Writer Katya Cengel Leads a Roundtable on Chernobyl
On the Secrets, Suppression and All-Around Scariness
of Post-Soviet Life
This is Joining Conversation, The Virtual Book Channel’s special event roundtable.
Four female writers who have experience covering disaster and government interference around the world came together for a Los Angeles Public Library virtual panel. At the center of the “Documenting Disaster: Perils of Truth and Information” panel is a book, Foreword Indies 2020 finalist, From Chernobyl with Love: Reporting from the Ruins of the Soviet Union by Katya Cengel. From Chernobyl with Love provides an intimate look at the secrets, suppression and all-around scariness of post-Soviet life less than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union. And, of course, Chernobyl.
It was the handling of Chernobyl that reminded International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) program director Jin Ding of a far more recent event, China’s handling of COVID-19. As co-founder of Chinese Storytellers, a collective of Chinese non-fiction content creators, and a journalist in their own right, Ding adds their take on storytelling in times of disaster. Joining Ding and Cengel are well-traveled scribes, Courtney Radsch and Shilpa Jindia. As advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, Radsch knows plenty about the danger storytellers face in the field. Jindia, an IWMF fellow, demonstrates the interview skills that make her a successful freelance journalist.
From the episode:
Jindia: Disasters as we know become crises of legitimacy for governments and emergencies become opportunities for them to exert power and control. And for many governments the priority is to save face and citizens are then left to survive on their own. And with the understandable preoccupation with Coronavirus, many governments are already taking advantage of this moment to extend their repressive hand. So, journalists therefore are not just documenting the truth, but they are also keeping those governments in check putting themselves at risk. This is normally the case for too many journalists around the world at any given moment unfortunately, but the pandemic has its particularities.
So, we’ll start with Katya to hear a bit about her experience reporting from Chernobyl, before talking to Jin about how Chernobyl is actually a household name in China while the government still relies on censorship to get through crisis like pandemics and other public disasters. And then Courtney will discuss the risks for journalists reporting on COVID in the Middle East and around the world as well as how journalists are overcoming these barriers. So we’ll take about 30 to 40 minutes to do that and you can leave questions in the chat box and we’ll get to them at the end.
So, Katya tell us a bit about your experience chronicling stories from the residents of Chernobyl when you lived in Ukraine.
Katya: Thank you for doing this and for all you guys for being here. As Shilpa was saying we were in DC before and it was then that Jin mentioned, no it was a couple weeks or a month later that COVID happened, and Jin mentioned and I was like ‘oh wow, this is part of a bigger thing’, so it’s really been interesting.
When I was there, the first time I went it was 1999 and then the next time, I went several times because I was based in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, at the time, so I made several trips. And the first one was I had heard about, that there were people who had gone back to live, there’s an exclusion zone around Chernobyl where no one is supposed to live. There were some scientists doing experiments there, but no one was officially living there. And I had heard, mostly, maybe a couple hundred at most, elderly residents and former residents had gone back to live there. And at the time, now you hear these stories a lot, but at the time you didn’t hear a lot about it and so I wanted to go back and see that.
And I remember the photographer I was working with. I freelanced for US publications, but I was also working for an English language newspaper there, Kyiv Post, which still exists, is still there. And the photographer who was Ukrainian I remember I was friends with his girlfriend, she asked me many times not to take him with me, she really didn’t want him to go, she was that scared. She was Ukrainian as well, brought up there. She said, ‘please don’t take Victor’. I said he’s willing to go, I want to go. So, it was still kind of a place people didn’t go and you had to get special permission and everything like that. There weren’t a lot of people there and it was very hard to find the residents because you go in to an abandoned village and then you’ll see trees growing up in front of doorways and you’ll see no street signs so you can’t really find a street. There are no street signs, there’s nothing there just a lot of overgrown wilderness and then you’ll see one house with laundry outside drying and be like ‘OK, they’re people there’. So those were some of the people I spoke to that time.