Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Chernobyl liquidators: incredible men with incredible stories (Part 1)

Memorial to Chernobyl liquidators at Mitino Cemetery, Moscow

The past two days have definitely been the most interesting for me research-wise since I arrived in Ukraine. I've been interviewing Chernobyl liquidators non-stop, and it's amazing to me how brave, how open, and just how damn interesting they all are.

So far, I have finished transcribing three of the interviews from my audio recordings. Thus, without further ado, let me introduce you to Liquidators #1, #2, and #3:

Liquidator #1 - physics teacher

Liquidator #1 was a physics teacher in the Zhytomyr Oblast in 1986. His workplace was 22 km from the Chernobyl NPP. He recalls that the reaction to the accident in his village was not very serious. Most people did not understand what had happened. However, as a physics teacher, he understood the severity of the disaster better than most.

Liquidator #1 voluntarily took part in the evacuation of his region, helping evacuate children in particular. One of the things he did was help children find their parents in the event that they were separated.

He lived in the Zhytomyr Oblast until 1998, at which time he moved to the Carpathian region (in the west). It was a little scary for him to work so close to the NPP after the accident happened. Evacuations were not well organized at all; people were told that they could return later, which was a lie. Old people in particular resisted.

We talked about his many health problems – cardiovascular diseases, pyschological diseases, neurological diseases. Liquidator #1 thinks that his health problems are partially due to radiation exposure, since his parents and grandparents all had unusually clean bills of health. Since 1988, not a year has passed where he wasn’t hospitalized.

Still, Liquidator #1 feels better now than he did 12 years ago. He has quit smoking and drinking, and he has started seeing a neurologist and a psychiatrist. He noted that under the Soviet Union it was frowned upon to see such doctors. People did not want to be categorized as psychologically-ill. Today, there is more freedom to choose the physician you need.

If he could go back in time, he would not change his decision to be a liquidator. He thinks that people need to help each other. He does not consider what he did to be very “special.”

He thinks that the care he receives from the Ukrainian government could be better.

Liquidator #2 - Metrostroy operator

Liquidator #2 was a Metrostroy operator in Kyiv in 1986. Metrostroy was the construction agency that built the Kyiv Metro. He and his colleagues were asked to go to Chernobyl soon after the disaster. In fact, they were the second group of workers to go there. (The first were the firemen.) Their job was to seal the floor of the reactor with metal insulation and concrete so that irradiated matter would not seep into the groundwater.

He agreed to go to Chernobyl out of patriotism. In his own words, if he did not do it, who would? He compared his choice to the choice of Soviet soldiers in WWII.

Liquidator #2 was informed of the risks of working in an irradiated environment. He was not frightened. Still, he received an irradiated dose of 28.2 roentgens over the three days he worked in Chernobyl. After recording this dose, he was forced to stop working at Chernobyl because the legal maximum dosage in 1986 was 25 roentgens. (Today, the official dosage limit is 2 roentgens per year.)

He has had health problems since 1986, which he partially attributes to his irradiated dose.

If he could go back to 1986, he would make the same choice to go to Chernobyl. In his own words, “this is our country, and somebody has to do it.”

We discussed the amount of attention the Ukrainian government gives liquidators. Liquidator #2 thinks that it is not enough, but it is still a little bit more attention than is given to pensioners, children, etc.

Liquidator #3 - mechanic

Liquidator #3 was a mechanic in the Poltova Oblast in 1986. The Soviet Military Office drafted him to Chernobyl, where his job was to remove irradiated matter from the third reactor’s roof. He had no choice about going there; he had to be a liquidator.

He was never officially told about the risks of working in an irradiated environment.

He received an irradiated dose of 25 roentgens over the two and a half months he spent in Chernobyl. Since this was the maximum limit in 1986, he had to leave the site after recording this dosage.

Liquidator #3 thinks that his irradiated dose has caused his many health problems.

He does not think that the Ukrainian government has taken good care of him. He wishes they would give him more “human attention.” He has been forced to figure out his problems for himself, even though he served his country in Chernobyl and in the Afghanistan War.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

So, would you like to work on the Ark?

Check out that Ukrainian sky...

