In May 2019 the first episode of the TV series Chernobyl, produced by HBO, was released. It provides a reconstruction of the nuclear disaster that occurred in the plant on the night of April 26th, 1986. Personally, I am not a lover of TV series. However, Chernobyl has succeeded to stimulate me to do further research, thanks also to my previous interest on the subject. One of these brought me into a Facebook group created 12 years ago, where among the various posts I was impressed by those of Nastya, a Ukrainian woman who unlike the others did not talk about the TV series, documentaries or reportages, but about her father.
Vladimir Tokarenko, one of the leading experts in USSR of the time, did not just work since 1973 as supervisor of the assembly works of the plant, but on the night of April 26th 1986, he was right near the plant and immediately understood what happened. Vladimir passed away after a long illness a few months ago, his daughter Nastya agreed to give us an interview.
You spent your early years in Pryp’jat’. What memories do you have from this city?
I was born in Pryp’jat’ in 1980. This city was created for those who built and serviced the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Its first inhabitants were builders, they created the city according to the most advanced technologies at that time.
I was 5 when I was there for the last time. I remember well the wide streets and the alternation of different houses – high with the emblem on the roofs, low, by 5 floors, with huge apartments and bright walls.
In the evenings, beautiful glowing signs lit up. There were colourful mosaic paintings on some walls. I remember very well the Palace of Culture “Energhetik” (I called it “Vinerghetik”, like the salad; in Russian, transliterated, “vinegret”, from the French vinaigrette), where we went to watch my sister’s theatrical performances.
Everything around me was new, people on the streets were young (the average age of city residents was 26 years old), everyone knew each other. Two of my uncles and aunt also lived in Pryp’jat’, all with children. We often went to visit each other. I remember the forest outside the city, where we did great family picnics.
I thought that all the cities were like this, but when a year earlier from the failure they moved us with my father to Kyiv, I was negatively affected by the fact that houses were either old and dark or very high, close to each other.
I was a child at the time, and I needed to lift my head to see the sky. I missed the apartments and the mosaics on the walls. People on the streets did not greet each other, they just passed by and did not smile. It turned out that there were many elders. In Kyiv we had few friends, we rarely were guests of someone. I missed my cousins.
Nevertheless, we could visit them in Pryp’jat’, as my father continued to work at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
Then the city of Pryp’jat’ ceased to exist. It lasted 17 years in total.
And now I look at these photos from tours to Pryp’jat’. Everything is rusty and trees are growing everywhere. Nature has its beauty, but people… jackals and vandals have smashed the windows, demolished the glass windows of the Energhetik Palace of Culture, looted houses and destroyed everything they found.
It is hard to see it now. I believe that the city must be turned into a memorial. This is a place of memory, not entertainment or background for videogames.
Your father was a liquidator, can you tell us something more about him and his work?
My father, Vladimir Tokarenko (1937-2019), was born in Murmansk, a city beyond the Arctic Circle.
When World War II began, his mother with her three young children moved in with relatives to Ukraine, but the train they were travelling on was bombed: one of his sisters was injured and remained disabled for life.
At 17 (1954), he volunteered for Eastern Siberia to build a power plant. He started working as a mechanic, then a turner, until he became chief engineer. He studied a lot and in 1964 he finished the institute.
From 1968 he was transferred to the YUTEM (southern power supply / thermal engineering system), where he worked again as chief engineer at the GRES (State District Power Plant) in the city of Kryvyj Rih. He also worked in the GRES of the cities of Ladyžyn and Zaporižžja.
In 1973 he became head of the Chernobyl assembly management, where he installed all the thermal and nuclear machinery. In 1986 he worked on the fifth and sixth power units. He often spent the night in Pryp’jat’. Thus he did the night of April 26th 1986.
My father rarely spoke with me about that time, so below I report quotes from books and stories of his colleagues, my mother and my sister Oksana (she was 15 years old then).
From the book “After Chernobyl” – L. Kaibyshev.
