Literally on the eve Day of memory of Chernobyl tragedy 26 April 2012 in first has appeared the opportunity of the edition of my old fiction – film-story "Pripyat syndrome". The book was issued at support of International public organization "PTRIPAYT.com" and a site of city of Pripyat Pripyat.com, which I thank very much for the book and for all selfless work on preservation of memory of Chernobyl catastrophe and our Pripyat!..
First the first edition of the book was published in Russian, then – in Ukrainian. And in 2013 in English on Amazon.
And now we have good
news about the English version of my book “The Pripyat Syndrome”. The second a
bit expanded edition of the book “The Pripyat Syndrome” in English now is at
the Amazon. In two formats:
and Paper book here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08WYDMZNR/
The short summary:
In this book telling about the tragic destiny of the young woman – inhabitant of Pripyat, desperately struggling for a life of the son, many of the twists and turns of the first days and the first years of Chernobyl tragedy are displayed vividly and precisely.
So, now again anybody who want to can to have it and to read.
THE PRIPYAT SYNDROME
A Film Story
Copyright © 2021 by Lyubov Sirota
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or
transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical,
photocopying, recording, scanning, or otherwise without written permission
from the publisher. It is illegal to copy this book, post it to a website, or
distribute it by any other means without permission.
This book recalls the tragic fate of one young woman from Pripyat, as she
struggles desperately to save the life of her only son. The vicissitudes of the
first days and the first years after the Chernobyl catastrophe are shown
vividly and precisely.
Comments, wishes, orders: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Translation by Natalia Ryumina
Editing by Birgitta Ingemanson
Editing by Paul Brians
Illustration by Anton Yukhimenko
Agent: Aleksandr Sirota
INSTEAD OF A FOREWORD 2
THE STORY 6
A NOTE ON RUSSIAN AND UKRAINIAN PERSONAL NAMES 193
EDITOR’S AFTERWORD 195
ABOUT THE AUTHOR 197
ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR 199
The author express their deep gratitude to Natalia Ryumina and Professors
Emeritus Washington State University Birgitta Ingemanson and Paul Brians
for their selfless work preparing this edition.
INSTEAD OF A FOREWORD
It all started as in a movie. The idea to write a long prose work about the
Chernobyl disaster occurred to me already in 1990, right after our almost
daily two-year struggle to create our film The Threshold (directed by Rollan
Sergienko), which managed to penetrate the “iron curtain” of denial and
silence around the consequences of this disaster. The film itself was shot
in an unbelievably short period of time—just six months. The production
was launched in 1988 thanks to the head of the Alexander Dovzhenko Film
Studio, the famous director Nikolay Mashchenko.
This was when all that I had seen, heard, and lived through—the whole
four years of my post-Chernobyl experience which for a long time had not
entered into my poetry—started to make its way onto the pages of my future
novel, The Pripyat Syndrome.
Somehow perceiving what was going on, Nikolay Pavlovich suggested at
about the same time that I write a film script about the Chernobyl tragedy,
and he even gave it a name: How Can I Save You, Son? But since the film studio
was experiencing a deep financial crisis in those difficult years of perestroika,
work on this movie, which was supposed to be in two parts, then was reduced
to a single episode, and finally was frozen.
Nevertheless, that particular project influenced the writing and the style of
the novel, like а film story, which I am now offering for your attention, my
This novel is dedicated
to my fellow countrymen, the people of Pripyat,
and to everyone who has been affected by Chernobyl’s
sinister shadow. Although based on real events, it cannot be classified
as a documentary, for its characters are all composites.
A tiny far-away star is pulsating in the dense purple sky. As it grows, it first
transforms itself into a bright whirling star, then into a huge multi-colored
sphere which rapidly approaches, trailing behind a long, luminous train… Then
suddenly—a blinding flash… The whole sky is illuminated by a red and yellow glow,
which shivers feverishly and, it turns out, has escaped from the core of the exploded
reactor No. 4. The enormous ventilation pipe of the 3rd and 4th blocks of the V. I.
Lenin Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station is red-hot.
Irina suddenly wakes up.1 The intolerable pain that has become habitual over
the last couple of years seems to be tearing her head apart and filling every
cell of her being with boiling lead. Such bad timing! Just as she is about to
go and pick up her son—and there are still so many things to do before that!
With her disobedient hand she reaches out for the medicine on the bedside
table. She takes a painkiller, chews it and tries to reach the glass of water, but
instead she knocks the glass onto the floor. The water spills over the carpet
and onto the letters lying there.
Irina flinches with pain and bitterness. She squeezes her head between her
hands, making her short hair look even more disheveled, and sits up slowly.