Reproduced below is a list of the risks faced by personnel who are working on the Ark:
Potential radiation risks of the "Shelter" personnel are the following:
  • Job activities inside the 'hot cell' (the "open" plutonium area);
  • External exposure;
  • High risk of radionucleotide inhalation;
  • High risk of radionucleotide absorption through cuts and/or wounds;
  • High risk of a combination of severe injuries and intensive contamination of open tissues or inhalation of radioactive materials;
  • Influence of high temperatures, hypoxia, and heat stress; and
  • Synergism of radiological risk within general industrial risks.
The additional hazardous factors are as follows:
  • Aggressive chemical aerosols, including welding aerosols;
  • High humidity and uncomfortable temperatures at any time of the year;
  • Absence of a forced exchange ventilation system inside the Object Shelter;
  • Insufficient and artificial illumination;
  • Presence of "confined spaces" in most of Object Shelter's rooms;
  • Work at heights;
  • Presence of debris and difficult access to workplaces in elevated ionizing radiation fields;
  • Influence of personal protective equipment; and
  • Probable synergistic effect of numerous hazardous factors.
Also, personnel will be exposed to factors stipulated by a shift type mode of work in the Exclusion Zone - shift in dietary regimen and type, accommodation in hotels, regime-stipulated restrictions in the Exclusion Zone, etc.

Not the most pleasant job, eh? In my interviews, I've been asking ICARR scientists what they thinks motivates the Ark workers to seek jobs in Chernobyl. So far, the answer has always been, "They can't find a job anywhere else."

This week I will be interviewing Chernobyl liquidators. These people were drafted to the Chernobyl site immediately after the disaster and helped to clean up the plant premises and the surrounding area. Generally, they were men aged 20 to 45. They were mostly plant employees, Ukrainian firefighters, plus many soldiers and miners from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and other parts of the then Soviet Union.

The exact number of liquidators is unknown as no completely accurate records were kept of the people involved in the clean-up. However, more than 700,000 people who were involved (both on- and off-site) in tackling the accident’s aftermath were eventually granted the status of liquidator, and were provided special government benefits.

Ukraine spends about five percent of its annual budget on benefits for Chernobyl liquidators, which include a housing subsidy and free public transportation use. They come to RCRM for health care.

I'd like to know just how informed they were about risk when they went to work at the Chernobyl site... Also, why did they decide to go there? (or did they even have a choice?) Here are some of the questions I plan to ask them:
  1. Where were you when you first heard about the Chernobyl disaster?
  2. What was your reaction to it? Did you think it was serious, not serious?
  3. Who asked you to be a liquidator?
  4. Why did you agree?
  5. Did you want to go to Chernobyl?
  6. Did you have a choice about going there?
  7. Were you aware of the risks of working in Chernobyl? Did anyone tell you about the dangers? (If no: Would you have agreed to be a liquidator if you had known about the risks?)
  8. Were you scared about going there?
  9. What did you do as a liquidator?
Etc, etc. I think the liquidator interviews will be very relevant to my project because I should be able to draw parallels between their situation and the situation of the Ark workers today.

Unfortunately, since the men won't speak English, I'm sure the language barrier will be an issue. (It's even an issue with the scientists who speak decent English.) I will have a translator with me - probably one of the RCRM people - but I've noticed that some questions just don't translate well. Here's to hoping the big ideas get through, at least.

On a lighter note - I did some more sightseeing this weekend:

Statue at the Dnipro metro station.

Incredible Chimera building, now used as a presidential administrative office.

A close-up of one of the chimera.

Friendship of Nations Monument, celebrating the 1654 "unification" of Russia and Ukraine.

At the Pyrohovo Museum of Folk Architecture & Everyday Life. It's an open-air, living history museum (think Williamsburg, VA) that is divided into seven "villages" representing different regional areas of Ukraine.

There were lots of windmills on the property.

This was taken in the Carpathian village, I think.

If you'd like to see more pictures, I've posted the links to my online photo albums on the bar to the right.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

It's been a week!

(from pizdaus.com/)
Lenin sinks a three.

Tomorrow morning marks my first week in Kyiv, and what a week it's been. I've made some friends, seen some sights,

eaten some real Ukrainan food, and learned a whole lot about ICARR.

