Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
by Svetlana Alexievich
1997 / 244 pages
rating – 9.25
Svetlana Alexievich is now a Nobel Laureate in large part because of this book which describes the horror which was Chernobyl, the site of the largest nuclear melt-down in history.
In April of 1986 an explosion at the plant set off a fire which produced an enormous amount of radioactive particles contaminating the entire environment including the air, land, and water. Only two people died at the scene at the time but over the years the residents of the area became ill and died or had mutated babies – Chernobyl babies. The area is still not totally clean.
This is the story of the disaster from the eyes and in the words of the people who lived (and live) there, what they saw, felt and did. It’s also from the people who were sent in to work there, the soldiers, scientists and medical personnel. And it’s about those who covered it up, kept it secret, killing more people to protect their superiors or the government. Hundreds of thousands of people were adversely affected, millions probably, no one really knows.
It’s powerful stuff and kind of spares no one but also has a certain amount of sympathy for the individuals. This occurred during the final years of the USSR which fell only 5 years later, December 1991, and I’m sure contributed to the unrest – actually: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/nuclear_power/2013/01/chernobyl_and_the_fall_of_the_soviet_union_gorbachev_s_glasnost_allowed.html
Alexievich lived in Minsk at the time and Chernobyl was not too far away. She took up her interviewing almost immediately. Belarus was still a part of the USSR and some of the book details the bumbling and corruption associated with the Gorbachev administration – and the Soviet system.
The subjects interviewed talk about the character of the Russian people and how they just did what the government told them without question including the boys who jumped at the chance to be heroes. But they didn’t leave their homes in Chernobyl – not as far as the ones I read were described. The people were mostly bitter, angry or grieving and a few were defensive. The Russian people were changed in part because of Chernobyl.
There are no photos here – you can find them all over the net:
The people’s words speak for themselves – I pictured the whole thing in my mind.
In my opinion, the incident contributed heavily to the dismantling of the USSR a few years later – there were other reasons, Afghanistan being the biggest and it was fought for 10 years, from 1979 to 1989. This wasn’t touched.
This is a difficult book to read – the entire narrative is one of grief in various forms. It’s very personal. Alexievich did a remarkable job of interviewing more than 500 people and then editing and organizing, always trying to let the people speak for themselves.