The third floor of the United Nations headquarters in New York is coveted real estate for member states that have donated art to the organization.
Not far from the Security Council Chamber and near the social hangout Express Bar, a giant tapestry hangs on a wall. A quick look reveals angels and demons, lightning bolts and snakes — and a Madonna-like figure holding a baby. The scene is dramatic but abstract. The artwork is inspired by Soviet Monumental style, albeit with religious undertones.
The art could portray almost anything, if not for its title, written on one side: “Chernobyl.”
Belarus gave the tapestry to the UN in 1991, after the Soviet Union asked the world for more support to get through the 1986 nuclear and radiation disaster that ravaged the city of Pripyat, in Ukraine — when Ukraine was part of Soviet territory — but also swaths in Russia and Belarus. The explosion unleashed 200 times more radioactivity than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs and affected the lives of seven million people.
Newly independent Belarus gave the tapestry not long after the UN passed a General Assembly resolution in 1991 on Chernobyl, calling for “international cooperation to address and mitigate the consequences at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.”
According to the UN’s gifts website, the donation “reflects humanism displayed by representatives of various countries.”
But what happened in the following months tells a different story about the artwork. Not long after Belarus’s donation, UN member states canceled a pledge of $646 million in aid to the most-damanged countries because scientific data showed — erroneously — little effects of the nuclear explosion.
The Chernobyl tapestry, although given with good intent by Belarus, embodies the slow and dangerous reaction in the region and the rest of the world to what remains one of the planet’s most disastrous, and controversial, nuclear tragedies in history.
Indeed, the International Day Against Nuclear Tests, Aug. 29, was commemorated this week by the UN’s secretary-general, António Guterres, “marking the closing, in 1991, of the nuclear test site in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, the largest in the former Soviet Union,” he said.
The day, Guterres added, is meant to “raise awareness of the continued threat that such tests pose to the environment and international security.” Despite the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, or CTBT, having 184 signatures and 168 ratifications, it has not entered into force. (The US has not ratified it; Russia signed and ratified it, although it appears to be technically on hold.)
The Chernobyl tapestry, 33 feet wide by 12.6 feet long, also shows the international community’s reluctance to fully turn its back on nuclear power in all its manifestations. With a recent, still-unexplained nuclear explosion that occurred in Russia in August and the continued race to develop nuclear weapons around the world, including in the United States, history could repeat itself.
Belarus, Chernobyl and the UN
People who lived in Belarus or Ukraine during and after the Chernobyl disaster have their own stories to tell on how their lives were disrupted by the tragedy. On April 26, 1986, nuclear reactor No. 4 exploded at the power plant, which was located near Pripyat, in northern Ukraine, close to the Belarusian border, both proto-states that were then part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR.
Whether people were forcibly displaced from their hometown, having lost relatives prematurely from cancer or having to learn how to use a dosimeter regularly to measure radiation levels, for most residents near Chernobyl, as in any disaster, there was a before-and-after division to their lives.
Maksim Kishchenko was born a few years after the disaster. But he has a Chernobyl story: his father, Alexander, created the tapestry that was given to the UN in 1991, to thank the international community for its help on Chernobyl but also to raise awareness on the issue.
“He wanted to get some help,” Kishchenko told PassBlue in a phone conversation in August.
Because of the wind and the flow of the Pripyat River at the time of the disaster, 70 percent of the radiation headed toward Belarus, which ended up being the most-affected country from the accident. Yet, cities in Belarus took much longer to be evacuated, with some emptied only in the late 1990s.
According to the recently published book “Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future,” by Kate Brown, Ukrainian authorities were much more assertive toward the Soviet Union in demanding evacuations and changes in infrastructure. While all eyes were focusing on Ukraine, Belarus also wanted more help, and Alexander Kishchenko wove this desire into a tapestry.
Back in 1986, Soviet leaders were well aware that an event like Chernobyl could happen. The Cold War had pushed the Soviet Union to develop its nuclear power for decades. The USSR decided to deal with the accident on its own, hiding the extent of the fallout for days, including from its own citizens. It was only in 1990, when the Soviet Union was fighting to survive, when Moscow finally acknowledged the need for assistance.
“Chernobyl is one of the major reasons why the Soviet Union collapsed,” Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at the New School in New York and a granddaughter of the former Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev, told PassBlue.
After the General Assembly resolution was passed, committing assistance to the Soviet republics exposed to the radiation fallout, many UN agencies helped the Soviets deal with the crisis: in 1989, the World Health Organization (WHO) sent a delegation to the Chernobyl-affected regions. After a 10-day trip, the UN team announced it found no signs of health problems from exposure to Chernobyl radioactivity. No one took that quick “investigation” seriously, so a few months later, in 1990, Soviet leaders asked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to carry out a second assessment.
The IAEA teamed up with other UN agencies, and over 18 months sent 200 scientists to Chernobyl areas in Belarus, Ukraine and western Russia for short visits. The IAEA’s mission has always been primarily to “promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy” and has generally acted to do so throughout its history.
In 1991, the IAEA-led International Chernobyl Project announced that it had found many illnesses and diseases in the Chernobyl region but nothing that could be attributed to Chernobyl contaminants.
