While Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko are household names across the globe, far fewer people know about the exploits of their father. Born in 1947 in the harsh surroundings of Stalin's Soviet Union, Vladimir Rodionovich Klitschko was a childhood product of what is now modern Ukraine. Enlisting in the Soviet Air Force as a young man, he rose to the rank of major general and had a distinguished military career, meanwhile marrying a teacher and the future mother of his children, Nadezhda Ulyanovna. He travelled the vast expanse of the old USSR – his eldest son Vitali was born in Belovodskoye, now in Kyrgyzstan, while Wladimir came into the world via the Kazakh city of Semipalatinsk – and served as a military attaché in East Germany, instilling in his sons a love of boxing all the while.
Vladimir's sense of martial discipline combined with his wife's educational background were the crucial formative influences on the Klitschko brothers, and are no doubt part of the reason that they have gone on to have such success. As a high-ranking military officer, Vladimir was also able to give his children the best upbringing that the Soviet Union could provide. There is a reason that the brothers are fluent in several languages, and both hold PhDs in sports science from the University of Kiev. Their father furnished them with all the opportunities available as well as a military work ethic in their approach to boxing, and so helped to set them on the path to becoming heavyweight champions of the world.
As a military man, Vladimir was naturally invested in preserving the integrity of the Soviet Union against the machinations of its Cold War nemeses. Speaking about his early adolescence in an interview with Grantland in 2011, Vitali Klitschko said: "My whole life I was told that the U.S. was a horrible country.... at some point, I always believed, I would have to defend my home country against crazy Americans who wanted to control the whole world." Wladimir was ingrained with an equally rigorous sense of duty to his homeland, adding: "When I was 12, I was shooting AK-47s, handling hand grenades, running through underground tunnels, practicing drills, and studying how to get along with tank attacks." The Klitschkos' idealistic childhood view of the USSR was to be sorely tested, however, with no amount of patriotic ideology able to counter what they witnessed come April 1986.
That month has, of course, been marked out in history for its association with the Chernobyl disaster. In the dead of night on April 26, a routine systems test at the No.4 reactor building went catastrophically wrong, with an unexpected power surge and failed emergency shutdown leading to a reactor vessel being ruptured and several powerful steam explosions as a result. The damage done to the reactor led to an open-air graphite fire, which sent huge plumes of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere. The essential upshot was that the Chernobyl power plant became the centre of a massive nuclear event, and that its name would forever be associated with one of the most horrifying disasters humanity has ever known.
At the time of the incident, the Klitschko family were based around 60 miles away at the military airbase where Vladimir was stationed. As one of the commanders on the base, Vladimir was immediately called upon to attend the scene and oversee the containment operation. In the 2011 documentary Klitschko, Wladimir reminisced: "They [the Air Force] flew day and night. Their flight path was only 100 metres [away], so we heard them day and night, but after a while you stopped hearing them because you had got so used to the sound." His father was one of those travelling to and from the disaster zone, attempting to organise a clean-up of the area at a time when there was extremely volatile radioactive material strewn about the place. "Our father was one of the first on the scene," Vitali said in the interview with Grantland, the knowledge of which must have been a cause of acute anxiety as news of the disaster began to trickle through.
There were many who were unaware of just how dangerous the situation was at first, especially as the Soviet government tried to keep details of the accident from spreading, but the seriousness of the incident became apparent when the government ordered an evacuation over a 30km radius. Others knew and went ahead with the clean-up operation anyway, with workers on site shovelling radioactive rubble, attempting to decontaminate the area and, most importantly, extinguishing the reactor fire with enormous quantities of sand, lead, clay, and neutron-absorbing boron. Much of this material was dropped over the reactor by helicopter, with the Soviet Air Force heavily involved in the operation. They were aided by firemen, workers and emergency volunteers, who would come to be known collectively as 'liquidators' for their role in cleaning up after the disaster.
For many of the liquidators who arrived in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, their time in Chernobyl was essentially a death sentence. Of the thousands who attended the site of the accident, 237 suffered from acute radiation sickness, with 31 dying over the next three months. They have been compared to kamikaze pilots for their suicidal bravery, and are widely considered to be heroes in their efforts to curb the nuclear fallout. Presiding over some of those men was Vladimir Klitschko, who worked in the knowledge that his two young sons were not far, or far enough, away.
Speaking to the makers of Klitschko about his memories of the disaster, Vladimir said: "Directly after the explosion, several workers were sent to the scene of the accident. Using just their bare hands, they had to clear the radioactive debris. We dropped lead onto the reactor until it was completely covered... many of my comrades received fatal doses of radiation. They are no longer alive." While Vladimir was an eyewitness to the cataclysm at Chernobyl, he too would become a casualty of the disaster. Not long after the release of Klitschko, the family patriarch succumbed to lymph node cancer, with the disease linked by doctors to his exposure to radioactive fallout.
Though Vladimir was by all accounts a proud Soviet, there seemed to be a certain measured anger in his voice as he spoke in Klitschko about the attempted state cover-up of Chernobyl. "From the very beginning, the government tried to cover up the truth and play down the situation," he said. "We were given the impression that it was all under control." Some of his anger may have stemmed from knowing that his children were exposed to the effects of the disaster, as well as the men he worked with in the emergency exclusion zone. On a couple of occasions, Wladimir Klitschko has related a story about coming into contact with contaminated water while the clean-up of Chernobyl was ongoing. "When cars and military vehicles came back from Chernobyl, they would wash them off at the base where we lived," he told Grantland. "The water they used to rinse off the cars formed big puddles. Me and my brother and our friends would play in the puddles with little paper boats. At the time, no-one knew how serious the radiation problems were."
Eventually, Wladimir was evacuated to a holiday camp on the Sea of Azov in southern Ukraine, though his elder brother chose to stay behind at their father's military base. Given the prominence it is afforded in their eponymous documentary, it is clear that Chernobyl had a profound effect on them, and that their memories of the disaster live on. For two of the world's greatest ever heavyweights, an event the rest of us have experienced only in history books is a vivid part of their family history. It must also be a source of significant anguish, given that it was the most likely cause of their father's premature death at the age of 64.
Though Vladimir Klitschko may eventually have suffered the worst possible outcome of his involvement with the Chernobyl disaster, he did live to see both of his sons become heavyweight champions. He survived to see them beat dozens of top competitors and come to dominate world boxing, all the while flying the flag for an independent and gradually recovering Ukraine. They, and many others, may have been further exposed to the effects of the disaster had it not been for the courage of the so-called liquidators at Chernobyl, their father included. Vladimir perhaps summed it up best when, in Klitschko, he said: "Those who were able to leave... took the opportunity to do so. But, if you are a soldier, you have to fulfil your duties." Considering that he ultimately sacrificed his life to help prevent further nuclear catastrophe, it is little surprise that his sons are such resolute and formidable men.