As someone who harbors a fascination for doubles and doppelgangers in art and fiction, where I had assumed such figures live, you might imagine my surprise when, in a weak moment of self-Googling, I discovered an entry for my name to which someone else was attached. I have an unusual name. In fact, until that fateful day, I would have bet a chunk of change that I was the only Lydia Stryk in the world. When you have an unusual name, there’s no hiding out on Google. Up you come, over and over, without relief or mercy. But here was a result for one “Lydia Stryk” who for all intents and purposes was not me, but instead, a troubling imposter in my small cyber world.
The macabre is the norm in the 21st century. But certainly a cooling liquid chill quickening into the fallout heat of irony entered me as I clicked on “Lydia Stryk” and discovered upon my screen a Chernobyl returnee—one of a small group of residents of the “exclusion zone” surrounding the Chernobyl disaster site who chose to return to their fallout ghost villages after the catastrophe.
There sits Lydia Stryk—a stubborn entry in the annals of defiance—on the brightly colored and flower-patterned settee of her Ukrainian village home, captured in a Chernobyl portrait series by the photographer, Daniel Berehulak: set face, determined eyes framed by her babushka, bulkily solid, willfully alive.
I ask my German girlfriend what it was like that late April day in ’86 when news of the Chernobyl disaster first broke in Berlin.
“The radio bulletins reported that radioactive clouds were flowing through the atmosphere,” she recalls, “and that no one knew in which direction they would go. We were advised not to take part in any sports activities and whenever possible to remain indoors. We were asked to remain calm and to stay tuned for updates. A hotline was erected.”
I ask her if she felt panic. “No,” she says. “The mothers, the mothers felt the panic.” And many who could fled with their children, buying up last-minute tickets to the Canary Islands.
“You had the feeling the world might be coming to an end. We shrugged our shoulders. It was unusually warm for April. We sat in cafes (against instructions) the closest to ‘sports activities’ most Berliners ever come. A certain fatalism descended.”
She tries to explain. The world was out of control. Something was separating the earth—a segment of the world had been cut off. The planet was breaking apart.
“There was massive aggression, against the politicians, the scientists. The fury and debate were unimaginable. The accusations. And yet, looking back, what is astonishing is how calm we were.”
I don’t understand that.
When you think the unavoidable is coming, then you go into a kind of shock. Wir warren in eine Starre—a kind of paralysis.
How long did this go on?
A long time.
Did the clouds pass over you?
They may have. But they headed elsewhere.
When reactor number four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, releasing 400 times the radiation fallout released by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, the world quickly learned (and as quickly forgot) that an inexperienced night crew expected to complete a safety experiment delayed until their shift by the exigencies of the “power” business (a terribly planned experiment to redress a disastrous risk in the system that had not stopped the opening of the plant going ahead two years previously without the necessary safety feature due to political expediency) could make errors so fatal and thus unleash something so dangerous that it could only be compared favorably with the plans of any rogue terrorist.
The forbidden zone around Chernobyl has a thirty-kilometer radius encompassing not only an abandoned city but many ghostly villages. The city, Prypiat, has been taken over by grass and wild rose bushes. And it is said that trees grow on rooftops there and inside of buildings.
Lydia Stryk and the other returnees—now elderly—returned home to their villages inside the zone soon after the catastrophe of April 26, 1986. Meanwhile, experts predict it will take up to 900 years until the region is officially inhabitable again. And beyond this, the radiation has not yet been contained, but continues to leak out of reactor number four.
In Hiroshima, John Hershey’s remarkable reportage on a small group of survivors of the A-bomb drop on Hiroshima, one survivor, Miss Sasaki, recounts with particular horror how within a month of the explosion, the wrecked city was covered “in a blanket of fresh, vivid, lush, optimistic green[. . .]Weeds already hid the ashes, and wild flowers were in bloom among the city’s bones.” (The flesh slid off the bones of the living, Hershey’s witnesses report elsewhere.)
“The bomb,” Hershey explains, “had not only left the underground organ of the plants intact, it had stimulated them. Everywhere were bluets and Spanish bayonets, goose foot, morning glories and day lilies, the hairy-fruited bean … ”
Is there any comfort to be taken in the knowledge that when the nuclear holocaust comes, as it inevitably will (the paralysis—that Starre—has set in), the planet Earth will explode with a profusion of color and scent?
If I could write Lydia Stryk, here is what I would tell her. And who knows but a relative now living in Brooklyn will read these words and pass it on. Stranger things have happened.
Dear Lydia Stryk!
Forgive my addressing you, a perfect stranger, with this unexpected letter. I must confess that it came as something of a shock to learn of your existence. One gets used to being the only Lydia Stryk in the world. And perhaps you will be equally surprised to learn of me.
What’s in a name? We are very different, you and I. Although my family came from your region of the world, they were cursed and set upon and those who were not murdered escaped with nothing but the skin on their backs. I can’t call your world “home.”
But I know exactly why you went back there. You have something there. And no nuclear fallout in the world can take that away.
“It’s all a question of attitude,” I hear you saying with a shrug. “And a sense of humor. After all, who has 900 years to wait around?”
The water tastes like champagne. The fruit so sweet you shiver as you bite into its skin. Many died, of course, after longer or shorter illnesses, but others, well, you just go on. Here I am speaking for you, Lydia—may I call you Lydia?—forgive me, but . . .
You are in my dreams. You haunt me. You’ve been there all along. My dreams about the atom bomb. The fallout sun. I think that I am you. You will go on living 900 years or more. You’ve stolen my name, my will. It all makes sense. My constant exhaustion, irritation, the listlessness. The strange taste in my mouth, my lost sense of touch, the marks that climb across my skin.
You’ve brought me back there with you. Beyond the acceptable, what is forgivable. The forbidden zone where anything is possible. Because it is all over now and will be forever.
Might I visit you?
Lydia Stryk is the author of over a dozen plays including Monte Carlo, The House of Lily, The Glamour House, American Tet, and An Accident produced at, among others, Denver Center Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Victory Gardens, the Contemporary American Theatre Festival, Magic Theatre, and in Germany at Schauspiel Essen, Theaterhaus Stuttgart and the English Theater Berlin. She lives between Berlin and New York. www.lydiastryk.com.