I also began conducting interviews with scientists at RCRM. Sometimes the language barrier makes it hard for my interviewees to understand certain questions, but with patience I can usually make myself understood. I've found it useful to give a typed copy of my questions to my interviewees, since many of them are stronger at reading English than at hearing it. I've been recording my interviews with a digital voice recorder, and I plan to spend some time this weekend listening to them and transcribing them.

I am looking forward to talking to Ark workers, hopefully next week. (Since it's summer, check-in controls and special controls happen less frequently, and we didn't have any this week.) I should also know more details about my trip to Chernobyl with RCRM.

I'm absolutely exhausted... research is hard work!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Q & A about ICARR and Chernobyl

Fountain at Maydan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square)

Yesterday, I spent the day reading RTI International’s proposal to the Department of Energy regarding the ICARR study. The hefty document was published about a year ago, on June 13, 2006. It answered many of my lingering questions about ICARR, which I have summarized in Q and A format below.

However, before I begin, I would like to introduce some new terms.
  • In Ukraine, what I have been calling “the Ark building project” is more commonly known as “the Chernobyl Shelter Implementation Plan,” or “SIP.” I will be using both terms interchangeably from now on.
  • Ukrainian scientists have a special name for the old, deteriorating sarcophagus: “Object Shelter” or “Shelter Object.” It sounds a little strange in English, but I will be using the term from this point on when it is convenient for me to do so.
  • NSC = New Safe Confinement = “The Ark” (see below)
  • The acronym “ICARR” technically refers to the group of institutions who form the International Consortium for Applied Radiation Research (Duke, RTI, RCRM, etc.). The real name for project itself is the “Chernobyl Research and Service Project (CRSP).” However, according to my mentor, people are now just calling CRSP “ICARR,” as I have been.
  • Up to this point I have been using the Russian transliteration of “Chernobyl” instead of the Ukrainian “Chornobyl.” I generally prefer to use the Ukrainian version (which is why I write Kyiv instead of Kiev), but since I have used “Chernobyl” for over two months (and since it’s the most familiar version for Americans) I’m not going to change it now. But just know that Chernobyl and Chornobyl are one in the same thing!
Q & A

Q: What organization funded the Ark building project (a.k.a. Chernobyl Shelter Implementation Plan [SIP])?

A: The European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, which is comprised of 28 countries, including the US.

Q: Which engineering firms were hired to design the Ark?

A: Bechtel International Systems (they designed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, the Athens Metro, and the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington State), Battelle Memorial Institute, and Electricite de France.

Q: What are researchers so interested in SIP?

A: There is currently a lack of baseline and longitudinal time series measurements on the health effects of low-level radiation in humans. The ICARR project would solve this problem. By studying workers conducting renewed clean-up efforts at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (ChNPP), researchers may be able to characterize how the human body reacts to low-level radiation before, during, and after exposure.

Q: When did SIP begin, and how many workers are expected to work on it?

A: Hiring of workers began in 2004; 10,000 to 15,000 people will have worked on it by 2010.

Q: What are the roles of the various institutions involved in ICARR?

A: RCRM conducts entry and follow-up medical surveillance and worker safety programs.
RTI International creates and maintains the project’s data coordinating center. It also serves as the main contractor.
Duke University organizes the service and research projects.
UNC-Asheville (and also RCRM) conducts biological and public health oriented research.
Together, these four institutions comprise the International Consortium for Applied Radiation Research, or ICARR.

ChNPP by satellite

Q: What are ICARR’s major activities?

A: 1) Conducting hypothesis driven genomic, biological, and prospective epidemiologic research approved by an external committee, and 2) providing medical care and public health services to improve the quality of life for workers. Bio-specimens are being collected and stored; information is being shared between the four ICARR institutions via a health information exchange system on the Internet; and a time series of measurements on workers is being collected.

Q: So ICARR is not a specific research project in itself, but rather the name of the plan to create a scientific infrastructure in Chernobyl?

A: Correct. ICARR is laying the foundation for researchers to design prospective studies – observational or experimental – as well as for them to provide public health and medical services in Chernobyl.

Q: How does the ICARR project (a.k.a. CRSP) compare to other studies on low-level radiation in humans?

A: ICARR is the largest project ever undertaken to collect and analyze a combination of clinical and genomic information related to low-level human radiation exposure as exposure occurs.

Q: How did the researchers manage to convince the Department of Energy to fund such an expensive project?

