Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

Author:Adam Higginbotham
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Simon & Schuster


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By late autumn, tens of thousands of middle-aged partizans had been drafted from across the Soviet Union and put to work in the high-radiation areas of the zone until they reached their 25 rem limit. Afterward, they were decontaminated and demobilized and told to sign a pledge of secrecy before being sent back to where they had come from, clutching a small cardboard booklet: the official record of their total accumulated dose. Few regarded this document as accurate. Before leaving, some were presented with awards for distinguished service and given a choice of reward: cassette player or watch? Many returned to their homes and sought to purge the radiation from their bodies with vodka. Regardless of the triumphant headlines in Pravda and Izvestia, the bitter truth about the conditions they faced spread gradually through towns and cities across the USSR. As a result, when reservists received the draft notice summoning them for “special training,” they increasingly knew what it meant. Some bribed the draft officer to stay at home: while a deferment from the war in Afghanistan could reportedly be bought for 1,000 rubles, escaping from duty in Chernobyl cost only half as much. And inside some tented encampments on the perimeter of the zone, commanders faced mutiny from their troops. One group of two hundred Estonian partizans, told that their tour was being extended from two to six months, gathered in a furious mob and refused to go back to work. Military police patrols in Kiev picked up senior officers who had deserted their men, drunkenly attempting to flee the city by train.

But there were still many who volunteered to work in Chernobyl, attracted by word of the high wages, paid as a bonus for service in the high-radiation zone, or who were motivated by scientific curiosity—or the chance to sacrifice themselves for the motherland, as their fathers and grandfathers had done in the Great Patriotic War.

Vladimir Usatenko was thirty-six years old when he was drafted on October 17, one of eighty partizans flown from Kharkov to Kiev aboard an Ilyushin-76 transport plane and driven in a fleet of trucks to a tent encampment near the power plant. An engineer who had performed his national service as a radio operator in the Soviet missile defense forces, he could have bribed his way out but chose not to do so. Inside the zone, he found total chaos: there were uniformed soldiers everywhere, scurrying to their tasks like green ants, but the senior officers seemed to have little idea what was going on. Gangs of troops lollygagged in high-radiation areas, awaiting instructions or watching while others worked, apparently ignorant of their mounting doses.

Usatenko assumed command of a platoon of men, and the noncommissioned officers who had been there a while warned him to look after himself: pay no attention to the commanders, and save your lads from the worst of the radiation. Almost immediately, they were assigned to work for Sredmash US-605 inside the machine hall, beneath the rising walls of the Sarcophagus.



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