my passport and fled through the gates to the offices of the cultural attaché where I had been assured only less than 24 hours earlier, that I would find our Kiev students. Naturally, there was nobody in the cultural section, and the students had evidently never been there. I ran in confusion to the main door of the embassy, bumping into a motley crew of Brits who transpired as being a journalist from the Times [Christopher Walker], one from the FT, one from The Guardian [Martin Walker], one from British Radio News – IRN and the BBC producer of ‘Comrades’, and one or two others, all, like myself, searching frantically for the British students.
Donald McLaren, the embassy Secretary welcomed us all in and informed us that the students had not or were not to arrive at any point in that day at the embassy. Margot Light from the University of Surrey who had been so frantically dashing around the cultural section the day before, was telephoned at her hotel room at the National but was not there, so on the advice of Mr. McLaren, we all headed off to the Molodezhnaya hotel where we were assured the students would be staying.
The sun was still burning hot and the May Day festivities were by now in full swing in Red Square. At length, and after a somewhat relaxed, if not extremely lighthearted drive to the hotel, we arrived, checked for the students’ whereabouts at the ‘Sputnik’ desk and were informed that they had been taken off to the Polyclinic under the wishes of the Soviet authorities and were undergoing tests for radioactivity. Although we arrived at the Molodezhnaya a little before midday and the rep at the ‘Sputnik’ desk assured us that they were expecting the students at 12.30 as lunch was to be served to them at one, the first coach load pulled up in front of the hotel only at 2.30.
The British and American journalists had been quite anxious, though not as anxious as myself, as we had sat waiting on the hotel steps under the by now baking midday sun. I made a brief comment about my feelings towards the whole affair, how it had been treated, and how the author students felt, and this went on to the front page of the following day’s Times. I have yet to learn if I am to be quoted in anyone else’s journal, or, furthermore, what I will “have said” if I do…
I found the crew of reporters very casual and friendly, and we all seemed to have a mutual mistrust of our ‘higher authorities’ and a mutual feeling of farce about the whole affair. We were quite unsure about how to receive the students when they were to show; all I can say is the impact of the first coach load arriving astonished me. Where I had been expecting a hoard of shell-shocked, frightened college kids just wanting to head home, I was confronted with an immediate wall of anger, anti-media, bouncing (if not boiling) and extremely healthy students, headed by Chantal A. from the PCL, who made an extreme statement to all the reporters who had, by now, made an entourage around her, though whether they follow up all she said, on TV or through the press media, yet remains to be seen. The students had all been to the Polyclinic and, according to the attestation certificates they had been given there, there were minimal, i.e. ‘around normal’ levels of radioactivity found on the students’ clothing, and, although some were still suspicious because this was a Soviet conclusion, i.e. one not to be taken seriously, there seemed to
be no cause for alarm. Shortly, the second coach load of students arrived, and similar feelings to those of the students on the first coach were reiterated by them.
The third coach, on which were seated Taryn, Theona and John had not yet showed, and at 3.00 the American press decided to head off for the airport where they hoped to intercept them. I went with them. When we showed at the entrance lot to Sheremyetevo, there were many others also waiting. The sun was still very hot, I was by now parched, and starving. Eventually, the third coach arrived, and I met a wanton crew who made it clear they were most indignant to be interview, or even to have their photographs taken. They did not really believe they were being sent home, until they got to the airport. A mixture of sad, sullen, irate, confused and very tired faces stood around the airport, as they learned that British Airways were flying in an aeroplane equipped with doctors and nurses and that their clothes would have to be removed and packed away, as BA had prepared track suits for them to travel home in, fearing potential radioactive levels coming off the students would be at large within the plane’s cabin. For the poor students, their hassle did not end here, they were thoroughly searched through whilst clearing customs, and unnecessarily reminded of the hysterical parents and frantic news crews who would be waiting for them at Heathrow Airport.
At this stage the main questions going through their minds were – why the Russians in Kiev had not been informed and evacuated by their authorities, and why, if it was our embassy who were so concerned had they not decided to send home the students from Moscow and Leningrad? Another unanswerable question concerned the reason why the Canadian embassy had not pulled their students out of Kiev, though to my knowledge our students did not know about this.
I had a mixture of feelings as I said goodbye to Taryn at customs – confusion, pity and anger (for them) and a certain gratitude that I had not been commanded home by the embassy (though I later learned that it was, in fact, Progressive Tours Ltd. who had pulled them out and not the embassy after all.) I hitched a lift back into town with a nice reporter called Alison Smale who works here in Moscow for the Associated Press, and is married to a Russian (I wonder how he feels?)
I’m writing this in Moscow, 1986, late in the evening at Felicity and Phil’s while the adorable sweeties Michael and Gregory are asleep.