“Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster” by Svetlana Alexievich


The 1986 nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the erstwhile USSR is a horror story we’ve all heard. The site is now in Belarus – a tiny country with a tiny population. The Nazis obliterated 619 villages and their populations during World War II, and the Chernobyl fiasco wiped out 485 villages. Of those who remain 20% are said to be living on contaminated land.

This book by Ukraine born Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich traces the events that unfolded during those days of horror and the slow death and disease that transformed the lives of innocent people in the vicinity. The author raises a poignant question, “Why repeat the facts – they cover up our feelings.”

It comes as no surprise that the book is full of heart rending stories. Any sensitive person will have a hard time getting through it. Half way through the book you’re sure to stop and ask yourself: Do we really need nuclear energy, leave alone nuclear weapons?

Here’s a simple narrative: “Tell everyone about my daughter. Write it down. She’s four years old and she can sing, dance, she knows poetry by heart. Her mental development is normal, she isn’t any different from other kids, only her games are different. She doesn’t play “store” or “school” – she plays “hospital”. She gives her dolls shots, takes their temperature, puts them on IV. If a doll dies, she covers it with a white sheet. We’ve been living with her in the hospital for four years, we can’t leave her there alone, and she doesn’t even know that you’re supposed to live at home.”

Nikolai Kalugin, a father says, “I want to bear witness: my daughter died from Chernobyl. And they want us to forget.” He shares a painful memory: “My daughter was six years old. I’m putting her to bed, and she whispers in my ear, ‘Daddy, I want to live. I’m still little.’ And I had thought she didn’t understand anything.”

Anatoly Simanskiy, a journalist says, “Yesterday my father turned eighty. The whole family gathered around the table. I looked at him and thought about how much his life had seen: Gulag, Auschwitz, Chernobyl.”

Vasily Nesterenko, former director of the Institute for Nuclear Energy at the Belorussian Academy of Sciences, shared some real pearls of wisdom: “No they weren’t a gang of criminals. It was more like a conspiracy of ignorance and obedience. The principle of their lives, the one thing the Party machine had taught them was never to stick their necks out.” He had this to add: “The State always came first, and the value of a human life was zero.” And this: “People feared their superiors more than they feared the atom.”

Vladimir Ivanov, a former first secretary of the Satvgorod regional Party committee told the author, “It was the military way of dealing with things. They didn’t know any other way. They didn’t understand that there is really such a thing as physics. There is a chain reaction. And no orders or government resolutions can change that chain reaction. The world is built on physics, not on the ideas of Marx. But what if I’d said that then?” Perhaps he wouldn’t have lived long enough to speak to the author. (This speculation is mine alone!)

A quarter century after the fall of the Soviet Union, as we read these personal testimonies we are left with a feeling of great sadness. But there is a faint thread of humour too, like a rainbow emerging from the dark clouds. An Ukranian woman is selling big red apples at the market, calling them ‘Chernobyl’ apples. Someone advises her to drop the advertisement as no one would buy them if they heard they were from Chernobyl. The woman then says coolly, “They buy them any way. Some need them for their mother-in-law, some for their boss.”

Overall Assessment: The author has done a brilliant job. Steel yourself before you read the book.

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
AUTHOR: Svetlana Alexievich (translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen)

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

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