In the Chernobyl disaster zone, life — and death — is still bleak

After Svetlana Ivanova and her husband moved to this village in southwestern Russia 17 years ago, they laughed when they found out what locals called the $4 monthly payment for living in the contaminated Chernobyl zone: funeral money.

Then one warm spring afternoon three years ago, her husband, Pyotr Ivanov, came home from a job-seeking trip to Moscow, put on a clean white shirt, stepped out into the garden "for a smoke" and hanged himself.

"I remembered this sad joke when I buried my husband," she said. "I don't think the benefits he got from the state over the years were enough to buy him a casket."

Ivanova, a mother of three, admitted that sometimes she wakes up in the middle of the night and thinks about killing herself too.

"We all live in radioactive houses, we breathe this radioactive air, we eat this contaminated food, we drink the polluted water," she said, trying to hold back her tears. "We are like prisoners, like hostages with no escape."

Twenty-five years after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor spewed the largest shower of radioactive isotopes in the history of nuclear power, this village 110 miles from the plant is still paying the price.

Stary Vyshkov yields some terrible lessons for a world spellbound by a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan. A tragic convergence of historic events left the village suffering not only some of the worst pollution in a contaminated region, but a plague of stress-related suicides.

Although the region is also beset by a higher-than-normal prevalence of some physical diseases, "it is not the radiation itself that makes these people sick and kills them … but it is what's going on in their minds due to this never-ending stress," said Galina Rumyantseva of the Moscow-based Serbsky Institute for Social and Forensic Psychiatry.

"They just give up any effort to go on living."

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The first one to kill himself was 24-year-old Vladimir Laptev. One day 10 years ago, he quarreled with his wife, went to his sister's house a short distance away, locked himself in the back room and hanged himself.

In the years since, five other young people, a 16-year-old schoolgirl among them, have hanged themselves, giving rise to muffled talk about a mysterious epidemic of suicides in this village of 450 people.

"It is the zone that kills the young and leaves the old be," Laptev's mother, Roza Lapteva, said in a quiet, almost indifferent tone. "I don't know how it does it, but the zone is to blame."

As she spoke, she cast down her tired eyes, as if bracing herself to reveal some dark mystery that is no secret for every adult resident of this "cursed place."

The 57-year-old, who looks much older than her age, came here with her family in 1992 from Kazakhstan, where she says ethnic Russians were no longer welcome after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

In the early 1990s, tens of thousands of Russian-speaking refugees were fleeing political strife and interethnic violence, and the deserted houses in Stary Vyshkov came in handy. Even though the remaining villagers were slated to be resettled, the cash-strapped regional administration was desperate and saw this as the only workable option for the newcomers.

"This place is still in the relocation zone and was to be relocated years ago," Ivan Yermakov, head of the district agriculture department, said in an interview. "But then these refugees began to arrive from Central Asia and they had to be accommodated somehow."

The residents who had remained in Stary Vyshkov — 30% of the original population — didn't greet the newcomers with open arms. They still call them nabrod, a contemptuous word for aliens.

Now the newcomers are trapped here, and dying one by one.

"Little did we know then what to expect, as we knew nothing about radiation," Lapteva said. "Now we see what this place has done to us, too late."

None of the villagers have radiation counters.

Lapteva placed her stocky body with some difficulty on a worn-out sofa in a low-ceilinged room of a white brick house on the edge of the village. In a monotone, she told how last March she had buried her husband, who was "torched away to a skin-covered skeleton" by a fast-moving lung cancer.

She laid her husband to rest next to their son and close to their 28-year-old son-in law, who hanged himself three years after Vladimir's suicide.

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The slow death of Stary Vyshkov is palpable on its grim main street: two uneven rows of small log and brick homes along a potholed road that winds for a mile or so up and down slopes covered with last year's brown foliage and piles of litter.

Every other structure in the village greets a visitor with with windows either boarded up or gaping and glassless under rusted tin shingles, or no roofing whatsoever. Some plots are nothing but tall dried-out grass and shrubbery-covered mounds of wood or rubbish. Mossy green silhouettes of long-closed wells stand on both sides of a deserted street like ghosts.

Out of 400 homes, barely 100 are still habitable in this village crowned on both sides by the giant carcasses of disused agricultural and cattle structures, monuments to the heyday of Soviet collective farming.

With time and luck, a visitor might meet a couple of old women bundled up in drab coats and woolen head scarves, a child riding a bicycle from school or livestock crossing the road, but no men, young or old, as though the German invaders who ravished this land during World War II had just fled the village in their final retreat.

