Max White

Anya of Chernobyl, Ukraine

            After the 9/11 2001 Twin Towers attack, US air travel was suspended for a time. People were afraid to fly so tickets were cheap. I decided to go to Ukraine. In December I bought a ticket to Netherlands. I took a train to Krakow, Poland on the western edge of Ukraine and caught a train to Lviv, a charming old-world Ukrainian city once part of Poland. (National borders change. In 2014 Russia swallowed Crimea.)

In a month I talked to many Ukrainian citizens, to ex-members of the dissolved Soviet military, to a Russian millionaire, to law students in Kyiv and, poignantly, a teenager with radiation illness. I started in Lviv, then to Yalta, then to Kyiv. Since then, I have followed events: Russia’s attempt to install a President who was forced to flee after the Orange Revolution and so on.

Why Ukraine? I am interested in history and worked in human rights. I knew about Ukraine suffering under Stalin’s “collectives” experiment: famines and millions starving to death. A Ukrainian described it to me as Stalin’s “Final Solution.”

I hankered to go to Yalta in Crimea. Shortly after the United Nations was founded, Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill met in Yalta to divide up Europe after WWII. I have long been a fan of the UN and Universal Declaration of the Human Rights (UDHR), adopted shortly after formation of the UN. The UDHR is the foundational document for Amnesty International. I spent two decades working for Amnesty International USA. I saw UN operations up close when I lived and worked in East Timor (Timor-Leste) in 1998-1999, during the final bloody fight for independence from Indonesia. I stayed for a year after managing a medical clinic. The United Nations Transitional Administration for East Timor (UNTAET) served as the government from late 1999 until the new government was formed in 2002.


The Cyrillic Ukrainian language is mostly phonetic; that is, a letter is usually pronounced the same in any word. Before leaving the US I crammed, learning the Cyrillic alphabet and some Ukrainian phrases. I continued studying on the trans-Atlantic flight. It paid off.

To get a Ukraine visa, one needed a “sponsor.” I found Alex online. He advised that I could represent myself as a member of a sports club. I became a one-person sports team.

Alex met me in the George Hotel dining room in Lviv. He was slim, maybe five-feet-six, well-dressed in a thick wool overcoat, gray scarf and gray sweater. He had fine features and small hands. His English was impressive. As we ate, he explained his fee included service as a guide and “arranger.” He offered to find me a place to stay.

He asked if I wanted to visit the Chernobyl Museum. In 1986 Chernobyl was the site of the worst nuclear meltdown in history. (Yes, there is a scale: Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island). The Soviet Union denied that the meltdown happened until it was undeniable. European countries detected strong radiation coming from Ukraine; Sweden and Belarus were particularly hard hit. The Soviet government largely hid horrors suffered by Ukrainians and then badly mismanaged the disaster itself. I didn’t hanker to go to Chernobyl.

Alex contrasted me with other clients. “Most just want to say they’ve been to our poor country. They get their passports stamped, they buy Ukrainian colored eggs and then on to wonderful Russia. And they don’t come in winter.”

He arranged for me to stay at, “…the nice private house of my friend Natalia you’ll like it Max.” Alex said it would cost $20 per day including breakfast. I did like it. I gave Natalia four twenties. On my way back to Poland, I stayed at her house again for two twenties. I started noticing that many things cost $20 US.

Saturday afternoon Alex asked if I wanted a tour of Lviv on Sunday. Perhaps. How much would it cost? “Oh, let’s say two hours at $10 per hour; I’ll arrange the car.” I asked if I could treat Alex and his wife to the opera the next day—the Opera House was a treasure of Lviv.

Sunday morning it was snowing and colder than a babushka’s butt on stone stairs. Alex arrived at noon. He had a world-class cold so I suggested that we do the tour another day. No, he had gone to “great trouble to arrange for the car.” OK. We got in the taxi, me in back with Alex riding shotgun. He started what was obviously a spiel he’d done many times. “Here to the left you see the orange walls? the garrison built by the Austrians in early1900s and to the right a fragment of the old wall of the city…” And so on. Half an hour later we stop, Alex dismissed the difficult-to-arrange taxi and we went slip’slidin on foot. Observing Alex at Natalia’s house and then with this cabbie, I realized Alex shared. Friends in Lviv must have appreciated a visit from Alex and his customers. I admired his style and his generosity.

Blizzard! I was cold despite my Alaskan goose-down parka. Every time we went inside a building Alex hacked, blew his nose and popped a cough drop. He asked about my name. I said “Max” was short for Max. He laughed and he became informal Sasha. “This damn flu is going around everywhere even my friends in Switzerland say they are getting it. I am OK because I got these what you call cough drops?”

Lviv is fascinating with–excuse me–one helluva lot of churches. Some grand, some bizarre (the Armenian) and some with great names: Church of the Barefooted Carmelites, Church of Mother of God’s Unwearying Help and so on.

