A Survivor Reflects On Chernobyl Disaster, 25 Years Later

Twenty five years ago today, the world witnessed the worst nuclear disaster on record. The initial explosion at the Ukrainian nuclear power plant Chernobyl killed two people. But the radiation that spread in the aftermath of the explosion killed thousands in the months and years to follow. Yuryi Litvinov was just 4 years old when the accident happened. At age 19, he was diagnosed with cancer. Host Michel Martin speaks with Litvinov about his memories of the disaster, life after Chernobyl and how he beat cancer.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, Olympic gold medal winner and "Dancing with the Stars" champion Kristi Yamaguchi is with us. And she tells us her secrets for success on and off the ice. And the West African country Sierra Leone celebrates 50 years of independence, but it's still struggling to rebuild. The celebrated actor Jeffrey Wright is with us and tells us about his efforts to help. That's all later in the program.

But first, to a very different part of the world and a very different anniversary. Twenty-five years ago today, an explosion at a power plant in Ukraine ignited a fire that burned for more than a week, causing the worst nuclear disaster in history, an incident that became known simply as Chernobyl.

Lately the world has been following the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan with great concern and legitimate concern. But Chernobyl was of a different magnitude entirely. Radiation from the blast was carried across the former Soviet Union. The United Nations says that some 4,000 people died of cancer as a result and thousands more cases of illness have been documented.

For Yuryi Litvinov, that day, April 26, 1986, might have seemed like any other for him - then a four-year-old - but it changed his life forever. And he's with us now from our studios in New York to tell us more. Yuryi, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. YURYI LITVINOV: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

MARTIN: If I just could start by asking you what feelings this anniversary evokes. Does it evoke feelings?

Mr. LITVINOV: Yeah, it does. The realization of what happened comes only later, after you realize what you got afterwards. You know, I experienced cancer when I was 21 and now I'm kind of good and everything works out fine. So I just want to put out awareness about this, what happened and be a little bit more cautious.

MARTIN: Tell me about - if you'd go back then. You know, you were so little when this started. So I don't know how strong your memories are of the day, but can you tell us what your memories are of the day and the time immediately after?

Mr. LITVINOV: Yeah, I mean they didn't tell us right away what happened. And I realized what happened because my mom took me - my sister and me to my grandparents, which were, like, a little bit far away from where it all happened, because at that moment we lived really close by. And so...

MARTIN: I should just clarify. You lived in a small town near Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.

Mr. LITVINOV: Right.

MARTIN: How close was Chernobyl to where you lived?

Mr. LITVINOV: It probably was maybe around 120 kilometers away. So it was, like, maybe three, two hour drive.

MARTIN: What did your parents tell you about why they were taking you to your grandparents? Did they tell you anything?

Mr. LITVINOV: They didn't tell me what happened exactly. They just said you have to spend maybe four or five months at your grandmother's. It was coming on summertime, so the whole summer was spent over there. And actually it was one of my best summers, as I can remember those.

MARTIN: So when did you realize, though, that something was wrong? Do you remember anything about when you were actually told what had happened or perhaps when your parents were told?

Mr. LITVINOV: I realized this when I was around seven. And after, you know, seeing the rain - when the rain would fall we would have white leaves. And it was in the energy in the people around me that, you know, you realize there's a big fear and people are scared of something that cannot be described in a way.

MARTIN: Did your parents ever tell you how they were informed by the government or informed by anyone in authority about what had happened and what precautions they should take?

Mr. LITVINOV: I never actually was told about this in - in an open way. Everything was found out through hearing something from side note(ph), really.

MARTIN: It was word of mouth.

Mr. LITVINOV: Yeah, word of mouth. Like people were just guessing and information was closed.

MARTIN: Can you tell me a little bit more about how the area changed after Chernobyl? You were saying that whenever it rained, the leaves turned white?

