Chicago Ukrainian family shares first-hand account of Chernobyl

April 28, 2011

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(WBEZ/Joe Linstroth)
Tatiana Chelekhova (left) and her daughters Mila and Genia (far right) look at photos from when they lived in Ukraine.
(WBEZ/Joe Linstroth)
Tatiana's mother, Anastaciya Svyrydenko, moved to the United States from Ukraine in 2006.
(WBEZ/Joe Linstroth)
Tatiana Chelekhova (left) and her daughter Mila recount their memories of Chernobyl at Tatiana's design studio in Chicago.
(WBEZ/Joe Linstroth)
This photo of Genia and Mila Chelekhova at a recital in Kiev was taken in April 1986, just weeks before the Chernobyl disaster.
(WBEZ/Joe Linstroth)
At age 11, Genia Chelekhova contracted a mysterious illness shortly after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
(WBEZ/Joe Linstroth)
Tatiana's mother, Anastaciya Svyrydenko, cared for her grandchildren, Genia (L) and Mila, at a village home in the fall of 1986.

The Chelekhova family was living in Kiev when the Chernobyl (Chornobyl) nuclear disaster occurred on April 26, 1986. There was little information revealed by the government about the extent of the danger of radiation, the mother Tatiana explained.  Three days later, her young children Mila and Genia (12 and 11) were on a camping trip in the woods 45 miles from Chernobyl with hundreds of other children. Once she found out what happened from a friend, Tatiana rushed to the camp site to gather her children and others and take them away with little explanation.

The Chelakhova family now makes their home in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood, where Worldview’s Joe Linstroth met with Tatiana and her daughters Mila and Genia, as part of this week's series commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. In 1990, Tatiana was invited by the Chicago Park District to come to the United States, after working as a flower designer for the Ukrainian government.

After the explosion, the only information Tatiana remembers receiving came from friends and neighbors giving advice. They all showered and washed their clothes, and made their way to St. Petersburg after deciding to leave Kiev as soon as possible. "The panic was so big in Kiev that people literally attacked the trains," Tatiana said. Once in St. Petersburg, everyone arriving was inspected with a geiger counter. Daughter Mila remembers losing a pair of her favorite tennis shoes, deemed too full of radiation to keep. "We were still thinking it was a summer vacation...and then there went my trainers!" said Mila.

The family spent the summer in St. Petersburg, but it was a rough time; Genia was sick for a month with a constant fever. She eventually lost her remaining baby teeth, and described her lips and mouth turning black. The symptoms eventually went away, but says she continues to worry about the long term consequences of that illness.

After a summer in St. Petersburg, Tatiana sent her daughters to their grandparents' summer home in the northern Ukraine for the fall, and she returned to Kiev. Tatiana remembers no longer being able to pick mushrooms or go fishing, and the odd precautions stores took to keep the radiation out, utlizing plastic strips over open doorways. She said there was no special medicine given to those exposed, but local remedies included drinking red wine to flush radiation out of the body. "The government didn't take care of us at all," said Tatiana.

During that time, however, the Ukrainian sense of community flourished. Tatiana said nobody relied on the government. Instead, "everybody helped everybody," she recalled.

It was only later that the effects of the accident began to show. Ten years after, Tatiana lost both her cousin and her best friend to brain tumors. She says the cemetary in Kiev has a special section for people who died in Chernobyl, and that they were buried like nuclear waste three meters below the ground. Her work after the accident primarily consisted of preparing flowers for funerals. Upon coming to the United States, she said she was so happy there were clean flowers.

Of the lessons she learned in Chernobyl, Tatiana said she believes that information is necessary, explaining that "people get nervous when they don't know what's happening."

She also added, "I am so impressed with what happened in Japan, how people evacuated, how the whole entire city was evacuated within one day."

Daughters Mila and Genia don't remember much from the accident, but Mila says, "I think more about details," with Genia adding, "I appreciate nature even more because of this experience, because I am able to be out there and not worry about exposing myself to [radiation]."