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Feature Story October 8, 2007
Inside the Zone
Page 6 of 8

"The doctors still tell us that being afraid and suspicious is bad for our health," says Valeeva, sitting on a thin mattress surrounded by pill bottles in her bedroom. "They say 'radiophobia' is as dangerous as the river. But we didn't know about the river when we got sick. Do the sick birds also have radiophobia?"

It's a similar question to the ones asked by the Chernobyl poet Liubov Sirota in her angry poem, "Radiophobia."

Is this only—a fear of radiation?
Perhaps—the dread of betrayal,
cowardice, stupidity, lawlessness?
the shrinking rivers,
poisoned forests,
children born not to survive . . .
Mighty uncles, what have you dished out
beyond bravado on television?
We will not be resigned
The time has come to sort out
What is—radiophobia?

Sixteen years after Boris Yeltsin visited Muslyumovo and promised help that never came, residents have sorted it out for themselves.

* * *

Special ed classes like the one Farida Valeeva's son has been placed in are increasingly common in villages along the Techa. Members of the third "Mayak generation" can be seen coming of age at the secondary school in Brodokalmok, 35 kilometers downstream from Muslyomovo. At the time of Mayak's construction in the late 40s, mentally handicapped students were a rare occurrence at the school. Today, 80 out of 360 students are categorized as having mental handicaps. Special classes for students with "slow development" have had to be created to accommodate them, straining the school's meager resources.

Then there are the usual physical ailments. Thyroid disease is common among teachers and students. Many students, says the school principal, also have immune system disorders more usually found in urban schools.

"Before the 1950s, we never had these problems," says Valentina Pashnina, a plump red-haired teacher who runs a small natural history museum on the school's second floor. "The government should have resettled us to a clean place. You can't stop animals from grazing on the river. Even though I teach my students about the dangers of the river, they still swim in it because it looks safe to them. They're just children."

Most of Pashnina's natural history museum is devoted to Brodokalmok's history of radiation. The walls in the small windowless room are lined with pictures of local radiation victims-including local liquidator squads-and trace zone maps. There are also student paintings and dioramas of the Techa that feature bright yellow radiation signs.

Below the museum, on the first floor, the school walls still display faded Soviet-era posters explaining how to prepare for and survive a nuclear attack. The irony does not escape the teachers. To learn about the real radiation the students live with every day, they must attend Pashnina's special class on the subject. She also has a PowerPoint presentation the she delivers to the community and her fellow teachers. She and her students were once invited to tour the Mayak plant at Ozersk, an experience that left her marveling at the power of modern public relations. "They were so convincing," she says. "I almost believed them that there was nothing to worry about."

Soviet-era posters still adorn the walls at the schoolhouse in contaminated Brodokalmok. This one instructs on how to hose down boots after a nuclear blast

But there is a lot to worry about when it comes to pollution from Mayak, say experts familiar with the current activity of the plant. Radiation from the plant is more than just a dark and little-known chapter of Soviet history effecting a rural slice of the southern Urals. For one thing, nuclear work in Ozersk is today busier than ever.

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Alexander Zaitchik is an editor at The eXile. Email him at
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