Memories of Chernobyl: Tahoe resident recalls life in Ukraine during world’s worst nuclear disaster
May 8, 2011
INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. – Sitting at a picnic table at Incline Beach, in the outstretched shade provided by a towering Ponderosa pine, Incline resident Tatyana Floam could no longer restrain tears as she rifled through a box of meticulously organized letters dating to the late 1980s.
Those letters contain references to the odd paradox of those bygone years – the happiness related to a newly burgeoning family, commingled with fears that very family could be endangered by an environmental disaster the likes of which the world had never seen.
Floam, who has lived in Incline Village since 2002 and works at Sundance Salon and Nails, was born in 1964 in Kiev, currently the capital city of Ukraine. However, at that time, the city was encompassed by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Growing up on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain presented its share of challenges, but nothing prepared Floam for events that unfolded on the morning of Saturday, April 26, 1986.
The day began routinely enough, with Floam on maternity leave caring for her infant son, Daniel, but what transpired approximately 134 kilometers to the northwest from Floam’s modest apartment would drastically alter the course of her life.
In an era of Twitter updates, instant coverage shot through fiber optic wires and satellite feeds incorporated into a 24-hour news cycle, it may be difficult to imagine Kiev residents not being instantly alerted to the dangerous plume spreading above the city’s skyline.
However, the Soviet Union did not have a free press in 1986, and regional news outlets were constrained as to what they could report.
Floam talked about what it was like to grow up in a culture of secrecy.
“You just didn’t speak the truth,” she said. “Most people grew up afraid to speak out.”
Still, Floam was lucky to be privy to information regarding the disaster.
On the day of the explosion, Floam was spending time with some female friends in the apartment complex, who also had small children. One had a husband, a bus driver whose route ran between Kiev and Prypiat, a small city in proximity to Chernobyl, and he disclosed the information.
Floam then gathered her young son and she and her then-husband left Kiev for the summer, heading to the eastern part of the Black Sea, where Floam’s in-laws rented a cabin.
Floam returned to Kiev in September with a new determination to leave the Soviet Union as soon as possible.
“I wanted to leave because I was scared for my son,” she said. “We knew that old people and babies were the most likely to be affected by the radiation, so I had to leave.”
Leaving was easier said then done, as the Soviet Union did not allow open travel or emigration. It was not until the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, that Soviet residents could contemplate foreign travel.
However, fortune once again smiled upon Floam and her family, as her then-husband had an aunt living in Baltimore, who was willing to sponsor the family’s relocation to the United States.
In 1988, nearly a year before the start of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Floam packed a few belongings, cradled her son in her arms and set off for a new country.
Floam harbors a patriotic zeal for the United States perhaps unequaled by natural citizens, who are susceptible to taking for granted constitutionally afforded liberties.
“America means freedom,” she said exuberantly. “Here you can be who you want to be and say what you want without having to be afraid. It’s not like I was ever making political speeches (in Ukraine), but you still had to be careful.”
Despite a brimming affinity for her adopted country, Floam still maintains communication with friends and family in the old country.
“I don’t have personal friends who are affected by Chernobyl, but they tell me stories of their friends who have gotten sick from cancer, or had children with (birth defects),” she said.
She said her niece paints a different picture of the country she knew as a child.
“My niece is very successful,” she said. “She and her husband each have a car. That would be unthinkable when I was there.”
After settling in Baltimore, Floam remarried and had four girls with her new husband. They then relocated to Incline Village, where Floam attests to finally finding happiness and a sense of place.
“I don’t see myself leaving anytime soon,” she said.
Floam’s four daughters attend Incline’s public schools, with two at Incline High School, one at Incline Middle School and another at Incline Elementary School.
She said her children are very interested in stories about Kiev and Chernobyl. So interested, in fact, that Floam and her five children will travel to Ukraine next week to reconnect with the country of their ancestors.
“I’m very excited about this trip,” Floam said. “My youngest is almost 11, so everyone will remember this experience.”
Floam is in the midst of planning events with family in friends in Kiev.
“One day we will have a barbecue with traditional Ukrainian food and the next day we will have traditional American food,” she said. “We will all learn a lot and it will be fun.”
Floam said she has no plans to visit Chernobyl, due to time constraints, but she knows the disaster that unfolded on that April day in 1986 is in large part responsible for where she is today – a blessing that emerged from destruction.
Matthew Renda is a reporter with the Sierra Sun, a sister publication to The Union.