She takes some valerian drops, picks up the soaked letters from the floor and
puts them on the bedside table. She sits on her bed for a while, then struggles
Information on the many variations of Russian and Ukrainian personal names and nicknames
may be found at the end of the book.
to stand up. She cautiously walks towards the bathroom, moaning in pain,
still gripping her head with her hands.
She can hear her son’s voice, as she reads his first letter from the sanatorium:
Hello, my dear Mommy, I’m writing this letter right after you left at 7:31 a.m. I
still have a strong headache. I wish that these two months would fly by quickly, but
there are still 58 days to go. I miss you so much…
Irina is inspecting her reflection in the mirror. Her face has become haggard
As I told you, I won’t be able to stand this for more than a month. They say that
the weather here will be even hotter soon… Looking forward to hearing from you,
Mom! Your Dennis.
The image in the mirror is blurred, fading away. A quiet moan and the sound
of something falling.
It is a hot July morning on the outskirts of the capital. The number of people
at the bus stop is too large even for a workday morning. The bus is probably
delayed. On the opposite side of the road there appears a well-built but
unhealthily bent female figure with a handbag over her shoulder. This is
Irina. She slowly crosses the road and approaches the bus stop. Only now
does she notice the unusual gathering.
She tries to stop a passing car in order to get a lift. Eventually, one of the
cars does stop and a respectable-looking driver drawls:
“Where’re you going?”
“To the Ministry of Health, please.”
“What! A regular cab costs just ten!”
“Are you getting in or not?” asks the respectable citizen.
Irina despairingly slams the door and the car drives off without her,
These graphic signs separate the passages of text that take place in “the present” (а few days
in summer and early fall 1991), from the fragments of memories of the novel’s protagonist,
Irina, which take place in the first few days and months, and then over the next five years,
after the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station on April 26, 1986. Тhe clarifying
footnotes in The Pripyat Syndrome were proposed and written collectively by the author and
shrouding her in fumes. Depressed, she returns to the bus shelter and leans
against its rough cold wall. She gets a pill out of her bag.
A woman passing by announces loudly:
“There’s no use waiting! All the buses are late, the drivers are on strike.”
Her words cause some commotion at the bus stop. Someone is upset.
Someone else, on the contrary, seems glad.
The crowd gradually vanishes. Irina is desperate to get to the city center
today, so she decides to stay and wait for a bus anyway. She walks up to an
empty bench and sits down to lean her aching back against its back, which—as
luck would have it—is not entirely torn off. Although she worries about the
indefinite delay, deep in her soul she is glad for every sign of change happening
in this amazingly enormous country, referred to among its people by the
short and simple name sovok.3 A strange but very familiar feeling of sweet
anxiety reminds her of …
… early morning, April 26, 1986. Wearing a light dressing gown, Irina is
typing an article, using her old portable Moscow brand typewriter. She has
spent all night on this article, which is quite normal for her. She types the
final period and takes out the sheet completely covered with text. Collecting
all the sheets, she puts them in a pile and moves the typewriter to the opposite
side of her desk, covering it with the latest issue of Ogonyok magazine.
On the desk, apart from the typewriter and the manuscript, there’s also an
empty coffee pot and a cup with some leftover coffee. At the very edge of the
desk, right beside the bookshelf, there’s another pile of papers.
The Russian word sovok means “scoop” in English, and is used here sarcastically about the
Soviet Union. Before the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Soviet
people called their country by this derisive nickname, because, in their opinion, they and
all the republics had been placed in one big garbage scoop. Now an independent country,
Ukraine at the time of this story was still one of the fifteen Soviet republics.
THE PRIPYAT SYNDROME
She has to share this desk with her son—he tends to use it during the day
and in the evening, while she gets it all to herself at night.
Irina loves the silence of her long nights when she can work or just sit by
the window thinking about life and eternity, disturbed by no one, at one
with the stars and with the moon, which constantly, mysteriously changes its
Irina turns off the table-lamp since it is now quite light. The slightly parted
curtains covering the sash window glow a brilliant orange. One side is wide
open and the soft spring breeze is blowing the light tulle curtain. Irina moves
it aside and inhales the pleasant, fresh new morning air while stretching her
body. She is happy with the work that she’s finished—and with the pure blue
sky, the breeze that tenderly touches her long fair hair, and the waking pine
forest that stretches far off toward the Office of the Building Administration,
and beyond, to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. This forest is also a
precious part of her night vigils. Today it’s shrouded in a ghostly grayish fog.