A: In their proposal, they repeatedly emphasized that a major health threat to the US and world community is the purposeful misuse of ionizing radiation as a weapon of terrorism. They made it clear that ICARR would help to counteract this threat by generating research.

Q: What hypotheses are ICARR project developers putting forth?

A: That ionizing radiation, even at low doses, can be manifest in changes of molecular profiles obtained from whole blood, and that these profiles can be used to develop predictive models for exposure. Also, that this information can be mechanistically linked to diseases and outcomes of interest, and that specific exposure-response biomarkers can be determined.

Q: How much fuel remains in the Shelter Object?

A: Since the disaster on April 26, 1986, over 95% (or 180 tons) of irradiated nuclear fuel is still inside the Shelter Object.

Q: What were the health effects of the Chernobyl disaster on the community?

A: There has been an increase in leukemia and cardiovascular disease in liquidators, evacuees, and residents. Also, there was an increase in thyroid cancer in children. Interestingly, according to the DoE proposal, there has been no increase in birth defects. (The film Chernobyl Heart begs to differ – see my previous post here.)

Q: What exactly are the risks for workers in Chernobyl?

A: Due to the “unique origination of the Shelter Object,” radiation hygienic conditions cannot be made in compliance with world safety standards. Workers will be exposed to fission and activation products (90Sr and 137Cs) as well as TUE radionucleotides (238Pu, 239Pu, 240Pu, 241Pu, and 241Am). Employment at SIP is particularly dangerous because these radiological risks are combined with the general industrial risks associated with building a giant steel-and-concrete structure. The job places extreme requirements on workers’ somatic health and psycho-physiological capabilities.

Q: Are the workers reimbursed for participating in ICARR?

A: Not exactly. Participants are informed of the research objectives of the study, and their participation is sought in the spirit of altruism and community health promotion. However, when their blood is first taken, participants are reimbursed 100 UAH (= 20 USD) for their time. 100 UAH is about one-tenth of the average Ukrainian monthly salary.

Q: Can you describe the different medical examinations that workers must undergo?

A: 1. Individual Inspection Control Exam – a periodic medical exam, the timing of which is determined by the medical classification of the worker (i.e. how likely he is to get sick).
2. Special Control Exam – an extensive medical and psychological exam conducted on workers who are found to exceed existing standards for radiation control. It is used to reclassify and reconfirm worker eligibility.
3. Current (Pre-Shift) Exam – a daily exam conducted at the ChNPP.
4. Periodic Control Exam – a general medical exam conducted once yearly.
5. Output Control Exam – an extensive series of medical and psychological exams conducted on all workers leaving employment at SIP.

Q: Can you describe the process for gathering specimen from Ark workers?

A: At each worker’s baseline and follow-up medical exams, a researcher collects blood for DNA genotyping and epigenetic analysis; RNA for gene expression analysis; and serum for protein and metabolite profiling. The process takes about 5 minutes. After collection, the specimens are split into duplicate sets, bar-coded, and then sent one to a Ukrainian facility, and one to the US.

Q: How detailed is the information that ICARR researchers have collected on workers?

A: The combination of longitudinal clinical information and biological data gives researchers an exquisitely detailed molecular phenotype of each worker related to his ionizing radiation dosage.

Q: What’s an example of the types of research that will be conducted within the ICARR infrastructure?

A: One of the start-up projects was designed by a scientist at Duke. He plans to do gene expression analysis of the peripheral blood from Ark workers to develop a molecular signature of human radiation exposure. His goal is to be able to quantify or predict an individual’s susceptibility to disease based on radiation dose.

Q: What’s an example of the types of services that will be provided to workers within the ICARR infrastructure?

A: Stem cell therapy services will be provided to the 200-400 workers at highest risk of exposure who are involved in early structural stabilization. Researchers in Ukraine have stored their hematopoietic progenitors for this specific purpose.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Ukrainian Street Performer Breaks it Down

I made this video of a break dancer performing in a square on Khreshchatyk St, right near my apartment. These guys are out there every evening, and I love watching them.

