Witnessing HBO’s Chernobyl: Cambridge Commission was awfully “close” to the real thing

Published on June 11, 2019

HBO miniseries, Chernobyl, had a bit more impact on me. Why?

I was awfully close by.

I covered that latent news in my last article at Grit Daily, covering the genesis of the now-known Cambridge Delegation. Most of the Soviets the Cambridge delegation met in the weeks following the Chernobyl disaster, shared our fears of war and dreamed of a peaceful world, compounded by the recent nuclear disaster that overcast the skies.

The sentiment echoed in the popular anthem-like Russian children’s song broadcast on radio and TV and bellowing from speakers in public arenas. It was a song Pete Seeger had popularized in America:

“May there always be sunshine. May there always be blue skies,

May there always be mamma. May there always be me.

The Soviets’ love for their children and their significance was undeniable. Children were nurtured and pampered patiently by all adults, regardless of their direct relation to the child. They involved the whole ‘village’ in raising the children.

Soviets visiting Moscow’s Red Square.

The babooshga’s (grandmothers) sat watch over the children playing in sparsely landscaped public parks with shallow pools and small playgrounds, overshadowed by grey, cement, high-rise apartment complexes dotted with small windows as those seen in HBO’s Chernobyl series. Large encased, glass bulletin boards edging the park and the sidewalk, carrying public announcements and sometimes pages from Pravda (truth) newspaper attracted the passerby who stopped to read and carry on their way. 

In one of these parks, we found an abandoned stroller with a sleeping newborn. But our Intourist guide was not as alarmed. The mother is most probably nearby. The comfort of leaving a newborn in a stroller unattended was as foreign to the American delegation, as being alarmed about it was to our Soviet counterparts. That was the Soviet Union of 1986: that level of security is surely not part of the current environment.

I’m watching, he’s watching, we’re all watching you

The smiling Ka Geh Beh (KGB) director in the Chernobyl series dismissed KGB’s repute of spying practices, I recalled how we were under a constant watch of uniformed police, and plain cloth “followers” who didn’t keep their mission so secret. Rather than fret, we recognized the regular “watchers” with smiles as we went about our business.

Communist party messages of good conduct and deeds that served the party and the country was depicted in words and visuals across billboards overshadowing the masses. The Communist party members were distinguished in their authoritarian demeanors and self-appointed roles of maintaining order amongst the populace. Like the middle-aged woman, dressed in a casual black suit who reprimanded, and then whacked a drunkard on the head for falling on the stairs coming out of a metro station, or another who reprimanded us for crossing a large boulevard instead of using the underground tunnel walkway to cross to the other side.

Under the watchful eyes, we managed to take side trips away from our official itinerary. On a Sunday morning I took a taxi cab to the iconic Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s house museum in the outskirts of Moscow. Settling in the back seat of the cab, I rolled down the window and heard tolling church bells echoing throughout the streets of “atheist” Moscow. The taxi driver was not an ethnic Russian, but an Uzbek from Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan in Central Asia and now a Moscow resident. Watching me in his rearview mirror he asked Katolik? When I confirmed, he declared himself a Kommonist and lit a cigarette and offered me one with a smile.

During the official government meetings with Moscow’s “Friendship Society” we gathered around lacquered round or oval tables like those shown in the Chernobyl series, with sparsely decorated walls with Russia’s father of Communism, “Lenin” and other party insignia. The meetings were translated from and to Russian by Intourist translators. The appointed Friendship Society spokesperson was joined by others who monitored and watched. Meetings usually ended with gifts from both sides, confirming respect and the newly formed acceptance of our “friendship”. Included in our gifts were copies of New York Times bestseller The Fate of the Earth by the late Jonathan Schell (whose sister Suzanne was part of the delegation) the eminent book on the consequences of nuclear war that played a pivotal role in the nuclear disarmament movement.

With each meeting, there was a bit more of thawing of distrust as we greeted our counterparts with smiles even jokes and conversations beyond negotiations. When Moscow finalized the permission for the Cambridge delegation to proceed with our planned trip to Yerevan, the capital city of the Soviet Republic of Armenia, it was the first of many agreements to be signed.


Jackie Abramian is a Columnist at Grit Daily. A multi-lingual social-media strategist with 20+ years experience, she has managed national and international campaigns for global tech companies, social enterprises, NGOs, and non-profits including public education campaigns for various federal government agencies. A contributor to Thrive Global, etal media, and HuffPost, she is the founder of Global Cadence consultancy and Artists at War multi-media platform of interviews with artists living in war zones. Based in Maine, she focuses her coverage on social entrepreneurship and travel.

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