She wakes up her son and helps him pack his school bag as he washes and
has breakfast, the dishes clattering in their little kitchen.
Little by little the sun’s glare fills the room of their tiny, small-family
studio apartment. The ray of sunlight plays on the crystal of the clock on
the bookshelf,4 glancing over the backs of various books, lightly touching
the coffee-colored wallpaper, the decorative chandelier and the soft blanket
that covers the sofa on the other side of the room. It also illuminates the
complex pattern of her cheap Moldavian carpet which, although it is small,
manages to cover the whole floor—that’s how tiny the room is. Nevertheless,
another sofa has been squeezed in by the wall opposite the window. On
this sofa lies a guitar without a case. A bit further away a white double door
leads to the spacious pantry which is also used as a wardrobe. In this small
Pripyat apartment, Irina and Dennis have lived comfortably for several years.
This is a clock of the brand Mayak Crystal, decorated with facetted glass.
Although in a couple of months they are about to move to a new, bigger
flat—something that they very much look forward to—they still feel a bit sad
to leave this one, for they are so used to it. Maybe for this reason—because
they know that they will have to leave it soon—right now, it seems sweet,
Maybe that’s why a strange melancholy is layered over her joy on this
wonderful spring day.
Fully dressed, Dennis pops into the room to get his school bag. Irina is
surprised by such punctuality: “Where are you going so early? Classes don’t
start for another hour!5 Doesn’t seem like you at all…”
“Oh, come on, Mom,” importantly replies Dennis, “we’re supposed to be
on school duty today. And Seryozha’s already waiting for me outside, as we
agreed, see? We’ll take a little walk before classes…breathe some fresh air!”
“Fresh air, that’s good,” agrees Irina sleepily. “OK, off you go then. Oh,”
she suddenly remembers, “Denya, you know what, last night something was
hooting and crashing at the power station again—even our windows were
rattling, didn’t you hear it?”
“Whatever!” Dennis is going already, “I’m off…”
A couple of hours later Irina also leaves the apartment and, following her
usual route through the courtyards, she walks toward the Palace of Culture,6
where her literature and theater studio is meeting today.
She is clearly enjoying the day and for some reason everything moves
her: the birds singing, the branches of maples and lindens swaying, all in
green; even the chestnut trees that аre already spreading their leaves wide
Although this was a Saturday, Soviet children, like children in many European schools,
attended classes for part of the day.
The Palaces of Culture were, and continue to be, community centers for all kinds of cultural,
political, and amateur activities.
THE PRIPYAT SYNDROME
and looking like candlesticks as they embrace the tiny candle-like blossoms.
Everything around her today is so familiar, so joyous and somehow
so unique! Irina is pleasantly surprised by the sight of the streams of
foaming water on the streets and sidewalks—the street cleaning machines are
everywhere. That’s why the air is so unusually fresh today! They probably
clean the streets this thoroughly every Saturday—it’s just that she’s never
noticed it before. These foaming streams add a certain festive grandeur to
Meanwhile Irina is pleased to note how conveniently she’s dressed for
such a day—jeans, a light shirt and light, colorful jacket, and most important—
sneakers. This allows her to avoid the puddles easily, or just to jump
over them! The fresh breeze is touching her face and hair so sweetly. Nice!
An old woman, a villager from Polesye,7 appears from around the corner
building and, while still at quite a distance, asks Irina:
“Where’s the bus station, young lady?”
“Continue down this street, then cross the road and it’s to your right, next
to that forest, just over there, see?” Irina is explaining everything carefully to
the old woman, who by now has come closer.
“Do not go to the bus station!” interrupts a man in a loud voice. Irina turns
around. She sees an odd and messy-looking man in a dirty uniform, standing
about twenty paces away, clearly very concerned about something. “Today
there’s no bus service anyway!” he yells.
The granny starts approaching him in order to find out why there’s no bus
service today, and as for Irina, she shrugs her shoulders, “so there’s no service,
so what?” and continues on her way.
An unusual number of people are strolling happily along Lenin Avenue and
Three geographic names in this book are closely related: Polesye, one of the largest European
wetlands along the Pripyat River, the Pripyat Marshes, located mainly within Belarus and
Ukraine but also partly in Poland and Russia; Polessky, a district within Kiev Oblast; and
Polesskoe, the town that before the Chernobyl disaster was the administrative center of the
on the square in front of the Palace of Culture. Even more than that—there
are lots of grey militsiya uniforms, which also seems very surprising to
Irina. The festive crowds, the kiosks with ice cream and other sweets on the
sidewalks—all this doesn’t look like an ordinary Saturday—the approaching
May holidays are in the air.8
In contrast, the Palace is almost empty. Irina says hello to the concierge
whom everybody calls “Grandma Pasha” although she isn’t even that old.9
She loves to chat with Irina and today too she’s about to say something.
