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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Liquidators Battle Death and Apathy

MTShashkov, left, and Korastilyov holding a 2001 edition of the newspaper Zaslon with pictures of Chernobyl liquidators who have died of related illnesses.
Nuclear physicist Alexei Shashkov nearly went blind, suffered multiple heart attacks, developed a gastric ulcer and, last year, lost his hearing in one ear.

Still, he considers himself lucky. Unlike most who worked with him at Chernobyl in the late 1980s, he's still alive.

As the 20th anniversary of the April 26, 1986, explosion at Chernobyl's reactor No. 4 nears, there are about 3,000 seriously disabled workers like Shashkov, 60, living, or slowly dying, in Moscow, city authorities say. They add that there may be as many as 25,000 Chernobyl workers with varying levels of disabilities in the city.

Several advocates for survivors say 30,000 Chernobyltsy -- an all-encompassing term that includes cleanup workers, widows, evacuees, orphans and others -- live in Moscow.

Many, if not most, have suffered the same indignities Shashkov has suffered, if not worse: delayed government payment, legal wrangling with authorities and the bitterness that comes from, they say, being forgotten for cleaning up the planet's most contaminated 30 square kilometers, the size of the exclusion zone.

The liquidators, as the firefighters, engineers, scientists, medics and military personnel who mopped up the disaster were known, shouldn't be struggling to make ends meet, let alone buy medication -- in theory.

But the reality is a different matter.

In 1991, Soviet authorities established a compensation package for Chernobyl survivors including monthly payments and 25 other benefits ranging from free prescription drugs to free cars for those who had been left immobilized to better housing. Other benefits included exemption from income taxes, zero-interest home loans, better phone service and access to sanatoriums.

Chernobyl victims were entitled to greater job security and easier access to higher education. Their children were given priority status for admission to preschools, which remain in short supply.

In 1993, the government issued a long list of diseases and other ailments that it declared attributable to Chernobyl. These included cardiovascular disease, cancer, stomach ulcers, hepatitis and depression, among many others. The list was used to determine who qualified for benefits.

Then, two years later, Russian authorities passed a measure amending the original Soviet law. The Soviet law was known as the Law on Social Protection for Citizens Affected by the Impact of Radiation as a Result of the Catastrophe at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. The new measure went into effect in 1996.

This law featured two major provisions, said Vyacheslav Kitayev, an attorney who was also a Chernobyl liquidator. First, liquidators had to prove that their disabilities were Chernobyl-related.

Second, servicemen involved in the cleanup were now no longer entitled to monthly payments. In 1998, however, the Constitutional Court declared that part of the law unconstitutional and restored benefits for military personnel.

Over the next several years, authorities systematically rolled back the benefits the liquidators received, curbing monthly payments and shortening the list of Chernobyl-related diseases from 15 to six.

Last year, the government eliminated 10 of the original 25 benefits for liquidators. The end of free health care, in particular, outraged recipients, prompting protests across the country.

Now, liquidators must go to court routinely to get their monthly payments adjusted so that they keep up with inflation. While there are laws dictating that liquidators are entitled to cost-of-living adjustments, the Federal Employment Service does not increase compensation payments until ordered to do so by a court, liquidators said.

Shashkov, for one, was forced to sue in 2002 for higher monthly payments, which had not increased since 2000. A district court in Moscow ruled in his favor, and his monthly payments went up from about 9,000 rubles; he declined to say by how much, fearing that people would think liquidators get too much.

Still, Shashkov said, the government owes him back payments totaling almost 1 million rubles, or more than $36,000. He calculated this figure based on all the years he did not receive cost-of-living adjustments.

Kitayev, who works for the Moscow region chapter of Union Chernobyl, a support group, said he had handled more than 700 court cases filed by Chernobyl cleanup workers and that as many as 35,000 such court cases had been filed in recent years.

"Everyone has to go to court," Shashkov said.

Trials can drag on for years, Kitayev said, and Chernobyltsy widows must frequently go back to court to get compensation increases that their husbands had earlier won in hard-fought battles.

Itar-Tass / Reuters

A Chernobyl worker checking radiation levels in the engine room of the first and second power units in June 1986.

Liquidators also must contend with widespread confusion among government officials about which ministry or agency must pay overdue benefits, which the Health and Social Development Ministry acknowledges totals 1.6 billion rubles, or more than $58 million.

The ministry said in a faxed statement that it was seeking to have that money included retroactively in the 2006 federal budget. Officials further concede that the benefits legislation is byzantine and does not spell out clearly which costs are dealt with by local versus federal authorities.

