Igor Kostin, dubbed a “man of legend” by the Washington Post, flew a helicopter over the burning fourth unit of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986, just hours after the reactor explosion. He took more than a dozen photographs during the flight, but radiation destroyed the film. The only surviving photograph from the film went around the world.
Shocked by the magnitude of the disaster and the silence of the authorities, he stayed on the ground to document the evacuation of the population, their despair and suffering, the extreme disregard for safety, human recklessness, but also the incredible sacrifice of the liquidators and others involved in the rescue operation.
Twenty years after these events, struggling with radiation sickness, he published an extraordinary book, in which he described the days just after the explosion and the tragic consequences of the catastrophe, documented with photographs.
IGOR KOSTIN Born December 27, 1936 in Chisinau, he died June 9, 2015 in Kiev in a car accident.
Winner of 5 World Press Photo awards, over the years he worked with Time, Newsweek, Paris-Match, Libération and Stern, among others. He was a photojournalist during the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan.
He became famous for a photo he took in Chernobyl, shortly after the explosion of the reactor – the only one of twenty that survived on irradiated film.
I saw people carrying lumps of radioactive graphite with their bare hands. Something like that happened for the first time in history. I think it was only possible in this country. In a country where one man’s life has no value.
Read two chapters of the book “Chernobyl. Confessions of a reporter”
Liquidators: an army of “biological robots”
Over the next week I returned to Chernobyl many times. Since I had no accreditation yet, I had to get along with the militiamen securing the area. Some of them remembered the photo album I had dedicated to the militia and invited me to their cars. They also gave me advice on how to protect myself from radiation. Every day, scientists, military and party representatives came to the disaster site to direct the work and supervise the activities of the militia, soldiers and workers. The Soviet Union rejected international aid and coped with the means at its disposal. People were mobilized for the work. It was up to them to eliminate the consequences of the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. From now on, they have been given the official and terrible name of “liquidators”. Between six and eight hundred thousand soldiers and officers were sent to the power plant, including reservists who were brought in from all over the Soviet Union. Ukrainian and Belarusian workers and peasants also worked there. The authorities needed their hands and their courage.
Masks and other protective gear were hurriedly distributed. The first masks we were given resembled pigs’ snouts. We called them “muzzles” or “snouts” among ourselves. They came from the warehouses of the army units stationed in the area. They were kept in case of a chemical or bacteriological attack. Unfortunately, they were very poorly constructed: after two hours of wearing them, our mouths would crack from the heat and poor air circulation. Two months later, another model was distributed to us, which was quickly christened with the word “flake” because of its white color. You could work all day in these masks, but we changed them two or three times a day because radioactive dust collected on them.
The nightmarish action, which was still referred to enigmatically as “the elimination of the consequences of the Chernobyl power plant disaster,” shook everyone. The whole country sent white protective clothing to Chernobyl. This white everywhere was something surprising to me, because in the Soviet Union there was a strict system of hierarchy. Meanwhile, in Chernobyl, everyone was dressed in white – ministers, generals, soldiers. Our lives were in ruins. There was a lack of reassuring guidance. A few seconds before death, true human nature was revealed. I admired the atmosphere of calmness and determination. Sometimes it felt as if nothing serious had happened, that we were just ordinary factory workers.
The radioactivity was not spreading evenly. It forms like patches on the ground. In some places five hundred X-rays were recorded, and right next to us only a few. All it took was a breeze or a downpour and everything changed. When I walked through the field without a dosimeter, I didn’t know whether the ground there was highly irradiated or not. And in the early days there were no dosimeters, at any rate not for everyone, although that is the only way to detect such an enemy. To prevent radioactive dust from spreading, helicopters dropped sand, lead, and adhesive mixtures on the power plant. Radioactivity is invisible, odorless, and colorless. In Afghanistan and Vietnam, soldiers were in danger of being hit by a bullet. They would feel the pain, they might die on the spot, but the danger was at least known. And in Chernobyl, it wasn’t. We returned after a whole day extremely exhausted. We thought of only one thing: to take a shower and eat. We washed until the dosimeter stopped giving signals, because at the end of each day we ourselves were radioactive and our measuring instruments were going crazy. Then we sat down to eat.
We were fed because to defeat this enemy, we had to be strong and healthy. We were given meat with every meal, and we drank wine. In the Chernobyl dining room there was always a cheerful uproar. We talked about women, about food, about life. We were stuffing ourselves so much that it was difficult to get to bed. And then the last confession, the last joke, and after a few seconds we would fall asleep. The next morning we would get up at half past five. The morning ritual was always the same: a cursory toilet, drawing blood for a test and swallowing iodine tablets. The iodine made us nauseous, especially if we swallowed it on an empty stomach, but it was the only effective remedy against thyroid cancer. Then, after a light breakfast, we would put on our protective clothing. We were joined by soldiers. They were promised double, triple, or even several times the normal pay if they worked at the reactor itself. Morning conversations were full of dreams about the houses and cars they would be able to buy for themselves. We made plans and talked about the future. But there were ailments during the day because of the very difficult working conditions. The helicopter pilots who flew over the power plant fainted during their flights. No one knows exactly what happened to the liquidators. Many of them died, many became ill. Officers and ordinary soldiers, high-ranking and small. For radioactive radiation it makes no difference whether it’s a corporal or a general.
