Voices from Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievich

Second paragraph of Part Three, from Monologue About What We Didn’t Know: Death Can Be So Beautiful, an interview with Nadezhda Vygovskaya, evacuee from the town of Pripyat:

Это случилось в ночь с пятницы на субботу… Утром никто ничего не подозревал. Отправила в школу сына, муж ушел в парикмахерскую. Готовлю обед. Муж скоро вернулся… Со словами: "На атомной какой-то пожар. Приказ: не выключать радио". Я забыла сказать, что мы жили в Припяти, рядом с реактором. До сих пор перед глазами – ярко-малиновое зарево, реактор как-то изнутри светился. Это был не обыкновенный пожар, а какое-то свечение. Красиво. Ничего подобного я в кино не видела. Вечером люди высыпали на балконы, у кого не было, – шли к друзьям, знакомым. У нас девятый этаж, прекрасная видимость. Выносили детей, поднимали на руках: "Посмотри! Запомни!" И это люди, которые на реакторе работали… Инженеры, рабочие… Учителя физики… Стояли в черной пыли… Разговаривали… Дышали… Любовались… Некоторые за десятки километров приезжали на машинах, велосипедах, чтобы посмотреть. Мы не знали, что смерть может быть такой красивой. Но я бы не сказала, что у нее отсутствовал запах. Не весенний и не осенний запах, а что-то совсем другое, и не запах земли… Першило в горле, в глазах – слезы сами по себе. It happened late Friday night. That morning no one suspected anything. I sent my son to school, my husband went to the barber’s. I’m preparing lunch when my husband comes back. “There’s some sort of fire at the nuclear plant,“ he says. “They’re saying we are not to turn off the radio.” I forgot to say that we lived in Pripyat, near the reactor. I can still see the bright-crimson glow, it was like the reactor was glowing. This wasn’t an ordinary fire, it was some kind of emanation. It was pretty. I’d never seen anything like it in the movies. That evening everyone spilled out onto their balconies, and those who didn’t have them went to friend’s houses. We were on the ninth floor, we had a great view. People brought their kids out, picked them up, said, “Look! Remember!” And these were people who worked at the reactor – engineers, workers, physics instructors. They stood in the black dust, talking, breathing, wondering at it. People came from all around on their cars and their bikes to have a look. We didn’t know that death could be so beautiful. Though I wouldn’t say that it had no smell – it wasn’t a spring or an autumn smell, but something else, and it wasn’t the smell of earth. My throat tickled, and my eyes watered.

It's just horrifying, isn't it? Alexievich has collected story after story of ordinary people whose lives were destroyed by the after effects of the Chernobyl explosion on 26 April 1986 (my 19th birthday). Although Chernobyl itself is just inside Ukraine, the Belarussian SSR, now the independent state of Belarus, was much worse hit – 22% of its territory was contaminated to a high level by radioactive materials. I must say I have personal concerns – at the time I was working outdoors on an archaeological site in southern Germany, though I'm glad to say that any ill effects have failed to become apparent in the last thirty years.

I bought this after Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize last year. Belarus is a country of deep fascination for me – I had two colleagues from there in my last job, one of whom lost her father (an open air theater performer) to cancer in the late 1980s. It's the largest European country that I have not yet visited (the others are Norway, Iceland, Latvia and Lithuania). For those who are fascinated by the JFK assassination, Minsk of course has a crucial role. I'm told that its Metro is the most spectacular in the former Soviet Union, outclassing Moscow's.

The words reported here are those of the speakers. But Alexievich weaves them together to form a coherent image of a country whose vitals were poisoned over one weekend in 1986, whose people weren't told then and haven't been told now what was really going on – massive sacrifices made in human terms, but for what benefit, if any? Nuclear physicists and experts are interviewed, but more to get the human side of their story rather than to delve into the technical aspects of what went wrong and how it could have been prevented or the effects ameliorated.

Chernobyl was a massive industrial accident, and I think it makes most sense to look at it in that way – a tech-obsessed totalitarian system, already living on borrowed time, unable to bridge the gap between the politically driven needs of the industrial-technological compex and the existential needs of its own citizens. Alexievich concentrates on this human story, rather than drawing wider conclusions about nuclear power. I would observe that even on the most extravagant estimates of the effects of Chernobyl, more people were killed in Bhopal, or in the Great London Smog, never mind the Banqiao Dam disaster of 1975. (And the overall toll to human health and world climate from the fossil fuel industry over the centuries is clearly massive.) Read the book for what it is – but do read it.

This was the most popular non-fiction book on my shelves. While reading it I acquired Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which immediately became the next on that list.

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