Lucky Day by Irena Pasvinter

Irena Pasvinter recalls the response of her Byelorussian school and her family to the Chernobyl disaster.

Some days promise nothing unusual, but all of a sudden you get terribly lucky. May 7th, 1986, was a day like that: alarm clock, closing my eyes again, Mom with, "You'll be late," fried eggs for breakfast, school, the first three lessons over.

And then something incredible happened: we were told to go home. No lessons anymore. We could not believe our ears - what luck!

"You've heard about the accident at the Chernobyl power station. There may be more trouble there today," the teacher explained. "Nothing to be afraid of, but it's better to be prepared for an emergency. Go home and make cotton wool masks, just in case. You know how - you learned it in the War Preparation lesson. And put a wet cloth under the outside doors."

Sure, we knew about the cotton wool masks - nothing could be simpler. We were in the tenth grade; in less than a month we would have the exams and - goodbye Gomel's 10th school named after Alexander Pushkin. What we had no idea about even two weeks ago was the Chernobyl nuclear power station. Then rumours had started.

Rumours spread quickly and reached everybody, from important party functionaries (who had more than just rumours at their disposal) to ancient grandmas on a dilapidated wooden bench in our yard: something went very wrong at some power plant in Ukraine, in a place called Chernobyl, on the Pripyat River. There was an explosion, they said, but that wasn't all - there was also a cloud, like on these pictures of atomic mushrooms. Nuclear explosions always have evil clouds around them - everybody knows that. And the clouds bring with them this thing called radiation that kills people like flies even though one can't see it.

My mom and grandma were terrified. Grandma was a doctor, now retired. She had already seen her youngest brother waste away from leukaemia. In 1954 he was in the army and spent a couple of hours fixing a broken car instead of speeding away from a freshly "tested" nuclear bomb. In 1956 he was no more.

Mom worked in the River Shipping Management. Their ships sailed near Chernobyl, among other places, so mom's job provided its own channel for disturbing rumours.

Chernobyl blew up on April 26. The rumours started almost immediately, but the first official announcement appeared on April 28. It was short and uninformative: there had been an accident at the Chernobyl power plant; injured were being treated. Not a word about clouds or radiation. 

The rumours worsened.

If somebody was still optimistic enough to pretend that nothing grave had really happened, after May 1st it became obvious that our situation was serious. International Workers Day was spent in obligatory demonstrations followed by feasting and drinking in the circle of family and friends. Sceptics whispered that under the circumstances it would be wiser to stay inside. Anyway, the demonstrations took place, as always. Something else was unusual. The evening news showed the traditional TV reports of happy workers marching along the streets of Moscow, Leningrad and capitals of all the fifteen Soviet republics, but suddenly after enthusiastic crowds in Minsk (the capital of our Byelorussian republic) our town Gomel popped out of obscurity and presented its own cheerful crowds, proving that everything here was safe and sound, that the evil voices of Western radio stations creeping into innocent Soviet ears through the carefully imposed curtain of noise were lying, as they always did.

It was the sign in the sky, and we were used to reading the signs - if the central government felt a need to show Gomel in the news to prove we were still alive, we were in trouble indeed. Now Gomel was not just the second biggest city in Byelorussia - it became a capital of the Chernobyl zone.

The holidays ended. My mom heard somewhere in rumour-land that we must drink iodine to lessen the effects of radiation. She arrived home ready for action, grabbed a glass of water, sprinkled inside a couple of drops of iodine and cornered me.

"You must drink this."

"Why? Do I look crazy?"

"It's for your health. Drink!"

She was close to hysteria. I took a sip out of the glass. It was nothing less than disgusting.

"Drink it yourself," I said, and it was the end of the iodine treatment.

Anyway, when this stroke of luck came on May 7th, we didn't have to be asked twice to leave the school. Excitement was in the air, accompanied by shouts of joy. Ten minutes later I was at home. Grandma opened the doors. I thought she would be surprised to see me at this hour, but she wasn't.

"They let you go," she said.

"Yeah, and we have to make cotton wool masks. Where is the cotton wool and gauze?"

"Don't think we have gauze," Grandma said. "You can take an old cloth instead."

"And the cotton wool?"

"Don't have much left. Enough for one mask, maybe."

"Well, I'll find something else," I said.

Difficulties exist to be overcome - I found an old sheet and a piece of coarse foam rubber and busied myself with sewing my own crude version of cotton wool masks - foam rubber masks, to be precise, but the idea was the same.

