Maksym Stolyarevskyy was just three-and-a-half years old when an explosion erupted at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pripyat, but he remembers vivid details of the days that followed.
Stolyarevskyy was living in a small suburb in Kyiv, about 85 kilometres away, and recalls the city was buzzing with rumours about the nuclear disaster.
“At that particular time, there was not much information about what happened… my parents were talking in the kitchen and I was overhearing,” he said.
The explosion happened just days before an annual labour union demonstration in Kyiv that Stolyarevskyy attended with his grandfather.
“The first of May – the labour day – that was always a big deal. This was where the whole labour unions would get on the main square and they were parading down the streets. It was always a colourful and happy demonstration,” he said.
But Stolyarevskyy said the Chernobyl rumours left a different mood among marchers.
“I remember being in the square and surrounded by people with red banners, but at the same time people were concerned and you could see that they were not smiling as often as they normally would or there was some sort of fear or misunderstanding in their faces.”
It wouldn’t be until years later that Stolyarevskyy would discover that demonstrators were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.
“Back in that day radiation was very active and the wind actually blew towards Kiev. There was some nuclear or radioactive dust in the air and exposing hundreds of thousands of people to that by not stopping the demonstration was a true crime,” he said.
Once more details were released on the severity of the accident, Stolyarevskyy’s parents decided to have their son live with relatives in Russia.
“From May to September we were pretty much a separated family and our situations wasn’t unique for sure,” he said.
“From 1986 to about 10 years after, every summer [my parents] would try to move me out of the city.”
Stolyarevskyy, now living in Toronto, said despite being so young then, he will always remember the day of the Chernobyl disaster.
“You feel that something is in the air and you feel that it’s not as it used to be yesterday or a couple of days ago, and that’s something you do feel even when you’re young.”