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By Svetlana Alexievich
Translated by Keith Gessen, 2005
New York: Picador, 2005
ISBN: 0-312-42584-8 236 pages

Bob Corbett
December 2015

Last month Svetlana Alexievich was named the 2015 Nobel Prize winner for literature. I had not read any of her works, so I hurried to get a copy of her seemingly well-known work, VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL. It is a set of interviews she did with dozens of people who had, in one way or another, lived through the Chernobyl disaster in the then Soviet Union.

This is a chilling, gripping and astonishingly eye-opening account of the tragic explosion of the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl on April 26, 1986 and the aftermath which changed the world forever.

Alexievich interview dozens of people from learned nuclear physicists and other scientists, to soldiers assigned “clean-up” duty, to very unlearned local peasants, and just ordinary citizens affected by the aftermath of this disaster.

The interviews are gripping, terrifying, shocking, profoundly sad, revealing the historic scope and impact of this disaster which contributed significantly to the break-up of the Soviet Union a few years later.

The small town of Chernobyl was very near the northern border of what is today Ukraine. However, since the day of the explosion the winds were blowing to the northwest, a huge brunt of the nuclear fall-out was centered in today’s Belarus. Moscow was fairly safe from direct fall-out since it is far to the northeast and didn’t experience direct radiation.

The opening story is a wife’s tale of her husband and 28 men who rushed to what they called a fire at the Chernobyl plant. Later all were taken to a Moscow hospital, but no mention was made early on that their illnesses were related to any nuclear problem, just a normal fire that had occurred in the village of Chernobyl.

The wife rushes to Moscow to tend her husband and manages to get in despite the attempts of officials to keep her out. Soon it is acknowledged this is a nuclear disaster and not just burns that these men have. Further, the woman is pregnant at the time. They bring in the man’s sister for bone marrow exchange, but she becomes ill and dies.

This wife was 23 when her husband died. His body became property of the state; the family was told:

“. . . they were told the dead were now heroes, you see, and that they no longer belonged to their families. They were heroes of the state.”

She was pregnant at the time and her child died shortly after her birth. Both she and her son (with a later man) lived with serious medical problems in a state sponsored apartment in Kiev.

This opening interview is typical of the dozens and dozens which follow. Horror stories, which, sadly, are true, telling of the terror, the government lies, the inability of nearly anyone to understand or make sense of this hideous tragedy.

Author Svetlana Alexievich does an astonishing number of interviews which, in sum, allow the reader to develop a chilling sense of the time and to come away with a picture of this historic period which underlines several central and recurrent themes:

  1. Few people had any idea what had happened or what it could mean
  2. The central image in peoples’ minds which they used to try to understand this disaster was to think back to the latter days of WWII, a reference which did not really illuminate what was going on after Chernobyl.
  3. The Soviet, and later Russian, government tried desperately to hide the full impact and meaning of the Chernobyl tragedy. This was a fact that exacerbated the extent of the human disaster that followed the explosion and fire.

Svetlana Alexievich’s work is astonishing in its breadth and detail. While the stories are virtually all horrible, disturbing, shocking, leaving the reader limp and just agog, they none the less come together to give the reader a sense that this nuclear disaster has changed our world and our understanding of nature and our use of it to an incredible degree. The question is: will this this increased understanding really make any different to future history. Only time will tell.

Below I just share some bits and pieces of her interviews to give any would-be reader a sample of what is instore for you. I most highly recommend any reader to take the time and energy and courage it takes to read this relatively short set of interviews and amazingly gripping tales that end up giving one a frightful felt sense of this disaster and a lingering terror of the dangers of nuclear plants and armaments.

A central theme which runs through the work is how important vodka was to all those who worked in Chernobyl. Many, if not most, realized they were going to die. The sole relief they seemed to be able to find was vodka and they would buy, barter or steal it. They would approximate it using other substances which would have a similar effect. But no matter where or what the workers were doing, vodka was central to what most knew was to be the end of their lives.

“And at the same time you could buy anything for a bottle of vodka. A medal or sick leave. One collective farm chairman would bring a case of vodka to the radiation specialists so they’d cross his village off the lists for evacuation; another would bring the same case so that they’d put his village on the list – he’s already been promised a three-room apartment in Minsk.”

A second theme that runs through the interviews was the war that the Soviet Union had been fighting in Afghanistan. For those of fighting age and their spouses, the nuclear disaster was seen as worse that even that military disaster. For those of the older generation, they compared it with the ending of World War II and the German invasion of Russia. However, virtually everyone came to understand that this Chernobyl catastrophe was different and of a higher order of horror than either of those two events.

When one says Chernobyl and pictures photos of the burning and exploded nuclear reactor one thinks of this specific place. However, the DIRECTLY affected area was incredibly larger and was just called “The Zone.” It included dozens of villages.

Perhaps one of the hardest things was that the government lied about it for a very long time after the event trying to minimize the peoples’ fear and discontent with the government.

There were many blatant lies in the press:

“Every day they brought the papers, I’d just read the headlines: ‘Chernobyl – A Place of Achievement,’ ‘The Reactor Has Been Defeated!’ ‘Life Goes On.’”
“We were told that we have to win – Against whom? The atom? Physics? The Universe?”

