At the present time, when the world daily reviews the likelihood or otherwise of a nuclear meltdown in Japan, the magnitude of the disaster which is threatening is inevitably being compared to that of Chernobyl in April 1986.
Hungary in 1986 was still firmly under the thumb of Soviet Russia; little if anything could find its way into the public domain without the prior careful consideration of possible repercussions by those working for any branch of the media. Thus, when without warning the reactor at Chernobyl sent clouds of radioactive smoke across vast swathes of Europe, the Hungarian media remained stubbornly silent on the subject. It is difficult now to imagine living in a country – any country – where there is almost no way of finding out what is happening even as close by as Hungary is to the other side of the Austrian border. Yet with no internet, virtually no foreign newspapers, no satellite television and few telephones, it was a relatively easy matter for the communist authorities to keep the population in total ignorance of even such an international disaster as this.
We relied for news on the old, Russian radio we had in our rented flat. To our surprise, the BBC World Service was not jammed. Possibly, the tiny minority of people with sufficient knowledge of the language – and the patience to twiddle dials and strain their ears through the crackling – were regarded as too few in number to make the exercise worthwhile. In any event, with a little patience it was possible to tune in and hear news worthy of the name. Thus it was that we learned of the nuclear disaster, and heard the advice being offered as to how to safeguard one’s health. Budapest was significantly nearer to the site of the disaster than Britain, and we pondered on what we ourselves should be doing. A short visit to the embassy confirmed the guidelines we had heard on the radio: to avoid all leafy vegetables grown outdoors and not to stay out if it rained.
It was a full three days before any hint of the event was tentatively broadcast by the Hungarian radio or television. During this interval we informed all our friends, passing on the advice we had been given. The grapevine was indeed a speedy means of disseminating information at a time when none other existed. Once the news had been broken, a multitude of Chernobyl-related jokes swept Budapest: “What is Russian-Hungarian friendship like?” “It’s radiating.” Meanwhile, at Lehel piac (Lehel market) the lettuces were now labelled as ‘sure-fire safe’ (atombiztos) while the ‘atomic strength papika’ (atom erös) had had the ‘atomic’ crossed through.
No-one felt any confidence in what news, heavily censored, trickled down to us. In reality, we had little notion of what danger we might or might not be in, and our relative proximity to the origin of the trouble was a source of some anxiety to our relatives at a safer distance. One evening a good English friend of ours came to see us, and we inevitably discussed the situation. He too, bemoaned the paucity of information, and the fact that his parents were pressing him to go home, at least for a while. “We might be perfectly alright here,” he explained. “It all seems to depend on the direction the wind was blowing.” There was a short silence. We knew he did not want to leave the country and return to England, even for a few weeks. Then he leapt up saying, “I’ve got it! I know how we can find out if we’re affected!” We waited as he walked towards the light switch. “Let’s put out the lights and see if we glow in the dark!” Thankfully, we didn’t.