Bridge Jumping on the Dnipro

Here's a short video I made yesterday of bridge jumpers at Hyrdropark, a beach/recreation center on an island in the Dnipro river. Can you catch all three jumpers? Also, don't miss the friendly Ukrainian 6 seconds from the end.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Sightseeing weekend - Rodina Mat and the Caves Monastery

This weekend, a friend from RTI took me around some of the major sights in Kyiv. Everything I saw was surprisingly beautiful and awe-inspiring.

The statue above is Rodina Mat (literally Nation's Mother, but formally called the Defense of the Motherland Monument). She's 62 m tall, bears a soviet seal on her shield, and is highly visible from many parts of the city.

Notice how her sword is blunt? According to my friend, the original builders were forced to cut off the tip because it had made Rodina Mat taller than the tallest of the nearby Orthodox churches, which was not allowed.

I told her that we have a similar rule at Duke: no building can be taller than the Duke Chapel. In fact, the only one that comes close to its height is the Schwartz-Butters Building, at the top of which is Coach K's office. (That tells you something about how Duke students view the relationship between basketball and God.)

This is a picture of me in the Kyiv-Pecherska Lavra, where tourists and Orthodox pilgrims alike flock. A lavra is a senior monastery, while pecherska means "of the caves." This is holy ground - the holiest in the country. My guidebook says that its the single most fascinating and extensive tourist sight in Kyiv, and I believe it. The Lavra's tight cluster of gold-domed churches was a absolute feast for my eyes:

Near the monk's living quarters.

At the entrance. Supposedly there are also underground labyrinths filled with mummified monks, but we were too late to enter. Since they are a must see, I will probably come back sometime and take the English-language tour of the lower Lavra.

Me, with Dnipro River. I am posting this picture primarily because of the woman in the background. Ukrainian women dress to kill, and nothing is off limits style wise here. See-through shirts, crop tops, and high heels (often 4 inches high or more!) are all common dress.

My friend, who is a girl about my age, explains the phenomenon this way: there are fewer men than women in Kyiv (and Ukraine in general), so the girls have to dress sexy for reproductive survival. Unless a girl wants to be alone for the rest of her life, she must concentrate all the time on attracting a mate. As a result of all of this, she says, many Ukrainian men have started to a little act cocky, because they know they are in such high demand. My friend considers this a real problem for girls like her herself, who are more traditional and expect boyfriends to be gentlemen. :)

Near Slava (Glory) Park. It is traditional for newly-wed Ukrainian couples to have their picture taken near famous local monuments and sights. I must have seen at least 10 brides in this square alone.

At another WWII monument near Rodina Mat. It is located in a tunnel under an elevated walkway. There were many other incredible sculptural bas-reliefs like this, all in the Socialist Realist style.

That's all for now. I'm off to the beach this afternoon. We'll see how the banks of the Dnipro compare to the Chesapeake Bay.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Welcome to Kyiv!

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).

My building on Khreshchatyk

The view from my window.

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.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Last post from America

I got home from Pittsburgh at 2 AM this morning, which gives me only today and tomorrow to prepare for my flight on Wednesday.

Given that instead of packing, I spent most of today in a Volkswagen dealership, magically turning this -

- into this -

- I have even less time to pack than I anticipated. So, this post will be short and sweet.

I'm nervous about leaving for Ukraine. I know that the trip will be a life-changing experience, but I also have incredibly high expectations for myself that may prove difficult to live up to. I am so lucky to have found such an interesting thesis topic and to have been given an opportunity to pursue it in this way. If I don't do this project the justice it deserves, I know I will be frustrated with myself...

Hopefully this nervousness will wear away soon after I arrive in Kyiv. In fact, I'm confident it will, because this is going to be a fun and exciting adventure with no room for fear and nerves!

I'm bringing a good digital camera to Ukraine, so I will be supplementing my posts with lots of nice pictures. (No more of the camera-phone-quality stuff, thank goodness!) I may even try to make a movie or two.

Wish me bon voyage! And, if you have a few minutes, read this article from Discover magazine:

The First Nuclear Refugees Come Home

Chernobyl-area natives return to find a city of ghosts. By Maryann de Leo


[Just to explain the photos above: my car was totaled a few weeks ago after being struck on the side of the road (where it was parked) by a speeding criminal in a stolen car under police pursuit. I was in bed when the accident happened, and no one was injured. Insurance is giving me a hell of a time, but I should get back most of what I paid for the car. In the meantime, I went ahead and bought basically the exact same car from a dealer here in Virginia. "Safe Happens" is no joke - despite all that exterior damage, the cabin of my Jetta was untouched. After seeing that, I'm definitely a VW girl for life!]

