In commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant explosion, here is a review of Voices From Chernobyl, The Oral History Of A Nuclear Disaster, by Svetlana Alexievich (translated by Keith Gessen) Dalkey Archive Press, 2005.
Alexievich’s book provides insight into the personal experience of victims of the world’s worst nuclear accident, arguably man’s greatest industrial accident. One cannot but be moved by the stories the voices tell. They make for morbid, yet compulsive reading.
In unrelenting monologues, “Voices from Chernobyl” relates the reminiscences of those caught up in events way beyond the bounds of normal experience. One city and 485 villages abandoned, more than 116,000 people forced to leave their homes. Millions more were told that they now lived on contaminated land – their own and their children’s lives at risk for generations to come. Only war or revolution can compare, but then most of the victims who survive those normally return home when it is all over.
There is something uplifting about the stoic acceptance and will to recover shown by many of these victims: “Our husbands died the same year, they were in Chernobyl together, but she’s already planning to get married. I’m not condemning her – that’s life. You need to survive. She has kids.” On the other hand, the book also exposes the pessimism that can afflict human nature, which produces a fatalism that paralyses people, when they lose faith in their ability to shape their own destiny: “We’re going to die, we’re going to die. By year 2000, there won’t be any Belarussians left.” This is a Jekyll and Hyde story.
Many of the locals heard and circulated myths. The authorities were said to have buried the dead from nearby villages in mass graves. Whole populations were supposed to be destined for transfer to Siberia. There were rumours of holding camps being prepared behind Chernobyl to contain and monitor victims before they died. New-born were said to have yellow fluid instead of blood. An apocryphal escaped prisoner hiding in the thirty-kilometre zone became so radioactive the prison would not take him back. Stolichnaya Vodka was believed to provide the best protection against strontium and cesium; two bottles being more effective than one.
Then there were the more credible myths. Hundreds of thousands of people were believed to have met an early death by 1995, millions more were said to be seriously ill. Official-looking reports claimed that children in large numbers were being born with deformities, immune deficiencies and leukaemia, all because of Chernobyl.
There are true tales too, of heroism and love. The voice of Lyudmilla Ignatenko is remarkable; her devotion to her husband unmistakable. He and his colleagues Titenok, Pravik and Tischura, “kicked the graphite with their feet” in a desperate attempt to douse the flames their fire brigade unit discovered on the scene soon after the reactor exploded. They all died seven or so days later in Moscow, and were buried in special leak-proof coffins. What happened to the millions of affected inhabitants living in the neighbourhood afterwards is also well tackled in this book.
“Voices of Chernobyl” tells of drunks asking big questions: “Gorbachev and Licachev [then Gorbachev’s rival], Stalin. Are we a great empire, or not; will we defeat the Americans, or not?” It was 1986: “whose airplanes are better, whose spaceships are more reliable? Well, okay, Chernobyl blew up, but we put the first man in space.”
They got their answer in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. There were now three republics handling their affairs, as opposed to one empire, and two of them were so new they barely existed. Chaos ensued. Most of the liquidators went home immediately.
Suddenly, taxi drivers in Kiev could earn a more reliable income than a nuclear power plant director.
It might have been one of the last “Soviet” experiences to befall the USSR, but it was also a typical one. It had its villains, including “comrade” Gorbachev whose first instinct was to cover it all up, only to abandon this approach when it became impossible to sustain. He went on to hasten the demise of his crumbling empire; today he is a born-again environmentalist. Chernobyl had its heroes in the fire fighters, liquidators and scientists who did a magnificent and unselfish job cleaning up the mess. Its victims also played their various parts, but never knew whether anything they were told was anything like the truth.
In “Voices”, “liquidator” Arkady Filin tells the story of his father’s memory of defending Moscow in World War II: “I sat in a trench. Shot my rifle. Got buried by an explosion. They dug me out half-alive. That’s it. And back then, my wife left me.” It was years before he learned from films and books that he had been part of a great historical event.
Filin’s point is pertinent. “Voices of Chernobyl” does not grapple objectively with its subject – or pretend that victims understand the wider picture. The interviews merely record well the confused views of those who suffered. But to do those people justice we need to do more than rely on their impressions. We need to rely on science and study. Otherwise the debilitating angst that most observers confirm to be real and to afflict millions of people in the region will continue.
As with many other issues, scientific opinion regarding Chernobyl is counter-intuitive. There is a massive gap between the scale of the disaster and the official death toll. Anybody aged over 35 will remember the radioactive cloud over Europe and they will know something of the evacuees, abandoned cities and exclusion zones. When scientists say that they observed very few serious physical health problems directly attributable to Chernobyl – including no deformities, few, if any, leukaemia or solid cancers – accusations of a cover-up will be listened to.
Even a cursory look at the margins of the exclusion zone reveals thousands of real people who are sick and disabled, many of them children, most of them elderly, who live in the shadow of a major catastrophe. The region’s mental health has certainly been undermined by such visions, particularly in relation to children – but that does not mean radiation was responsible for their health problems. Neither does it make the case for abandoning science for superstition and intuition.
The so-called good news, because it is still awful, from scientists is promoted by the Chernobyl Forum and endorsed by eight UN agencies and the governments of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. They confirm that less than 50 people were killed and the worst that could happen in the future is that 4000 lives could be, but may not be, ended prematurely. In their view, much of the land that was evacuated can now be reused for farming and repopulated safely.
There are, however, respectable voices to suggest that the figure of 4000 may be a tenfold underestimate – depending on the parameters and methodology used to measure the accident’s impact on human health. There are wilder – much less credible – claims that 500,000 have already died in Ukraine alone. But whether the “real” number of fatalities over decades is 4000 or 40,000, scientists face the same problem communicating their facts to world fed on a diet of more macabre accounts by the media and anti-nuclear campaigners.
In the final analysis, Svetlana Alexievich uses her “Voices of Chernobyl” to suggest that the wilder claims have credibility. The dustcover and blurb promoting the book tell us to believe that there has been a conspiracy. Svetlana’s own illness is attributed to Chernobyl as the price she paid for researching the book – yet immune deficiency is not a disease caused by radiation. Hers is a call for faith in ignorance. Her own voice does a disservice to the victims and reinforces the misinformation that has caused so much damage. But in years to come the voices she records will provide a haunting reminder of Chernobyl, and a valuable one at that.