Spaced out. A Highland Fling & my first Full Rasputin.

Though the bulk of my work in Aberdeen was running projects in Belarus and Zimbabwe and also looking after foreign delegations such as the belching Chinese of Kunming, I ended up in some rather unexpected places too.

One of these places was the then semi Secret City of Zhukovsky, centre of aviation and space research. It is in Moscow Region and now just part of the City but then it was only starting to emerging from official non-existence.

Zhukovsky was deeply involved in space programmes. Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut, trained there at the Gromov Flight Research Institute in the City.  It was also where they test flew the MiG fighter aircraft.

How I ended up there had nothing whatsoever to do with any of that stuff. The Scottish Fiddle Orchestra had approached my office to try to find an amateur orchestra with which they could link in the USSR. The best orchestra in this category, which is still very much alive, was the Zhukovsky Symphony Orchestra. Zhukovsky was a City of Scientists and so it was considered important to give attention to the cultural side of life to keep these top brains from losing the plot perhaps. We were put in touch with the orchestra through the Soviet Embassy and off we went to meet them.

The first visit I don’t remember very much. I was billeted with a family as there were no hotels for foreigners what with the then “Secret” status. I was right at the top of a tower block with a lovely teacher and her mother. What I do remember is the MiGs flying lower than our floor almost deliberately weaving through the tower blocks.  You could see the whites of the pilots’ eyes. I was to realise that Test Pilots are a breed apart. Their job is to take a plane to extremes to check whether it is going to crash. It gets to their heads after a time, I can assure you.

We then invited people from the Zhukovsky City authorities and the orchestra to the UK to attend the annual shindig concert by the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall. The orchestra would travel down through Scotland collecting musicians and Caledonian Society types otherwise known as “teuchters”  in what was described as a ceilidh in a distillery on a train. The Royal Albert Hall concert replicated that. It was normal to see kilt-clad madmen doing the Highland Fling in the Albert Hall boxes. I remember I ended up dancing a Gay Gordons in the corridor of the RAH with the First Secretary of the Soviet Embassy. It wasn’t the kind of concert to which the Russian orchestra were accustomed but I think they loved the anarchy of it all.

From that, it was decided a Cultural Agreement would be signed between Aberdeen and Zhukovsky which of course required an official visit by a delegation led by our Lord Provost, of whom I have written previously, the Director of our Art Gallery Ian McKenzie-Smith, and myself.

This time, it was way more formal than the first visit. We had constant KGB presence and were filmed at all times. In terms of accommodating us, they clearly had a problem due to aforementioned lack of hotels for foreigners. That was why, in the depths of winter, we found ourselves in the middle of a snowy forest, in a sanatorium for former military and KGB Officers. I have stayed in some strange places in my time, but this really was something. All I could hear was the wind howling through the trees. There were lots of people in white coats floating down corridors like the ghosts of KGB past. One night Ian came knocking at my door. He’d had a note shoved under his door in Russian and asked me to translate it. I remember exactly what it said

Comrade, your appointment with the Gynaecologist is at 8am tomorrow morning.

Colour drained from Ian’s face

I don’t have to go, do I?

One evening, we were invited to join the inmates at their “social evening”. They all seemed to operate in slow motion so I am pretty sure they were all heavily drugged probably to prevent them from regressing to the old days interrogating people in the Lubyanka which might not help the therapeutic process what with pulling one another’s teeth out and connecting their bits to the electrics. This evening took the form of a visit by two well-past-their-prime “ballroom dancing professionals”. When I try to visualise them, I can only think of the two ballroom dancers on Hi-de-Hi. They were more barnacled than sequinned.

Hi de Hi dancers

I however decided this was so bizarre I might as well join in. I was up on the floor doing the tango, the cha-cha, the quickstep (the not-very-quickstep in the case of my dance partners). I had done ballroom dancing as a teenager and hated it but was very good at it so these KGB retirees got treated to my full repertoire including a bit of Saturday Night Fever which seemed oddly apt. The upshot of it was, I was declared best dancer and was given a collection of Marina Tsvetaeva poetry as a prize. I treasure that book still.

We were given the privilege, so I was told, of being shown their aviation and space facilities which to be honest I found rather deadly dull. Who cares if it’s the biggest wind tunnel in the world? I hate flying anyway. However, the former test pilot accompanying us, Sergei (name changed for obvious reasons) was of a great deal more interest. Actually he was also our KGB minder as I later found out. My late Mum always said I was never going to settle for a fisherman from Buckie and she was right. A KGB Officer, half bonkers due to being a test pilot whose plane had spectacularly failed the test, with a wife in tow somewhere was IDEAL! This started a long distance romance of sorts which was great in that I didn’t really do intimacy so having a few countries between us most of the time was rather helpful. I could then go over there when I felt like it and more importantly, leave when I felt like it.