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Some notes about the Ukrainian language

Since my summer course is coming to an end, I think it’s time for me to write about my impressions of the Ukrainian language:

1) Ukrainian is HARD.

It’s funny…I (reluctantly) took French in high school and college, and before this summer I would have told you that it was the absolute hardest language. However, after taking Ukrainian, I realize that the process of learning French was actually much quicker and much, much easier than the process of learning Ukrainian. Ukrainian is just so utterly different from English. According to the Foreign Service Institute of the Department of State, Ukrainian is a Category II language in terms of difficulty for speakers of English. This means it has “significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English” and takes, on average, 44 weeks or 1100 class hours to master. Other Category II languages include Farci, Vietnamese, Thai, Hindi, Hungarian, Urdu, and Hebrew.

French, Spanish, Italian, etc. are all Category I languages. They are closely related to English and take only 23-24 weeks or 575-600 class hours to master.

2) Ukrainian differs from English in interesting, but often frustrating ways.

First of all, Ukrainian uses a different alphabet than English. For me, the most noticeable consequence of this was that vocabulary did not stick in my head like it sometimes did in French. It’s very hard to memorize a word that looks different from anything you’ve heard in English and sounds different from anything you’ve heard in English.

For example, in French, the word for “blue” is simply “bleu.” It’s easy to retain in your memory because it looks English and sounds English. But in Ukrainian, it’s блакитний, which is pronounced kind of like bla-ke-tnee. Now, how on earth am I supposed to remember that?

Unlike English, Ukrainian is a declined language, which means that nouns and adjectives have different endings, depending on how they are used in a sentence. In English, we use word order and intonation for basic meaning; very few of our words change endings. In Ukrainian, however, it is the endings that convey meaning. Word order is flexible, something that is just used for emphasis and subtle shades of meaning. This definitely takes some getting used to… Ukrainian speakers can just throw the words out there any which way they want, but the meaning of the sentence is still retained.

So, for each noun and adjective you encounter in Ukrainian, you must learn their particular pattern of endings, based on the noun’s gender, number, and the case required for the function of the noun in the sentence.

The idea of case is something we don’t have in English. The best way to think about case is that it is a road map that tells you where things are going in a sentence and how they connect together. There are seven cases in Ukrainian: nominative, accusative, genitive, prepositional, dative, instrumental, and vocative. There are general uses for each one (dative for indirect objects, vocative for direct address, etc.), but there are secondary and tertiary uses as well. And, because case is so important, you can’t swallow your endings while speaking Ukrainian. You have to be thinking closely about it all the time.

And verbs… oh the verbs… they’re another story altogether. Conjugation seems so simple at first. Unlike English and French, there aren’t a lot of tenses in Ukrainian – just past, present, future, and imperative. However, Ukrainian is unfortunate enough to possess a little thing called “verbal aspect.” Basically, each verb has two forms, imperfective and perfective. The imperfective is used to denote the occurrence of an action, with focus on the action itself: action in progress, incomplete, repeated. The perfective, on the other hand, denotes a whole action, with focus on the result, inception, or limited duration of the action. Some boundary of the action is expressed in the verb itself.

For example, the sentences “Have you taken out the garbage?” and “Did you take out the garbage?” would require different verbs in Ukrainian. Ugh. It’s hard.

3) Despite all of this, Ukrainian is a charming, beautiful language.

Here's just one reason why I love Ukrainian: The word for “flip-flops” - в'єтнамки - sounds like “Vietnamki” and is derived from the Ukrainian word for a Vietnamese female.

This time next week, I’ll be on the plane to Kyiv. I can’t wait!

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Chernobyl Sarcophagus Construction Workers

This is a fascinating video about the process that prospective Ark workers must go through in order to to work in Chernobyl. It was made by an American researcher in Kyiv who is also working with RCRM. His research is related to mine, and I hope to collaborate with him when I arrive in Ukraine (in less than 2 weeks!).

