Voices From Chernobyl:
The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

Svetlana Alexievich

translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen
Dalkey Archive Press 2005
A book review by Danny Yee © 2005 http://dannyreviews.com/
The 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor is one of the best known industrial accidents of all time, but there has been relatively little reporting of its human consequences. Voices From Chernobyl begins with a brief encyclopedia-style account of the effects on Byelorussia, where two million people live on contaminated land, but otherwise presents the human side of those. It is an oral history, offering firsthand accounts from those involved with or affected by the disaster.

The longest piece is nearly twenty pages, but most are much shorter and there are some "choruses" with just a paragraph or two from each individual. This allows a broad range of voices to be heard.

The wife of a first-response fireman who took several weeks to die from radiation poisoning. "Self-settlers" who stayed behind or returned to the contaminated zone. Russian refugees from Tajikstan who preferred the risks of radiation to those of young men with guns. Conscript soldiers sent in to forcibly evacuate people or to work as "liquidators", ploughing under crops, trees, topsoil and houses. Hunters employed to kill abandoned cats and dogs. Helicopter pilots and unprotected men on foot who cleared the roof of the reactor after robots failed to work in the intense radiation. Children with birth-defects. Those who used condemned food and equipment or recycled it onto the black market. Scientists and health workers who tried to alert people to the risks of radiation. Officials and bureaucrats who spoke out and those who toed the line.

The different perspectives of those Alexievich listened to come through, though she has clearly reworked her material. A certain amount of detachment is perhaps necessary to prevent an overpowering succession of heart-rending stories. One of the speakers concludes: "you can write the rest of this yourself, I don't want to talk anymore".

"And Grandma — she couldn't get used to the new place. She missed our old home. Just before she died she said, 'I want some sorrel!' We weren't allowed to eat that for several years, it was the thing that absorbed the most radiation."

"Our political officer read notices in the paper about our 'high political consciousness and meticulous organization,' about the fact that just four days after the catastrophe the red flag was already flying over the fourth reactor. It blazed forth. In a month the radiation had devoured it. So they put up another one. I tried to imagine how the soldiers felt going up on the roof to replace that flag. These were suicide missions. What would you call this? Soviet paganism? Live sacrifice? But the thing is, if they'd given me the flag then, and told me to climb up there, I would have. Why? I can't say. I wasn't afraid to die, then. My wife didn't send a single letter. In six months, not a single letter."

"But when they put labels on the milk that said, "For children," and "For adults" — that was a different story. That was a bit closer to home. All right, I'm not a member of the Party, but I still live here. And we became afraid. "Why are the radish leaves this year so much like beet leaves?" You turned on the television, they were saying, "Don't listen to the provocations of the West!" and that's when you knew for sure."

The personal details of the stories are what grabs the reader, but they often touch on broader themes. Some of those Alexievich records are historians and philosophers themselves, but the more concrete accounts are often the most revealing. The Chernobyl disaster is linked by many to the Second World War, which still looms large for the older generation, and by some to the end of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union, which followed soon afterwards.

Voices From Chernobyl is a powerful work which deserves a broad readership. As well as being a unique exploration of the human effects of widespread radioactive contamination, it offers a view of the final years of the Soviet Union and of life in Byelorussia. It should certainly be read by those caught up in the recent revival of enthusiasm for nuclear power, if only so the possible consequences of accidents are clear.

April 2005

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%T Voices From Chernobyl
%S The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
%A Alexievich, Svetlana
%M Russian
%F Gessen, Keith
%I Dalkey Archive Press
%D 2005
%O hardcover
%G ISBN 1564784010
%P 240pp