I don’t know if all these people were really volunteers. But either way they accomplished the unimaginable. All the people of our world owe their lives to them. Without their sacrifice the consequences of the catastrophe at the nuclear power plant would have been much worse. Worse in Ukraine and Belarus, but also worse in the whole of Europe, where half the population would have had to be displaced and half the land would have become unfit for cultivation. The liquidators put at the disposal of the authorities one of the few things you could still have in the Soviet Union – your life.
We received newspapers every day. All I read were the headlines: “Chernobyl, a place of great deed,” “The reactor has been defeated,” “Life goes on.” The politician of our unit organized meetings and told us that we must win. But win over whom? The atom? Nature? The universe?
Arkady Filin, liquidator
Radiation diseases. A visit to the clinic No. 6
At the end of 1986 I felt on the street in Kiev that I was walking in a zigzag. I had the impression that I was swimming. Cars and people were moving too fast around me. The noise of the street was amplified by the uneven beating of my heart. Instead of the smells of food, perfume or exhaust fumes, I had the taste of vomit in my mouth. I fought the nausea. I struggled to get home. I had been visiting doctors for several weeks now for migraines and stomach problems. The next day, I was to appear for a check-up which all those working at Chernobyl were regularly subjected to. After a few days, I was told that I, like others, had to go immediately to Moscow where the most serious cases were treated in clinic No. 6 of the military hospital. Three more people were to go with me: two liquidators and a documentary film maker, Volodya Shevchenko. We were ordered to appear in Moscow on January 1. We were seriously ill. But we postponed our departure until January 3 to spend the New Year with our families. One of us did not go: Volodya Shevchenko was already dead.
In Moscow we had a blood transfusion and felt better. The most troublesome symptoms were gone. I took advantage of this and, despite the prohibition, took some pictures of the sick. I went back to clinic No. 6 many times to take pictures. I met Alexander, a two-meter giant, who by no means knew how he survived. As a locksmith, he worked on piping systems. At the time of the explosion at the power plant, radioactive water gushed out of them. It splashed everywhere on the floor in narrow streams. Alexander’s arm was splashed, so he simply wiped it off with a towel. He should have washed it several times, scrubbing the skin with soap. The first time I saw him, he showed me his arm. He was a tall, handsome, strong man, but instead of a hand he had a bone covered with a thick layer of scabs. And yet he smiled at me. There was no trace of grief or pain in his smile. He told me in a joyful voice about his miraculous rescue.
Some time after the explosion, an American doctor, Robert Gale, who specialized in bone marrow transplants, came to Moscow. The first operations he performed on Chernobyl patients were unsuccessful. When Sasha arrived at Clinic 6, he was considered lost. He had received such a dose of radiation that he should have died on the spot. However, Gale did a bone marrow transplant for him, after which Sasha was placed in a sterile room and waited. After a few days, he said he was feeling better. The new diagnosis said his condition was stable. I told him at the time that I had taken Robert Gale’s picture. He begged me to give it to him. To him, Gale was a saint, a miracle worker.
When I came to Moscow two more times later, I visited Sasha in the hospital. His good mood helped me a lot. When I asked how he was feeling, he always replied that everything would be fine. He dreamed of going home to a suburb of Kiev, but the doctors kept him in Moscow, like everyone else who was highly irradiated. They wanted to follow the progress of his disease to understand how he managed to survive. He was assigned an apartment in Moscow and had regular check-ups.
During my visits to Clinic 6, my attention was most drawn to those who, like Sasha, had received bone marrow transplants. As a result of the post-operative shock, their bodies were immunocompromised to such an extent that they had to be protected from the smallest microbes. For several weeks they stayed in white sterile rooms with no odors and the silence broken only by the hum of control monitors and air filters. Their only contact with the outside world was through tubes. In order for me to take pictures of the patients, they sterilized my equipment with a tampon soaked in spirit. I had to take off my clothes and put on a sterile gown. I was accompanied by a doctor who gave me the necessary information. We talked in hushed voices, additionally muffled by masks. When I was leaving those sterile rooms, the world seemed to me too chatty, noisy, full of smells and movement. Once there, I met a night watchman from Chernobyl. On April 26, alarmed by the sound of an explosion, he went outside. He looked fascinated at the fourth block, above which a plume of fire and dust was rising. After two years, when I took the picture, his head and hands were covered with ulcers. The rest of his body, shielded by his clothes, remained intact.
Most of the victims, however, I did not see in Clinic No. 6 or in other hospitals in Kiev or Moscow. Sometimes I saw them on the streets of Ukrainian and Belarusian cities. The number of illnesses increased several years after the disaster. In Kiev, it was common to see young women with a scar on their neck. They were still children at the time of those tragic events. The scars were traces of removal of the thyroid gland, which was the only way to cure thyroid cancer. After ten years the number of sick people in Belarus has increased tenfold. The number of eye, respiratory and heart diseases has more than doubled. Not to mention depressions, neuroses and mental illnesses. From the first months, specialists studied the relationship between irradiation and possible genetic changes. For example, in 1988 near Zhytomyr, a mare gave birth to a foal with eight legs.
However, it was very difficult to obtain information on this subject, because in the first years after the catastrophe the authorities tried to cover up the case, hide the evidence. One thing is certain: there were many more cases of malformations in newborns – deformations of arms and legs, liver and spine defects. DNA changes were much more frequent in children from Ukraine and Belarus than in other republics. The catastrophe became inscribed in our bodies, in our genes. It became our heritage.
Reddened skin turned black, cracked and peeled off in bloody patches. A nightmare. He was relieved by an aerosol, but the clinic had very little of it.
Larissa, wife of the liquidator