Gulchara Ismagilova, of Tatarskaya Korabolka, founded The Little Liquidators
With only Tatars remaining, the village was renamed Tatarskaya Korabolka. Today, it is an isolated settlement of traditional one and two-room homes with subsistence backyard plots piled high with firewood. There is a small recreation center for the village's few children, and one small shop. It is a dying community in both senses of the word. The cancer rate is five times the national average. Illnesses grouped under the rubric "chronic radiation sickness" are common. Nearby soil samples still show high levels of Strontium-90. Bitterness runs deep.
"We were left here as a medical experiment," says Gulchara Ismagilova, a lifelong Korabolka resident and the town's leading activist. "What other explanation is there?"
The villagers of Korabolka and some other settlements in the radiation zone weren't just kept where they were in 1957—they were put to work. "We were told without any explanation that the crops had been poisoned and must be burned in earthen pits," remembers Ismagilova.
To destroy contaminated objects, the police turned to the most able bodied and healthy of the community: young adults and children. Directed by local authorities in white protective suits, these workers were known as "liquidators" and were tasked with "mitigation work." They burned crops, buried dead animals, cleaned walls, dismantled buildings and scrubbed their bricks clean. Such work continued for almost a year. According to Chelyabinsk state records, some 1,800 schoolchildren worked as liquidators after the '57 blast.
A crew of Liquidators from Brodokalmok
"My schoolmates and I were sent out to the fields to dig holes and burn the harvest and anything else that was aboveground the day of the explosion," says Ismagilova. "They made us destroy our seed crops for the next year. We had food stocks in our barns, but it was a hungry winter."
The police barred villagers from selling their meat in regional markets, but permitted them to eat it themselves, provided they boiled it for two hours first. Such orders indicate that the authorities themselves did not fully understand radiation.
Those assigned to destroy the irradiated crops were given no protective equipment or any reason to think they needed it. Of Ismagilova's 43 schoolmates and fellow liquidators—all born after WWII—only eight are living. Most suffered shortened lives afflicted with chronic radiation disease. Ten of her fellow liquidators went bald during the work, an affliction that the doctors blamed on "insects." Because doctors could not publicly mention radiation as the cause of the strange post-'57 illnesses, they often blamed insects, the flu, or invented conditions such as "Astheno Vegitative Syndrome"-sometimes known simply as "The Special Disease." Ismagilova herself spent the summer of 1958 in bed with The Special Disease, wracked by diarrhea and high fever. Today, the fiery 61-year old has maintained a crusading spirit despite suffering an expanding liver, problems with weight loss, and worsening osteoporosis.
"We were ignorant and knew nothing of radioactivity. You couldn't see anything, so there seemed nothing to fear," says Ismagilova, whose advocacy organization is named The Little Liquidators.
As a result of a court battle she helped wage in the 90s, those who can prove they did mitigation work in 1957 and 1958 receive from the state 280 rubles a month ($11). Often the money fails to arrive or people are dropped from the rolls without reason, and the bureaucratic nightmare of getting the payments flowing falls to Ismagilova, who works as a medical assistant in Ozersk, the closed city of 85,000 that houses the Mayak comlex. Much of her free time is spent banging against the closed doors of a corrupt regional administration. Recently a large collection of private donations for the people of Tatarskaya Karobolka was sent to a government office in Chelyabinsk, which was supposed to disburse the money to Ismagilova's organizaton. But the money disappeared soon after it arrived, never to be seen again.