But Irina gestures that she’s late, and quickly runs upstairs, crossing the
gracefully decorated dance hall. There are only two people in the studio. One
is Tatyana, an engineer at the power station, who recently gave birth to her
third child. On parental leave now, she spends all her time writing poems
and drawing. She has come here earlier than usual today to start making the
wall newspaper.10 The other person in the room is Sophia—a professional
journalist who works for the local newspaper and part-time for the radio.
She is standing by the window, smoking. Tatyana sits at the desk in front of a
huge and completely blank sheet of paper.
“What’s the news?” they ask simultaneously in a friendly duet.
“What are you talking about?” Irina is surprised. “Where’s everybody else?
I thought I was running late!”
“Oh,” Sophia exhales despondently, coming up to Irina and kissing her on
May 1 is celebrated all over Europe both for political reasons (International Workers’ Day),
and simply as a festive spring holiday, often with one or two extra days off from work.
In addition to indicating relatives by blood or marriage, titles such as Grandma (or Granny),
Aunt (Auntie), and Uncle can also be used as a polite address to a woman or man older than
“Wall newspapers” are announcements and illustrated news items fastened on bulletin boards
for everyone to read.
THE PRIPYAT SYNDROME
the cheek. She wipes off the mark of her lipstick. “This kid is still in total
ignorance. What do you think of that, Tatyana?”
Sophia returns to the unfinished cigarette she had left on top of the ashtray
by the window. She inhales the smoke, curiously studying Irina.
“God’s birdie knows no worry and no labor,” says Tatyana,11 but then adds
seriously, “Nobody else is coming, I guess. Will you be all right with just the
two of us? You can start, ‘boss.’”
“What’s happened?” Irina asks quietly.
“We hardly know anything,” answers Tatyana, “Something’s happened at
the power station. Something really bad… There are even casualties.”
“Don’t panic!” interrupts Sophia, exhaling the smoke. “If it was really
that bad, I’d definitely have known about it by now! Don’t worry, boss,” she
addresses Irina, “let’s see what we’ve got here today and then we’ll go home.
I’m still a bit concerned about the kids.”
“Yes, and you know what? In School No. 3 they’re not even allowed outside
today,” agrees Tatyana. Her eldest daughter goes to that school, in the fifth
“So, that’s what it is,” Irina thinks, and an unusual feeling of sweet anxiety
possesses her, mixing with the morning’s excitement, filling every cell of
her body and even tickling her nose.12 But she pulls herself together and
continues, almost calmly:
“OK, let’s not make any guesses. Tatyana, you try to get through to the
power station, and meanwhile I’ll check our schedule for the evening.”
This phrase from Alexander Pushkin’s narrative poem “The Gypsies” is a popular Russian
saying, describing someone who may be careless in life’s choices but still is God’s creature.
An English version of the poetic lines: “Little bird, God’s wingèd neighbor, / Knows not toil
or heart’s unrest, / Nor in unremitting labor / Weaves a long enduring nest,” are in Pushkin
Threefold, trans. Walter Arndt (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972), pp. 63-64.
Studies show that one of the signs of radioactive damage may appear as a kind of “radioactive
intoxication” with some elements of euphoria at the beginning of it, and—over time—apathy.
“There’s no point in calling!” mutters Sophia, sitting on the window sill.
She’s already spent half an hour on the phone trying to get through. The
atomic station remains silent.
Irina sits down by the table and opens her calendar.
“Right. Well, what can we do? You Tanya are excused. Go home to your
baby. He needs you more than we do right now. And Sophushka, we have
two shows in the residence halls tonight. Let’s do this: go home now and
come back at 6 o’clock. By that time I’ll have called—or just somehow got
in touch with the residence halls. I doubt they’re up for a poetic evening in
right now, at least in the power station residence hall, but in the Builders’
Residence Hall they’ll probably expect us. You can read the poems, I’ll sing
the songs, and then we’ll answer their questions, just like always! OK?”
“OK!” Sophia jumps down from the windowsill, her long dark wavy hair
swaying. “See you tonight!” She kisses Irina on the cheek and tenderly tousles
Tatyana’s short hair.
Irina is home. Anxious, she measures the room with her steps, from time
to time popping into the kitchen to check on her lunch cooking. Suddenly
recollecting something, she shuts the window. Her son is not home yet. The
clock shows half past two in the afternoon.
