For as long as I can remember, there have always been two frames of photographs in our living room. The large one contains many different photos of many different relatives at many different times. (My parents believed that I should know the names and faces of my relatives, even though it is unlikely that I will ever meet most of them; as a little girl, held in my mother’s arms so that I could see the photographs, I could name the relatives pictured, while my father recorded the scene on a rented video camera.) The smaller frame contains a photograph of my mother’s grandmother. It hangs below the larger frame, as Belarusian superstition dictates that photographs of deceased individuals should be placed lowest. The palm-sized square photograph has flown with us across the oceans and the deserts to Australia. Every morning when I walk into the living room, it is there on the mantle piece, reminding me that somewhere, in a land I can only imagine, there lived a woman, whom I would have liked to have met before she passed away.
Belarus is a largely forgotten nation of 10 million people, sandwiched between Russia to the east and Poland to the west. In particular, it is forgotten in discussions about the aftermath of the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on 26th April 1986. It is true that the power plant is found in northern Ukraine, 4 km away from the Belarusian border, but it is also true that Belarus received 75% of the radiation as a result of the wind direction. This means that one in four Belarusians live on contaminated territory, and one of these was my great-grandmother.
Nature is perhaps the country’s worthiest asset – it is pleasing to the eye, as well as the stomach, with one of the most common practices being the collection of wild berries and mushrooms. These are preserved in a myriad different ways to sustain families through harsh winters and persistent financial crises. My parents went on many such trips to the forest. So did their parents. And so did their grandparents. The only difference being that the later generations were able to grasp the significance of the warning signs near the contaminated areas, and thus avoided these. My great-grandmother, on the other hand, was an illiterate survivor of World War Two, to whom radiation seemed benign in comparison to the tanks of the Nazis and the thievery of the Red Army.
John Kinsella writes of the landscape being permanently damaged by unsustainable farming practices. He writes of the “hot glacier” of salt and it’s “slow encroachment”. Of “the soil weeping (scab on scab lifted)”. Of the “water running a stale sort of red”. The landscape of his childhood has been physically damaged, and the outrage he feels at those responsible inspires him to write anti-pastoral and highly politicised poetry. His vivid descriptions and violent language cause the reader to support the environmentalist cause for the fear of their own demise. However, as effective as Kinsella’s language is, this is not the language that can be used to describe the effect of radioactivity on Belarus. It is a silent invasion. It is a foreign enemy wearing the invisibility cloak. It is silent and invisible, which makes it all the more sinister. It lurks in the air, and in the soil, and in the rain. It permeates the physical landscape of the nation, and with each birth and death it possibly shapes the world of a family. But no one knows for certain. No one knows for certain whether the baby brother born without hands is the result of Chernobyl. Or the cousin born with a heart disease. Or the young mother whose fatigue and headaches are abnormally fierce and frequent. Or the father of two whom thyroid cancer took within a few months. Or the grandmother who is often incapacitated by the pain in her legs. Or the great-grandmother who one day could no longer hope that the tumour in her stomach will go away. No one knows for certain because the authorities would rather not know. And their population, most having experienced as little as five to six years of democracy, have learnt not to question them.
However, the void between what we see and what we know must be filled.
Imagination is the unique way in which one perceives the world around them. It shapes their response to changes in their physical landscape. These changes then in turn influence their psychological, domestic and social landscapes. And imagination once again shapes their response to changes in these.
Although the term ‘imagination’ has a connotation of creativity with it, the extent to which it is moulded by education is also worth considering. Someone with tertiary education specialising in the sciences would carefully observe the changes in the people who surround them and use their specialist knowledge to attempt to explain it. Someone with secondary education and a special interest in politics would read the newspaper and consider how the authorities are shaping their subjects’ response. Someone with primary education would watch the news and listen to their neighbours’ laments and join in their blaming of the Americans for the financial crisis, and consequently their government having to reduce the (already minimal) social support entitlements for those living in contaminated areas. Someone without any formal education as such would be grateful for another day without a war, a roof over their head and enough food to feed their family, even if some claim that the food is contaminated.
Yes, our imagination is responsible for how we respond to our physical landscape, but our social and political landscape is responsible for whether our imagination is enhanced by education.
I light the gas fireplace in the living room as I do every morning, and I return to my room to study for a little longer. The photograph of my great-grandmother is imprinted in my memory, spurring one question after the other. The space of three generations, a number of fortunate historical events, and my parents’ vision of a better future for their children, has meant that my world and that of my great-grandmother are very different. I live in a large city on the other side of the world, speak several languages and have visions of a successful career for myself. My great-grandmother lived in rural Belarus, in a small village that is likely to become abandoned within a decade or so. She rarely spoke of her experiences of the war to any family members, and I am told she avoided watching television, especially the numerous films on war because “they were all a lie”. I wonder whether she had ever heard of Australia. I wonder what she thought of the president, and whether she voted in the few democratic elections during the 1990s. I wonder whether she ever went to church, before the Soviets forbade it or after their influence waned. I wonder what faith sustained her through all the suffering she lived through. I wonder whether she spoke Belorussian or Russian or only the regional dialect, a mixture of Belorussian, Russian and Ukrainian. I wonder how she met her husband and whether her marriage was a choice. I wonder… And then I stop. No one can satisfy my curiosity. No written records exist prior to 1945, the country having been obliterated through the combined efforts of the Nazis and the Soviets, every trace of pre-Soviet history erased to make way for a new version of history. Least helpful is my imagination; it is too different.