V.P. Tokarenko arrived in Pryp’jat’ literally on the eve of the accident, as the substitute deputy manager of YUTEM and supervisor for all the thermal and nuclear equipment at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
It was necessary to discuss how to better use the tower crane (“Demag”) of the Moscow YUTEM, in the fifth power plant they were building at that time. He spent the night there, in order to go to the construction site the following Saturday. And around 5 in the morning the phone rang – an accident occurred. He tried to call Kyiv, but the line was blocked.
Then he got into his car and drove to the station, other assemblers went with him. The guards knew them well by sight and let them pass.
The base of the YUTEM was only 150 meters from the fourth block. Tokarenko still did not know what was happening in the plant, but one thing was absolutely clear to him: it was necessary to take away immediately those who had remained there. After learning that the reactor had depressurized, he ordered them to go home and stay there. He moved from one plant to the other, both by foot and by car: as it turned out later, he passed through pieces of graphite. He received a dose of about a hundred rem (roentgen equivalent man, measures of the health effect of low levels of ionizing radiation on the human body) tentatively since dosimetrists and physicians began to examine the installers only on April 29th.
The experts who arrived there immediately realized that the reactor was destroyed, something that the leadership of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant did not understand.
Mom and my father’s colleague, F. M. Khlystov:
My father called the YUTEM headquarters in Kyiv, but to communicate this information completely it was necessary to arrive in the Ukrainian capital passing through the “radioactive” Volga. During the journey, he bathed in the river. In the evening there was a meeting with the director of YUTEM. Then he returned home and prepared a more elegant suit because he had a meeting with the government commission led by Boris Shcherbina.
On the morning of April 27th, he returned to Pryp’jat’ with his colleagues, still crossing the “radioactive” Volga. The meeting with Shcherbina and the government commission took place in the heliport.
Other assemblers of Pryp’jat’, who came to work there voluntarily, said that the people of neighbouring villages had joined. Their task was to organize the supply of sand and lead to be loaded into the helicopters and launched on the plant. Furthermore, they also had to show pilots where to throw the sand.
Grigory Medvedev. Chernobyl notebook – “New World”, 1989.
“And Shcherbina hurried under the rumble of helicopters, drove everyone like Sidorov goats – ministers, deputy ministers, academics, marshals, generals: They know how to blow up a reactor but there’s no one to load sandbags! He exclaimed.
Finally, the first batch of six sandbags was loaded onto the MI-6. Antonshchuk, Deygraf and Tokarenko alternately took off on “bombing” with the helicopters. The radiometer showed 500 X-rays per hour. The bio-defence was so hot that it had the colour of the solar disk. They opened the door. The heat came from below. A powerful flow of radioactive gas ionized by neutrons and gamma rays exhaled upwards.
They were all devoid of respirators. The helicopter was not protected from below by lead. They had thought of it too late when hundreds of tons of materials had already been unloaded. At that moment they poked their heads out the open door and, looking into the nuclear vent, aiming at it with their eyes, they dropped the sack full of sand. And so many other times. There was no other way. The first twenty-seven crew members and their helpers Antonshchuk, Deigraf, Tokarenko were soon discharged and sent to Kyiv for treatment.
2nd May. My father went alone to Kyiv. My sister Oksana (who was 15 at the time) saw him at the door early in the morning, he was in military uniform. She wanted to hug him, but my father pulled away, he did not allow her to touch him. He washed and threw away the clothes worn in the previous days. When he learned that some relatives who had been evacuated from Pryp’jat’ would come to live with us, he called the dosimetrists. No one then knew how to deal with radiation. I remember when two specialists arrived at our house, how they grumbled, how they dissected the bed and the sofa. But it was not scary, they were kind, they joked and showed us how the radiation left the silhouettes of people on the mattresses. Our apartment turned out to be uninhabitable, we were transferred to a hotel and the apartment was “cleaned out”. Since then, 2 dosimeters have always been at hand, with every arrival of my father, we checked and washed everything. It was not scary or weird. It was a routine.
My father went to the hospital, but he was not accepted there at first, because others came directly from Chernobyl on special vehicles, while he came by himself from the street. Some of his colleagues had to intervene. I do not know anything about the treatment, but he said that they gave him continuous blood transfusions.