Yet Brown’s book reveals that Belarusian doctors initially provided the UN agencies with studies showing that child cancer rates were more than 50 times higher than before Chernobyl. UN scientific administrators rejected evidence from Belarusian and Ukrainian doctors, however, even though these doctors had been working in Chernobyl regions for five years.
Before the finding of the IAEA study, Soviet territories affected by Chernobyl had asked for $646 million to fund 131 projects, which many member states and others pledged to give. The “no effects” report by the UN led potential donors, mostly the US, Japan, Germany and the European Community, to decide against giving money. The three mainly affected Soviet states — Ukraine, Belarus and Russia — ended up getting only about $8 million in total.
Not long after, history repeated itself. According to the UN website dedicated to Chernobyl: “In 1997, $90 million was requested for 60 projects. Only $1.5 million was pledged,” it says. “Contributions do not yet meet needs.” The decision to not give much money also deprived the world of clear scientific data on the enormous consequences of such an event.
The decision not to send $646 million to Chernobyl victims happened only a few months after Belarus gave its precious piece of art to the UN. “This is a tragic piece of art, and it’s even more tragic when you know that background,” Brown told PassBlue.
“I think it’s a right thing that this tapestry is displayed in the UN building,” Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN, said in an interview. “For Belarusians, it’s not a joke, there are a lot of areas they just can’t use, and that’s why I understand their very serious approach to this issue and they’re not politicizing it.”
The Belarus mission to the UN did not follow up on many requests for a comment.
The forgotten republic
When Belarus and Kishchenko gave the tapestry to the UN, a folder describing the artwork accompanied it.
It said that “Chernobyl” in English means “wormwood” and that the disaster was foreseen in the Bible. “The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water — the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the water turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter.”
The apocalyptic description talks about a faith “renaissance” in Belarus, as religion was forbidden in the Soviet world. Snakes pictured in the middle of the artwork represent radiation emitted by the reactor on April 26, 1986. Other godlike figures are featured as signs of a future, better life.
When the USSR was about to finally dissolve in 1991 and Belarus became a member of its own at the UN, Kishchenko was asked to produce a gift for the organization, as countries do traditionally. Naturally, one topic came to his mind — and since tapestry was a popular form of art in the country, the form seemed right. Belarus was still under the strong influence of the Russian government and speaking its own voice was something it was not used to doing.
“Us, Belarusian, suffered a lot at the time,” said Nina Kouharenko, the wife of Kishchenko, who died in 1997. Speaking by phone from Belarus, she said, “Nobody could really help because our country didn’t have a lot of money.”
Although Kishchenko’s wife and son say he was apolitical, the artwork evokes a Soviet style.
“What struck me with this piece of art is the way he can say things without saying anything. It’s very abstract symbolism,” Alina Bliumis, a Belarusian artist who now lives in New York City, told PassBlue. She believes Kishchenko was constrained stylistically because the work was going to be sent to the UN, so it needed to be noncontroversial. But constraints also came from the UN itself.
To be displayed at the UN, a piece of art has not only to be approved by the donating authorities but also by the UN’s Art Committee, a group of six people responsible for accepting a gift — or not — offered by member states.
The committee, founded in 1967, considers technical criteria such as the gift’s size. And, of course, there is political consideration.
“We are a member states based organization with 193 member states, and everything that everything needs to be accepted by 193 members states and it also applies to art,” said Werner Schmidt, a communications officer at the UN who took care of the building’s major renovations in the last decade.
But by using Soviet monumentalism design and religious symbolism, Kishchenko exercised some freedom to send the message he wished to convey.
“There was no direct political protest expression in the monumental art of 1970-1990 in the BSSR [Belarusian Socialist Soviet Republic],” Olga Rybchinska, an art historian living in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, told PassBlue. “Rather, it was an ideological space. . . . It was just impossible, the system of confirmation was rather strict and Soviet administrative recourse was really strong. It was the system of art order on the scale of state.”
According to Chernobyl Children International, a private humanitarian organization with links to the UN, the Belarusian government still dedicates 20 percent of its annual budget to Chernobyl-related problems. The number of casualties caused by the nuclear disaster is still debated. While the Soviet Union officially recognized the number of 31 dead, the WHO estimates a much higher number, 4,000. Meanwhile, Greenpeace projects numbers as high as 1 million. Brown’s book estimates at least hundreds of thousands.
The UN is still highly involved in disaster relief for Chernobyl. Since 2001, the files have been handled by the UN Development Program. Every year, the parties involved meet to discuss problems that still cause problems for the region.
“The problem of Chernobyl at that time is that it was unprecedented,” Ambassador Polyanskiy of Russia said. “It’s something nobody had ever dealt with. It was a serious warning for the whole world and nuclear industry.”
Polyanskiy was asked about Chernobyl just a few days after the mysterious nuclear explosion took place in Russia, in August, leaving seven people dead and the villagers where it happened with few details about it for days.
“Crazy how history repeats itself,” Alina Bliumis, the Belarusian artist, said.
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.