Soon after, Russian troops began firing at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. The way a lot of people reacted to this was a cold revelation to me. There was a common idea that nothing would come of it, because it was too ridiculous. Everyone remembers Chernobyl; no one in their right mind would damage a nuclear reactor.
But I think it’s far too easy to believe that “sensitive” and “likely” are the same thing, especially when you’re watching from a safe place.
The UK has its problems – but there has been no genocide here recently. Churchill didn’t deliberately starve millions of people, we didn’t have a gigantic system of prison labor that amounted to slavery, we didn’t have a well-known secret police to arrest random people and murder them in cellars.
Nor do we suffer from the continuing effects of multiple nuclear disasters. Former Soviet territories do, however. That was actually what I had written about.
There is a place in the east of Russia called Chelyabinsk 40, or City 40, or Ozersk. These are all code names. Chelyabinsk 40 is a post office box number, in the past, if you wanted to send mail to this city, you had to send it to the neighboring city, Chelyabinsk.
It is now called Ozersk, but that is also a vague name. Ozero means lake; it’s just “the place on the lake”. It was a secret city in Soviet times – it didn’t appear on any map – because it was home to six nuclear reactors and a facility that made weapons-grade plutonium for hydrogen bombs.
In 1957, something happened there: a huge accident. It was probably a nuclear waste storage shed that was not properly cooled. It exploded. Clouds of radioactive material exploded into the atmosphere and people miles away contracted radiation sickness – nausea and burns.
To experience these symptoms, you need to be exposed to the amount of radiation you would get from having about ten thousand chest X-rays at one time. It’s no small accident. It’s a catastrophe the size of Chernobyl.
The western world discovered Chernobyl because Ukraine is close enough to places like Sweden and Denmark for radiation detectors to go off if something happens.
But City 40 is near the Urals. Although the wind carried the fallout for thousands of miles, it did not reach the west. So, unlike Chernobyl, the City 40 disaster remained secret.
What happened next was something so strange it seems made up. Some people were evacuated and the affected area – thousands of square kilometers – was partially closed off.
But instead of calling it a disaster area, local authorities declared it a nature reserve.
And then they started bringing in scientists to study what had happened to the local wildlife. City 40 itself remained populated all the time – it had schools and theaters and everything. Its river, the Techa, flowed unhindered in the Arctic, full of nuclear waste.
In the 1970s, a Soviet scientist, Zhores Medvedev, tried to expose this to the West… and no one believed him. It was too crazy. But he was right. It happened, and it still happens.
The radioactive trace of the disaster is still there. People are warned never to swim in the area’s lakes, and radiation-related health issues are widespread. It’s no longer a secret in Russia, which in some ways is scarier because it makes it normal. Just one thing that happens.
When all of this is just one thing happening, it’s hard to imagine anything going unthinkable for long.
The Half-Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley (Bloomsbury Publishing, £16.99) is out now.