Child of Chernobyl, 25 Years Later

The Chernobyl disaster, which occurred 25 years ago today, caused global fallout and panic, but many of the most difficult decisions were made by the individual families affected by the explosion in the Ukraine


There's a chance I might not have been born.

One year, two months, two weeks and one day before my birth, reactor number four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant experienced a surge in power. The consequent series of explosions exposed the reactor to the air, causing it to ignite and release radioactive material that spread over parts of the Soviet Union and Europe.

At the time, my family lived in Kiev, the closest big city to the accident. In the immediate aftermath of the explosions, my mother was outside with my older sister, Lena, who was one-and-a-half years old at the time. The city looked deceptively beautiful, with blooming flowers and budding chestnuts lining the streets and ushering in the Ukrainian spring. Dark or foreboding clouds were nowhere to be found; you could not see or smell radiation. A kind neighbor told my mother that perhaps it might be a good idea to go inside because she heard about a fire at a nuclear plant. That information was the extent of my family's knowledge of the Chernobyl accident for the next several days, as the Soviet government continued business as usual. Government officials merrily went on to celebrate May Day, or "The Day of Spring and Labour" just a few days after the explosion, while quietly making plans to get out of Kiev with their families soon after.

Basing their decisions on panic, rumors and a natural distrust for government officials, families such as mine began to leave for the countryside as well.

Train stations, bus stops, airports and any transportation outlet was crowded with people trying to get out somewhere, anywhere an available ticket would take them. My father stood in line for four to five hours at the airport to get tickets out to Crimea for my family. At the time, my parents had only been married for about two years and whatever savings they had, they blew them that summer.

Forced to take time off work, my parents took my sister away from the dangers of radiation to Yalta, a Crimean city on the north coast of the Black Sea. They stayed away for about four months, regularly sending uncontaminated food to my grandparents, who had to stay in Kiev at the time. The primary concern at the time was to keep children away from the radiation.

For the first time in her life, my grandmother saw a Kiev entirely devoid of children. It was unrecognizable; haunting even. My grandparents, along with many others, continued working in the city. My grandfather, who worked as a scientist for the government, brought home a Geiger counter. He walked into the yard behind our apartment building and looked down at the analog dial on its face. It was all the way to the right, at the peg. In Russian, it was "out of scale," off-the-charts. 

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Olga Belogolova is an associate editor at in Washington, D.C., where she covers the Navy. She was previously a staff reporter at National Journal, where she covered energy policy and other global issues.

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