WORSE THAN RADIATION
and 7 odd Chernobyl stories









The latrine

       If you asked me what's the difference between army and civilian life, I’d say:
       ‘First and foremost — the lack of privacy.’
       You are never alone.
       Even in the situations where it would be most natural.
       By which I don’t mean, for example, going with one of your mates beyond the camp, to the edge of the forest — for a piss under an oak tree (or pine tree, as the case was in Chernobyl). Because it is one of life's uplifting moments. It is... well, I don’t know... It’s like having a cup of coffee in a city like Paris, sitting at a table outside with your mate, watching the world go by... This is poetry, the apogee of communion between human beings, between man and nature...
       Nor do I mean the other case — in the morning, after reveille, when the platoons form up by their tents and march off, in formation — to release the accumulation of natural pressures that have built up overnight — at the latrine — following the command: ‘At ease! Dismissed!’ (Though this wasn't the practice in Chernobyl — a serious infringement of the Internal Service Manual of the Armed Forces of the USSR.)
       By the way, it's not as stupid as it seems: collective urination promotes, as few other things can, ‘the unit's adjustment to combat situations’; sitting over a hole amidst a crew of fellow representatives of the species homo sapiens strengthens character, sustains the psyche and (no joke! I’m serious — I felt this personally) makes you feel an integral part of the mass — ‘I, too’, so to say, ‘am a particle of this mighty power.'*
       Now, imagine a commander shitting in the presence of his subordinates — who, naturally, are also having a shit. Or going to — or from — their business and passing the hole where their commander is straining away...
       And one such commander — I can see it now — the commander of our reconnaissance batallion is perched casually over the hole, like any of his men, perusing a copy of The Soviet Warrior newspaper, — before tearing it into strips... He's totally oblivious. A real soldier.
       I could never work out — in the morning, on my way to a vacant hole (the further a hole from the entrance, the quieter it is) — just how to greet him? ‘Zdravja zhelaju!’ — ‘I wish you health!’ — as military protocol requires? — Stupid. Not say anything? Awkward.... So, I usually grunted something a bit like a civilian's ‘Good morning’. In response to which, he would look up from his by now crumpled Warrior and fatherly greet me with his eyes.
       He was a real commander — experienced, savvy.
       Unlike the one we had next — neither fish nor fowl, with a loose, flabby physique and, as it happened, a personality to match. And a total nonentity as a commander. I never once saw him in our — his — battalion's latrine; he probably went to the lav in battalion HQ — to do it with his fellow officers. They may even have had cubicles — they were given a modicum of privacy in there....
       That's enough of that, though, I didn't raise this particular subject ‘just-for-fun’ but to provide my conclusions with a proper statistical basis.
       I must explain:
       Our latrine — it was built on an open sandy plain — was a sort of long barn, with the sides and pitched roof covered in tar paper. There was just one entrance — but w-i-i-de! — more like a gateway. No doors, of course.
       Inside, down the centre, was a row of posts cut from pale yellow pine trunks, each with a nail banged in to hold fresh newspaper. On either side of the posts — two rows of holes cut in the floor boards. One more detail: in our latrine there was an unusual — suprising! — amount of light.
       And so, by the time you reach a free hole-place, you know — like it or not — the state of the radiation reconnaissance battalion's bowels. And today's consistency of the battalion's shit — down below, at the bottom of the several-meter-deep pit beneath the flooring. Runny.
       The radiation reconnaissance battalion has unusually runny shit.
       Much runnier than on regular military training — not in Chernobyl (discounting those cases when the unit's combat readiness has been undermined by dysentery). Because usually the everlasting porridge they keep feeding you in the army makes you more inclined to constipation.
       But here, in Chernobyl...
       ...Radiation first of all affects a dividing cell. In an adult system — it is the blood — and the cells of the small intestines...

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