At last she hears the front door open and rushes into the small hallway. The
sight is shocking—her boy is covered in clay and sand. When he takes off his
shoes, piles of sand pour out on the floor.
“My god! Where have you been?” Irina is terrified.
“We had a subbotnik today.13 We… swept the school yard.” Dennis is lying.
The truth is, he and Seryozhka had gone to the river after school, but Irina
will find this out later. She is exasperated.
“In some schools the kids were not even allowed to go outside today and in
The subbotniks (from Russian subbota, “Saturday”) were days of volunteer work, mostly
organized for cleaning the streets of garbage, fixing public amenities, collecting recyclable
material, and other community services.
THE PRIPYAT SYNDROME
yours it’s a subbotnik, and for primary school pupils? Unbelievable!”
Dennis is changing his clothes. Knowingly, he says:
“I know everything. Last night something exploded at the power station!
We even had a teachers’ meeting at school. We were told to take some iodine
pills and the grown-ups can have wine… Maybe us kids will even be e-va…
taken out of town.”
“Evacuated?” suggests Irina.
“Yes, that’s right! E-va-cu-ated,” he agrees, washing his face.
“All right, my little expert! Wash yourself. Have some food. Do something
nice. Read a book! I still have a couple of things to take care of tonight, so
I’ll be back late. I’ll lock the door. Be good! And don’t open the window,
“Understood,” sighs Dennis.
Their literary evening, dedicated to the creative works of Marina Tsvetaeva,
is almost over. There’s a lot of young people in the Red Room of the Builders’
Residence Hall.14 It’s been going on for quite a while now, but they don’t want
to release their guests just yet. However, Irina is singing her final song:15
The Red Room (or Red Corner) was the Soviet analogue to the place of honor in a Russian log
hut (a corner with an icon), a special place intended for ideological influences as a means of
communist education. These were primary centers of propaganda work. The Red Corners
were run by the general management of the party, the trade unions, and the communist youth
organization, the Komsomol (from The Russian Humanitarian Encyclopedic Dictionary).
The poems of beloved Russian poets are often put to music and performed, both by
professional singers and informally among friends. This poem is by Marina Ivanovna
Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) whose work became increasingly known and loved after glasnost,
Mikhail Gorbachev’s easing of the Soviet censorship laws. Tsvetaeva left the Soviet Union in
1922, living with her family in several European cities, including Paris and Berlin, but returned
home in 1941. Later that year she committed suicide. Excepting the poem “Radiophobia,” the
translations of poetry here and later are by Natalia Ryumina.
One last hour to get through.
Time won’t stop for us, it’s true—
Whatever’s pulling me to you,
Is not at all your doing!
It’s just the fear that all my bloom
Will soon be gone.
Have you ever measured time
By a convent’s sundial?
On celestial scales perhaps—
Have you weighed an hour?
For constellations and for us
This hour equally will pass.
Oh, how I wish with all my heart
That it would last!
As soon as the last chords of the song have sounded, Irina and Sophia are
surrounded by people with questions. For a short time, all today’s worries
are forgotten. Only by 11 p.m. do they finally manage to get away from their
grateful audience, carrying large bouquets of flowers.
Still inspired by the warm welcome and the wonderfully tender evening,
they walk past the unfinished stadium towards the central avenue, which,
as is usual for the main streets of all the cities in the USSR, is named
for Lenin. It is brightly illuminated by neon slogans proclaiming “THE
PEOPLE AND THE PARTY ARE ONE” above the City Committee building
of the Communist Party; “HOTEL POLESYE” next to it; the “PALACE OF
CULTURE ENERGETIK” on top of their own building;16 the “RADUGA”
THE PRIPYAT SYNDROME
shop on the left; and shining from the height of a nine-story building on
the right, a bit further away, the immortal phrase “LET THE ATOM BE A
WORKER, NOT A SOLDIER.”
Sophia decides to take a walk with her friend, because this night is way too
lovely to go home right away. And so, free of worries they reach the end of
the avenue. As soon as they get to the circle by the bridge, they both gasp:
further away, just above the forest there’s a huge, burning glow. It flickers and
trembles, as if from a blazing open-hearth furnace. The enormous ventilation
pipe of the power station is glowing red with heat.
“Wow,” Sophia murmurs under her breath. “Looks like some serious shit!”
Irina is shocked, too, but at the same time a wave of adventurous teenagelike
excitement rises in her, difficult to contain.
“Let’s go closer to the bridge! I wonder if anyone will stop us?”
