– Mr. Dolgopolov, you were among the first eight journalists who wrote directly from the closed zone in the early days of the Chernobyl tragedy. Did it require much time for you to take a decision to go there? What happened inside the closed zone during the first days?
It didn’t take much time to think about it. I got to Chernobyl because I had to get there. It was in 1986. I was the editor of the sports department and military and patriotic education in the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper. And the cleanup operation after the Chernobyl disaster was a military and patriotically minded affair.
The late Gennady Seleznev, the editor-in-chief, told me: “Kolya, you have to go”.
I was amazed by many things. The first was the meeting with Alexander Yakovlev, the Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee. He called us to his Central Committee on Stary Square and told us what was going on in the zone in details. Then I asked him: “And what is the most terrible thing?” And Yakovlev answered: “It’s a good question for a young correspondent of Komsomolskaya Pravda. The most terrible thing there is marauders”. A few hours later I got to Chernobyl, it was 1st of May, 1986. I came to the zone with the confidence that such a fighter for the ideas of perestroika as Mr Yakovlev couldn’t be wrong.
But it turned out that Yakovlev gave us a distorted picture. In fact, he consciously lied. Certainly, there were marauders. But the most terrible thing was not this, but the fact that on May 9, 1986, all of us, who got into the chaos, realized what had happened. We expected even worse tragedy, and on May 9, thanks to those people who put their life in order to prevent the explosion, we already perfectly understood the difference between the truth and Yakovlev’s tales. All of us, from academicians and ministers to ordinary journalists and workers of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, felt euphoric, happiness that we could survive. We could die only from what was called radiation sickness.
Since I was working at a youth newspaper, I wrote about members of the Komsomol and many of my characters showed exceptional acts of heroism. I would compare it with the heroic deed of Alexander Matrosov who threw himself at the hole of the pillbox during WWII, and it’s not an exaggeration. The fact is that people closed this atomic hole, but not with their bodies. They poured sand on the reactor being only a few meters from it. Damned fourth reactor! Boys and girls came, poured sand, helping professionals to fight a terrible catastrophe.
Then I wrote about them, we met, they lived in nearby towns and villages. I came to them and they all were very excited. I didn’t clearly realize then what was going on, maybe I also was in such state.
Later in Moscow I found out that if a person was radiated, then one of the sign of a radiation sickness was such terrible euphoria. Young people told me how they closed all holes, that the tragedy had passed and that was absolute truth. I wrote about this and a week later brought them newspapers, but they told me: “They are gone”. In our slang it meant the victims were dead.
The newspapers weren’t handed in. The process was irreversible, in my opinion, the number of victims was more than it should be. But it happened and we can do nothing about it. There another thing that angers me: they are trying to forget this tragedy in Chernobyl, and sometimes even say on TV that nothing happened. But this tragedy did happen and it remains in our memory.
And we should remember all those people who survived, who took part in the cleanup operation in one way or another within the closed zone and not only in it. But we, the Chernobyl victims, were forgotten. Officially I am a disaster fighter and, to tell the truth, at first I didn’t want to get this certificate. But then they told me: “You should be proud of it”. I got the certificate, then passed the recertification, that was very strange to me.
It’s like a medical recertification for a disabled person. Was I supposed to prove that I was in Chernobyl? But what about all my newspaper articles that were written in the zone?
But they told me: “You must bring your official travel documents”. Can you imagine that? Evacuation from Chernobyl was much broader than evacuation during military operations in the Second World War. People came through the checkpoints. Journalists were allowed into the zone based on a list approved by the highest decision of the Politburo of the CPSU Central Committee. And certainly, during the first days no one gave us any counters, or even protective caps or robes. We drove into the zone, then went back to Kiev. In the second week, when we all were very tired, we stayed in the so-called makeshift camp for workers, who was sent in the zone in order to fight against the terrible scourge.
I don’t consider myself as one of the bravest disaster fighter, I was like others.
But I am offended by the fact that we are completely forgotten like some soldiers who took part in some shameful war. And we were not a participants of such a war, but fighters against atomic power that went wrong, and we lost our health in that fight. It is difficult to talk about my diseases, but as a person who has never smoked a cigarette in my life, when I get pneumonia, I constantly hear this: “Mr. Dolgopolov, enough smoking. You should give it up”. I tell them that I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life, and they reply: “All the long-time smokers say that. Your lungs are in quite a bad condition”. That’s very symbolic.
– Can you be frightened of anything after what you saw in Chernobyl?
Certainly. A person who is not afraid of anything in life is a madman. I don’t identify myself with such people.