Blog posts


remembering Chernobyl

Vasily Fedirko stands in the Pirogovichi village graveyard on April 26 as he pays tribute to his wife’s parents. Every year at Easter time, Ukrainians return to their native villages to eat a ceremonial meal in the cemetery and remember those who have died. Especially in Chernobyl-affected areas, this tradition has become a reunion as former neighbors come together once more to feast and reminisce. Vasily and his wife Valentina moved back to Pirogovichi in 2003 when her parents died. This year their daughter Oksana came all the way from the Russian Far East for the holiday.
On this day, 25 years ago, the Chernobyl tragedy began. It hasn’t ended yet.

Some 350,000 people were displaced by the accident. They will never return home. 850,000 liquidators worked in the clean up after the accident. Many of them now have health problems. A total of six million people still live in the contaminated region today.

Every year, at solemn anniversaries such as today, somber government officials stand up and make speeches about how we must never forget. They will make these speeches today.

I disagree. We will forget. In fact, we must. We can’t spend all our lives mourning the tragedies and mistakes of the past. At best, we would all become paralyzed.

Memory is a curious thing. It ebbs and flows. After my years in the Chernobyl region, I remember it 100 times a week, but it is not the tragedy I recall. I see the lilac and cherries blooming here and I think of spring arriving in the Ukrainian village where I lived. I get on a train and I remember Lyuda and her friends playing the card game Durak on their daily commute to the Chernobyl plant. I see a tattoo and I grieve for a moment for Vasily, who died last year of cancer at age 57. I picture the drawing of his wife, which he tattooed on his shoulder after she died, also from cancer, in 2007.

The more personal a memory is, the more different ways it gets triggered. This is one reason I share people’ stories, to personalize the catastrophe. And this is why I object to the news wire photos you’ll see today. Essentially the same shots you saw last year: The abandoned Ferris wheel in Pripyat. A dosimeter outside the Chernobyl plant. Mourners at the memorial in Slavutych. How quickly our vision narrows and our collective memories grow worn!

The people who live near Chernobyl don’t think and talk about the accident every day. How could they? They have lives to lead. The ones who can’t cease talking about it sound like soldiers with post-traumatic stress—not the healthiest of the survivors.

So let us not dwell on death. Let’s celebrate 25 years of perseverance. Let’s ask how we can help those who are still struggling. Let us remember and honor the tragedy today, and tomorrow, let us forget, and go on to remember other things. The lilac and cherry trees are blooming.


media roundtable tomorrow

On Friday, I'll be part of a media roundtable discussing environmental disasters. We'll talk about the BP oil spill, Chernobyl and Fukushima.

The show is Your Call. It airs on NPR stations in San Fransisco (KALW 91.7) and Santa Cruz (KUSP 88.9).

Your Call, a daily public affairs program, is on from 10 to 11 PST/1:00 to 2:00 pm Eastern, rebroadcast at 5:00 pm PST.


AP: Exhibit chronicles lives of workers at Chernobyl

Associated Press ran a nice story about my New York exhibits yesterday. And almost all of it was true. (3 points for anyone who can find one of the small errors...)

NEW YORK (AP) — Families walk their children to school. Teenage girls smile backstage before a concert. Couples work out at a gym not far from villages where subsistence farmers draw well water and raise crops.

Welcome to the present-day Chernobyl region.


New York exhibit openings

Next on the agenda: my two Chernobyl exhibits in New York City open this coming week. Really looking forward to the receptions. Click on the fliers to read details.

Ukrainian Museum: Sun. April 17, 2 to 5 pm

Ukrainian Institute: Tues. April 19, 6 to 10 pm

Additional New York events are coming up April 26, 27, 29 and 30. More information here.


Chicago exhibit open

My After Chernobyl exhibit opened last night at the University of Chicago. Here is a story broadcast on the WGN Evening News.


Chernobyl exhibit on tour

I am excited that my After Chernobyl exhibit is on tour this spring, with shows in NYC, Philadelphia, Chicago and Madison, Wis. Here are details about all the events:

(Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA)
• Exhibit dates: April 6 to June 10
• Opening lecture and reception: April 6, 4-7 pm
• Gallery talks April 16, 10 am and 1:30 pm, April 17, 1 pm
Exhibit details here.

(University of Chicago)
• Exhibit dates: March 28 to May 20.
• Opening lecture and reception: April 8, 6 to 8:30 pm
Exhibit details here:

New York City:
(Ukrainian Museum, East Village)
• Exhibit dates: April 17 to May 8. (Inside Chernobyl exhibit.)
• Opening reception: April 17, 2 pm
Exhibit details here.

New York City:
(Ukrainian Institute, Upper East Side)
• Exhibit dates: April 19 to May 1. (After Chernobyl exhibit)
Opening reception and concert: April 19, 6 pm
Panel discussion 4/29, 7 pm
Film screening 4/30, 7 pm
Event details here.

New York City:
(United Nations)
• Chernobyl conference: April 26 - 27
Event details here.

Madison, WI:
• Exhibit dates: April 1 to June 15.
• Reception: April 26
Event details here.

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