Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

Nuclear Memories

Ever since the nuclear crisis in Japan first unfolded, neighbors and friends have been asking me: “Does this bring back memories?”

A Wiki picture

the Chernobyl nuclear reactor after the explosions

I was an unsuspecting eight-year-old Soviet citizen living in the Ukraine when on April 26, 1986, a nuclear reactor ruptured in a series of explosions in the small city of Chernobyl some 155 miles away from my home, leading to the worst nuclear disaster in human history. Even days later — after the nearby town of Pripyat was evacuated and the Western media started raising alarm, many of us ordinary Soviets were unaware. A mere week later we were, in fact, encouraged to attend a May 1st International Day of Labor parade under a light, spring rain, laced with radioactive fallout.

For the record, I didn’t go. My mama, who lived in Moscow at the time and knew some big people through her connections with the prestigious theater arts university she was attending, called my grandmother and me and told us to stay home that day.

Later, of course, the news leaked out, as sure as the radiation that spread throughout the Soviet Union, Western and Eastern Europe, and even the rest of the world. The Republics of Belarus and Ukraine, where I was born and lived at the time, were most affected. Still, news or not, I remember caring very little. The teachers gave us mild warnings: wear head coverings and keep your windows closed. Most kids dismissed the advice —  I was among them. I don’t remember much other than just living my eight-year-old life. Trading calendars with my girlfriends. Playing war out in the yard with the boys.

The following year my mama whisked me away to Moscow Region. Through bribes and connections, she settled me in a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, nestled in the pine woods beyond Moscow. Though I never suffered from TB, my health could have certainly used some of that fresh air and medical care.

In the months and years that followed, things started happening to me — strange things. I started getting sick. One problem followed by another kept landing me in children’s hospitals for weeks, sometimes months at a time. Migraines intensified. They stayed with me, pretty much the rest of my life (though I am doing MUCH better now with long walks that seem to really help, and acupuncture). The best doctors in Moscow, and later on the other side of the Atlantic, tried to make sense of my headaches and hormonal irregularities. Not one of them could give an answer. Of course, we’ll never know for sure how much of it was due to the nuclear fallout. We can only guess.

Today, I am doing well. I have two relatively healthy and VERY beautiful children, for which I am grateful.

Today, I join the world in praying for Japan. I AM thankful that as bad as their crisis is, they are working hard to contain it, and are being much smarter, more efficient and more open about it all, compared to my former compatriots.*

*(Even as I say this, I cannot fail to mention the firefighters and the nuclear reactor workers that were on the ground on that fateful day — and in the terrible days that followed — risking their lives, some unsuspecting, but others knowing, in order to deal with a level 7 nuclear disaster — the kind that so far has never been repeated anywhere in the world — and I hope never will be. Those people died — or survived, some of the lucky ones — as heroes, doing the best they could while dealing with humanity’s worst nightmare. No one could criticize them. No one would want to.)


March 23, 2011 - Posted by | Personal Mirror, Politics and Religion, The U.S.S.R. | , , , , ,


  1. Katia, this brings it all so much closer to home. It touches me deeply. I am so eager to read more about your good, good mother who protected you so fiercely!

    Your reflections are a gift to the world.

    Comment by Joyce Moyer Hostetter | March 23, 2011 | Reply

    • Oh stop it Joyce. You have me blushing.
      I will get to working on that guest post for you just as soon as I can! 🙂

      Comment by Katia Raina | March 23, 2011 | Reply

  2. You should write a memoir. I truly mean it. Your stories are fasacinating.

    Comment by Shannon Hitchcock | March 23, 2011 | Reply

  3. Sorry, I can spell, but sometimes I can’t type!

    Comment by Shannon Hitchcock | March 23, 2011 | Reply

    • Thanks Shannon. Eeeeh . . . not sure about a memoir. I like to turn things into fiction, I think. It’s a lot more exciting. But I do infuse my stories with some stuff that did happen to me, except it’s all twisted and distorted and changed. I don’t even do it consciously — those memories just come out of nowhere and present themselves in the funniest of shapes. I am sure it’s happened to you too. 🙂 I do want to write some sort of a Chernobyl story one day. We shall see . . .

      Comment by Katia Raina | March 23, 2011 | Reply

  4. I’m sorry you went through this, but glad you’re doing well today!

    I vaguely remember Chernobyl news from my elementary school days. I recall it sounding scary.

    Have a great weekend.

    Comment by Medeia Sharif | March 25, 2011 | Reply

    • Medeia, what I went through is really kind of small when you compare it to what the people who lived in the surrounding areas had to survive — the deaths of loved ones, sickness, deformed births, leaving their homes behind and not knowing . . . Also, in Japan, every day seems to bring more alarming news. And they’re right in the midst of it, right now…

      Comment by Katia Raina | March 25, 2011 | Reply

  5. Two years ago I went to the UN and was devastated by the photo essay displaying the aftermath of Chernobyl. Your memories are priceless. PLEASE continue mining your memories in your stories. They are so valuable to the rest of us. I’m also glad that you are doing well.

    Comment by toni de palma | March 25, 2011 | Reply

    • Hi Toni, I imagine those pictures must be so freaky and heartbreaking.
      And . . . thank you for your incredibly kind words about my memories 🙂 wow!

      Comment by Katia Raina | March 26, 2011 | Reply

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