Vadim Korastilyov, a retired army colonel, former liquidator and the current editor of Zaslon, one of several newspapers published by Chernobyltsy, noted that Chernobyl support groups have also struggled in recent years.

At one time, Moscow authorities gave businesses tax breaks for donating to groups that advised Chernobyltsy about their legal rights, assisted in getting them medical treatment, gave emotional support and, more generally, boosted their visibility.

The provision helped Korastilyov, who heads several Moscow groups for Chernobyltsy, collect 30 million rubles for medical equipment, he said. Korastilyov gave the equipment to local hospitals in exchange for free care for 600 Chernobyltsy, including 46 operations.

But the provision was recently scrapped because some businesses and support groups abused the loophole, Korastilyov said. Not surprisingly, money flowing to support groups has tapered off. Zaslon, Korastilyov's newspaper, was once a weekly; then it became a monthly; now, it's a quarterly.

"There's no money," he said. "We go around begging. It's so shameful."

And, of course, the chorus of Chernobyl victims demanding better compensation continues to wane.

Each year, Korastilyov said, hundreds of liquidators in the Moscow area die. The Gallery of Sorrow, a book of faces of dead liquidators that Zaslon publishes occasionally, badly needs to be updated, he said: There are about 2,000 new faces since the book was last published, in 2001. The 2001 edition contains hundreds of people who were in their 30s, 40s and 50s when they died.

Their troubles notwithstanding, liquidators see themselves as a threat to the federal government. "Who can fight the power?" Shashkov said. "Only we can."

Chernobyltsy, liquidators said, are educated, indefatigable and organized. In Moscow, said Marina Suslova, an official from the Moscow Committee for Public Relations who works with private Chernobyl support groups, there are 119 such organizations. Most Chernobyltsy, she said, are affiliated with one group or another.

One indication of Chernobyltsys' collective power may be the influence they have had on city authorities, who many liquidators said had treated them better than the federal government.

To commemorate this week's anniversary, the city hosted a concert Monday featuring Bolshoi Theater opera singers, a Belarussian folk band and Soviet-era crooner-turned-Duma Deputy Iosif Kobzon. The price tag was 1.5 million rubles, Suslova said.

But for Shashkov and the other surviving liquidators, no commemorations are needed to remember Chernobyl.

Shashkov, who was let go from his job at the Kurchatov Institute, Russia's leading nuclear research center, in 1999 after he became too sick to work, spends every day thinking about the disaster and fighting governmental apathy to it.

He also has to worry about his own health. In 1990, Shashkov suffered his first heart attack, although at the time doctors misdiagnosed it. In 1991, on the fifth anniversary of the disaster, he had his second heart attack; he spent the next six months in the hospital. Five months after being released, he had his third heart attack.

Reminiscing about his health before Chernobyl, Shashkov said: "I never knew I even had a heart."

Today, the physicist spends 8,000 to 10,000 rubles every month on prescription drugs. He said he had buried most of the people he worked with at Chernobyl. When he goes to doctors, he tells them to save time and write down all the ailments he does not have.

Liquidators tend not to criticize the Soviets who built Chernobyl and ultimately mismanaged it. They reserve their bile for former President Boris Yeltsin, whose government initiated the compensation cutbacks, and for the current administration. Liquidators often say they are confused about why the government's stabilization fund, swollen with oil revenues, cannot be tapped to take care of Chernobyl survivors.

Shashkov, a usually genial man, bristled when the conversation turned to politics, calling President Vladimir Putin, Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov, Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref and Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin greedy and myopic. "They have no concept of motherland," he said. "They've taken this great country and turned it into a mess. They've killed science. They've killed health care. They've killed education."

Legislation Timeline

1991 -- Soviet authorities establish a list of 25 benefits and a monthly compensation regime for Chernobyl victims.

1993 -- Russian authorities release a list of 15 recognized categories of diseases they say are Chernobyl-related.

1995 -- The government cuts liquidators' benefits for the first time: Liquidators must prove their ailments are Chernobyl-related, while servicemen lose their right to compensation.

1997 -- The Constitutional Court rules that servicemen are entitled to compensation.

1999 -- The government begins to limit the number of Chernobyl-related diseases. Ailments such as cardiovascular disease are eliminated.

2000 -- The government abolishes cost-of-living adjustments for monthly payments.

2001 -- The government imposes a 10,000 ruble cap on monthly payments while bringing back minimal cost-of-living adjustments.

2004 -- 10 of 25 benefits established in 1991 are eliminated, including free health care and transportation, cars for the disabled and zero-interest home loans. Authorities also slash the number of recognized categories of Chernobyl-related diseases to six.