Sunday Book: Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich

On  Tuesday it's the anniversary of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, where the nuclear reactor exploded and went into melt-down in 1986 - a terrible accident that 'was also the deliberate product of a culture of cronyism, laziness, and a deep-seated indifference towards the general population'. Those comments apply equally to the response to the accident and its consequences.  It remains the largest nuclear catastrophe, apart from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of the twentieth century (though Fukushima may prove to be as damaging in terms of the environment).
The reactor after the accident - Photo Wikimedia 
The power station was in Ukraine, but the major impact has been on its neighbour Belarus, a post-Soviet dictatorship where freedom of information or freedom of speech are not permitted and any criticism of the system or political dissent likely to result in imprisonment.  Today, 2.1 million people, including 700,000 children, live on contaminated land.  Mortality rates still exceed birth rates by 20%.  One resident told the author, 'We're the raw materials for a scientific experiment . . .  It's a huge devil's laboratory.' Many preface their testimony with 'I'm not supposed be talking about this . . . but I'll tell you.'

Nobel prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich,  the daughter of a Ukrainian mother and Belarussian father, began to interview survivors and collect personal stories in the mid 1990s. They tell a story of panic, desperation, ignorance, incompetence and reluctance by the authorities to admit the true seriousness of the situation. They show a society used to obeying orders regardless of sense or logic.  Obedience to the Party was the law. Questioning anything could land you in a Gulag. For many people living in the region, that unquestioning obedience was a death sentence.  One girl whose husband was ordered to go into the Zone said: 'If I'd known he'd get sick I'd have closed all the doors.  I'd have stood in the doorway.  I'd have locked the doors with all the locks we had.'  One survivor, now an invalid facing premature death, said: 'They flung us there, like sand onto the reactor . . . They gave me a medal and one thousand rubles.'
An abandoned playground and apartment block in the Zone
For many death and love have become fused. 'I don't know what I should talk about,' says Lyudmilla, 'about death or about love?  Or are they the same?'  The 'Chernobylites' are seen as contaminated sinners - in some way to blame for their condition. 'I'm afraid to love,' writes one. 'Do you know that it can be a sin to give birth? . . . No one talks about it, but . . . it's a sin to love.'  From the very beginning love could be a death sentence.  One of the fire-fighters' wives insisted on going with him to hospital and caring for him as he died despite the fact that he was a walking nuclear time-bomb.  No one told her that the radiation he was emitting would kill her unborn child and leave her sterile. Others talk of their congenitally defective babies - one born without any orifices with surgical needs that can't be delivered in Belarus and no money or political will to ask for Western help.
Svetlana Alexievich
This is one of the most moving and distressing books I've ever read and yet it's also one of the most beautifully written and compelling texts I've ever read.  Svetlana Alexievich  has structured the stories in a way that reads like poetry. 'The wolf came into the yard at night.  I look out the window and there he is, eyes shining like headlights.  Now I'm used to everything.  I've been living alone for seven years, seven years since the people left.'  Zinaida is one of those who crept back illegally to re-occupy their homes.  Nadezhda is still in exile but longs for home. 'I often dream that I'm riding through sunny Pripyat with my son. It's a ghost town now.  But we're riding through and looking at the roses, there were many roses in Pripyat.  I was young.  My son was little.  I loved him. And in the dream I've forgotten all the fears, as if I were just a spectator the whole time.'

Statements are left to have their own weight and significance without commentary.  'We buried the forest,'  one man tells her.  'We sawed the trees into meter-and-a-half pieces and packed them in cellophane and threw them into graves. I couldn't sleep at night.'  Another, sent into the Zone to kill all the pet cats and dogs that have been left behind, claims not to feel anything about the mass shooting, but admits he is haunted by a small black dog who tried to climb out of the grave pit and there were no more bullets left to kill him with.
The trees are growing back
'What's better, to remember or to forget?' asks one academic.  He comments on the lack of information, the complete absence of even a mention of Chernobyl inside Ukraine and Belarus.  '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?'  In the Western mind there's an easy answer to that question.  'Chernobyl,' writes another, 'is like the war of all wars.'  Another is grateful for the lack of information.  'We turned off the radio right away.  We don't know any of the news, but life is peaceful.  We don't get upset.'

Not everyone was happy to talk to Svetlana.  'What're you writing there? Who gave you permission? And taking pictures.  Put that away.  Put the camera away or I'll break it.  How do you like that, coming here, writing things down.  We live here.  And you come around putting ideas in people's heads.  Saying things.  You're talking about the wrong things.'  Others were emphatically supportive.  A physicist told her, 'Someone's eventually going to have to answer for Chernobyl.  The time will come when they'll have to answer for it, just like for 1937.  It might be in fifty years, everyone might be old, they might be dead.  They're criminals! [quiet]  We need to leave facts behind us.  They'll need them.'

The whole book is permeated with the exiles' longing for their country.  One official, who re-enters the Zone with essential supplies for the many elderly people who still live there without facilities, tied to the land that their families have cultivated for hundreds of years, talks about her visits.  'On the way back, the sun is setting, I say, "Look at how beautiful this land is!"  The sun is illuminating the forest and the fields, bidding us farewell.  "Yes," one of the Germans who speaks Russian answers, "It's pretty, but it's contaminated."  He has a dosimeter in his hand.  And then I understand that the sunset is only for me.  This is my land.  I'm the one who lives here.'

It is also Svetlana's land and she thought long and hard before she wrote the book.  'When I sat down to write this, it was the first time I thought, "Is this something I should say?"  I had been raised on great Russian literature, I thought you could go very very far, and so I wrote about that . . . But the Zone - it's a separate world, a world within the rest of the world - and it's more powerful than anything literature has to say . . . These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown.  I felt like I was recording the future.'

Voices from Chernobyl
by Svetlana Alexievich
Trans. by Keith Gessen.
Published by Picador 1997, 2006


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