Book review: Voices from Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievich
Sometimes it’s as though I hear his voice. Alive. Even photographs don’t have the same effect on me as that voice. But he never calls out to me . . . not even in my dreams. I’m the one who calls to him.
After reading Svetlana Alexievich’s incredible Unwomanly Face of War, I couldn’t wait to begin another book of hers. Especially on this subject: Voices from Chernobyl sees Alexievich’s signature oral history style applied to the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. A few weeks ago marked 32 years since the worst nuclear disaster in history occurred.
The book’s first chapter, “A Solitary Human Voice”, remained the one I found most affecting. In it, a woman reminisces about young love with her husband, a fireman, one of the first responders to the accident. She describes his time in a specialized radiology hospital, as his skin began to crack and blister, eventually falling off altogether. Her memories are so vivid and her commentary about her thoughts and feelings so clear but conflicted – fear and horror all mixed up with deep love for her husband even as his body becomes no longer recognizable – made it so that after reading this chapter I needed some time to gather myself and continue with the book.
I’m ready to do whatever it takes so that he doesn’t think about death. And about the fact that his death is horrible, that I’m afraid of him. There’s a fragment of some conversation, I’m remembering it. Someone is saying: “You have to understand: This is not your husband anymore, not a beloved person, but a radioactive object with a strong density of poisoning. You’re not suicidal. Get ahold of yourself.” And I’m like someone who’s lost her mind: “But I love him! I love him!” He’s sleeping, and I’m whispering: “I love you!”…I remembered how we used to live at home. He only fell asleep at night after he’d taken my hand. That was a habit of his—to hold my hand while he slept. All night. So in the hospital I take his hand and don’t let go.
The stories Alexievich curates here, through her sensitive and revealing interviews with survivors who suffer or witness the effects of nuclear fallout; residents of Pripyat, the closest town to the power plants and other nearby villages; “liquidators”, the clean-up workers; and families of those who lost their lives, are no less emotionally affecting than those encountered in my first book of hers. Phenomenal as this storytelling is, I knew I needed a break before taking on more of her work, a pause I’m still in. But that’s not to deter – this is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read.
Alexievich herself is Belarusian, and neighboring Belarus suffered deeply in the aftermath of Chernobyl. This was something I learned here, then couldn’t believe I hadn’t known. The Chernobyl plant was in Ukraine, but due to the radius of the fallout and the wind patterns carrying the material, these kind of conditions – Belarus was most adversely affected. There’s well told information here about how Belarus and other European countries felt the effects as the winds blew Chernobyl’s fallout across the continent.
Translator Keith Gessen writes that “In 1986 the Soviets threw untrained and unprotected men at the reactor just as in 1941 they’d thrown untrained, unarmed men at the Wehrmacht, hoping the Germans would at least have to stop long enough to shoot them. And as the curator of the Chernobyl Museum correctly explains, had this effort not been made, the catastrophe might have been a lot worse.”
The people speaking or giving “monologues” as they’re often titled, tell very different yet eerily similar stories, regardless of what angle their tale takes. There’s a surreality, references to dreams and nightmares, or the inability to grasp the new reality that comes in the wake of the catastrophe. Some suffered medically, others economically, all emotionally. One storytelling theme that haunted me was of the residents displaced from Pripyat or other locales in the exclusion zone, ordered to leave everything behind and abandon homes, gardens, animals and pets. That proved a tough order to abide by, with many risking their health and the consequences of lawbreaking to sneak back to their homes. Anything taken was destroyed, including animals.
I came back! They should let people in—they’d all come crawling back on their knees. They scattered our sorrow all over the globe. Only the dead come back now. The dead are allowed to. But the living can only come at night, through the forest.
What surprised me were how unexpectedly poetic many of the recollections and observations were. The subjects had already had years to ruminate on their experiences, yet much of the truth remained elusive. The Soviet government didn’t believe they were owed information or facts, though some were privy through their work or research. But their thoughts coalesced into something hauntingly poetic even as they describe terrifying events with long-lingering effects, tangibly and socially.
Now I walk through the forest by myself and I’m not afraid of anyone. There aren’t any people in the forest, not a soul. I walk and wonder whether all of that really happened to me or not?
What do we do with this truth now? How do we handle it? If it blows up again, the same thing will happen again. We’re still Stalin’s country. We’re still Stalin’s people.
Oh, God, where do you find the strength to meet the things that the next day is going to bring?
Victims of the disaster were further hurt by bureaucratic denials and mismanagement, often outright refusals to accept responsibility for the grave illnesses suffered. After describing the extreme medical problems of her small daughter, one woman reveals how she’s still held captive by the shame of the girl’s condition, and blamed as if she and her husband were somehow culpable:
There was one thing they didn’t understand—didn’t want to understand—I needed to know that it wasn’t our fault. It wasn’t our love. [Breaks down. Cries.] This girl is growing up—she’s still a girl—I don’t want you to print our name—even our neighbors—even other people on our floor don’t know.
The book is as much a record of how Soviet citizens suffered or were essentially punished under the government’s mistakes, denials, exploitations and silence as it is about the direct impact of Chernobyl itself.
In “Monologue About a Moonlit Landscape”, Yevgeniy Brovkin, an instructor at Gomel State University, recalls:
Here’s what I remember. 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…There were no medical bulletins, no information. Those who could, got potassium iodide (you couldn’t get it at the pharmacy in our town, you had to really know someone)…Then we discovered a sign…: as long as there were sparrows and pigeons in town, humans could live there, too. I was in a taxi one time, the driver couldn’t understand why the birds were all crashing into his window, like they were blind. They’d gone crazy, or like they were committing suicide.
A drawback was that sometimes, either through the use of innuendos, the confusion of memory, purposeful obfuscation, or just the jumbled nature of oral storytelling, I was sometimes unsure I understood what exactly the speaker was describing. This only happened a few times, but was disorienting.
Of course, that’s part of the nature of a book like this – Alexievich has made a powerful name for herself and done incredible work in letting witnesses to history speak for themselves, in their own voices, in places and eras where those same voices have long been stifled or muffled with official propaganda. It’s a remarkable service that she allows their stories to flow freely, their memories, feelings, impressions all to come together and pour out even when they don’t tell a linear narrative or relate events explicitly. I think more than anything, this book is one that deserves a slow reading, if not multiple reads.
Here’s Yevgeniy Brovkin again:
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?
It hurts to learn these truths, to try and understand what happened, and how the tragedy was compounded through improper management, irresponsible orders, lack of information, or denials of responsibility. But it’s better by far to bear witness and remember.
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
by Svetlana Alexievich
Translation from the Russian and preface by Keith Gessen
published April 18, 2006 by Picador, first published 1997
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