In fact, the village was quickly rebuilt after the war, and by the mid-1980s, many of its more than 1,000 residents were employed at a collective farm that cultivated potatoes and had more than 4,000 cattle.

What invaded and destroyed Stary Vyshkov anew was a quite different kind of enemy, without shape, taste, color or smell.

On April 26, 1986, an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant sent radioactive fallout spewing over the Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, and it settled over Stary Vyshkov like a silent killer.

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Shortly after midday, a school bell rings and a dozen children trickle out of a massive white brick building that looks like a fortress. A monument to Lenin — no one knows why, but it's the most polluted spot in the schoolyard — guards the gateway.

With the number of students receding to 44 from more than 100 a few years back, the teachers are afraid the school will soon be closed and they will lose their jobs.

Tatiana Gudzikevich, a 44-year-old biology teacher who settled in the village in 1994 after fleeing Kyrgyzstan, is terrified that she will lose her $220 monthly income. Her three children, 16, 10 and 7, were born here.

Gudzikevich has developed a swollen, knotty thyroid gland, and doctors fear she may have developed uterine cancer. Her younger children, a boy and a girl, also have enlarged thyroid glands.

"Most children in our school suffer from various disorders, from heart and thyroid condition to allergy and attention deficiency," she said. "They get tired very quickly and they easily become extremely aggressive."

To feed her family, buy medicine, school books and clothes, Gudzikevich has a second job at a nursery school, and at the end of the day she works in her garden to provide vegetables and strawberries to eat, preserve for the winter and sell.

The state developed a program to compensate people for living in the contaminated resettlement zone. For medicine, Gudzikevich gets a monthly subsidy of $11; last month she spent $130 on medications.

"We live in constant stress as somebody next door gets terminally sick or kills himself or something," she said. "We didn't know what we were coming into when we came here."

The suicide rate in Stary Vyshkov is exceptionally high, even for the stressful life in the contaminated Chernobyl zone, experts say.

"To dump all these people here and leave them to their own devices without any serious economic, social and medical assistance was a very mean trick on the part of the local authorities," said Rumyantseva of the Serbsky Institute.

"This indefinitely prolonged stress of staying put in the radiation zone is interpreted by local residents as if to mean their life is over and it leads to the development of psychosomatic conditions and diseases from heart to joints aliments and ultimately to suicides."

The incidence of some diseases in the contaminated zone is 60% higher than in the rest of the region, and is twice as high in the case of children. The incidence of thyroid cancer is seven times higher, medical officials say.

Every move causes Svetlana Plakhotina pain, even though her husband gives her injections of painkillers twice a day.

Traveling to a district hospital every day is beyond his meager wages as a bakery worker in a neighboring village. The 41-year-old woman is suffering from inoperable uterine cancer, doctors told her. She was given several chemotherapy sessions in the regional hospital and last summer was sent home. To die, she said.

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The state pays about $4 a month to each resident in the resettlement zone. Those with jobs are entitled to an additional monthly $30 for working in hazardous conditions. Pensioners in the zone get a little more radiation compensation, $42 a month. That's why they live longer, other residents joke.

Nikolay Denin, the Bryansk region governor, said 56,500 people have been relocated from the contaminated zone in the last 25 years.

Addressing a conference on Chernobyl-related problems in the city of Bryansk, he said nothing about the thousands of people who arrived in the polluted territories from the former Soviet republics. Neither did Denin indicate when, or whether, the remaining residents of Stary Vyshkov would be relocated.

The governor said cleanup operations in the zone would continue until 2050 and require at least $6.7 million annually.

Denin complained that fraud and embezzlement plague the process of compensating residents for the housing they are leaving behind.

Tell that to Ivanova, the widow who for a year has been unsuccessful in getting compensation for her house and property in the village. She was quietly advised to go to a black-market dealer who would arrange everything quickly, for a share in the compensation money.

A former local official in charge of the compensation payments is now under investigation on corruption charges.

"While people get sick in the zone, lose all hope of ever getting out of here and commit suicide, corrupt officials are loading their pockets with millions of rubles," said Viktor Khanayev, a regional legislator. "As a result, the process is indefinitely delayed, and soon … the village will die on its own, together with its residents."

The nuclear catastrophe, with its official death toll of 50 people, overshadows the mass carnage committed by the German army during World War II.

Nadezhda Korotkaya, 77, a widow who lives alone in her small wooden house on the edge of Stary Vyshkov, still remembers the Great War.

"The Germans came and went," she said. "But Chernobyl came here to stay."

sergei.loiko@latimes.com

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