KIEV, Ukraine – Once a year, Ukrainian widows board a train for the more than 500-mile train journey to the Mitinskoye cemetery in Moscow to visit their loved ones in their lead-encased coffins.
Twenty-nine firefighters, rescuers and nuclear plant workers died in the two months following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which happened 20 years ago Wednesday. Although the Ukrainians could now be reburied in their native soil, the widows are resolved to leave them lying together alongside their dead co-workers from other parts of the former Soviet Union.
Those whose husbands were plant workers have had to cope not just with bereavement, but with the memory of a Soviet government that blamed them for the accident. Their families received smaller death benefits than those of the firefighters, who were officially praised for their heroism.
The Soviet Union is long gone and the widows hope their husbands will be vindicated in time. In the meantime, they stick together for moral support, especially this week as they make their annual journey of mourning — alone, or with families.
"It is an opportunity to share our memories," said Nataliya Lopatyuk, 41, whose husband, a plant electrician, died from radiation poisoning. "All of us came through this grief."
Minutes after the April 26, 1986, explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, Viktor Lopatyuk and a co-worker turned off a hydrogen generator, localizing the explosion at the fourth reactor. They wore no protective suits or masks. Lopatyuk was one of the victims rushed to Moscow for treatment and because his body was considered highly radioactive and a potential risk.
His wife, Nataliya, was 21 years old and eight months pregnant when her husband left for his overnight shift and didn't come back. After hearing rumors of the disaster, she made frantic calls and was finally told Viktor was safe and in the hospital. They had 15 minutes together before he was taken to the Russian capital.
The next time she saw him was 15 days later in the Moscow hospital, where the doctors and nurses wore special suits to protect themselves from their highly radioactive patients. Viktor looked better, and he tried to reassure his wife, noting that unlike some of his co-workers, he still had his hair.
The hope was short-lived. Within two days, Viktor had gone completely bald, with terrible burns bubbling up on his arms. "I could see his bones," his widow recalled. He died on May 16, less than three weeks before the birth of his daughter, Yulia.
Nataliya has since remarried and has raised Yulia to be proud of her father and his colleagues. Had they not turned off that generator, Yulia says, "Me, you and millions of other people would not exist."
At least 19 other Chernobyl plant workers and liquidators diagnosed with radiation poisoning have died since 1987, and others have reportedly died from leukemia and other illnesses. They have been buried separately, rather than in the Moscow cemetery where the initial victims were laid to rest amid heavy precautions — such as the lead coffins — for fear of radiation contamination.
Lyudmila Shashenok still struggles with her loss.
Twenty years ago, she was awakened by a phone call and told to run to the hospital emergency room. Her husband had been injured in an accident at the plant.
At first, Shashenok thought that it was nothing serious — her husband, Volodymyr, had told her many times that his engineering job wasn't dangerous. But when Shashenok saw him at the hospital, she was horrified.
"It was not my husband at all, it was a swollen blister," she said. He was connected to a breathing apparatus, but Shashenok, a nurse, knew the situation was hopeless.
"I told him, 'This is the end, Volodya."'
He was buried two days later in a village cemetery near Chernobyl, but Shashenok wasn't there. She had been evacuated from her home, and officials didn't notify her of the burial.
More than a year later, Shashenok was reburied in Moscow, in a lead-encased coffin under concrete slabs.
Shashenok, who has not remarried, recalls that on the apartment building where she lived in Pripyat, a town built specially for the station's workers, was an inscription: "Let the atom be a worker, not a soldier."
"I never thought the atom would kill my husband," she said.