MOSCOW—Nineteen years after a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl caught fire on April 26, 1986, the former scientists, soldiers and laborers who did the perilous mopping up have become some of the most visible, if not largest, symbols of Russia's discontent.
Thousands of aging Chernobyl cleaners, as they're known, have been marching alongside elderly pensioners, impoverished military officers and university students to denounce a new law that slashes longstanding social benefits such as free health care, prescription medicines and public transportation.
"This law is inhuman," said Alexei Shashkov, a former nuclear scientist and Chernobyl cleaner. "It's a genocide law."
The Russian government and President Vladimir Putin admit that the new measure, known as Basic Law 122, was ill considered and overly harsh. Many of its provisions have been scrapped or deferred.
But the Chernobyl cleaners, many of whom are disabled because of radiation-related illnesses, say none of their benefits has been restored. They now must pay for checkups, medicines, hospital visits, even their bus and subway tokens.
Hundreds have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. Others have gone on hunger strikes to protest the cuts.
"These benefits were my only means of supporting my family," said Shashkov, 59, a once-robust man who blames his several heart attacks on Chernobyl exposure. "The state took our health at Chernobyl. Now they're killing us all over again."
Officials at Russia's health ministry didn't respond to requests for interviews.
Some 700,000 volunteers and conscripts—a third of them soldiers—were pulled from all over the Soviet Union to help at Chernobyl, located in what's now Ukraine, after Reactor No. 4 exploded. The blast, which occurred during a shutdown test, contaminated an estimated 7 million people and sent plumes of radiation across vast tracts of forests and farmland in Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and beyond.
The cleaners evacuated local residents, monitored the soil and groundwater and buried radioactive debris, including acres of topsoil. Engineers used remote-controlled cranes and robotic welders to build a huge, cement sarcophagus around the doomed reactor.
A third of the cleaners were Russians, and Russia has registered 46,000 of them as disabled.
Natalia Manzurova is one of the cleaners who probably should be dead by now.
A radiation biologist, the single mother spent four and a half years at Chernobyl, from the summer of 1987 to Christmas of `91. She helped supervise the burial of Chernobyl's radioactive rubble, everything from children's toys to contaminated I-beams. She buried entire villages, she said.
Soon after leaving Chernobyl, while working at the secret Mayak nuclear facility, Manzurova began to suffer blinding, unrelenting headaches. Her immune system went haywire, and she struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Most of her doctors suggested that she check into a psychiatric hospital. One told her that she had "Chernobyl AIDS." Another was amazed that she could walk.
She also developed a thyroid tumor, the most common cancer associated with Chernobyl exposure. The tumor needed surgery, and Manzurova now has a thin, whitish scar on the front of her neck—known among survivors as "the Chernobyl necklace."
At 42, she was classified as an invalid. She thought her life was over.
She considered suicide more than once, she said, but eventually rebounded with the help of medication, a trusted psychiatrist and a former classmate who got her doing yoga-like exercises.
She also gave credit to "someone up there."
Now 53, she heads the Union of Chernobyl Invalids, a group that counsels Chernobyl cleaners, their widowed spouses and children. She said the recent cuts in their benefits have been "a crushing blow."
Manzurova lives on a disability payment, a work pension and a small food stipend—6,300 rubles a month in all, about $225. She estimates that Basic Law 122 has cut her income in half.
The financial calculus appears similarly bleak for all the Chernobyl cleaners, according to activists and survivors.
Alexei Shashkov is Chernobyl Invalid No. 031955. He keeps his registration card tucked neatly into a blue vinyl slipcase. The card has long been his passport for free medical care, subsidized housing, food discounts and other benefits.
"But practically speaking," he said, tossing the card onto his desk, "it's worthless now."
Shashkov was a 40-year-old nuclear engineer at the famed Kurchatov Institute in Moscow and one of the first experts to arrive at the scene. He took some of the first readings from inside the carcass of the shattered reactor building. Wearing a white jumpsuit and a respirator, he sprinted through the complex while taking his measurements.
"No one forced me to go to Chernobyl," he said. "I wasn't afraid. In my lab, I had touched these (radioactive) things all my life."
But Shashkov wasn't prepared for Chernobyl. The radiation meters the Kurchatov scientists brought with them from Moscow allowed for a maximum reading of 20 Roentgens, a measurement of radiation exposure. But the Chernobyl site was so "hot" that the scientists had to build new meters. Shashkov said he ran across one rooftop that registered 11,000 Roentgens.
In 1987, Shashkov went temporarily blind. He began to organize Chernobyl workers in the early 1990s, "when my friends started to die and when everyone's health suddenly worsened."
He helped found Fourth Block, one of the groups of Chernobyl veterans that routinely sue the government for overdue pensions and benefits. They're also demanding that the government build a monument that recognizes their sacrifices.
"This was the worst technological disaster in the history of mankind and the Chernobyl cleaners don't even have a monument that commemorates what we did," Shashkov said.
"There's only one small statue—and it's at a cemetery! A shrine is not a monument."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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