Chernobyl Victims Struggle With Consequences of Radiation Exposure

Former workers say the Russian government adds to their suffering.

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Another problem: Chernobyl veterans have difficulty proving their diseases are linked to the meltdown. They accept that some health problems, such as cardiovascular diseases and cancer, aren't unusual among aging Russians. "But the combination of cardiovascular diseases with blood diseases or diseases of the arterial system—these combinations are obviously only characteristic of liquidators," argues Grishin, 56, who has been treated for problems with his immune system and has gone partially deaf. He adds that veterans can undergo tests to show chromosome mutations that could be connected with radiation exposure.

While some liquidators are now satisfied with their hard-won payouts, observers see a relic of Soviet indifference to individuals and their suffering in the Russian government's attitude toward them. "The state relates to victims of tragedies with a couldn't-care-less attitude," suggests Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think tank in Moscow.

Whatever benefits they receive, those involved in the accident are branded by it. Survivors tell terrible stories: of seeing friends so burned they seemed to have been cooked; of meeting the first firemen to enter the reactor building, who vomited repeatedly because of radiation exposure and died soon after.

And they have strange, alluring memories of radiation, which is now killing some of them. Oleg Genrikh, an operator at Chernobyl with burns across his body, would sometimes watch the glowing radioactive fuel when the reactor was dismantled for repairs. "It was like the northern lights," he says dreamily. "It was so beautiful. It cast a spell on you—even if you didn't want to look at it, you couldn't help it."