Sophia seems to have the same thought, so the two young women head for
the bridge that leads out of town. They reach it, but no one seems to be there
to stop them, so they quickly lose interest and go back, still keeping their eyes
on the glow above the forest.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could get up on the roof of a nine-story apartment
building and observe everything from there?” exclaims Irina in childish joy.
“Come on! Maybe it’s our professional duty.”
“Listen, woman! Don’t you think you live close enough to this ‘genie’
anyway? I hope it won’t escape from its burning bottle!” Sophia muses in her
deep voice. “Now listen, if anything bad happens, let Dennis run over to me
with your manuscripts. We live further away, so I guess it must also be safer.
As for you, you can watch it and put what you see on paper for as long as you
“Deal!” agrees Irina.
They embrace each other, and this embrace is somehow stronger and
warmer than usual. As they are about to part, they see a row of government
cars, black Volgas and Zils, swiftly coming across the bridge, passing them
An energetik is an engineer specializing in diverse aspects of physical or mechanical energy,
including, here, atomic energy. The shop’s name that follows, raduga, means “rainbow.”
and speeding towards the offices of the City Committee.
Without saying a word, the girls wave to each other and rush to their homes.
And each of them suddenly feels that the half-forgotten military word “evacuation”
already hangs in the air, filling their hearts with incomprehensibly
sweet trembling and excitement.
Once at home, Irina finds her son already asleep. Without bothering to take
off her shoes and jacket, she turns on the table lamp. She opens the door
of the pantry-closet and gets out her large black travel bag, then sits down,
absent-mindedly scanning the room and trying to figure out what the most
important things are that she needs to pack in case of…
Dennis turns over and opens his eyes: “Mom, where are you going?”
“I’ve only just come back, kiddo!”
“But what are you doing?” he asks, worry filling his voice as he looks at the
bag and the wide-open pantry.
“I’m figuring out what to put in this bag to be ready, in case of an evacuation.”
“Why? Is that what’s going to happen?”
“I don’t know yet, but I think so. You go back to sleep now. Sleep. I’ll wake
you up if anything happens.”
“OK.” Dennis turns back to the wall and straight away falls into a deep,
Irina energetically stands up and takes some warm clothes, extra underwear
and a couple of towels out of the closet. She leaves the room, then returns
with a bar of soap and other toiletries in her hands, almost filling the bag,
but she adds some letters and books. She pulls out the bottom drawer of the
bookcase, searches through all her papers there, takes their ID documents
and puts them in her purse. Then she picks up a photo album, sits down by
the desk, and after looking through all the pictures, takes out some of the
loose ones and puts them in her purse as well.
The photo album, which is now lying on the desk, is open at one of the most
vivid pages illustrating Pripyat’s theater life. The pictures show rehearsals
and the first performance of a very significant work, a poetic play about the
life of Marina Tsvetaeva, which took eighteen months to prepare. As usual,
THE PRIPYAT SYNDROME
Irina sits by the wide-open window, looking into the deaf, disturbing night.
She remembers a romantic passage from this particular play:
Someone is awake
in that window with a light.
Maybe they are drinking wine
in this sleepless night.
Maybe they are sitting still,
simply holding hands.
A window just like this
is anywhere, my friend.
A cry of meetings and goodbyes—
that’s what you ought to be!
Lighting up a thousand candles,
or perhaps just three…
There is no peace, no rest,
there is no stillness in my mind,
as in my own house, too,
appeared a window of this kind.
Say your prayer, my dear,
for this sleepless night
and for the window with the light.
Meanwhile, behind their windows, in the darkness of the night, the road to
the power station is full of ambulances and fire engines that rush back and
forth with their sirens off, and black Volgas with dark tinted windows.
For some reason Irina recalls how she and her son got to move here three
years ago, in almost mystical circumstances…
…They were going through a very tough time—the official divorce from
Dennis’s father, as the ‘tied knot’ had justified its name rather precisely and
nothing good—except for the wonderful son, had come out of it. But God
works in mysterious ways, and a negative experience can also come useful.
One could say, it was a pivotal point in their lives. Back then she left the
one-room flat in the town of N’sk, which had previously taken her ages and a
lot of struggle to secure, to her ex-husband. She left it behind not so much out
of hurt caused by his cheating, but rather out of despair, facing a mortifying
perspective: to be fighting for years over the twenty square meters, as precious
as they were by the Soviet standards, and by doing so dooming her only son
to live in an atmosphere of never-ending battles between the two people
most dear to him, which would inevitably lead to a moral catastrophe. An
urgent decision had to be made about where and how they would live—that
is, leaving N’sk for good and going ‘wherever their feet would take them’.