I spent a week with him at the St Petersburg Air Show with a bunch of fellow truly off-their-trollies pilots. They had made their own aircraft out of God knows what – bits of string and sticky back plastic one imagines. They had flown from Moscow to Canberra on these things. They told me the only medical supplies they had on board were vodka and pure alcohol. One was for stomach complaints the other for colds. I can’t remember which way round.

I was introduced to the famous Cosmonaut Igor Volk. He was leader of a group of Cosmonauts named the Wolf Pack (Volk is Wolf in Russian) and had made many successful missions into space. He was to be the pilot of their equivalent of the shuttle – the Buran. It had been test-flown already to the edge of space and I got to sit inside it. I have a burnt tile from it in my flat somewhere. I didn’t think much of this encounter but on return to Aberdeen started to get letters from space enthusiasts telling me how lucky I was. My impression of Igor was that he had been a bit scrambled by going into space or it might just have been the vodka/pure alcohol combo.

Igor V

At this time in my work I was getting increasingly stressed due to the bullying culture in Aberdeen City Council. After a particularly stressful visit to the Soviet Embassy when they locked me in, I started getting migraines where I would be unable to see properly for several hours. On another visit to Sergei, I arrived off the overnight train from Belarus to Moscow, looked in the mirror and said out loud “God you look like shit”. The migraines were every day by now. Sergei noted this and decided without telling me, to do something about it. That something was unforgettable.

He said we were going to the home of a TV producer. Sergei ran a TV station as a sideline. We sat having tea and nice normal chat in this Moscow flat and then it changed…

They started telling me about this famous “Healer” who was a medical doctor but used his apparent “special powers” in his work at a major Moscow hospital.

Sounds really interesting I said, trying to be polite.

Maybe you would like to meet him?

I thought to myself,

Yes in the fullness of time, roughly on the day of the freezing over of Hell.

He’s in the next room. We’ll bring him in to help you.

At this point I remember thinking I am not ready for the Full Rasputin, I am happy with my Migraine tablets from Boots thanks very much etc.

When he appeared, he wasn’t at all Rasputin-like which was slightly disappointing. He was an ordinary looking Russian in a bad jumper. I did not want him sitting opposite me as I didn’t want him delving into the dark alcoves of my mind. Sergei beckoned for him to sit opposite me. He said

She doesn’t want me to sit there, I will sit here

Oh Fuck.

I was still holding my cup of tea – a nice Lomonosov china number with saucer – and the teacup was rattling as I was shaking so much by this time. He sat next to me and said precisely this

Do you want to know why you looked like SHIT this morning? (repeating my exact words to myself on the train).

I had given in by this time as I knew he was for real. He stood behind me. I heard him crack his knuckles. He put his hands on my head. There was immense heat. He took his hands away and I felt what I can only describe as an emission of a vast rush of energy escaping right out of the top of my head.

He then sat and told me a few things about myself. He said

Your problem is, you are ready to give people 100% and when you only get 30% back your Soul gets weaker.

This was true then and still is.

The migraines were really because my working environment had become so toxic. The Chief Executive was the Stalin of the Western Isles. He would physically and verbally assault colleagues at all levels so there was an ingrained atmosphere of terror throughout the building. This Healer started to talk about this which again was rather freaky. He said not to worry as something was about to happen.  I was not convinced. It was all very well to be doing flashy Healer stuff in a room but to sort out a maniac from Stornoway working in an office in Aberdeen remotely from Moscow would have tested even Rasputin himself.

I got back into my flat after this extraordinary trip, dumped my bags and without even taking my coat off, turned on the TV. There was my Trade Union rep being interviewed on the news, for the first time going public about the bullying culture perpetrated by the Chief Executive. The first words I heard her say were

Fear stalks the corridors of the Town House.

Things were about to change drastically, just as the Healer predicted….

But that’s for another blog.

