Voices from Chernobyl (Svetlana Alexievich)
Synopsis (Goodreads): On April 26, 1986, the worst nuclear reactor accident in history occurred in Chernobyl and contaminated as much as three quarters of Europe. Voices from Chernobyl is the first book to present personal accounts of the tragedy. Journalist Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people affected by the meltdown—from innocent citizens to firefighters to those called in to clean up the disaster—and their stories reveal the fear, anger, and uncertainty with which they still live. Composed of interviews in monologue form, Voices from Chernobyl is a crucially important work, unforgettable in its emotional power and honesty.
Before I opened this book, I only ever had a vague idea of the nuclear accident that occurred at Chernobyl in 1986. I knew it had occurred of course, and physics classes in school had highlighted it as an example of the dangers associated with nuclear energy, but really I had nothing more than the most rudimentary understanding of the incident itself, and of its implications.
The author’s journalistic background shines through because she doesn’t try to embellish, or add to, the oral histories in any significant way, preferring to let the stories of those affected come through in their own distinct voices. So, even if the book reads like dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction, the scariest thing about this book is that it all actually took place.
The stories within the book evoked so many reactions…I don’t even know where to start. Firstly, anger and exasperation with the Soviet Government and its response, which I felt highlighted a lot of was wrong with the Communist system. Out of pride and secrecy, they maintained to the world that the situation was under control in the initial crucial period when the reactor core was burning, even as they were frantically trying to deal with the consequences in the most inept manner possible, requiring response to follow a chain of command – basically a remote and shadowy Central Committee figure making emergency response and evacuation decisions from Moscow rather than the more logical and practical response of someone experienced on the ground making key calls based on rapidly changing conditions and situations.
The book also threw into sharp relief how cheaply the Soviet government valued human life, pouring thousands of inadequately prepared and equipped men into the breach to try and mitigate the consequences of the accident – while it was admirable to see how many men responded to the call for help from the government, the outright lies told by the government, e.g., saying they would be recruited for 2 weeks, which would turn into 6 months, and a clear lack of concern for the safety of the recruits (no protective gear or suits), left me aghast.
The implications after the accident on the populations of primarily Belarus, but also Ukraine and Russian is staggering. Particularly horrifying was reading about how exposure to the extreme radiation levels affected the bodies of the liquidators and pregnant women – the descriptions of how the bodies of the liquidators broke down, the rise in congenital birth defects, and the inability to have children after being exposed to the radiation. How do you even begin to comprehend that radiation from 1986 is a leading cause of the depopulation of Belarus, where in certain regions mortality rates exceed birth rates by 20%, or how a boy feels when he goes to school and no one wants to talk to him or sit near him because he is a “Chernobylite”?
Despite all of this though, there is a hopeful message too – in the form of the resilience of the human spirit and the fortitude of the Soviet people – the hard work the liquidators put into evacuating the villages and trying to contain the situation despite poor or non-existent protective clothing and gear; the evacuees who insisted on returning to their villages as soon as they could because it was home; and the wife who looked after her liquidator husband as his body slowly broke down over almost a whole year.
Someone once asked if I was a closet depressive because I seem to be drawn to stories or books that depict the darker side of life – a book like this would in all likelihood reaffirm his observation and he would probably ignore my recommendation.
Nevertheless, my conclusion is…read it. You have to.