Childhood memories are filled with cotton candy and sled rides with Dad. But when I returned after my fifteen year absence, the circus was gone and the snow had melted. The “Paris of Ukraine,” the street Kreshatik, was lined with a Baroque ensemble of Parisian aspirations.
Like the Champs-Elysées, the street was wide, boasting large pedestrian walkways, trees, and lights. Rolls-Royces perched outside restaurants with menus most New Yorkers could not afford. In between these marks of the new Russian elite sat the beggars, eyes studying the cold pavement that held none of the glimmer of Kiev. There were old women–head scarves and wrinkles with despair in every fold. There were men on the ground, missing limbs, fallen in the war decades ago, still unable to stand. According to Russian circles back in the United States, this was a common scene twenty years into supposed capitalism. Before my birth and communism’s fall in 1991, the Soviet Union was not the land of the free. However, homelessness confronted few children. I saw other young women my age, head and heels pointing down the street with confidence. They too lacked the years to remember the world of Before. Thus they marched forward, away from the streets and into the lights of Kreshatik.
After a couple hours’ drive and one hour border standing, I entered another country of Soviet past. The streets of Gomel were lined with cinder block ten-story apartment buildings, “skyscrapers” my grandmother boasted. My grandfather showed off the factories five minutes from his home. The quaint villages known as derevnyas were gone. In place of these relics of Belarusian countryside stood shoe stores, cafes and bowling alleys. Twenty minutes away, the dacha, a small plot of land with house and garden, constituted the main source of food for the family. Across the street grew thick forest, along which ran a road and sign posts marking dangerous levels of radioactivity. “We cannot gather food over there in the woods, but at the dacha it is safe,” said my grandfather, casually waving toward the barricade. My eyes traveled to the empty glass of freshly squeezed garden kompot on the table as I felt the apples and pears radiating cesium in my stomach. On the wall my father laughed; he looked down at me with the baby face that resembled mine, the expression and uniform he wore when I saw him last.
For several weeks I walked the albums my grandparents had prepared for me, and then my father’s grave. My grandmother looked into the camera lens as she gestured me closer to my father’s etched face on the gray stone. I stood, contemplating draping my arm over the tombstone. Instead I raised the corners of my mouth, an unsure smile, and my grandmother took the picture. Later I would place photographs from that day into a new album and continue flipping through the black and white of decades ago. In those photos I saw my father sitting on the couch where I now sat pouring over his past, trying to make sense of mine. One morning I found a photograph of him climbing a bronze park statue, and that afternoon I strolled that very park, glancing at the spot where he, as a four-year old, had run around the armed figures and posed beneath Lenin’s elbow.
The 1986 Chernobyl disaster left Belarus grappling with thyroid cancer, birth defects, and panic. Gomel is situated 130 miles from the Exclusion Zone. Although experts agree the city should have been, and still should be, evacuated, my grandparents, aunt and uncle claim the area is safe, citing the decrees of the authorities.
Along with the exodus from the newly formed wastelands, the countryside has suffered a natural abandonment in favor of the cities. I asked to visit the survivors. In my grandfather’s battered red Lada we dodged potholes down a major “highway,” arriving at the house where he was born. Others lived there now, neighborless, but the shutters were still blue and the garden still fenced. World War II trenches pocketed the derevnya and surrounding forest, disappearing like round hills into the flooded plain at the village edge. Nearby was a cemetery where several pairs of storks were nesting high above my great grandfather’s grave. Beside his tomb I picked up a cup and plate and washed it down by the water. My grandfather poured Great Grandfather juice the color of red wine– Za zdarovya, to health, he said. Instead we drank to the storks and the trenches and to our fathers.
On the way back to the car my grandfather tossed his lunch container onto the garbage pile littering the creek he once played in beneath the trees he once climbed. “Look at this trash,” he muttered. Quietly I picked up the container and placed it under my feet as we drove away.
After stopping to pick up soda bottles of fresh birch juice from an old friend, we reached my great great grandmother’s house. The planks were turning to soil, feeding the sour cherry trees now left to grow where they had never asked to be planted. Chickens from next door picked at the fallen fruit. We bought eggs and turned the car around, back to Gomel. The tank was nearly empty as we bobbed back over the eroded asphalt and through the birch tree forests, not pressing the gas where the road dipped or stretched flat. We had the time.
At some point I closed my eyes. When I opened them again I saw radiation signs dotting the horizon. Beside them I imagined the statues from my grandparents’ albums, backs erect and guns in place. They ignored the young boy, my dad, weaving through them, grabbing their belts and posing beneath elbows. Suddenly a bronze hand lowered onto my father’s shoulder and pushed him into the line; together they marched into the land beyond. Dust glowed around the Lada’s tires as we strained to follow, speeding into Chernobyl’s wake.
Natalia Magnani is the founder of the Undergraduate Psychology Review and previous Editor of the Journal of Undergraduate Anthropology. Her work has been published in The Forum, the magazine of the International Foreign Language Honor Society, and Bare Essentials. Her passion for writing joins with a great love for languages, both written and spoken. She was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and therefore speaks Russian, as well as French, which she studied for years and then mastered while spending time abroad in Tours, France. More recently she has been learning Spanish, Norwegian, and Skolt Saami. She was honored with a Rosefsky Scholarship, for the understanding and improvement of communities through language.