Chernobyl Liquidators' Health
as a Psycho-Social Trauma









4.3.1. Definitions. Dimensions

       The environments in question — i.e., extreme and unusual environments — are defined as the ones “that lie outside the common everyday situations encountered by most of us” (Suefeld 1987: 863).
       The author distinguishes extremeness (caused by physical parameters of the environment causing danger or discomfort), and unusualness of the environment (its novelty), and states (Suefeld 1987: 869) that unusual environments can be dangerous even if they are not particularly extreme.
       The environments can be characterised by 3 sets of parameters, namely:
— physical parameters,
— interactive-social parameters, and
— psychological parameters.
       Physical parameters characterise the environment as such:
temperature, air composition and pressure, humidity, terrain features, day-light (light-dark) cycles, the availability of food, water and shelter, and the presence of toxic objects and substances (Suefeld 1987: 869).

       Interactive-social parameters are relevant to person-environment interaction, and embrace:
— availability of information (it seems worth noting that Suefeld puts this parameter in the first place),
— ease of communication with other people both within and outside the environment (again, the second ranking of this parameter, relevant to information exchange, should be noted),
— degree of mobility or physical restriction,
— status implications of being in the environment,
— degree of isolation (from other members of one's group and from other groups),
— whether the individual is there voluntarily,
— actual and expected duration,
— control,
— predictability,
— privacy and territorial integrity,
— the extent to which the environment pervades the individual life etc.
       All the parameters above are foremost parameters of social environment, and it justifies my use of the term interactive-social parameters. They are of special importance for analysis of the complex Chernobyl environment.
       Psychological dimensions are more individual and internal. They are focused on how the individual perceives and copes with the environment rather than on the environment itself. They embrace, in particular:
— self-perception of people in the environment,
— degree of their preparedness, training, fitness,
— personality characteristics,
— affective interactions,
— group and individual morale,
— motivation,
— cohesiveness, group structure and leadership etc.
       The psychologist defines different types of the environments — normal, instrumental, recreational — including (of a special interest for study of Chernobyl!) a traumatic environment which occurs when extreme and unusual conditions are imposed on an unwilling individual.
       Thus, according to the definitions and parameters of the extreme/unusual environments, presented above, the fact of being “in Chernobyl”, can have dramatically different implications. Indeed, depending on the individual and circumstances, it may mean for the person an encounter with quite different environments, namely:
a traumatic environment (for those drafted to serve in the zone without previous proper education/training and against their will, the former circumstance increasing extremeness-unusualness of the place; and this is a very typical case for military (and not only military) liquidators, as I have discussed above (Ch. 2.3, 2.5));
an instrumental environment, if the zone was entered by a trained and prepared individual (e.g., professional, and especially — voluntarily) in order to achieve a specific substantial goal;
— or even a recreational environment, voluntarily chosen to achieve something remarkable, to explore the new situation and sensations (e.g., for a high-rank person who visited the site as an exotic spot in his career, sort of a trophy hunting);
— or a mixed one (as it was, say, for my colleagues — officers of radiation reconnaissance, many of our subordinates, and in general, for many men, involuntarily drafted from reserve to serve in Chernobyl, possessing some knowledge, relevant to the situation owing to their previous education and training, who did understand “specialities” of the moment and situation, and wanted to achieve “something remarkable” within the limits they were put in the zone. In this mixture, I want to emphasise, traumatic component remained essential).

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Studio ARWIS  Kharkov, 2001