We attended college together, were in some of the same classes, but I played basketball and he became an outstanding Soviet track and field coach.
I chose freedom and America in the end, but he loved to coach children and, though given the opportunity to return to his native land, Bobby M. chose to remain in the Soviet Union. I was told that he never regretted it.
But, Bobby, whose mother was of Polish extraction and his father, an Armenian, joined his family on that fateful November day in 1947 to travel to what was then Soviet Armenia. We would talk briefly on The Rossia, the Soviet passenger ship that carried more than one hundred and fifty Armenian-Americans to the USSR, many repatriating to their homeland. Most passengers on that ship stayed close to family; I had none accompanying me.
Once in Yerevan, the capital, Bobby enrolled in the Institute of Physical Culture. I was later to join him there.
Upon graduation, he taught at an elementary school and also coached track teams. I went on to play basketball for the next decade. Our paths seldom crossed. In July of 1960 my US citizenship and passport were restored and I left the USSR as fast as I could pack my luggage.
During one of my many book talks in the eastern United States, Bobby’s sister, who managed to return to the states, attended. When I inquired about her brother, she said that he had died in the Soviet Union, then offered this tragic story of the events leading up to his death.
On April 26, 1986, Bobby’s young team members were warming up to compete in track and field events near Chernobyl. News was spreading that a disaster had happened at the nuclear plant. “Not to worry, the officials had everything under control.” Unfortunately that, like most information generated by Party officials, was a lie. Clouds of deadly radioactive particles soon hovered on the skyline. But the games continued. The nuclear reactor accident at the Chernobyl station in the Ukraine would eventually claim thousands of lives, including Bobby’s.
According to news reports: in seconds the protective casing on the nuclear reactor melt-down released deadly radiation into the air, spreading radioactive isotopes throughout the power plant.
Even today former residents in the Chernobyl plant area have not, cannot, return to their homes because of nuclear contamination. No one can tell them when it will be safe to live or plant crops there again. Everything in the immediate area of the plant remains as it was on that fateful day that shocked the world. Yesterday, in our local newspaper, there was a news photo of a farmer in Belarus, also a former Soviet Republic, who complained that radioactive material is still being detected in his herd of cows and the milk is contaminated.
Thirty years after the world’s worst nuclear disaster, Chernobyl remains a threat to civilization. And we add to this threat.
After fourscore and seven on this planet, a ride that I have truly enjoyed, I, as every man, woman and child, must be wary of politicians who promise us paradise one day by “making great deals” and the next day say that nuclear weapons will remain on the table. Think about Chernobyl. Think about Japan. Nuclear fallout is still threatening humankind.
It was the English essayist William Hazlitt who noted, “The love of liberty is the love of others, the love of power is the love of ourselves.”
In the final analysis, Bobby M., the only American to die because of the Chernobyl accident, died doing what he loved best…teaching Soviet children that the love of freedom is the love of others, no matter where you made your first step in life.
Tom Mooradian was one of 151 Americans who traveled to Soviet Armenia to repatriate during the 1940’s. Thought to be a spy by the KGB, Tom miraculously survived 13 years behind the Iron Curtain winning the hearts of the Soviets through his basketball prowess. Filled with political drama, romance, and intrigue, Tom’s autobiography, The Repatriate reads like a novel, and will have you guessing how Tom managed to return to America alive.
The Second Edition is now available on Kindle and in Paperback!