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Just people: Over My Shoulder #35, Nikolai’s story about work at Chernobyl, from Poor People by William T. Vollman

Here’s the rules:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. This is from chapter 3 of William T. Vollman’s new book, Poor People. It’s a sometimes compelling and sometimes tiresome book; Vollman went around cities in the U.S. and all over the rest of the world, interviewing (urban) poor people in several different countries, bringing back their stories and their answers to questions like Why are you poor? and Why are some people poor and other people rich? The compelling part are the actual stories; the tiresome part, which appears only a little in this passage but a lot more elsewhere, is Vollman’s insistent, neurotic handwringing about his own position as a rich American and his own authorial presence in the tale. (There’s nothing wrong with being upfront about these things; but there’s also nothing interesting in spending 2, 5, or 8 pages musing about your trouble in writing about poor people’s stories, which you could have spent actually letting them talk about their own stories.) Anyway, this passage comes from Vollman’s visit to Russia in 2005, when he met an eighty year old woman in front of a church, who was begging to help support herself and a family of four — her daughter Nina, her son-in-law Nikolai, and two grown grandchildren, Marina and Elena.

Nina, who had been the family’s agent of verification twice in my case (first she telephoned the interpreter to inquire about our motives and resources, and then when I had invited myself into their home she had been the one who emerged from the doorway graffiti’d KISS MY ASS to inspect me), who calmed her husband whenever he got overly worked up against the government, and who seemed to be closest to the two daughters, had originally seemed to me, even taking into consideration Oksana, who in spite of being the breadwinner was after all eighty-one years old and who so frequently wept, the most capable physically, mentally, and emotionally. Nina was a handsome, careful woman who was aging well.

I had no idea that things would turn out this badly, she said. They promised us an apartment in Petersburg. We had no idea; we were actually lied to. We were told that my husband was sent there for construction, not to clean up. We heard about it on the radio, but they told him that he would be at a safe distance from the contamination. He was away for three months. He wrote letters. He was forbidden to let us know that anything was wrong. So I took him at face value; I thought that my husband would never deceive me. His health problems began immediately. He could no longer complete an eight-hour workday, so they proposed to fire him.

And what did you do?

I sat with the children a lot and also taught grade school.


When did you know that something was wrong? I asked.

I knew exactly when they measured me, the man replied. My exposure was nine point four.

And what did you know before they sent you to Chernobyl?

I didn’t know, he said. On my official military ticket they put down that I would only build houses, nothing else.

I had always thought that the USSR was fair to the workers, I said.

That is absolutely not true, he insisted, raising his voice. Fairness to workers is only what they scream about in the newspapers. I have written a letter to Putin. They reply told me to contact the regional authorities who have already ignored me.

The man had lost some of his hair. He was very lanky in his old blue suit, and sported a strangely pale and bony face.

He showed us his card which bore the date 1986, an incorrect year, which meant that he couldn’t prove that he had been at Chernobyl and therefore remained ineligible for compensation. (Here something must have been lost in translation or else Nikolai Sokolov was confused, for the date of explosion was in fact April 1986. Perhaps his part of the cleanup took place in 1987, for he later said: From ‘88 to ‘94 we lived in Volgograd trying to get housing.)

Have you stayed in touch with the other workers?

No, he said.

His wife thought the date to be merely an error. But he was sure that the government wanted all personnel in the cleanup crews to die.

I think that Moscow is responsible, he said. The whole point was to change the situation so that no one is responsible for what they have done to the people.

How are you today?

Unwell, he replied.

His wife said: When he was in the hospital, he got treatment. Then, when he had no more housing, that meant no more treatment…

I produced more radiation than the X-ray machine used to measure my lungs! he cried in proud horror. It was a four and I was a ten, so the X-ray was unsuccessful.

Was your presence dangerous to your family?

The lady who works the machine has to wear a lead apron against level four and I am a level ten, so absolutely. The situation was caused intentionally…

How was your life before Chernobyl?

He stood there folding his arms, thought, then said: My life was stable and very simple. I put in ten hours at the factory. Now I get the shakes and my joints ache. I am a house builder. I build from the bottom up. That is how I was trained, but I branched out into different types of work. Work is work everywhere. I started branching out into factory work and office work but then I started being discriminated against. I wasn’t making the same rate as others—

As I said, there were no more chairs in the Sokolovs’ flat, so he stood. I, the guest, observer and rich man, sat. By now he’d begun to exert a weird effect upon me with his lank hair and bald forehead, his heavy greying eyebrows.

When you went to Chernobyl what did it look like?

Very regulated. We would get on a particular bus, travel to an intermediate area, put on our suits, then go to the main reactor compartment. We would carry armatures and concrete, and pour the concrete. Japan sent robots inside the reactor, but the radiation was so high that those new, shiny robots became useless. They just stood there.

What did it look like inside?

The reactor was already capped with concrete when we got there. But there was a machine tunnel next to it, the mechanical chamber. What had blown out of the reactor in the explosion landed there: walls, pencils, whatever. In the beginning we had to run, not walk, because the radiation was so high. We were in there with shovels wearing masks. We were only there for several seconds at a time. Five seconds per day was what we worked. We would run in, shovel one load into a trench, then run out. The trench was six to eight meters deep. Once the tunnel had been cleared out we were told that it was all right to walk. When the trench had been filled, we pumped concrete over it. Downstairs where we worked, we wore fabric suits. On the roof they wore lead suits. They were better protected.

How many workers did you see?

There were several busloads of people every day, just for our shift.

Why didn’t they just fly over it in an airplane and drop sheets of lead?

Elena, sitting in her chair, brushed her pale hands together and said something bitter in Russian. Meanwhile the man grew more and more loud, leaning forward ever closer. —I’ve asked myself that many times. The reason is that they were too cheap to spend the money and chose instead to expend people.

Elena echoed bitterly: Just people.

It’s war, but people basically end up dead. Our veins are clogged, so they just tell us to drink more vodka, which makes it worse.

How many people have died?

I don’t know. I don’t listen to the radio. I’m tired of listening to fables.

If you hadn’t gone to Chernobyl, what would your life be like today?

I would continue building houses, he shrugged. I would be able to have a decent job, and enough money.

—William T. Vollman, Poor People, pp. 70–73.

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