The Pharmacy Museum was the best stop: centuries-old instruments for making pills, big and little vessels, hand-blown glass jars and a giant black stone mortar and pestle, the mortar about a foot in diameter. The best was to come. Sasha got a key to the basement. We entered a small room through an oak door with huge brass hinges and brass handle. Black steel straps formed an X across the top window (“an exact replica of the original”). We entered two tiny rooms perhaps 4 by 5 meters total. It had been the laboratory of a “famous alchemist.” The owner had discovered the smaller room when he removed a brick wall. Not far overhead (in old Europe people were shorter) were seven mammoth ceiling beams, elaborate designs carved into each. On one side of the space were two small fireplaces, on the other side a forge. Three stuffed animals sat atop a stand in the corner (crocodile, owl and turtle) representing three principles of alchemy. If I understood Sasha’s interpretation: Eternity, Truth and Get-out-the-priest-is-coming. I asked what happened to the alchemist. Sasha said, “No one knows.” I think he’s in New Jersey.

We lunched. Beet-thick borscht and salad for me (great and mediocre respectively). Sasha ate a foul-smelling soup made of cow stomach which he assured, “…is very good for me but I can eat only with vodka.” He told me more than I wanted to know about Ukrainian and Polish delicacies made from animal intestines. Mmm Mmm Good. His wife would unfortunately not be able to go to the ballet because she was not feeling well. I imagine she looked out at the blizzard and decided that she would not be feeling well.

Walking around still cold despite my parka, I bought a Ukrainian/English dictionary. Unlike the minimalist one I cut from a book in the US, this was a dense real dictionary. I expected to use it the rest of my trip. Alas, I would give it to a girl on a train.

With bread, cheese and water—what I lived on—I headed “home.” Monday night, on what seemed an impulse, Sasha called to invite me to the home of his lawyer, partner and friend, Alexander. Sasha said, “Max, let us go see my friend Alexander. OK?”

We had a lovely time listening to music: classical Russian and Ukrainian rap. We talked about the state of the world. Before independence in 1991, Alexander had worked in various parts of the world, including South America for an agency whose initials rhymed with kay gee bee. He said he would like to visit the US but “I don’t think you would let me in.” I explained that it wasn’t up to me. They laughed.

We drank (me judiciously drinking vodka and orange juice, hold the vodka). I laughed more than I did the rest of my trip. Alexander said, “We are just two Ukrainian guys having our little fun here.” He brought out an imposing book, nearly a foot thick, deep-tooled black leather covers, metal hinges with hand-lettered, graphic pages of genealogy trees. It had been in his family for more than a hundred years. He reverently turned through pages of beautiful charts. Sasha nodded and smiled.

Alexander’s wife came home late in long black fur coat (I’ve never been anywhere with as many people wearing fur coats). She smiled scornfully at our little party, pecked both Alexes’ cheeks, formally shook my hand with her ring-heavy one and went upstairs.

Sasha explained how I would get to Yalta. A train would go to Simferopol in Crimea. Then I could take either the “longest tram in the world” (two hours over mountains) or a once-per-day bus. When I get to Yalta I’ll be approached by babushkas (babushki?) offering flats for rent. “This time of year you should pay no more than [wait for it] $20.” If that doesn’t work (Sasha had never taken anyone in winter) I should stay in, “the five star Hotel Yalta with swimming pool looking at ocean.” Which leads for the fifth or sixth time to: “Whatinhell Max are you doing here I mean in winter and all? I mean I’ve never had an American who didn’t want to stay at the Grand Hotel nor especially learned Cyrillic alphabet and Ukrainian words.” I was flattered.

Alex arranged my ticket to Simferopol and explained about paying the attendant for bedding. I was hyped. At a stop a few hours after Lviv, two guys from my compartment left. A mother and daughter came in, made up their berths and went to sleep. Early morning I was awake watching snowy scenes including a horse-drawn sleigh. The girl and mother woke and smiled at me. Mother rolled over and back to sleep. The girl asked me something. I used a valuable Ukrainian phrase: I said I spoke English. She seemed delighted and said, “As do I.” Passing my Ukrainian/English dictionary back and forth, we chatted in that clickity… clackity…clackity… bluish-interior railcar salon.

Anya told me she was headed to a sanatorium (yep, the word was in the dictionary). She had finished secondary school. She reminded me of my daughter at eighteen. The “very famous” sanatorium was east of Simferopol. I asked why she was going there. She subtly stiffened and I realized the question was rude. She thumbed through “our” dictionary and then said, “I get weak that’s all.”

Light was getting brighter and mom woke. Anya talked to her in a teenage rush. Mother smiled at me tentatively. They were a then-and-now photo—both slim, brown eyes and both with reddish-blond hair in medium-length bangs. Mom’s hands were rougher. From Simferopol they would take a train east to the sanatorium in Yeptoria.