The lungs were very affected by the radioactive dust, he could not breathe. This was accompanied by a radioactive burn, nausea, loss of consciousness, headache. He was often hospitalized. Several times that year the doctors could not tell whether he would survive or not: he had received about 100 roentgen radiation (a measure of exposure to ionizing radiation), but with such a dose he was not allowed to work.
Therefore, in the certificate, he wrote that he had undergone a dose of 22 roentgen.
May 23rd 1986. By order of the Deputy Minister of Energy, my father was officially appointed Head of the liquidation work following the Chernobyl accident.
He always returned to Pryp’jat’, this catastrophe was for him personal grief. He remained there for 2 weeks, then he rested or was treated for the next 2 weeks, and so on until October.
For this reason, he was awarded with the Order of Lenin, USSR highest recognition (Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR December 24th, 1986). However, the decree was not published, it was impossible to openly reward the station staff, they were all considered “under investigation” or even “guilty”.
Panic and fear began to spread everywhere. In 1986, ordinary people were afraid of migrants from Pryp’jat’, fearing that they would be “infected”. I can’t blame them.
When we learned that our family was related to Chernobyl, we were afraid to sit at the same desk with my sister at school, our neighbours were not happy with our presence. When the work at the Chernobyl power plant ended and my father finally returned, after a while one night someone came to our apartment.
At first, they threw the paint on our door, then set it on fire with a lighter and gasoline. We were all sleeping, but after a while, we woke up with the smell of smoke and managed to put out the fire. I am not sure that this was exactly because of Chernobyl, the police did not find anyone at that time, but we have no other explanation.
The period following the end of the liquidation for my father was difficult. He was very sick, but he did not want to go to the hospital. For days he laid on the sofa without moving, the doctor himself came to us. It was scary, but slowly he recovered and returned to work.
In 1988 he was sent to the construction of the Temelin nuclear power station in the Czech Republic. We lived in the town of České Budějovice.
In 2001 we returned to Ukraine. I stayed in Kyiv, my parents went to live in the village of Pasichna. There my father built a house, there were a beautiful garden and an orchard. Dad was unusually charismatic, he looked very young as if he were 20 years younger than his real age. Many were drawn to him, he gladly helped everyone as best he could, and he did it for free. He worked constantly, collaborating in particular with the local priest. Together they repaired churches and designed new buildings.
In the beginning, they gave my father a “Chernobyl” pension of 54 grivne, about 40 dollars. He was upset but he did nothing. We were not poor. Then, after a couple of years, when he became completely dependent on his pension, a commission tried to take it away from him. Once he also had to sue.
My father did not tell at every corner that he was a liquidator. There are many liquidators in Ukraine. They annoyed people because their pensions were higher, they had benefits. Many liquidators have been accused of benefiting from those pensions simply because they had bought information, without having any relationship with Chernobyl. Because of that, respect for the liquidators gradually diminished and, as a result, the benefits began to be abolished.
Then in 2016 the stroke came. My father was often sick, and it upsets me that he did not receive adequate medical care in Ukraine. The memory of the hospital in the village scares me. The attitude towards my father was probably better than the others, the doctor did his job, but … all the work for the medical staff had to be done by family members all day, buying syringes, medicines and droppers. Iron beds, one bathroom across the floor, a leaky flooring. Medicine in the small towns of Ukraine has remained at the level of the Middle Ages.
Dad was paralyzed for three years. At first, in part, he could still be put back on his feet with the help of rehabilitation. However, in public hospitals it was not practised, so we took him to a private clinic. Nevertheless, the therapy there was not professional enough and hurt more than it helped. My husband and I did not give up for a long time, we were actively looking for different solutions until our parents asked us to stop.
Dad was lying on the couch again without moving. Seeing my father like this was such a heavy sight. Gradually, the guests stopped coming to us. Even in this state, he looked much younger than his years, no one would have believed that he was 82 years old.
