Each time I return to Belarus, the country that is an enigma in the heart of Europe, and see the ranks of dull apartment blocks in every town, the same depressing reality strikes me. These concrete blocks of flats are archetypically Soviet and almost always crumbling. The condensation on the windows is impenetrable, there’s usually an overweight topless bloke leaning over a balcony smoking a cigarette, and the common areas are unremittingly grim. And as David and I mount the stairs to the top floor of this particular block on Sverdlova Street in the town of Vetka, deep in the heart of the Chernobyl radiation zone, I feel nervous. Elena had forewarned us. “Think very carefully before you agree to meet Ivan. His mother cries a lot. You might be upset, or offended,” she said.
We reach the top floor and knock on the last door. We are welcomed inside and we enter a world of calm and peaceful order. The weather is really hot this week and inside the flat it seems rather airless and oppressive — or is that just our nervousness? I feel clumsy as introductions are made, and in my haste to remove my shoes I tread on the phone and send it flying. But Ivan’s mother Natalya greets us warmly. She is pleased that we would like to meet her son.
Ivan lies on a rubber sheet on a short bed in a small room, where Belarusian folk music gently plays on a small music system. Ivan likes music, you see, and he especially likes Belarusian folk. The first thing I notice is the size of his head. His face is turned in our direction and his eyes are open, but I know at once that he doesn’t see us. Those sightless, unfocused eyes roll in their sockets as we gather round him. His breathing is steady. A blanket covers him from the neck down, for it is the mosquito season, but we can tell at once that his tiny body is motionless. Ivan has no motor function of any sort, and so day after day he lies in the foetal position, regularly turned by parent or carer, around the clock. Bed sores are a really big problem for him.