I explained how I expected to get to Yalta. Anya laughed. So much for either the “longest tram in the world” or a once-per-day bus. Sasha hadn’t known that neither tram nor bus ran in middle winter. Anya told me she thought she could find a car to share and told me she would make sure the driver did not “overpay you.”

Sure enough, when we walked into the terminal, she left and returned with a guy who said he had room for one more to Yalta. It would be $20. He pointed out a door to his newer BMW and walked to it. I handed Anya the dictionary to her wide smile. We shook hands. Then it happened.

Anya rocked backward so slowly I didn’t realize at first that she was leaning into the corner, onto industrial-green flaking paint. She dropped gently. Her eyes rolled upward briefly then down then back up into sockets—up so far I saw mostly whites. She slid slowly down to a squat then sat on the grey concrete floor, feet in front, legs bent and knees together.

Shocked, I started to lean over to help her up when Mother pushed around from behind and stood wide-stance in front of Anya. Anya looked up around her mother’s legs and said, “I am OK this happens. I am OK.” Her eyes steadied. Mother, barely larger than Anya, leaned forward and whispered. Mother’s arms lifted beneath Anya’s armpits as they rose in one smooth motion. They stood facing each other as though it was a familiar move, a gymnastic move.

Anya looked at me again and started to say “I am OK…” Mother spoke sharply, turned them both to the right and guided Anya to an oak bench. Mother’s face said it was definitely not OK. I thanked them–Anya smiling but quiet, her mother stern. Carrying my backpack I stumbled out to catch my ride.


Five of us shared the car from Simferopol. The owner/driver said he’d make it in an hour to Hotel Yalta. Despite snow, he nearly did. I carried my bag up wide steps to one of the glass doors in a plain concrete-block building. I saw a bulky man in a red uniform standing in the blazing bright lobby. He wore one of those flat bus driver hats.

I visualized this man’s life. Not his whole, transcendently human life, but his life in the minutes and hours before he walked to the door. What did he do before I arrived? How many hours did he stand or pace? How were his legs? I thought about varicose veins and poor people who stand and wait, about blood a liquid that tends downward. When a body is found, a coroner estimates the time of death partly by how much blood has found its way into the tissue underneath. People on long airline flights find ankles and feet larger. The doorman opened the door.

The next morning Yalta, which I’d long wanted to see, was more beautiful than I expected. It reminded me a bit of Carmel, California: hills above the sea covered by twisted pines and a trail along the sea. Colder than Carmel though there were a few palm trees.

 During a few hours walk and in less than two kilometers I met three giants (well, one-and one-half life-size statues). They were sitting and standing atop brown stone blocks. In the center of Yalta Lenin stood, chin thrust up, looking out over the Black Sea, a book clutched at his breast, long open coat–a poseur looking over (overlooking?) arcades and rides of a little amusement park. Beyond a sea wall, a few brightly painted wooden boats sat on the beach. Fishermen and women shoulder to shoulder in the sea were netting silver herring.

A bit west and uphill stood Maxim Gorky, a writer banished, then celebrated by Russia. He stared back and down, maybe looking into Lower Depths, title of one of his plays. Gorky held a broad-brimmed hat in his left hand, coat thrown over his right arm. Not as formal or stiff as Lenin, but I guess statues are all stiff.

Half a kilometer further was writer and playwright Chekhov, sitting in an idyllic half-circle of pines and laurel. He gazed at the sea relaxed and bare-headed. He wore a medium length jacket, one hand draped gracefully over his crossed legs clasping a small book. Of the three, this was the giant I would have been least surprised to see rise, stretch and step away. I walked an hour beyond him. He was still seated, still musing when I returned. The inscription on the base read, “No matter where you go, there you are.” (My translation may be sketchy.)

These were not those heroic Soviet statues, upraised arms holding hammers or rifles. All three were gracefully sculpted. Of the three, only Gorky’s dates were inscribed (died in June 1936). I felt smug figuring out who they were (Lenin by sight of course) as I sounded out the Cyrillic names. I came to a concave-front building, orange with white trim. On plinths at opposite ends were stone busts, eye-level. One name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t recall him. Sounding out the other, though, my mouth watered. “Pavlov.”

Around Yalta I found “notable houses” with plaques. “House where A.M. Gorky lived in 1900, which was visited by A.P. Checkhov, L.N. Andreyev, I.A. Bunin, M.N. Yerkmolova, F.I Shalyapin [etc.] and other celebrities.” The house where, “Lesya Ukrainka lived in 1907-08.” Then Checkhov’s house, “place of first meeting of A.M. Gorky and…” So it went.

