The summer when I was 15 I crossed the Berlin Wall, hiked in the Alps and was subjected to a modest dose of radioactivity of which I was not aware.
And I don’t mean a clandestine X-ray of my teeth or anything like that.
The Soviet Union was responsible for the first and the last of this trio of experiences.
The Alps would have been there regardless of Marxism-Leninism, so the hike probably would have happened even in a world without the October Revolution.
The USSR was not only still around that summer of 1986, but the hulking giant behind the Iron Curtain seemed energized by the ascendancy of its youthful new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.
That America’s nemesis for the previous four decades was in fact decaying, the germs of its destruction already circulating, to flame into rampant infection just five years later, would no doubt have shocked even many astute geopolitical pundits.
I was not one of those.
I was a naíve teenager who had never been east of the Mississippi River but was suddenly installed, rather as a character in a Victorian novel, in a palatial home on the shore of a glacial lake south of Munich.
The Mueller family was the first of two I lived with during my stay in Germany — known then, and for a few more years, as West Germany to distinguish it from its Soviet-controlled neighbor to the east.
(President Ronald Reagan had yet to exhort Mr. Gorbachev to tear down that wall, and David Hasselhoff had yet to stand atop the cement barrier and sing. I’ll leave it to you to decide which event was more significant.)
This trip, which also included time with the Woerwag family in Stuttgart, was arranged by my high school German teacher, Roger Danielson.
Considering that I have flown on a commercial airliner just twice in the ensuing 33 years, and left America not at all, my half-summer abroad remains a milestone event in my life.
But so far as I can tell, after plumbing my own admittedly unreliable memories, as well as the journal I kept that summer and several letters I wrote to my family, I was ignorant of what had happened several weeks earlier at Chernobyl, in Ukraine.
(The journal and letters, all written in the execrable style that was my hallmark at the time, reveal an author fixated on cataloging banal details and stricken with homesickness even as he was visiting medieval castles and meeting friendly German girls at a beer garden. When I read these passages today I am afflicted by a mixture of emotions, chiefly the strange stew of embarrassment, wonder and, lastly, affinity for a boy who seems, if not a stranger, then at least not as familiar as he ought to.)
I surely must have heard of Chernobyl by the time I flew from Portland the first week of June.
On April 26 the unit four reactor at that nuclear power plant exploded, spewing a cloud of radioactive debris into the atmosphere and contaminating a swath of Ukraine with fields of deadly gamma rays.
It was, and remains, the worst accident at any nuclear power facility.
I’m tempted to attribute my blissful ignorance to my age. I don’t believe I was an atypical 15-year-old in my general lack of interest in international affairs. Besides which I was of course focused on visiting a country where I knew nobody and whose language, notwithstanding my report card A’s, was, well, foreign.
But my thoughts on the matter have changed considerably since reading Adam Higginbotham’s 2019 nonfiction book, “Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster.”
The key word in that title is “Untold.”
Although Higginbotham is masterful in his exhaustive description of the Chernobyl explosion and its aftermath, his book also lays bare the Soviet Union’s proclivity for concealing the truth from its citizens, both in what the regime said and what it did not.
Indeed it’s likely that the only reason the outside world learned about the catastrophe is that the toxic by-products of fission are uniquely exempt from the repressive tactics of even the most authoritarian regime. When radiation monitors in Sweden began to show alarming numbers, the Soviets forever lost the ability to conceal their deadly secret.
Which is not to say the Communist oligarchs simply surrendered to the physical realities of fallout.
Higginbotham writes at length about their obfuscation. A typical passage: “Slowly at first, but then with gathering momentum, the Soviet public began to discover how deeply it had been misled.”
Nor were the Soviet citizens the only victims of this misinformation campaign.
Higginbotham also describes a technical conference that took place on Aug. 25, 1986, in Vienna. The Soviet scientist chosen to explain the incident to an international panel on nuclear power, Valery Legasov, delivered a speech that, in Higginbotham’s words, “held his audience spellbound.”
But Legasov’s talk was a triumph not of truth, but of public relations.
“Glasnost or not, the organs of the Soviet state were no more ready to disclose the truth about the myriad failures of Socialist technology than they had ever been,” Higginbotham writes.
Yet the Soviets were even less forthcoming to their own citizens. The book is a depressing litany of repression — hospital records doctored to delete any reference to radiation, state-sponsored lies about the levels of radioactivity and the resulting dangers, casting blame not on the inherent flaws in the design of the Chernobyl reactor (which had little in common with those operated safely for decades in the U.S. and other western nations) but on the men who operated it.
When I finished this fascinating but troubling book I had to concede that even had I been something other than a teenager with much on his mind besides nuclear reactors when I landed in Frankfurt in June 1986, the chances were virtually nil that I could have known what had happened on the other side of the Iron Curtail.
I certainly could not have understood that the verdant grain fields of Bavaria through which I passed on my way to Schondorf, where the Muellers lived, carried on their waving green stalks a tiny but very real burden of radioactive isotopes.
Ultimately, “Midnight in Chernobyl” is not a condemnation of nuclear power, but of the ossifying effects of a political system that has such little regard for its citizens that it prefers to expose them to deadly substances rather than to the truth.
Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.