July 9, 2009

Voices of Loss

For about a week, I've been reading the book Voices of Chernobyl, which is a collection of personal experiences from perhaps 100 different survivors of the nuclear reactor explosion. They come from a variety of backgrounds and muliple occupations. The entire book is truly mystifying and devastating. It's unbelievable to me that a government can really be so heartless and devastating that so many people suffered as a result.

As I ponder loss, I regard the Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians and others who were affected by Chernobyl as the pinnacle of all suffering. Truly Job is the only one who can top their pain. Losing Evan seems so small in comparison to Chernobyl loss. They lost loved ones as those loved ones became radio-active objects, they lost their homes and land, their cancer-free lives, their health, their children, their identities and their faith. Their native land who could never betray them, stabbed them in the back. And then shot them in the head.

I lived in Voronezh, Russia for 5 months almost 15 years ago. I taught English with a small group of teachers to 1st grade students. I lived with one of my students. My opinions of the "mother land" are heavily influenced by my experiences there. Voronezh, as we understood it, was a closed city to foreigners until about a year before we got there. We were the first Americans and foreigners that some of our new friends had ever met. On the street, everyone looked mean and nasty. But in their homes, they opened up and smiled and were friendly.

Each neighborhood is set up with its own stores, kiosks, places of employment, schools and rows of block like apartment buildings. Each neighborhood is designed to be self sufficient. Meaning, you could live and work in the same area. Sounds nice...but is actually confining. It used to be that you had to go through check points to get to another part of the city.

My fellow American teachers and I nicknamed Russia as "CDCS" or completely devoid of common sense. To be fair, some things were just so culturally unfamiliar to us that they just seemed backwards. Other things just were backwards.

We arrived in Russia in January 1995. It was freezing, snow was on the ground and it wreaked of cigarette smoke. The streets were trails of dirty snow and lined with filthy gray buildings. Culture SHOCK! I seriously wondered what I was doing there.
Our apartments were heated by radiators. Now, I really like radiators. They transport me to a dream world in another time and another place. We had a warm day in February or March and I came home from school to find all of the windows in the apartment open. When I asked why they were open (it was still 40 degrees outside), I found out that occupants of the building can NOT turn down their heat. It is centralized. Not only for the building but for the whole section of the city. What?! The government tells you when you're cold or hot and how much heat you need and when?

I didn't realize it at the time, but I do now, my host family was pretty progressive and not so superstitious because many Eastern European people think that a breeze will make you sick....even in the hot weather many won't open a window to get a draught going. So cold air makes you sick but old ladies sit on the sidewalk and sell ice cream in the dead of winter and that doesn't make you sick? They didn't even keep their ice cream in a special cooler. They just plopped their chair out on the sidewalk and sold their ice cream out of a cardboard box. It was charming and we loved the ice cream...I just don't get the logic of why ice cream is okay but a gentle breeze is not.

We on the other hand were very clever young people. And actually, we knew everything. It was the end of March and we took a trip to Moscow by train. The snow had melted and the sun was shining. It got warm in our compartments. We opened the windows. When we walked around the train we opened every window we could. Literally, passengers (American and Russian) were sweating it was so hot. However, none of the Russians were opening windows. Just us. And we secretly knew that they liked the fresh air, too. Then a conductor lady came down each coach on the train and collected tickets...and yelled at us, yes yelled, for opening windows. You see, it wasn't May 1st yet and you can't open windows until May 1st. Huh? There's a special day set aside for opening windows?

The central hot water committee also decided when you needed hot water. In my building, it was only a few days per week. I'm actually pretty good at boiling a big pot of water and then taking it to the bath tub and mixing it with cold to wash my hair and bathe.

I've got so many stories about Russia. I loved it there...probably because of its quirks. Every day was an adventure. What I didn't love were the remnants of communism. The complete lack of customer service. The shoddy construction in schools and buildings (if you fixed something "almost right" then when it breaks after a short while then you'll have a job fixing it again). A lack of pride in one's craftsmanship. Three government television stations...heavily censored.

The Russian people have allowed themselves to be trodden under foot by their leaders. It's an outcry. And one destructive leader after another has plagued them and caused the downfall and deaths of so many millions of their people. One day, I hope they stand against their leadership and begin the path to righting the wrongs of their sad history. They are a beautiful people who deserve more. They deserve freedom from tyranny.

Voices of Chernobyl is well worth reading. Especially if you're feeling sorry for yourself. It's not like these people have "overcome" their trials, either. They are still living with them...and the reactor blew up 23 years ago.

Thank you Jovana for chosing to do your dramatic interp out of this book. It has touched me deeply.

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