There was a monument, with one of those ubiquitous side profiles of Lenin. The brass plaque described Lenin’s Decree, “On the use of Crimea for the Treatment of the Working People,” “Treatment” reminded me of the girl on the train. I had located Anya’s hometown on a map. It was close to the border of Belarus; it wasn’t that far from Chernobyl.

I took a taxi up the hill to the hotel. The driver asked the usual question, “How do you find Yalta?” I resisted saying, “Go to Simferopol and turn right.” Instead, I said, as I do everywhere when asked, “I like it, but I know it is different to visit than to live here.” He looked at me in the mirror and pointed a thumb up.

The next morning I arranged with hotel receptionist Ylana for a taxi to Livadia Palace. Livadia is where Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill met in 1945 for the Yalta Conference, trying to out-fox each other while dividing up Europe. It’s now a museum.

Ylana spoke English with a New Jersey accent. She moved to Yalta after the USSR fell. (My last day in Ukraine, in a crowded BMW back to Krakow, I sat with three Ukrainians returning to New Jersey.)

A woman met us, me and three Russian women in fur coats, at the front door. The docent handed out cartoonish-big fur slippers to wear over shoes, a precaution to protect wooden floors inside. One Russian spoke a little English. We entered a large room with a long table. At each chair was a folder—reproductions of the actual briefing papers for the historic meeting. I couldn’t confirm the contents of a folder. Hands off.

At Livadia, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt signed the Yalta Accord, described in a multi-lingual brochure signed February 11, 1945 titled “The Communiqué as Unity in Organization of Peace as well as in Making War.” A separate room displayed copies of the San Francisco Examiner and SF Chronicle dated April 25 reporting formation of the UN. Walls were covered with photos of participants at the Yalta conference, including Molotov and other aides. Molotov was not drinking a cocktail. Churchill looked churlish; Stalin exactly like Big Brother, and Roosevelt like the death soon to be his. An Examiner headline said that although the UN had been formed “the Polish question remains.”

We went upstairs to a room devoted to the assassinated royal family—photos of Romanov kids and family and paintings by the children on easels. This had been their summer home. Bullet holes were elsewhere, in basement walls where the royal family had been shot—unless Anastasia really escaped.


My last full day in Crimea I went to the Yeptoria sanatorium. Ylana called to make sure where it was and arranged a ride with her cousin Oleg (“Saint Oleg” to me at the end of our day together). As with the driver of the BMW from Simferopol, Oleg had been Soviet military. I assume he had been enlisted– his faded red car was a Russian Lada. He was so large it seemed he was wearing the thing. One day the military were living comfortable, secure, privileged lives; the next day the USSR collapsed and pulled the rug out. Beware.

On the hour-plus drive through kilometers of blighted industrial lands and abandoned heavy manufacturing plants, it came to me, it nearly sickened me, that Anya might misinterpret my interest in her. It made me want to cancel, turn around. Oleg spoke passable English but I was stymied how to explain something so subtle. Too late. We were there.

We parked in front of a two-blocks-long one-story building fronted by lawn and healthy pruned bushes–a contrast to industrial surroundings. Oleg and I entered the reception area. I sat down on a couch in a long, dimly-lit room with no decorations—no pictures on the wall, no potted plants. Oleg spoke with the receptionist. In a few minutes Anya came through a door at the opposite end. She wore an ankle-length light green robe with a logo at the neck and cloth belt. Oleg smiled, shook her hand. (how small her hand was in his giant one) and talked to her as they glanced at me a couple of times. She left and came back in pants and muli-colored sweatshirt.

She walked to the bench holding our dictionary and sat, half turning toward me. She flashed a shy smile and said solemnly, “I am not expect to see you. I do not have many time because of exercise.” I asked Oleg to take a couple of pictures of us with my disposable camera.

The day before I bought a Russian copy of a Minolta 35mm viewfinder camera. I intended to ask that Anya send photos of her family and house. I looked for Oleg to help me explain but saw through a wide window that he was outside smoking. I offered her the camera sitting in its box on the couch between us. I gave her rolls of film. I found “family, “photo and “home’ in the dictionary.

She nodded and said “Yes. Thank you. I do not have my own camera.” I was going to show her how to load film but remembered that I stashed a folded $20 inside the camera with a note that it was for printing photos. Oleg said not to let anyone see me giving her money. Instead I showed her the instruction booklet. She nodded. “Good. I see. I can know.”

I said, “I hope you are well soon,” while screaming inside, “Stupid! Stupid damn stupid.”

“I come here so I get better,” she replied.

We stood and shook hands, me smiling despite a lump in my throat. She walked away. I stood until I knew I wouldn’t weep.

On the drive back to Yalta I asked Oleg whether Anya really understood my visit. I said she seemed uneasy. He said, “No worry. It is OK.” Later he took a while and used some awkward phrases to explain that there were stigmas about those with radiation sickness. He said “They are called Chernobylists.”