One time in Washington, I awoke to read in the papers that there had been an earthquake the night before. Dishes spilled out of pantries, and chandeliers swung from ceilings. It seemed everyone was frightened but me. I slept right through it.
I get somewhat the same feeling being in the Soviet Union in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster. I'm told my relatives worry about my health. I'm asked by telephone how come I'm not writing all the time about Chernobyl. It's a bit like the earthquake. It's more or less happening in the Western newspapers.
It's not that people here do not talk about Chernobyl. Any event that brings Mikhail Gorbachev before the television cameras is going to set Russians talking. In one way or another, the story dominates the news -- stories about the accident itself, the cleanup, the bravery of the helicopter pilots who are said to have dropped gravel and boron on the fire.
Especially with foreigners who are thought to have either more or better information, the subject comes up. We trade. In exchange for information we get rumors: a cousin from Kiev says that everyone is scared; a neighbor reports that her aunt has fled to Moscow from Kiev; things are worse than the authorities reported; things are better than they reported. Only when it comes to rumors is there a free enterprise system here: you have your choice.
But there is no panic, no great concern. The people I have talked with do not think Moscow is -- or was -- in any danger. In the first place, they have far more confidence in the ability of their scientists to contain the danger than Americans do. And they do not share such a dark view of their government that it would, for propaganda reasons, endanger the lives of its citizens.
The Soviet Union, like the United States, is a vast land. A disaster in Kiev is, to a Muscovite, what one in Indiana would be to a New Yorker -- a long way off. That is even more true to a resident, say, of Tbilisi or -- eons away -- Tashkent. But even in Leningrad, more or less in the direction of that first nuclear wind, residents did not think they were in danger.
None of that means that you do not eat a tomato without asking where it is from. (It is too early in the season for tomatoes to come from the Moscow region.) We all know that feeling. Tomatoes join the list of items that put you into a state of alert -- cheap Italian wine, Tylenol tablets and, for some, trips abroad.
Still, this is Russia, and you are never sure if you know what you think you know. Information is always scarce, and while the Soviets have paraded experts before the Western press, you never really learn all you need to. Questions sometimes are not answered. Much time is spent answering questions from correspondents from so-called "socialist" countries -- the Eastern European satellites. They are invariably served up to suit some propaganda purpose: Don't you think Chernobyl proves that Star Wars is even more dangerous? Answer: I'm glad you asked that . . .
Sometimes, the very manner in which the Soviet propaganda apparatus seeks to reassure its own people tends to add to the general unease. Some Western correspondents were allowed to visit Kiev, but the ones interviewed for television were "friendlies" from communist papers. Instead of saying that there was little they could learn (they cannot see radiation, after all), they pronounced the entire city hunky-dory. They lambasted the Western press for suggesting, based on a mere nuclear accident, that some people might have suffered radiation poisoning.
So insistent were the Russians to show that Kiev was safe, that they made at least one group of Brazilian and Argentinian tourists stop there. Although some members of the groups begged to skip Kiev, they were told it was impossible to change the tour or, for that matter, call their travel agent in Buenos Aires. Before the tourists left Kiev, they were all checked for radiation, told they had none and given a slip of blue paper with some Russian writing on it. They were told it was a certificate of good health.
So I eye the news carefully, as if it were a tomato, season it with available rumors and digest it all. My relatives worry, the office wonders. But, I think, Chernobyl won't bother me. After all, I survived the Great Washington Earthquake.