“Voices from Chernobyl – an Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster” – a book by Svetlana Alexievich – is a powerful reminder of one of the biggest peacetime catastrophes in the twentieth century.
Penguin will soon release a new, classic translation of the novel – which won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature in 2015 – to mark the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster on 26 April 1986. The book will be entitled Chernobyl Prayer.
On that date thirty years ago, an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Soviet Union caused a nuclear reactor fire that burned for twelve days during a test by plant operators. The fire released deadly forms of iodium and cesium into the air as well as other radioactive materials which formed part of a travelling radioactive cloud.
The fallout had an impact that was felt around Europe and the globe. Sheep in Great Britain ingested contaminated grass and were found not fit for human consumption. Countries such as Italy and Malaysia refused shipments of butter, powdered milk and cattle containing contaminants from other nations.
Chernobyl remains a continuing and significant threat to the world’s population and the environment. The “sarcophagus” put in place around the destroyed reactor is severely damaged and there is a significant danger of its collapsing, thereby causing a whole new release of radioactivity.
Nearby countries such as the Ukraine – for which the Economist has noted corruption is “public enemy number one” – have little appetite for tackling the health threat that Chernobyl continues to pose or for safeguarding their own nuclear industries.
The writer – Svetlana Alexievich – was born in Soviet Ukraine and grew up in Soviet Belarus but writes in Russian. Her father is Belarussian and her mother a Ukrainian (see her website for a brief biography) . She went on to report as a journalist on the Soviet war in Afghanistan and many other events based on the same techniques of thousands of interviews with witnesses.
Alexievich was made to leave Belarus in 2000 because of her views and was only allowed to return in 2011. Publication in Belarus has been difficult owing to her ongoing criticism of the authoritarian president, Aleksander Lukashenko.
The writer has collected a series of voices of about 500-700 different actors in the Chernobyl disaster over three to four years and distilled them into a novel – the residents, liquidators (the workers sent to clean up the nuclear zone who subsequently became sick), their families, government workers, journalists and others. When visiting Chernobyl to record the histories, Alexievich became physically sick from the poisoned atmosphere.
The impression received of the book is of a montage of people caught up in a social, economic and cultural web of disaster, all connected. There is real nostalgia for sanctity of village life at the same time as exploring how easily it was exploited. “I feel worst of all for the people in the villages – they were innocent, like children, and they suffered. Farmers didn’t invent Chernobyl, they had their own relations with nature, trusting relations not predatory ones, just like they had a hundred years ago, and a thousand years ago. And they couldn’t understand what had happened…”.
The situation is described as like a war in peacetime – and Alexievich has worked in war zones. Some of the most poignant moments in the book are when children are interviewed, with the children of “refugee” families fleeing the crisis mocked and stigmatized by other kids in school classrooms.
Interviewees described watching their loved ones die painful deaths in front of them and raising children deformed in horrible ways. Around 100,000 liquidators sent in to contain the disaster and shoot pets and animals spreading radioactive material died in the following ten years after the catastrophe.
Chernobyl was a product of the bravado of the Soviet system at the same time as a disaster waiting to happen. The Chernobyl unit lacked the common protective containment found in most American and other reactors. Furthermore, there was widespread ignorance about the environmental impact of the nuclear reactors and the waste material.
The reaction of the Soviet authorities to the unfolding disaster exacerbated the situation. After the Chernobyl accident, the Soviet government immediately concealed the fact of the accident and its consequences for the population and the environment. Writers such as Alla Yaroshinskaia believe this was in part because they eventually realized they couldn’t move everyone affected by the disaster.
An instructor at Gomel State University remembered, “in the first days after the accident, all the books at the library about radiation, about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even about X-rays, disappeared. Some people said it was an order from above, so that people wouldn’t panic.”
President Mikhail Gorbachev did not make a public statement regarding the disaster until eighteen days after it had occurred. Ellen Bober Moynagh and other academics argue that the cover-up of the authorities in Chernobyl contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Compensation for all the victims is still not a reality. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said in 2000 that “Chernobyl is a word that we would all like to erase from our memory. But more than 7 million of our fellow human beings do not have the luxury of forgetting. They are still suffering, everyday, as a result of what happened”.
Alexievich famously compared the process of compiling the book as writing the future, still unfolding. Her work has been described as like “like conscience, making you to think about hard issues which you would rather forget or ignore.”
Her book is a history of feelings and emotion, including mistrust, but also expressions of great heroism, dreams and hope. War is often the barometer by which we judge human tragedy but the human impact of a peace time event is not understood and is still unfolding. In this, she says that the disaster was much worse than the gulags and the Holocaust.
Other famous Russian-speaking authors who have won the Nobel Peace Prize include Pasternak and Bunin. The writer has said the prize money will “buy her freedom” to write further books.