Requisite Lenin statue on Blvd. Taras Shevchenko
I arrived in Kyiv at 9 AM on Thursday morning. There is a 7-hour time difference between Ukraine and Virginia, so needless to say I was a little jet lagged. The first thing I noticed about Kyiv was its smell; there is a sort of constant musk here that is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. The second thing I noticed was the heat: it reached almost 100 degrees on Thursday.
RTI International arranged to have a driver pick me up at Borispol Airport, and together we drove to RTI’s offices, which are on Kyiv’s main street, Khreshchatyk, in an old, soviet-style apartment building.
There is a dearth of real office buildings in Kyiv, so it’s not unusual for businesses to use an apartment for their office space. RTI’s office/apartment is very modern, and about 30 people work there. On Friday, I even had the opportunity to attend an “office birthday party” there, which was much cooler than it sounds. The boss – a nice Slovak man who, hilariously, looks just like Ricky Gervais – hired a band and brought an enormous spread of food. In true Ukrainian manner, every five minutes or so someone from the office would make a speech about the birthday girl, singing her praises and raising a toast.
The folks at RTI brought me to my apartment at around 12:30 PM on Thursday. It’s a lovely place smack dab in the middle of Khreshchatyk Street. Nearby me are a market, an underground mall, more up-scale shopping, and many of the major government buildings (including the President’s Office and the Rada).
I’m am so, so thankful that I took that Ukrainian class this summer, because there is absolutely no way I could have survived on my own in this city without it. As expected, many people speak Russian here, but everyone understands Ukrainian, and all of the signage is in Ukrainian. I’ve already used the language a lot, although not in very sophisticated ways. (E.g., at the market, pointing to a peach, shouting “Ya ho-choo!”, and stuffing 4 Hyrvna in the vender’s fist.)
Although RTI International, an American organization, made all of the arrangements for me to come to Kyiv, my research mentor is actually affiliated with the Ukrainian Research Center for Radiation Medicine, or RCRM. The Center is too far away to walk from Khreshchatyk, so I had to (gasp!) ride the metro on Friday morning. That was certainly an experience... the Kyiv metro does not have an intuitive design, and to make matters worse, all of the signage is in Cyrillic. It's truly a miracle that I made it through, and I have never been more proud of myself.
RCRM is a village of buildings that house offices, clinics, and laboratories:
EDIT: Despite the Soviet style, it was created in 1999 especially for dealing with the victims of the Chernobyl disaster. My mentor, Dr. Loganovsky, works in the main clinic. Each floor in his building is dedicated to treating different ailments associated with radiation exposure; there is a cardiology department, a pulminology department, etc. His is the psychoneurology department. There, they mainly treat organic mental disorders.
After sipping coffee together and discussing my project, Dr. Loganovsky asked another doctor on the ward, Maria, to take me on a tour of RCRM. She will serve as my mentor after Dr. Loganovsky goes on vacation in early August.
We soon made our way to the radiation dosimetry building. A very nice man showed me two pieces of equipment for detecting radiation in people. The first was a simple chair that is sat in by a patient for about 3 minutes. The man actually scanned me in it, but my levels were so low that the machine could not produce a reading.
The second apparatus is a more accurate “fully body counter” that takes about 20 minutes to produce a reading. To use it, a person crawls into a bed located in a small room lined with thick lead sheets. (According to the man, this lead was salvaged from old, WWII-era Soviet ships.) Under the bed are six scanners, and above the bed are two circular scanners that swing into place over the patient’s lungs. There is also a forehead scanner for detecting radionucleotides in the skull bone.
The man in the dosimetry department was very interested in scanning me with the full body counter. He rarely sees such “clean” subjects, he said. Even in Kyiv, there is a certain level of background radiation that is detectable in people who have lived there for a while. I honestly think he just saw me as an opportunity to calibrate his machinery. Nevertheless, I would have done the full body scan, but Maria was in a rush to leave. So, I told him, “another time.” (It will be interesting to scan myself again right before I leave, just to see if I managed to pick anything up!)
Before leaving RCRM, I asked Dr. Loganovsky if he or his colleagues went to Chernobyl often. I meant for this question to segue into an offer to go there, and he understood immediately.
“What, you want to go there? Young researchers always want to go there. Maria won’t go, but I go often. And we can try to get you there.”
Getting the clearance to go to Chernobyl is very difficult, he warned me. One must go through the government, and it often takes weeks. But he reassured me that it is perfectly safe. Fingers crossed!
The last thing they showed me at RCRM was a giant freezer full of samples, waiting to be shipped to Duke for analysis. Despite the fact that the freezer is set at -80 degrees, a small part of me wanted to crawl inside and let myself be sent back to Durham, where the language, customs, and people are more familiar.
But the rest of me was deliriously happy and content to be an ex-pat in Ukraine. Kyiv is a beautiful city, throbbing with culture and history. Although everything is foreign, including the smells, I am starting to really like it here.