Real Stories: Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko Q&A with the world heavyweight champions
You guys were 10 and 14 in 1986, at the time of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. How did that affect you?
Wladimir: We lived just 60 miles from the accident site, near the Kiev airport, on a military base where our father worked. I remember helicopters and airplanes taking off and landing constantly, leaving for Chernobyl to drop off lead to absorb the radiation.
Vitali: Our father was one of the first on the scene. He spent months there working on radiation containment and cleanup.
Wladimir: When cars and military vehicles came back from Chernobyl, they would wash them off at the base where we lived. The water they used to rinse off the cars formed big puddles. Me and my brother and our friends would play in the puddles with little paper boats. At the time, no one knew how serious the radiation problems were. Eventually, all the kids from my school were evacuated and sent down to the Azov Sea in southern Ukraine. Much of the city was emptied. But Vitali stayed.
Vitali: The explosion affected the life of our family and also millions of people around the world. Our father, he died two months ago from cancer. The doctors said it was a result of his contact with nuclear fallout. I have never cried so much.
Wladimir: A few weeks ago I went to visit Chernobyl for the first time. I had to see the place. You carry these radiation meters with you, and there are rules about where you can walk and where you can't. Radiation is hard to comprehend — you can't smell it, you can't feel it, it's not warm, it's not cold, you can't see it in the air, but still it remains. I went to a school where one of the classrooms had been left untouched, just like it was on April 26, 1986. It was eerie, like a time machine — everything looked the way things had looked in Soviet times, with all of the same books we'd had in my classroom when I was a kid. The attendance sheet on the teacher's desk was marked "April 25," which was a Friday. The explosion happened on Saturday.
What do you think are the lessons to be learned from Chernobyl?
Wladimir: That nuclear plants are not stable. Just one mistake through technology or human hand can cost lives for generations to come. We're only seeing the beginning with what has happened in Fukushima, Japan. Even the United States had a near meltdown on Three Mile Island. These tragedies aren't local. Radiation doesn't recognize borders. A meltdown in Japan or India, say, is a danger to the whole world. Wind circulates the radiation everywhere. Water quality is affected. We all eat the same fish. We use products from all over the world — if something is contaminated, it will cause harm. After Chernobyl, thousands and thousands of people, if not millions, were given a death penalty and had to pay the price, our father among them.
Did you see any hopeful signs for the people living around Chernobyl?
Wladimir: I'd heard about how bad things are, and, yes, there are a lot of health issues for people, especially the kids. But I also see people rebuilding and carrying forward. Me and my brother are financing some projects for kids in Zone 2 and Zone 3. These are the communities closest to Chernobyl (Zone 1 is uninhabitable). I understand why people would choose to return — this is home to them — so we want to help make it the best place to live that we can.