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Every other article about Russia in the British media manages to slip in a mention of Soviet history

By Michael Oliver-Semenov
02 May 2013

It is quite ironic seeing as the current British government are engaged in purges of the poor and disabled; not to mention a Soviet style 'blackout’ on the recent sale of the National Health Service.

I have never thought to describe myself as a communist sympathiser, but as a very disillusioned capitalist I understood exactly why those people were mourning. Picture: Michael Oliver-Semenov

It’s a warm spring evening in Krasnoyarsk. The sun is just beginning to set though I can’t see it well as the building opposite is obstructing my view. 

The apartment block to the left however is positioned in such a way that it reflects the sunlight directly at my balcony. I can’t even look at the building as the sun is too strong, but I can see the mountains behind it; they are now green, the leaves are returning, winter is definitely over. 

I’d like to describe the evening as something other than pleasant, but it is just that. 

My wife left a few hours ago for her night shift, leaving me to clean the dishes, make something to eat and find something to give my evening purpose. 

I can’t say it’s been a momentous week. I went to work, I taught English, I came home. The only memorable day I can think of was Monday: I caught my usual bus, a 91 from the bus stop near the post office. 

It crossed the bridge that connects the northwest of the city to the rest, negotiating the corner of Profsoyuzov and Krasnaya Ploschad with ease. It was just seconds later when we arrived on Karla Marksa that things changed: the bus was stuck in sudden traffic. 

This was unusual as it was about 10:30am and the heavy morning traffic has normally dispersed by this time. 

It was so busy in fact that my bus couldn’t park at its designated stop and had to overshoot. Only when I reached the crossing of Karla Marksa did I see what all the fuss was about. On the north side of this street there is a huge statue of Lenin that overlooks the park opposite.

At the foot of the statue there was what appeared at first to be a demonstration: people dressed in black, waving red banners and calling-out. 

Michael Oliver-Semenov on his life in Siberia

People quite rightly criticise the Soviet Union for its history of abuses, but sometimes the USSR takes the blame for all kinds of present day wrongs that we know it had no hand in: just this week several US media sources cited the USSR as the main contributing factor behind the Boston bombings. Picture: Michael Oliver-Semenov

A man with a megaphone stood on its plinth. I crossed the road and hesitated. It was new to me. I had seen demonstrations in Russia before but none that ever looked so Soviet. 

As it turned out it wasn’t a demonstration at all but a celebration of Lenin’s birthday. What I was seeing wasn’t a group of angry students but the remnants of the communist party. I took out my phone and snapped a few pictures. After 3 shots I stopped - it felt disrespectful. 

Although it was clear that a celebration was taking place, the people looked dressed for mourning, so I put my phone back in my pocket and walked on slowly. I couldn’t help but walk slowly as it felt as though I had just stumbled upon someone’s funeral.

I have never thought to describe myself as a communist sympathiser, but as a very disillusioned capitalist I understood exactly why those people were mourning. When I was researching for my book I interviewed dozens of people regarding the Soviet Union. I heard the usual horror stories but at the same time I heard many people lamenting the Union’s collapse. 

They missed enjoying a respectable remuneration package as part of their work, things like housing and healthcare being part of the state (not that healthcare is ‘private’ per se, it’s now a mixed system of state and private management.) 

People quite rightly criticise the Soviet Union for its history of abuses, but sometimes the USSR takes the blame for all kinds of present day wrongs that we know it had no hand in: just this week several US media sources cited the USSR as the main contributing factor behind the Boston bombings. 

Every other article about Russia in the British media manages to slip in some mention of Soviet history, ‘purges and censorship’ which is quite ironic seeing as the current British government are engaged in purges of the poor and disabled; not to mention a Soviet style ‘blackout’ on the recent sale of the National Health Service. The pot is forever calling the kettle black.

Changing the subject slightly, I want to look back at  April 26th, a very pertinent and painful day in Soviet history. 

Chernobyl


Chernobyl


Chernobyl


Chernobyl

I want remember the little people, those who gave their lives willingly, knowing that if they didn’t fight the battle of Chernobyl, the world everywhere, inside and outside the USSR, would have changed irrevocably. Pictures: The Siberian Times 

It was 27 years ago today that the last battle of the Soviets commenced against Chernobyl’s reactor number four. FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND MEN waged war against the world’s worst man-made disaster, armed with basic protection and DIY armour of iron plate. 