She even tried to settle in Moscow, for, as she had been persuaded, only
there an artistic person could fully realise their potential. However, in the
capital she wouldn’t even get hired as a janitor (who would at least be eligible
for a temporary state accommodation), justified by the fact that ‘people with
higher education are not to be hired as janitors’. In that city Irina felt all
the truth behind the quote of Mikhail Bulgakov, which defines Muscovites
as ordinary people… only soured by the housing problem…’ Although, this
could have been applied to all big cities in the Union.
And so, because Moscow could only accept her on unacceptable for Irina
terms, her turned towards a unique in its beauty (and later, unique in its
feeling of deepened routes) Pripyat woodlands and the atom city, which she
was told about by one of the ingenious literary union writers Gennady.
“My brother lives there. I, however, was ordered to leave that pretty semiregime
town within the twenty four hours because of my previous conviction,”
he’d told her, “But I am sure that your experience in working with people and
your limitless artistic energy will definitely be in demand there —trust me!”
Indeed, back in N’sk, in addition to her work in a local technical college,
she was in charge of the literary union, collaborated with a local newspaper,
was a frequent visitor of the film and bard song societies, organised poetic
THE PRIPYAT SYNDROME
evenings and themed discos, and had a very active social life. That’s why
her intuition was hinting that in the young city of atomists, fate would look
favourably on her and her son.
And so, having taken Dennis to her sister in Belarus, she made her way from
N’sk to Pripyat along the river Dnieper, on board of a high-speed steamboat
‘Rocket’. During this long journey into uncertainty, the multitude of thoughts
and feelings were not letting her enjoy the beautiful views of the river banks,
pushing her subconsciousness to take a little glimpse into the possible future.
She suddenly imagined or, perhaps, saw her future conversation with some
reputable official—the head of the young town, as it seemed, who, having
looked through her papers and having asked about her previous work and
achievements, almost fatherlike promised that she would have a job, a place
to live and a school for her son to go to, as their town is very much in need of
Irina recovered from that reassuring vision at the exact moment when
Rocket had entered something resembling a water scoop—on its high sandy
shore she could see the high-storey buildings of a modern town. In a few
minutes the steamer docked at a small river station, which turned out to be
only a few minutes walk to the Pripyat administrative building where the
city executive committee and the party committee were based. Still dwelling
on her vision, Irina made her way to the second floor, as suggested by the
janitor, and to the city committee reception, where a pretty secretary, after a
polite greeting, asked:
“You’re here for an appointment?”
“Can I go in now?” Irina wondered, pleasantly surprised.
“If you arranged an appointment for today then yes. To see Him, people
book appointments a month in advance” she respectfully nodded towards
her boss’s office. “What’s your surname?”
“See, it’s my first time here, and I’m only in town for half a day. I’ve already
purchased a return ticket for the last Rocket. Perhaps you’ll let me in?..”
But the pretty secretary was adamant about following her instructions, and
all Irina could do was to book an appointment for the next month, just in
case, and leave the reception feeling lost and disappointed.
Barely able to contain her tears, Irina walked to the opposite window
and whilst observing the leisurely rhythm of the unfamiliar town, for a few
minutes she was hectically thinking about what to do next and how to move
on if fate had turned her back on her here also? Perhaps, she’d come back in
a months time, but it was more likely she wouldn’t. She might have to rent
some room in one of the villages in the vicinity of N’sk, but this she would
consider as the very last option.
And so, empty handed, Irina was about to make her way back, but walking
along the first floor corridor, on one of the doors she noticed a sign The Town
Committee of Komsomol and decided to enter. Back in N’sk, in addition to
everything else, she had been a substitute for a technical college Komsomol
committee secretary, Nelya, who’d been on maternity leave. What if they
could help her here? She had nothing to lose anyway.
A red faced blond youth was looking bored, sitting at a long desk in the
“Excuse me, where can I find the Komsomol town committee secretary?”
“I’m listening,” the youth was suddenly scrutinising her with unexpectedly
prickly eyes of an official.
Irina laid out all her papers and diplomas on the desk in front of him and
explained in detail what had brought her there.
After a brief consideration he grabbed all the papers:
He took Irina to another wing where the party town committee was.
“Wait here,” he ordered in a deliberately loud voice and having knocked on
the door entered the office of the third secretary of ideology.
After a couple of minutes he slipped out, his face even more red, and let
Irina into the room. Her papers were spread on a desk in front of a reputable
“Take a seat,” he offered, gesturing towards a chair nearby whilst studying
“Who would you like to work as here?” he asked without a foreword.
“I would agree to any job—even a janitor or a lift operator, as long as my
son and I would have somewhere to live,” Irina blurted out.
