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Feature Story October 8, 2007
 
Inside the Zone
50 YEARS AFTER THE WORLD'S FIRST MAJOR NUCLEAR ACCIDENT, RADIATION IS STILL LEAKING INTO THE SOUTHERN URALS — AND BEYOND By Alexander Zaitchik Browse author Email
 
Page 5 of 8
 

There is a 50-year history behind this suspicion. Since 1953, state doctors have been taking fresh local corpses and testing the bones for Strontium-90. In 1959, doctors began conducting annual tests of residents' teeth, especially children. In 1974, yearly spot visits were expanded to include tests of human tissue. Samples were taken to the same place as residents suffering chronic radiation illness: the Center of Radiological Medicine in Chelyabinsk. When established in 1952, the center joined the official Mayak lab as an institution with a keen interest in the maladies of irradiated locals. This interest, say Muslyumovo residents, is noticeably unmatched by an interest in telling people the truth about why they are sick.

"We hate the doctors!" says Robert Timeev, a 57-year-old lifelong Muslyumovo resident who grew up swimming in the river. "They test us, then tell us that so many of us are sick because we smoke too much and are marrying our brothers and sisters." This last insult is especially cutting in Tatar culture, which has strict rules regulating marriage between bloodlines, including distant relations.

"I have chronic radiation disease, my sister just died of cancer, both of my daughters have thyroid problems, and my wife Zoya has chronic asthma," says Timeev, standing in front of his house not far from a particularly hot spot on the Techa. Like most residents of Muslyumovo, Timeev looks much older than his years. He lives on his 400-ruble ($16) pension and 900-ruble ($36) health disbursement. (If residents can prove they are sick because of radiation, they qualify for a health benefit of 900 rubles a month. This is one of the faces of the World Bank-backed "monetization" of Russian social services enacted over the last few years.)

Muslyuomovo's agrarian economy completely collapsed decades ago. "You can work as a policeman or maybe a teacher here, but that's all," says a lifelong resident named Mohammed. "There's no work. Those who can afford it travel to Chelyabinsk."

As in other villages in the radiation zone, Muslyumovo residents did not begin to connect the dots until Chernobyl. For decades, doctors routinely diagnosed serious illnesses as nothing more than the flu and blamed deformities on incest.

"We didn't think about why were sick. The doctors were the authority and if they said cancer was something else, or that we were in pain for this reason, we believed them," says Robert Timeev. "We somehow had an idea the Techa had something to do with it. We called it 'river disease'."

Even today, say residents, doctors continue to misdiagnose serious illness or downplay the effect of the river. Often cancers will be diagnosed only when it has advanced. "People around here think they don't want to pay us for very long," says one resident. Once the patient has died, the official cause of death will be put down as "blood circulation disorder."

It's not just the lifelong residents who have fallen victim to the radioactive river. Farida Valeeva moved to Muslyumovo from Chelyabinsk in 1986 after marrying a local man. She fell ill the following year at age 26. For years doctors told her she had the flu. But her flu never went away; it wasted her flesh, made her teeth fall out, and twisted her bones into knots. She developed sclerosis throughout her body. Valeeva too resents the testing of residents as so little help is forthcoming. "They'd come every year and test us but wouldn't tell us the results," says Valeeva, who is 47 but looks twenty years older. One of her sons has chronic nosebleeds, another has been placed in a special class for the mentally slow.

Farida Valeeva

Farida Valeeva moved to Muslyumovo in 1986 and soon fell ill. She has since lost most of her teeth and is bedridden with chronic radiation sickness


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Zaitchik
Browse author
Alexander Zaitchik is an editor at The eXile. Email him at zaitchik@gmail.com
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