I highly recommend his video blog at: http://chernobylresearch.blogspot.com/.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

HIV/AIDS in Ukraine: Lessons learned from the "Альянс"

My Ukrainian professor spent all of last week preparing us for a meeting with a mysterious “Ukrainian delegation." This group had asked to visit our class at Pitt on Friday morning, and my professor had obliged. When we asked her about the composition of this “delegation” (Are they students from Ukraine? Professors?), she said she did not know. When we asked her why they wanted to waste their valuable time in the US witnessing the painful, frustrating process of three Americans learning Ukrainian, she also did not know. It was a riddle, and my classmates and I had no idea what to expect.

Still, we diligently prepared a presentation on our class activities, full of references to Cossacks and horilka; practiced a skit about birthday parties; and memorized the answers to several questions that we were sure the members of the delegation would ask us (“Why on earth are you studying Ukrainian?” being the most anticipated). All of this was done in Ukrainian, of course.

Friday morning came, and the “delegation” was a no show. My professor was not troubled, however, because she had received an apologetic call earlier, and they had invited us to pay them a visit at one of the local hospitals after lunch in lieu of their visiting us at Pitt that morning.

So, mystery solved. Turns out, the delegation was composed of physicians and public heath experts involved in HIV/AIDS work in Ukraine.

They had come to America for a short time on a kind of medical exchange program.

Of course I was thrilled at such a turn of events, although I can't say the same for my two classmates, neither of which is interested in health policy. (One of them is a graduate student studying Ukrainian folklore, and the other is a linguistics and religion major at Pitt.) Now, instead of seeing the meeting as a conundrum, I saw it as an opportunity to meet experts in Ukrainian public health who might be willing to help me on my project.

When we arrived at the hospital on Friday afternoon, we went to a small room and watched the 10 or so members of the Ukrainian delegation give a power point presentation (in Russian, with an English translator at hand) on the efforts of their organization, called the International HIV/AIDS Alliance. It was a truly fascinating lecture. I had no idea about the enormous problem Ukraine is having with AIDS. Here’s a quick summary that I gleaned from the presentation and from the Alliance’s website:

Ukraine is experiencing one of the fastest growing HIV epidemics in the world. It is estimated that 1.4% of people aged between 15 and 49 are living with HIV. This is the highest percentage in Europe, and according to UNAIDS/WHO, the actual number of people infected is considerably higher than official statistics suggest. And the epidemic is still growing. In 2006, 16,078 new cases of HIV-infection were officially registered, up from 13,770 in 2005.

Some basic facts about Ukraine and HIV:

Total population
Life expectancy
(W) 73 (M) 62
People living with HIV
HIV prevalence
Deaths due to AIDS

Southern and eastern regions of Ukraine are the most affected, including the oblasts of Dnipropetrovs’k, Donets’k, Odesa, Mykolaiv and the Crimean Republic. While a third of the population lives in these regions, they represent two-thirds of all officially registered HIV cases. Western regions of Ukraine remain the least affected. I don't know why this is... All I know is that the south and east are more "Russified" than the west in terms of language and culture. Perhaps the southern and eastern areas are also poorer than the west? If anyone knows, let me know.

The International HIV/AIDS Alliance office in Ukraine was established in December 2000 with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Its total available funding until 2008 exceeds $70 million.

The Alliance in Ukraine prioritizes community support to reduce HIV infection in the population groups most vulnerable to HIV (injecting drug users, female sex workers, men who have sex with men, prisoners and street children aged 10-18 years); develop community support for HIV-positive people and those close to them; reduce the stigmatisation of, and improve services for, people living with HIV and those groups most vulnerable to HIV; and identify, share and replicate best practice in most effective public response to the epidemic.

The Alliance's contributions appear to be very important. According to the delegation, although the Ukrainian government has continued to increase its funding for HIV/AIDS programs, the amount of money it provides is still quite pitiful given the scope of the problem. For example, right now, most of the money that funds antiretroviral treatments comes from international organizations like the Global Fund, not the state budget. Only 39% of the people who need ARV therapy in Ukraine actually receive it, due to the financial constraints of both the individuals and the NGOs who are trying to subsidize their treatments.

I'd like to learn more about the HIV/AIDS crisis in Ukraine. After the presentation, I struggled through a conversation in Ukrainian with a member of the delegation who lives in Kyiv. We swapped contact information, so hopefully we will have a chance to meet again and discuss all of this...

But maybe in English next time? :)