The tragedy of Chelyabinsk
Wed, December 21, 1994 -- New Straits Times
Sickness and death are seeking their families, friends and neighbors silently with a vengeance. They are victims of the former Soviet Union government's ambition to be a nuclear superpower.
For more than 45 years, these residents have been unwittingly exposed to a daily dose of high radiation.
In the late 1940's, in what was perceived as a grand design of the former government to strengthen its military prowess, a complex called Mayak was built some 90km in north Chelyabinsk to produce atomic weapons.
The deadly radioactive waste it generated was quietly and systematically dumped into the Techa River.
In the meantime, 24 villages along its bank continue to rely on Techa River for their farming needs. Children swim in it in the summer and skate on it in the winter.
It was only in recent years that the villagers were told that the river is contaminated. But no efforts were made to evacuate the four largest villages. Children from Myslyumovo, Brodokalmak, Tishma and Argayash still fish and swim in the river. To the it is a Hobson's choice because there are no recreational facilities available.
Driven by poverty and a strong attachment to the land of their forefathers, most residents of Chelyabinsk choose to stay put, despite the anger and the pain they have to endure even as nuclear was embedded in their soil continues to give out its fatal radiation.
In all, no less that three nuclear disasters took place in Chelyabinsk but nothing was done. Not only nuclear waste was blatantly dumped in the river, in 1957, a cooling system of the waste unit exploded, spewing some 20 million curies of radioactivity into the atmosphere and exposing some 270,000 people.
Less than one per cent of those residents were evacuated. The third disaster came a decade later. Lake Karachay was used as another dumping ground for the Mayak complex's radioactive waste since 1951. In 1967, a drought reduced the water level of the lake and howling winds spread the radioactive dust over and area of 25,000 square kilometers, irradiating 436,000 people with five million curies, the same dosage as the victims of Hiroshima.
Overall, about 500,000 people in the region have been exposed to as much as 20 times the radiation suffered by Chernobyl victims, which led to scientists declaring Chelyabinsk as the most polluted spot on the earth.
Yet the plight of the people has gone unnoticed by the world because for a long time Russia managed to keep it a secret.
In the words of Farida, a Mulyumovo teacher: "Nobody knows anything about us. Chernobyl happened, but that it Europe. The pollution reached Europe and the whole world was upset. But us, out here in the back woods of Russia, nobody knows about it. Nobody in the world cares about the fate we have sealed for ourselves here."
The toll from the radioactive waste finally surfaced. The number of deaths has begun to rise sharply as more and more developed cancers in the stomachs and brains. Increasingly, women gave birth to babies with some forms of defect.
When the death toll became to obvious to ignore, President Boris Yeltsin finally acknowledged the existence of Mayak in January 1992.
It was during this period that American film producer Slawomir Grunberg, a Polish migrant who speaks fluent Russian, came to know about the sad state of Chelyabinsk. Three years later, after earning their trust and friendship, he wrote, filmed, directed and produced a 52-minute documentary dedicated to them.
It was entitled Chelyabinsk: The Most Contaminated Spot on the Planet. "I came to know about it while shooting another film in Russia. Through a local environmentalist, Dr. Louisa Korosova, a retired physicist, I got in touch with the people of Chelyabinsk.
"Initially I thought of doing a documentary in Dr. Korosova because she is a dynamic lady who fights for the rights of the people of Chelyabinsk. But as I delved deeper into their lives, I realized their story needed to be told to the world."
Grunberg went to Paris recently where the 13th International Environmental Film Festival was held at the Unesco headquarters and shared with the audience his story. The documentary's debut not only captured the hearts and conscience of the audience but it also won him the current affairs award.
Besides risking his life and health, he constantly had to dodge the KGB. He also spent three years, using his own money, on shooting the documentary.
"I did the film out of the conviction that these people need help. If I can show the world their suffering, perhaps something can be done for them."
"It is certainly not intended for commercial purposes. In fact, I had to work as a cameraman for other projects just to earn money to finance this project."
His poignant story is simply told. Touching and thought-provoking, Grunberg succeeds where other film producers have failed: humanizing his subjects. His work is not overwhelmed by scientific analysis.
Whether the subjects are teachers, doctors, farmers, factory workers or environmentalists, it is clear that they all spoke from the heart.
Through Idris Sunrasin, for instance, Grunberg captured the anguish he face as the nuclear irradiation annihilates his family. His grandmother, parents and three of his eight siblings died of cancer. Sunrasin is not been spared by the scourge either for he is dying of stomach cancer.
"I spent a lot of time talking to them. We became friends. And when you are talking to a friend, you do not think about the camera in front of you. That was how I shot the film. They simply opened up," said the father of three daughters when met after screening his film at the festival.
Perhaps he has one distinctive advantage over other film producers.
He speaks fluent Russian and is familiar with their ways of life, having been born and raised in Poland before he migrated to the United States in 1982. To his credit, he had also filmed numerous documentaries in Russia.
And what will he next project be?
"I will be shooting a film entitled Nuclear Terror for Sale, It will begin with the 45 Mayak complexes. I want to show how vulnerable it is to steal nuclear weapons and how dangerous the consequences can be.
"With the break-up of the Soviet Union and the prevailing economic conditions in
Russia, people are tempted to sell nuclear weapons to any willing buyer."