In the meantime Grandma called Mom and reported I was home.

"Yes, they let them go home. She's making cotton wool masks now. Yes, must have got a phone call from some big shot dad, no lack of them in this school. Yes, I'll tell her."

Grandma hung up the phone and proceeded into my room. She cast a sceptical glance at my mask activities but did not comment on that.

"Mom says that if she hears that there was an explosion, we must run to the bomb shelter at her job and hide there with her."

"How would she know if there was an explosion? She always panics. I'm not running anywhere. She can hide there on her own if she wants to. And what about Dad and Sasha?"

"Your dad and brother are at their plant, and that's on the other end of the town, as you know. Mom's job is just across the street, and they have a bomb shelter there. We must go there when she calls. Your mom does know certain things at her job. Something is going on in Chernobyl today, and the whole thing can blow up to pieces. They were told to prepare the coal barges for evacuating people - to take the coal out. Barges! Trains are being prepared too, but there won't be enough trains."

I never lacked stubbornness. I pictured myself running across the street to hide under a wing of my wide-eyed and panicky mom, surrounded by her loud and equally panicky colleagues. The image looked too ridiculous for my taste.

"Oh really, so I'll go to the train or barge if needed, the whole family together." I said. "I'm not hiding in their stupid bomb shelter."

"You think you know everything," Grandma said, "but you know nothing. You've seen nothing yet, fortunately."

I knew what she meant - I hadn't been on a train bombed by enemy planes, I'd never suffered from hunger, I'd had no typhus or malaria, I hadn't buried three husbands - and that was only a small part of all Grandma's experiences that I was lucky not to live through. Still, I was not going to change my mind, especially not after being told that I knew nothing.

"She refuses to go." That was Grandma on the phone again. "Go talk to your mom," she called out to me.

"What for? I've already told you - I'm not going to their stupid bomb shelter."

After a while I ran out of my store of rubber foam. I produced four entities that had a certain similarity to protective masks. Along the way I could not stop thinking about barges and trains waiting for us.

I decided to try one of the masks. I put it on, pressed my forehead to a tightly shut window and stood, watching the street outside. I imagined all the trees gone, buildings disappearing, nobody out there. By God, it was such a nightmare to breathe through this damn rubber foam. The window glass felt cool on my forehead. I closed my eyes and saw coal barges stuffed with people.

Time passed. Trees, buildings and people were still there. I took off the suffocating mask and waited for the day to drag along. Finally Mom called: according to the fresh rumors the danger of an explosion was over; they managed to do what they were doing there without blowing it up.

Mom returned in the evening, bubbling with emotions.

"You know, Ira was right not to go to our bomb shelter after all, " she told Grandma. "We went there to check if it was ready, and it's such an awful mess inside - one wouldn't be able to stay in this shelter more than five minutes anyway. It's totally useless."

Mom couldn't stop talking. 

"What a day, what a dreadful day. We almost went mad. We were so damn worried. At the end of the day Semyon came for Tamara. He had a bottle of vodka with him, and we all just drank, you know, to calm down a bit. We just couldn't talk. Such a dreadful day."

"Yeah, Semyon always knows what to do," Grandma noted in her trademark manner, innocent and sarcastic at the same time.

"God, we were so terribly lucky today," Mom said and hugged me. For once, I did not wriggle out of her embrace.


  1. brilliant depiction of the 'normal people' caught up in something too big for us to even imagine, and for the Grandma, just one more tragedy.

    Michael McCarthy

  2. We all think of disasters as something that happens on the far side of the globe. Irene gives us a thoughtful walk alongside this 10th grader as she lives through Chernobyl, making it much more personal.
    Scary when you think that the city remains abandoned to this day.

  3. When the nuclear Reactor explodes or the SuperBug is accidentally released with no cure, what is there to do? Nothing, except grab your wife and kids and go on a nice picnic. You are really just a walking deadman~

  4. This was really impressive. A beautifully observed piece of journalism/fiction with identifiable characters. Well done.

    Jack Lawrence.

  5. I'm with Anonymous, above, in that the line between fiction and fictionalised realism is hard to draw. It's also irrelevant because the piece does its job so well, bringing the globalism of it all down to the mundane and ordinary. Chernobyl became everyone's disaster but before that happened, it belonged so privately to the local population.

  6. So well done for all the above reasons. Can't type much. brpken wrist, but I had to praise this excellent piece.