Mr. LITVINOV: Yeah, whenever it rained - yeah, the leaves would turn white and in some way like dissolve a little bit. The area where we lived afterwards, the area wasn't really much affected. But pretty much the area that's close to Chernobyl was really affected. And I would see a lot of people that were sick with cancer, that - you know, one of my major(ph) - what I saw.

MARTIN: And you yourself later had cancer.

Mr. LITVINOV: And at 21 I had cancer, yeah. You know, a lot of my relatives and a lot of friends of mine who were a little bit older, maybe like 40s and 50s, dying from cancer right now.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask what kind of form of cancer you got and - forgive me if this is a stupid question - are you very sure that it is related to your exposure after Chernobyl?

Mr. LITVINOV: Yeah. I'm pretty sure. But I had a kidney cancer. I had a kidney removed. And I got it again - another treatment of radiation.

MARTIN: As I understand it, many people who died were children who developed thyroid cancer from drinking the milk, because the cows were grazing on the grass and the feed that had been exposed. And also people didn't understand that they needed to stop eating the fresh fruits and vegetables that had been grown in the region that had been subject to radiation.

This is an area where you'd think that the authorities should have informed the public, that there should have been steps taken by the authorities. And I wonder, when you think about that now, I'm wondering just what you think about why more steps weren't taken to protect the population.

Mr. LITVINOV: I think at that moment, because it was a little bit different political regime, and in a kind of way it was a poor country that was supported by the only source of producing their own vegetables and other sources of food, there's not much they could do just to eliminate the food out of people's life, in a way. I guess we are a little bit more educated right now and the technology helps us to spread the word around, even without official word saying it out loud.

MARTIN: How did your, you know, your friends, your family, you, when you think about Chernobyl now, how do they feel about the whole experience? I mean, obviously it has repercussions on into the generations.

Mr. LITVINOV: It definitely changed the way we see our lives now, the way we trust to our government and the way we hear what they say.

MARTIN: Is it my understanding that you are also an artist, in addition - you were trained in education, but that you are a self-taught artist? Is your art in some way influenced by Chernobyl and what happened there?

Mr. LITVINOV: Yeah. After I had cancer at 21, I decided to take the artist's approach to my life. And my first painting was about Chernobyl. And I draw this painting, it's called "Chernobyl," and it has a geometric colorful pattern. And you don't really see the dates inside of it, but if you look closer you can see what it is. It's just the date of the day that it happened. You know, for me it was just an expression to say things like this happen in our lives and we go through life and we don't see it. But they have a tendency to repeat themselves again and again.

And if we don't teach our generation that things like this happen, we're going to end up losing our planet and - you know, 'cause sometimes the degree of the tragedy can be like this much and at the same time it can be huge and destroy everything.

MARTIN: I think everybody knows that this massive earthquake hit Japan earlier this year that triggered this devastating tsunami and then the Fukushima plant, one of the nuclear plants in Japan, was profoundly affected by the tsunami and they're still trying to contain the fallout there. Apparently the level of release of radiation is not of the same order of magnitude at Chernobyl at all. But I do want to ask when you first heard about this, what your reaction was.

Mr. LITVINOV: I thought this is really bad, you know. After every wave I thought, you know, it's going to release more and more radiation. But I hope the Japanese nation has a lot of technology and protection and gear to save everything they can and rebuild the structure.

MARTIN: There are people in Japan now who will be experiencing some of what you experienced after Chernobyl. And I wondered if you had some thoughts for them about how they can recover and go on from this.

Mr. LITVINOV: Human spirit helps a lot, when you have people that helps you and support each other. No matter what happens, you know, that you die or you live or you have cancer, you have to stay still strong and follow what happens and just be there for everybody else.

MARTIN: Yuryi Litvinov is a painter and a multimedia artist. He is a cancer survivor, as we heard, which he attributes to the fallout from Chernobyl. He was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York, where he now lives. Yuryi, thank you so much for joining us. Good luck to you.

Mr. LITVINOV: Thank you.

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