He died of pneumonia on February 13th, 2019. We ourselves had to wash and dress his body, then put him in a coffin. Few people came to the quiet burial, mostly liquidators, people from the administration and the church.
The commemoration lasted 40 minutes. The liquidators talked about that Volga car and the fact that there are firefighters, soldiers and doctors in the Chernobyl Museum, but they do not mention installers and builders (after all, there were hundreds of them in Chernobyl). And then it was all over. Only the ledge of the ground and the temporary wooden cross remained. I could not accept it.
In one of your posts in the group, you told us that you didn’t know how important the friendship between your father and Shcherbina was.
The names of Dyatlov, Akimov, Bryukhanov were familiar to me, but what is wrong with that? After all, they were my father’s colleagues in Chernobyl. Also with Shcherbina they had met in that context. And then their characters appeared in the series and became famous.
I know Shcherbina from the drawings of my father’s colleague, the liquidator Vladimir Makarychev, published in the book “Heroes-Chernobyl“, Moscow, 2006. 100 copies.
Dialogue with the President of the government commission
Dyatlov (deputy head of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant) also remembers my father in his book.
A.S. Dyatlov. Chernobyl. How it was.
I think that V.T. Kizima and the N.K. Antoshchuk, A.I. Zajats, V.P. Tokarenko did not take all these attacks seriously. In general, I believe, installers are not subject to AIDS. They already have immunity against any external crap – be it of biological or psychological origin. Otherwise, in those working conditions it is impossible to last long.
Here it is entirely appropriate to say: the installation at the Chernobyl power plant according to the Soviet criteria is well done. Despite a large number of welded joints in the primary pipes, I remember only a cracked weld in an important pipe. And this must be attributed to the rigidity of the structure and therefore to the unsatisfactory compensation during thermal expansions. Regarding the April 26th incident, the installation and installers have no relationship.
In the series, in the first part, there is a scene in which a collaborator of the plant hides, asking whether this is a war. I have already heard this story from my father but in a somewhat different way.
Kaibyshev – After Chernobyl.
The base of the YUTEM was only 150 meters from the fourth block. Tokarenko did not yet know exactly what had happened to the plant, but for him it was absolutely clear that he needed to immediately remove the people who remained there. He counted those present so as not to forget anyone.
Near the oxygen generator they saw two trembling girls – the servicemen on duty, Omenenko and Sterkhov. These two had decided that the Americans had dropped a bomb on the plant. Although visibly shaken, they still had not abandoned the generator.
Perhaps many have thought of war at that time, and this is just a coincidence. As for those two women, they have survived to this day. Beyond that, I don’t know anything about them.
Did the HBO miniseries on Chernobyl help you better understand your father’s past?
Yes, it helped. After such an unjust, quiet and inconspicuous death of my father, I was very angry. Only 20-40 people remember him. This is not correct. For me, it was as if the sun had gone out and nobody had noticed.
In my father’s safe, I found folders with documents on the construction of Chernobyl and the liquidation of the accident. Our photos of Pryp’jat’, radio intelligence plans. I brought all this to the Chernobyl Museum in Kyiv. There they were happy to receive these documents, now they are studying them. They promised to update the exhibition and add builders and installers. We’ll see.
And then suddenly the Chernobyl HBO series came out. This event has shaken people all over the world. It made me think, but he won’t see it. I couldn’t watch the series for a long time. Even from the first trailer (it came out shortly after my father’s death) it became physically painful for me. Then, when everyone already had seen it, and on the Internet it was no longer possible to hide from this, I forced myself.
The worst thing was seeing Pryp’jat’ so similar to my childhood memories.
The series made me think of my father every minute: when they take people out of the station and talk about the war, when Shcherbina went to take care of the sand, when the helicopters fly over the reactor, then the tunnel for the miners. My father was everywhere. It seemed to me that, looking closely, I could see him in the background.
I’m glad that now people keep the memory of the liquidators, most of them are still alive and I consider them heroes.
Anastasia Tokarenko (Artemyak),
in loving memory of Vladimir Tokarenko
An interview by Jovana Kuzman
All the pictures were kindly provided by Anastasia Tokarenko.