A Belarusian Chorus
Voices from Chernobyl: the Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (Tchernobylskaia Molitva)
by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Keith Gessen
Editions Ostojie, 1997, Dalkey Archive Press 2005, Picador 2006
reviewed by Seana Graham
I wasn’t at the meeting where my book group chose this book and was a bit surprised that it had even come up. Having worked in a bookstore for a long time, I knew it as a title, but it was not a new book, and I wondered why it had resurfaced now. Later I realized that it was probably because Svetlana Alexievich had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, and that was why it had come up on someone’s radar. Her body of work chronicles life under the Soviet Union and its subsequent unraveling. Voices From Chernobyl falls somewhere in the middle of these chronicles. It tells the story of the reactor explosion of April, 1986 in Chernobyl, a Ukrainian city near the border of the then Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus, which was profoundly affected. As is characteristic of Alexievich’s method, the story is told through the interweaving of many different accounts from the people who were there.
If we are old enough to recognize the word “Chernobyl,” we have probably mentally filed it and think we in some way “know about it.” We do not. What is borne in upon us as we read these interviews is that the only people who have a right to say that are the ones who underwent the disaster’s effects. The people within the zone of radiation share some experiences with the people who survived the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the reactor disaster in Fukushima. But they are also different because they underwent this experience in the context of the Soviet regime.
There are so many striking things about what these people say in their interviews that it is hard to give a sense of it all in a short review. One aspect is their effort to understand why they and their neighbors sickened and died because of something invisible and incomprehensible—radiation. People are ordered to evacuate, but some sneak back to get prized possessions, or smuggle out animals, not able to understand that these loved objects and beings have now become poisonous. Photographers are sent to Chernobyl to photograph “what happened”, but find there is nothing “disastrous” to photograph. The place looks lovely, even in its terrible toxicity.
The distortion of human relationships is a large theme of this work. Many of the men were sent, in heroic Soviet style, to put out the flames at the reactor itself, only to be hugely overexposed to radiation, leading many to suffer horrible deaths. Their wives and other loved ones are often told that they can’t be with their men in their illness, as they too will become contaminated by the very person they love. And women who were within range of the reactor when it blew up are counseled that they can’t have children, because to have a child from their own radiation contaminated bodies would be to commit a sin.
Perhaps as profound is the disillusionment with the powers that be that ensues. As the book’s translator, Keith Gessen, says in his preface:
And it’s certainly true that Chernobyl, while an accident in the sense that no one intentionally set it off, was also the deliberate product of a culture of cronyism, laziness, and a deep-seated indifference toward the general population. The literature on the subject is pretty unanimous in its opinion that the Soviet system had taken a poorly designed reactor and then staffed it with a group of incompetents. It then proceeded, as the interviews in this book attest, to lie about the disaster in the most criminal way. In the crucial first ten days, when the reactor core was burning and releasing a steady stream of highly radioactive material into the surrounding area, the authorities repeatedly claimed that the situation was under control.
One of the things that struck me in reading was that several people mentioned a new affinity with animals and even plants. A cameraman who was assigned to shoot in Chernobyl put it this way:
A strange thing happened to me. I became closer to animals. And trees, and birds. They’re closer to me than they were, the distance between us has narrowed. I go to the Zone now, all these years, I see a wild boar jumping out of an abandoned human house, and then an elk. That’s what I shoot. I want to make a ﬁlm, to see everything through the eyes of an animal.
As this book makes abundantly clear, the people who were affected by the Chernobyl disaster aren’t aberrant beings, though they are often treated as such. They are normal people who went through a singularly horrific experience and sought—still seek—to bring it into the realm of our common human understanding.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She also reviews for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California and is currently working on a screenplay. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.