However, the soldiers drafted and sent to Chernobyl knew that much of the public reports were lies:

One tells that: You’re a normal person

“And then one day you’re turned into a Chernobyl person, an animal that everyone’s interest in, and that no one knows anything about.”

Another soldier didn’t want to go to Chernobyl but many other did:

“It was scary but also exciting, for some reason.”

Part of their duty was to police the area around Chernobyl that included dozens of villages. Yet, typically they took nothing from houses:

“. . . these things were connected somehow with death.”

Another soldier after 3 years had gone by was sent to Chernobyl:

“. . . I turned in my Party card. My little Red Book. I became free in the zone. Chernobyl blew my mind. It set me free.”

Chernobyl was a small provincial town. Even two years after the explosion the soldiers, after working in the radiation-fill area would just sit at night and watch the 1988 World Cup on TV. Somehow, despite this horror, life went on, yet most realized they were likely to die, but they had been disciplined to belong to the Communist Party and to do whatever they were told.

Even 3 years after soldiers were still getting sick.

“We came home. I took off all the clothes that I’d worn there and threw them down the trash chute. I gave my cap to my little son. He really wanted it. And he wore it all the time. Two years later they gave him a diagnosis: a tumor in his brain. . . . You can write the rest of this yourself. I don’t want to talk anymore.”

Another soldier told Alexievich:

"When I made it back from Afghanistan, I knew that I’d live. Here it was the opposite: it’d kill you only after you got home.”

In general I found the section of interviews of typical low-level soldier who had been sent to Chernobyl to be very revealing:

“But it was a real war, an atomic war. We had no idea – what’s dangerous and what’s not, what should we watch out for, and what to ignore? No one knew.”

Another told one of the extremely few jokes which were reported:

“There were already jokes. Guy comes home from work, says to his wife, ‘They told me that tomorrow I either go to Chernobyl or hand in my Party card.’ ‘But you’re not in the Party.’ ‘Right, so I’m wondering: how do I get a Party card by tomorrow morning.’”

However, another report of how, despite all the lies and propaganda of “success” against the results, their lives would never be the same:

“I got home, I’d go dancing. I’d meet a girl I liked and say, ‘Let’s get to know one another.’ ‘What for? You’re a Chernobylite now. I’d be scared to have your kids.’”

The ordinary soldier just knew this “duty” was his end:

“At my official post there was a commander of the guard units. Something likes the director of the apocalypse.”

Chernobyl was situated in a very rural area. The local people were quite unlearned, but came to understand that they were being lied to and that nothing in their history had prepared them, or the government, for anything life Chernobyl.

One told Alexievich:

“I’ve wondered why everyone was silent about Chernobyl, why our writers weren’t writing much about it – they write about the war, or the camps, but here they’re silent. Why? Do you think it’s an accident? If we’d beaten Chernobyl, people would talk about it and write about it more. Or if we’d understood Chernobyl. But we don’t know how to capture any meaning from it. We’re not capable of it. We can’t place it in our human experience or our human time-frame.”

“So what’s better, to remember or to forget?”

Another sad and nearly hopeless farmer reported:

“There’s no television. No movies. There’s one thing to do – look out the windows. Well, and to pray, of course. There used to be Communism instead of God, but now there’s just God. So we pray.”

Perhaps the last place to sample before ending is with the future. What would life be like for those who were born or raised AFTER Chernobyl?

“I have two boys. They don’t go to nursery school or kindergarten – they’re always in the hospital. The older one – he’s neither a boy nor a girl. He’s bald. I take him to the doctors, and also to the healers. He’s the littlest in one in his grade. He can’t run, he can’t play, if someone hits him by accident and he starts bleeding, he might die. He has a blood disease, I can’t even pronounce the word for it. I’m lying with him in the hospital and thinking, ‘He’s going to die.’ I understood later on that you can’t think that way. I cried in the bathroom. None of the mothers cry in the hospital rooms. They cry in the toilets, the bath. I come back cheerful: ‘Your cheeks are red. You’re getting better.’

“Mom, take me out of the hospital. I’m going to die here. Everyone dies here.”

Another mother says:

“We’ve been going from hospital to hospital with my son for two years now. I don’t want to hear anything, read anything about Chernobyl. I’ve seen it all.

“The little girls in the hospitals play with their dolls. They close their eyes and the dolls die.”

Another man reports:

“In Khoyniki, there was a ‘plaque of achievement’ in the center of town. The best people in the region had their names on it. But the real hero was the alcoholic cab driver who went into the radioactive zone to pick up the kids from a kindergarten, not any people on the plaque.”

This is an astonish book. I learned so much, was deeply touched by it and at the same time challenged. I came to understand how terribly dangerous nuclear power and messing with spitting the atom is. Just frightful. Yet there were many human heroes after Chernobyl who gave their own lives to help either the state or the people. It’s just a terribly sad tale.

Perhaps I’ll end my comments with a quote from one man that deeply touched me:

“The world has been split in two: there’s us, the Chernobylites, and then there’s you, the others. Have you noticed? No one here points out that they’re Russian or Belarussian or Ukrainian. We all call ourselves Chernobylites. ‘Were from Chernobyl.’ ‘I’m a Chernobylite.’ As if this is a separate people. A new nation.”'

Bob Corbett
December 2015

Bob Corbett


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