As the first stage of the Chernobyl crisis winds down, official Soviet information about the accident and its aftermath has slowed to a trickle, sometimes consisting of contradictions.
But while supplying few new or significant details on the accident itself, the Soviet press is now paying more attention to public health information, filling a gap that had been most on the minds of Soviet citizens.
With various newspapers spinning out their own dramatic accounts of the events of April 26, certain key details have become blurred.
For instance, did the firemen -- the heroes of Chernobyl -- know the consequences of fighting a radioactive fire, and were they prepared? And why, after the high-pitched drama inside the reactor building that night, was there a 36-hour delay before the nearby population was evacuated?
Supplementing the newspaper accounts have been scattered interviews this week with Soviet officials who have provided small bits of new information, but not enough detail to assess their value.
On Wednesday, a nuclear safety official mentioned that "experiments" were being conducted on the reactor's systems when it erupted. Without details, that piece of news only helped to add to, rather than to clarify, the mystery of the cause of the accident.
Other interviews have contradicted previous assertions. For example, early accounts said local officials were tardy in informing Moscow, but now Moscow officials say they were told within three hours of the accident.
The main message of the Soviet press in recent days has been to allay fears. "One can say that where people are living, there is no danger," said Deputy Health Minister Oleg Shchepin in an interview in the Literary Gazette. "The best recommendation for them: stay calm and carry on a normal style of life."
But bit by bit, information has been provided, giving people some clue about the nature of radiation, its effect on the food chain, and how it can potentially affect animals and humans.
Thus, in the weekly newspaper Nedelya, academician Vaskhnil Koneev told readers that radioactive material can accumulate. He noted that ducks, feeding on certain plankton, could accumulate radioactive material in their eggs; but, he added, the water they swim in would be safe for other animals.
Koneev also recommended that milk for children come from cows that have been separated and fed on special feed.
But to the curious reader, such answers only raise more questions: Should people not eat ducks? Will milk for children be marketed separately from milk for adults?
Koneev acknowledged the lack of hard information, noting that the science of radioactive ecology is still young.
But it is apparent that Soviet citizens in many cases have acted on their own, without official advice. Thousands left Kiev, despite official assurances that life in the Ukrainian capital, 80 miles south of Chernobyl, was normal.
And in some stores in Moscow, milk from Finland is being sold "for children" -- a tacit admission that fears about food contamination have spread north.
More specific warnings have appeared recently in local newspapers. In the Ukraine and in Byelorussia this week, people were warned against eating wild berries and mushrooms and farm workers were told to wear dust-protective clothing, and, in some areas, to breathe through gauze.
These were new warnings, added to some given before: to wash vegetables thoroughly, to bathe frequently and to hose down cars and places where dust can collect.
As the information gap lingers, it is filled up with rumors. The second week after the accident, the Ukrainian health minister warned people against inventing their own remedies -- which had apparently included swallowing iodine, putting people in the hospital.
For years, the Soviet public has been shielded from debates about the safety of nuclear energy. As its press coverage of Chernobyl moves on from the early period in which health risks were not even mentioned, a psychological adjustment has been necessary.
The Communist Party newspaper Pravda noted a week ago that heightened anxieties in the first days could be attributed to the "uncertainties, which at times were promoted by delayed information about the real state of affairs at the scene of the accident."
United Press International reported from Moscow:
Ukrainian authorities have ordered the evacuation of more than 100,000 schoolchildren from Kiev and the region affected by the nuclear disaster over the past 10 days, the railway workers' newspaper Gudok said today.
It said the railways were given "a special mission" to take the children out "in the shortest possible time." It said that "since May 14, over 10,000 schoolchildren are being sent off daily." It did not say where they were being taken.