THE PRIPYAT SYNDROME
“And how about the head of the literary and theatre studio? Would you like
to work in our Palace of Culture?”
Irina was practically speechless. Such proposal she wouldn’t even have
“Of course I would!” she almost whispered. “But right now the most
important thing is that we would have a place to live, you see?!”
“The housing problem will also be solved. Come with me!”
And so the third secretary of the town party ideology committee personally
walked Irina to the beautiful building, which almost hovered above the central
square—the palace of culture Energetik. Entering the director’s office he
curtly nodded to the intelligent looking man of about fifty, who’d raised from
behind his desk, and spoke in a bossy tone:
“Here, Valsil Vasilyevich, is a new head of the literary and theatre studio.
Make yourself acquainted with her papers and please take care of her
temporary accommodation, as well as of the guaranteed permanent place to
live in the future.”
And he left.
Then events were unfolding even swifter—as if in an odd, almost fairy tale
like dream! As if someone—at the very top!—had given Irina ‘the green light’.
“Well, it’s very nice to meet you, Irina Mikhailovna,” the director shook her
hand and with a friendly gesture invited to take a seat.
Having briefly looked at her papers he started asking Irina about her life in
N-sk, but realising she only had a few hours, he resolvedly got up:
“In this case, my dear, we need to act now! Off we go to the Station right
It only took a few minutes for an old palace ‘Lada’ to get them to the nuclear
station administration building, and then, without any ado, they got into the
station professional committee’s chairman’s Shershov’s office. Less than half
an hour later they left with stamped documents, signed by all the nuclear
chiefs, and with a special order which would allow Irina and Dennis to move
into a town hotel for a minimum fee—as little as one would normally pay for
a room in a residence hall, and a letter of guarantee from the station directors
addressed to the town building administration, with a request to provide the
‘sought after young specialist’ with a studio flat in a shortest possible time,
before eventually sorting her out with the station guaranteed one bedroom
In yet another half an hour they were already in the office of Ozimyy—the
chief of the building administration who surprisingly, as if he had been
expecting them, was in and ordered his secretary at once to type the letter of
guarantee and at first opportunity provide Irina and her son with a studio
On their way back they entered a beautiful tall building next to the palace
of culture which was hotel Polissya and using the station order reserved one
of the rooms on the second floor, so that Irina and Dennis could move in
there upon arrival.
Eventually, as the Palace of Culture director was saying good bye to Irina
in his own office, he said softly, almost father-like:
“This is it! I suppose we haven’t forgotten anything?! Now, Irina
Mikhailovna, you can go and pick up your son without any worry. We’ll
be waiting for you. Ah, of course,” he remembered something and quickly
wrote it down in his notebook, then tore off that page and handed it to Irina,
“here’s the address! If there’s anything you need to ship here from N-sk…
furniture, some other stuff, you can simply send it all to the palace of culture.
For Irina, who was first rushing towards the pier with a great excitement
along one of the main streets of this wondrous town, which was already hers,
and then catching a ride on the water wings of Raketa, everything that had
happened that day seemed like some fantastic dream. She even had to pinch
herself a few times and from time to time to pull out that paper with the
address from her purse, just to make sure it was all real…
To this very moment she is confident that back then everything was decided
from above—as if by a wave of someone’s hand. And of course, also thanks to
the incredible kindness of Vasily Vasilievich—a musician by calling and the
palace of culture director by appointment. Such a pity, that a year later he was
replaced by another director, who perhaps was a tiny bit more professional in
business matters, yet completely indifferent to the problems and difficulties
of his colleagues. Sighing, Irina casts a glance at the clock, which glowing
THE PRIPYAT SYNDROME
hands show a quarter to three. For a few more minutes she stares into the
troubled night outside, then makes up her mind to get a little sleep. However,
as she jumps off the window sill and starts closing the window, there is a
quiet knock on the door, then a louder one.
“Who is it?” asks Irina.
“The Office of Housing. Open up,” quietly answers a creaky voice from
behind the door.
Irina opens it. The stranger standing there is almost whispering in his
squeaky managerial voice:
“Be ready for evacuation. Do not sleep. Just wait…”
© Lyubov Sirota "Pripyat syndrome"
Рецензия на книгу «Прип’ятський синдром» - Маргарита ОЛІЙНИК-ЛОКАЙ, бібліограф Миргородської міської публічної бібліотеки для дорослих ім. Д. Гурамішвілі.
The book by Lyubov Sirota "Pripyat syndrome"
in Russian see here:
The Video Review of the book by Lyubov Sirota "Pripyat syndrome" in Russian see here: