Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A few more thoughts from Borderland

Ask a Ukrainian when he stopped believing in communism, and you will get a variety of answers. Some will quote the invasion of Czechoslovakia, some the Afghan war, others the discovery of Stalin's mass graves at Bykivnya. Many, says Anna Reid, will give you a blank look, because they have not really stopped believing in communism at all. But by far the likeliest reply is "Chernobyl:"

"A saga of technical incompetence and irresponsibility, of bureaucratic sloth, mendacity and plain contempt for human life, the Chernobyl affair epitomized everything that was wrong with the Soviet Union." (194)

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the details of the accident, which occurred at 1:23 AM on the night of Friday, April 26, 1986, here is a brief summary. Basically, the cause was neither equipment failure nor human error, but an experiment that went awry. In order to test how long a reactor could operate with no external power supply, plant engineers purposefully lifted all but 6 neutron-absorbing control rods out of the core of reactor #4, and disabled the automatic shut-down system which would have normally kicked in in the case of a power failure. As soon as the external electricity supply had been switched off, power levels inside reactor #4 began to rise, escalating into a full-scale nuclear explosion.

This is a depiction of the contamination cloud (roughly following that reported by Time Magazine on May 12, 1986). Since the USSR was silent about the accident until after it had been detected by its neighbors to the north, the first reports of radioactivity actually came from Finland . With time, some detectable radiation spread throughout the world. (From

The Soviet system's response to Chernobyl has been likened to its behavior during WWII - Reid describes it as sluggish, chaotic, profligate with human life and bolstered by the crudest propaganda. Indeed, today's uncertainty over the health consequences of Chernobyl is largely the fault of a deliberate cover-up by Soviet authorities. Registers of clean-up workers and evacuees were left incomplete, making post-Chernobyl medical histories hard to track. Also, believe it or not, in 1988 a decree was issued forbidding doctors from citing 'radiation' as a cause of death on death certificates! Such widespread uncertainty about the health effects of radiation has prompted the need for the ICARR study, among others, over 21 years after the accident.

In fact, independent research on the effects of the accident was derided or hushed up under the Soviet regime. Reid tells an interesting story about a group of journalists who made a short film on collective farms near Chernobyl in 1988. They documented a foal who had been born with 8 legs, eye-less pigs and head-less calves, etc. More than half the children in the area had swollen thyroids, and cancers of the mouth and lip had doubled there since the accident. Government response to the film was vilification and denial, which was choreographed, says Anna Reid, by Kyiv's Research Center for Radiation Medicine, where I will be working this summer! Supposedly, scientists from RCRM lambasted the film as "incompetent:" livestock deformities were due to inbreeding, they said; mouth cancers to poor dental work; thyroid problems to poor diet. Records later showed that radiation levels in the area had been 3x higher than at the nuclear power plant itself in the months after the accident. Yikes. Although I'm sure RCRM is a fully competent scientific organization today, it's disturbing to know that it played a role in the cover-up of Chernobyl's effects under the Soviet regime.

When Anna Reid published her book in 1999, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was still in use. (Operations finally ceased in 2000 due to international pressure.) In her book, she includes an interesting interview with a shift controller at the plant:

Anna Reid: 'Why don't you work somewhere else?'

Young Worker: 'If you were Ukrainian, you'd be begging for a job here, because otherwise you wouldn't survive! The bazaars are full of teachers, doctors - educated people, all out of work.'

Anna Reid: 'Aren't you afraid of getting cancer?'

Young Worker: 'And if I were a taxi-driver or a kiosk owner? I'd only get killed in a car crash, or by the mafia. We're safer here... If the West wants to close the old Soviet reactors it's because Western companies will get the orders for the new ones!...Success to you! Come back! And bring your children!'

This interview is disturbing to me on many levels. First, it confirms my hypothesis that people are desperate for jobs in north-central Ukraine, and that they are willing to take risks with their health in order to work. Second, it shows a clear contempt for Westerners, which could prove to be a severe roadblock to my research. Will the Ark workers want to interact with me, an American girl who is privileged enough to attend a $40,000-a-year institution, and who's most "risky" job entails filming Duke football practices from a scissor lift a few times a week for a comfortable wage of $9/hour?

I guess we'll see.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Workin' in the coal mine

While reading Anna Reid's book, a few things she said struck me as relevant to my project. The first was in her chapter about the industrial town of Donetsk, located in one of the most "Russified" regions of eastern Ukraine. Reid shares with her readers a conversation she had with a coal miner named Alexey. He describes to her the shoddy construction of the mine in which he works (the pine logs meant to "hold up the walls of the tunnels" are "very expensive and we don't have enough of them"), and he is not at all embarrassed when Reid repeats to him the startling mortality rate of miners in the Donetsk region (212 men dead in mining accidents in a single year, or four lives per million tons of coal produced).

According to Reid, Alexey had once been on an exchange program to Cardiff (in Wales I think?) and was amazed by the quality of that town's mine:
"When we told them how we worked here they just couldn't believe it. We looked at everything they had - the special baths, the clothes, the equipment - and we practically burst into tears." (47)

Reid questions Alexey about his feelings toward the new Ukrainian government, and he responds by saying that he and his men don't much care who they are governed by. He says they know that Russia doesn't need them, that it already wants to close its own mines. What he does want is better pay (any pay at all, in fact, since he hadn't received wages for six weeks) and freedom to run the mine the way he wants:

"It takes six months to make any decision, because everything has to go through Kyiv. The energy ministry takes our coal at three dollars a ton, but we the producers aren't allowed to sign our own contracts, though we could sell the same coal at $20 or even $60 a ton" (48)

I gather from this exchange that Ukrainian occupational health standards are nowhere near those in the US, and that Soviet-style collectivisation practices still exist in independent Ukraine!

To me, coal mining is a very comparable occupation to "Ark building" in Chernobyl; both are risky jobs, and in both cases, unseen dangers can lead to chronic harm (namely, air born particles in the case of mining can lead to lung disease, and radiation in the case of building the Ark can lead to cancers). If occupational heath standards are not up to snuff in the Donetsk mines, I wonder what conditions are like in Chernobyl?

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Yushchenko vs. Yanukovych

Speaking of the Ukrainian vs. Russian dynamic...

** CNN: Crisis calmed, Ukraine to hold early election **

Tensions between [President] Yushchenko, who has sought to lead Ukraine into the European Union and NATO, and his rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who seeks to preserve Ukraine's close ties with Russia, have been building since the president ordered parliament disbanded in April and called new elections.

Yushchenko (left) and Yanukovych

Friday, May 25, 2007

"Ukraina" is literally translated as 'on the edge' or 'borderland'...

I just finished reading a great book on Ukrainian history, Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine.

Author Anna Reid, who was a Kyiv correspondent for the Economist and the Daily Telegraph from 1993 to 1995, tells the story of Ukraine by dedicating each chapter to a different city or region. For example, in the first chapter, entitled "The New Jerusalem: Kyiv," Reid traces the great Slav civilisation of the tenth century that created and maintained Kyiv.

I found Borderland to be a very readable book because Reid mixed personal anecdotes and literary references with her (extensive) historical research. Ukraine is a vast country with a complex history, but Reid was able to successfully summarize its past by creating a "quilt" of sorts, constructed with patchwork stories about all of Ukraine's diverse inhabitants.

From the first page:

Flat, fertile, and fatally tempting to invaders, Ukraine was split between Russia and Poland from the mid 17th century to the end of the 18th, between Russia and Austria through the 19th, and between Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania between the two world wars. Until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it had never been an independent state.

Being a borderland meant two things for Ukraine. First, it inherited a legacy of violence, and second, it was left with a tenuous sense of national identity. I think the issue of language helps to elucidate the latter point. In the eastern part of the country, almost everyone speaks Russian. In fact, in the Crimea (a south-eastern region on the Black Sea,) many residents refuse to accept that Ukraine is an independent nation at all - they still consider themselves Russian citizens. However, in the western part of the country, nearly everyone speaks Ukrainian. Indeed, Lviv (a large city near the Polish border) became the birthplace of the Ukrainian independence movement. Also, Ukrainian is a more rural language associated with the peasantry, while Russian is spoken in most big cities.

I think the cultural dynamic between Russia and Ukraine is fascinating. It will be very interesting to see how it plays out in Kyiv and Chernobyl, the places where I will be spending most of my time. I hope I made the right choice when I decided to learn the Ukrainian language this summer instead of Russian...From what I've read, most Kyiv residents are bi-lingual, but I have no idea what language is dominant in the north-central region of Ukraine, where Chernoybl and Pripyat are located. Fortunately, Russian and Ukrainian share some vocabulary, so there is a chance that I will be able to understand one by knowing the other.

This post is getting long, but before I stop writing I want to share with you an interesting map that shows the Ukrainian-speaking world:

There appears to be a significant Ukrainian community in Canada. Who knew!

Saturday, May 19, 2007


For twelve weeks this summer - the months of June, July, and August - I will be immersing myself in a culture that is very foreign to me. In mid-July, after six weeks of Ukrainian language training, I will be traveling to Ukraine for a six week research-service experience. I have created this blog to reflect on my research, share my stories, and express my joys and concerns about this exciting new adventure!

A summer of firsts

This will be my first summer away from Duke since beginning college, and the trip to Ukraine will be my first experience traveling overseas. Also, this summer will be my first time doing a real independent, self-structured research project. I have done research before, but always under the strict guidance of a mentor, and always on a suggested topic. This summer I will be largely on my own, although I do have mentors in Durham and Kyiv. My topic is self-designed, this trip is self-designed, and my methods are self-designed.

My research

The focus of my research is a joint study on the health effects of exposure to radiation being conducted in Chernobyl, Ukraine, by Duke, Research Triangle International (RTI), UNC-Asheville, and Kyiv's Research Center for Radiation Medicine. You can read the project's press release

The basic gist is this: After the Chernobyl accident in 1986, officials constructed a concrete "sarcophagus" around the nuclear power plant to contain radiation; however, after more than 20 years, the hastily-built concrete shield is falling apart. In a new study, dubbed the "International Consortium for Applied Radiation Research" (which I will shorten to ICARR for the purposes of this blog,) researchers from Duke, RTI, etc. will monitor workers who are are currently building a better, stronger radiation containment system at the plant, called "the Ark." These researchers are hoping to expand their understanding of the health effects of ionizing radiation, especially on the genetic level, by studying the Ark workers. The original
Science article about ICARR, published last year, may be read here. It is a great piece of science writing - well-written and succinct.

When I heard about ICARR almost a year ago, it immediately fascinated me. The study raises important questions about treating people as ends in themselves, and not merely as means to an end. How should the researchers reconcile individual workers’ roles as employees with their status as research participants? Also, since jobs are scarce in north-central Ukraine, won't workers have incentives to take risks with their own health? The history of bioethics has shown that people under psychological, social, or economic constraint are particularly acquiescent. (Consider, for example, the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments in Macon County, Alabama.) It may be that the Ark workers are people who, because of their station in life, do not have an equal chance to withhold consent when asked to build the Ark and/or participate in ICARR. Is this fair?

Our ethical intuition is that people participating in research studies have a right to know things and make up their minds, especially if their health is at stake. The research community has come a long way since Tuskegee, and ICARR has built in to it a protocol for informed consent. Nevertheless, ICARR has many unique political, social, and ethical characteristics that make it different from other research projects. I see a great opportunity in Chernobyl to create an ethical model that guides future work of this kind.

Over the past two semesters I have been developing a series of research questions, which I hope to answer this summer:

1) How can Duke, RTI, UNC-A, and RCRM conduct its research in a way that respects the rights and interests of the Ark workers?

2) Is it possible to improve current operational procedures in Chernobyl so that the rights and interests of Ark workers are better protected?

3) What is the best way to build the Ark so that bad health outcomes for workers are minimized?


My primary research techniques will be interviews and case studies. Although the latter can be done in the United States, the former requires that I travel to the Ark building site in Ukraine. Such a trip will allow me to evaluate the sample collection process, informed consent process, and local monitoring and worker safety programs first hand. Also, I have identified some sites of policy expertise, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, to do interviews en route.

Ideally, the finished product of all of this will be a series of recommendations for researchers in Ukraine. My goal is to create a useful document that will inform the decision making process in Chernobyl.

Time line for the summer

From June 4 until July 13, I will be taking an intensive Ukrainian language class through the University of Pittsburgh's
Russian and East European Summer Language Institute. It should be a blast. There are over a hundred students in the program who will be learning a variety of eastern European languages, from Bulgarian to Polish to Russian. Ukrainian seems to be one of the least popular choices - as far as I know, there are only two students enrolled in the Ukrainian class, including me - but I see this as a positive thing. For all intents and purposes, I have a personal Ukrainian tutor for six weeks.

Almost immediately after the Pitt course ends, I will be leaving for Kyiv. Since I want to spend a solid 5-6 weeks in Ukraine, I need to depart ASAP in mid-July. The first day of fall classes at Duke is August 27th, so I will try to return to the States before then.

I am incredibly excited about my Ukrainian adventure! I expect to have many amazing experiences, and I will be sharing them with you through this blog every step of the way.