 

 

The Name of the Star is Chernobyl

I went into the Zone from the very beginning. I remember stopping in a village and being struck by the silence. No birds, nothing. You walk down a street…silence. Well, of course, I knew all the cottages were lifeless, that there were no people because they had all left, but everything around had fallen silent. Not a single bird. It was the first time I had ever seen a land without birds. (Irina Kisilyova, journalist.  From Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich, 1997)

I know that silence. I first went to the Zone in 1990 four years after Reactor No.4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant went down after a series of blasts. Fifty million Curies of radioactivity were released into the atmosphere. 70% of that figure fell in Belarus and 70% of that came down in Homiel Region. Homiel was the City Aberdeen City Council assumed was in Russia and agreed to “twin” with. I am glad they did as it started an enduring relationship for me with Belarus and its people. It is a passionate but volatile relationship. We have laughed, cried, fought, made up, and misunderstood, but we have also loved, both despite it all, and because of it all.

My first incursion into the Zone, the area marked presumably on a map in red pen by a bureaucrat, was unencumbered by anyone else from Aberdeen. I was with one Belarusian woman who ran a charity trying to increase awareness of what had happened there. The memories are jumbled as I made so many visits. I will be writing more blogs about Chernobyl and Belarus in general, so I will begin with my personal reflections. I was to make many further visits with delegations including our infamous local politicians and wonderful medics, scientists and community groups from Aberdeen. The reason Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and our university decided to involve themselves in fact was due to what I reported after my solo visits. As an aside, when I reported back, I was “strongly advised” to play down my experiences by a scientist who was a consultant to  British Nuclear Fuels. These are NOT scientific findings. This is what I experienced, how it felt and the permanent trace the people whom I met left on my Soul.

There was little in the City itself to indicate that we were in the middle of the zone marked in red on the soon-to-be-familiar radiation map. The map was published in the daily newspaper so people would know where to pick mushrooms and where not to. I looked out of my hotel window and saw someone in a uniform with what looked like a Geiger counter. Other than that, people were out and about living their lives.

They had been out and about in the afternoon of the day the reactor exploded at 01.23. It was April 26th, 1986 and as dutiful Soviet citizens, they were out on the streets marching in practice for the forthcoming May Day parade. They marched with sticks, saving the flags for the day itself. It seemed even the Soviet flags had deserted them.

They were not told. The Apparatchiks, the high ups, the party officials had been noticed leaving hurriedly by bus and rumours abounded about “an incident” but they were not told. An old man told me the sheep were evacuated before the ordinary people. People should have been told to stay inside and given iodine to protect their thyroid against the blast. However, it was still the USSR and clearly Gorbachev’s much vaunted policy of Glasnost’ (openness) was yet to exist beyond words. And an important Soviet holiday was coming up.

Mayday. M’aidez. Save our Souls.

To get into the deadly Zone you had to get past a cordon of guards. I was already adept at bribery so it was not a problem. I noticed that on one side of the fence marking the start of the Zone, cattle were grazing. The other side of the fence had been deemed deadly. Over the fence, the livestock meant contaminated milk and meat was being sent off out into the food chain. Talking of contaminated meat, I still think about the guards standing at the entrance to the Zone all day. They were young. They were National Service conscripts whose parents presumably lacked the means to bribe their way to giving their sons a safe posting. I wonder where they are now. I suspect I know.

And the silence. The silence. If I keep repeating it over and over in my mind it might accurately reflect what that was like. 

We advanced further into the Zone. We got out at a deserted village consisting of traditional wooden cottages. It looked rather idyllic until you looked more closely. Each door had a skull and crossbones crudely daubed on it usually along with a sign saying “Attention, there is radiation here”.

My guide Natasha knew where she wanted to take me. Unbelievably, in another village, we found a group of people mainly older women with traditional Belarusian headscarves sitting on benches next to trucks clearly loaded up with their possessions. They had a quiet resignation about them which reminded me of the departure of the Jewish families in Fiddler on the Roof.

Sunrise, sunset, swiftly fly the years. One season following another, laden with happiness and tears. 

But who were these people? Natasha explained that they were “officially” evacuated. Some Chinovnik (bureaucrat) had clearly stamped a bit of paper to say they had been evacuated, so in that case they had been. As they had been officially declared gone, they had closed all the services, the shops etc. And the people sat there waiting. Still they waited. They waited some more, but no-one came. I talked to one old lady and she said this:

I am digging potatoes out of the ground so I can live. I did the same during the war, but then I knew what we were fighting. I could see the enemy.

The streets in the Zone were overgrown with a black weed that thrives on radioactive soil. In English we know it as Wormwood. I never usually quote the Bible but here I will make an exception.

The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter. (Revelation 8:11)

In another twist of fate, Wormwood translated into Russian is “Chernobyl” so the passage in the Russian version of the bible would read as follows

The name of the star is Chernobyl.