MCCC’s Chernobyl survivor is a healthy (thankfully) 38-year old Dean’s List student, and my husband, Michael Mayzlin. I would imagine that he is the only Chernobyl survivor in all of southeast Michigan.
Over the span of our 13-year marriage, I have listened to his thoughts, fears, dreams and memories of Chernobyl, which is about 60 miles north of his former home in Kiev. Generally, Michael is a shy and quiet person, who is not one to make too many waves wherever he goes. This being the 25th anniversary of the tragedy, it’s a good time to tell his story.
Q. How old were you when Chernobyl occurred?
I was 12 years old in April 1986, just before my 13th birthday.
Q. What did you hear from the government?
Absolutely nothing on the day of the accident. I think the first official announcement came May 1 in a 30-second blurb during the nightly newscast. The announcer read a short prepared statement about a small accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and said everything was under control.
Q. How was it determined when you’d evacuate?
The school year always ended at the end of May. One day, about two weeks before the end of school, local government officials in Kiev made verbal announcements in schools and various work places that the school year would end early and everyone under the age of 18 is to evacuate the city of Kiev within the next couple of weeks due to health hazards associated with the accident at Chernobyl.
Q. Who determined where you’d go?
Families were given a choice to take their kids out of Kiev. Those who did not have anywhere to go, would be taken in bus loads to summer camps. Luckily, we had relatives living in Chisinau, Moldova, deep in the south of the Soviet Union on the border with Romania.
I was actually excited to go because it was like taking a summer trip to another country. Some of my friends simply left the city for their summer “dachas” in the countryside.
Q. What if people had no money?
Money was needed only for a train ticket and personal expenses if you were not on a “government bus” going to a summer camp. Actually, not too many people had too much money anyway back in those days.
Q. How did you get there?
I traveled by train with one of my parents, my mom, I think. My parents bought a ticket (which was not very expensive in those days) for the Kiev-Chisinau train. Took about 12 hours to get there.
I loved taking the train because all long-travel trains had several rooms that would carry four passengers each. I would lie on the top bunk, look out of the window, and enjoy the countryside.
Q. How did you know it was safe to come back?
During the initial mass-evacuation, we were told that all kids who evacuate would be coming back for the first day of school on Sept. 1.
Whether it was safe or not is a different story. No one really knew if it was safe. Most people didn’t really know the severity of the situation. I heard from my friends that radiation makes living things explode in growth, but I didn’t realize that the bushes in front of our apartment building will turn into large trees.
I guess when I came back and couldn’t see the playground behind those “trees,” I knew that it was more severe than what we were told.
Q. What were your fears? Dreams? Worries?
My biggest fear was not being able to come back to Kiev again. Although we were told that everyone will be back in September, I was afraid that this was going to take longer.
Being 13 at the time, I really did not fully understand the severity of the situation. I didn’t know about the medical repercussions or long-term effects.
My friend in Kiev had his dad’s radioactivity meter. He used to take it out on the playground and show it off to everyone. It would make a fast clicking sound when radioactive levels were high. That May it was clicking like crazy. That scared me a bit, because I knew something was wrong, but I was also fascinated by it because I thought to myself that I am here while something big is happening. I was telling my newly found friends in Moldova about the “clicking.”
Q. When did your grandparents die; were they exposed to the fallout?
Only my maternal grandma; on my mom’s side. Grandma passed away in 1989. My mom has thyroid problems (which is associated with nuclear fallout and radiation exposure), and my grandma died of cancer.
Q. When did your family apply to leave the country?
The first time, we applied to leave in 1979, but were denied because my mother worked in a factory at the time that was making airplane parts and knew some information that the government didn’t want to get out of the country.
Sometime in the early spring of 1987, my dad came back from work. He opened the daily mail, and exclaimed: “We’re going to America!” We never had to apply a second time, the government approved our exit visa based on the application from 1979, thanks probably in part to President Reagan and President Gorbachev coming to a deal that allowed more Russian immigrants to the United States.
In the fall of that same year, one suitcase each in hand, my mom, dad, and myself were in a taxicab on the way to the airport. The entire process took about 4-5 months and included a trip to Moscow for a visit in the U.S., Austrian and Italian embassies. Austria and Italy were “transfer points” that we had to go through.
Q. How much did it cost to move to the U.S.?
I can’t possibly begin to imagine the amount of money my parents had to gather to make this move happen. A lot of it was, of course, visa and paperwork fees. The bulk of it, however, was “under the table” money that had to be paid to various government agents that were processing the paperwork to get it moving along through the channels. I would think now that some amount was paid to the local KGB and militia agents to prevent them from harassing our family.
Back then, if you wanted to leave the “motherland” you were considered a traitor and the lowest element of society and were constantly persecuted by the authorities in a variety of ways.
Q. What was that day like?
It was actually unusually sunny, warm, and I remember the sky being very clear. April 26 was a Saturday, so we were in school only until noon (school in the Soviet Union was 6 days a week). I came back from school and went outside to be with my friends. Usually we would sit around and talk for a while, tell each other anecdotes, see who can tell the funniest one.
That day though, I remember someone said that his mother is packing up their rugs and valuables, which was unusual because expensive rugs were usually hung on walls and served as a room decoration.
Another one of my friends said that he heard something was happening in Chernobyl but it was probably nothing. In those days the first thing on your mind in this kind of a situation was if we were in a nuclear war with the United States.
Q. Do you remember if you celebrated May Day?
Everyone celebrated May Day. That was one of the biggest, most grandeur holidays of the year.
What’s interesting about May 1, 1986, is that very few people in these parades knew about the severity of what happened just four days before in Chernobyl. Ironically, everyone was out in the streets celebrating Communism and the government, pretty much trapped below the cloud of radioactive air.
My parents and I, too, went to the parade, came home and had a big family dinner, and then went right out at dusk to watch the fireworks that celebrated our “great” communist country.
(Anyone interested in reading more about my life in the old Soviet Union can visit my blog at: http://musicalwristwatch.wordpress.com/.)