Almost all of the records on the subject have been distorted or destroyed but what we do know is that the world would be a completely different place is it weren’t for the bravery of the 500,000 human liquidators - or BIO-ROBOTS -who gave their lives cleaning the mess left by the explosion; the hundreds of first responders including fire fighters and military personnel who went bravely to reactor 4 without any knowledge of nuclear contamination; the 600 men who flew bravely over the reactor in an attempt to distinguish the fire (and never made it home); the 10,000 miners who were bussed in from the four corners of the Soviet Union and who subsequently prevented the largest chain reaction in history; and lastly, the hundreds, thousands, unknown numbers of people who have maintained the sarcophagus for all the years since then. 

Some of you may wonder why I care to mention such a dark chapter in history: with this blog, by mentioning the nameless, ageless, forgotten people, I am staging my own commemoration. Where I was born the only real fact we knew of Chernobyl was that it affected some sheep in North Wales (and continues to do so); the media didn’t give any time to those who gave their lives defending the rest of Europe. 

I wonder how many people know that Europe would have been rendered UNINHABITABLE if a second larger explosion hadn’t been prevented by the Soviet miners. I wonder how many people today realise just how many people it took to collect all the radioactive debris, or how many people took up the roll of bio-robots because the mechanical robots went bezerk as a result of unprecedented levels of radiation and suicided (yes, robots suicided). 

Not many I guess. How many people do I know that would voluntarily walk into a nuclear contaminated land to clear radioactive debris (by hand) so that others may live? I don’t know why this date isn’t an international holiday. 

I don’t know why we aren’t all remembering the dead or dying. It’s impossible for me to think of a world where Central Europe was nothing more than a no man’s land; desolate and scorched by nuclear rain. 

So while that one group of people chose to commemorate Comrade Lenin, I want remember the little people, those who gave their lives willingly, knowing that if they didn’t fight the battle of Chernobyl, the world everywhere, inside and outside the USSR, would have changed irrevocably. 

Michael Oliver-Semenov is a professional poet and writer from Wales, the small but stoic country parked next to England.

After serving as the first poet in residence for Blown, the British magazine for cultural intelligence, Michael emigrated to Krasnoyarsk, Siberia to live with his wife and translator Anastasia Semenova.

When he is not growing vegetables at their family dacha in summer, or avoiding the wild Siberian hounds of winter, Michael is a freelance English teacher, editor and contributor to The Siberian Times.

His forthcoming expose on Siberian life ‘Sunbathing in Siberia:'A marriage of east and west in Post-Soviet Russia’ is due for release in spring 2014 and will be available online and in all book stores worth anything.

Comments (3)

My father works at a nuclear plant. I have always admired him. I had a science teacher who went to Chernobyl to help with the debris clean up and study the radiation readings. I have always had an interest in it and I know that while not all died, many did suffer long term health problems, ranging from rosacea to cancer. My hat goes off to all who were involved. All governments have some form of censorship, as a citizen and human being, it is our responsibility to acquire the intelligence to perceive what's said between the lines and see the big picture.
Jamie, Virginia, USA
06/05/2013 00:25
2
0
On the one hand, there's nothing surprising, giving the regular level of russophobia in British media.
On the other, I wouldn't call these people nameless or forgotten. They're heroes, and we all know their story. The scale is a bit off - about 240.000 were there in 1986-1987, and it wasn't a sure death ticket. You had to grab a shovel, run on the roof, pick up a pile of nuclear fuel, throw it back into open reactor and get out of there asap. Ten seconds out in the open would be your lifetime's worth dose of radiation - not pleasant but most of them made it.
Others arrived to finish their job later, raising the count to some 600 thousand. It's not like they all died, but losing several dozen thousand volunteers is already too much.

So frankly as a Russian I give zero damn about what some Brits think or remember about us, even with their monopoly on media. It's our pain and the only thing that counts is that we do remember.

P.S. How many people do I know that would voluntarily walk into a nuclear contaminated land to clear radioactive debris (by hand) so that others may live?
I have the luxury to think I know a few. That would be the brightest side of Soviet nurturing, one that is every so often erased by cherrypicked darkest moments.
Andy Dean, Moscow
03/05/2013 14:43
0
6
Very Moving , i did no know any of those facts , it makes me feel very humble I think this date and those brave people should be remembered Annually and not just in Russia but in the whole of Europe
Why have we in the U.k. never been told these facts and why is there no Statue or memorial to these Guys in the U.K.
It is Shameful
A very informative read
Amanda Davies, Neath , South WALES
02/05/2013 23:59
6
0
1

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