Svetlana Alexievich - A chorus of fatalism, stoic bravery and black, black humor is sounded in this haunting oral history of the 1986 nuclear reactor catastrophe in what is now northeastern Ukraine
Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, Trans. by Keith Gessen, dalkey Archive Press, 2005.
On April 26, 1986, the worst nuclear reactor accident in history occurred in Chernobyl and contaminated as much as three quarters of Europe. Voices from Chernobyl is the first book to present personal accounts of the tragedy. Journalist Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people affected by the meltdown---from innocent citizens to firefighters to those called in to clean up the disaster---and their stories reveal the fear, anger, and uncertainty with which they still live. Comprised of interviews in monologue form, Voices from Chernobyl is a crucially important work, unforgettable in its emotional power and honesty.
A chorus of fatalism, stoic bravery and black, black humor is sounded in this haunting oral history of the 1986 nuclear reactor catastrophe in what is now northeastern Ukraine. Russian journalist Alexievich records a wide array of voices: a woman who clings to her irradiated, dying husband though nurses warn her "that's not a person anymore, that's a nuclear reactor"; a hunter dispatched to evacuated villages to exterminate the household pets; soldiers sent in to clean up the mess, bitter at the callous, incompetent Soviet authorities who "flung us there, like sand on the reactor," but accepting their lot as a test of manhood; an idealistic nuclear engineer whose faith in communism is shattered. And there are the local peasants who take this latest in a long line of disasters in stride, filtering back to their homes to harvest their contaminated potatoes, shrugging that if they survived the Germans, they'll survive radiation. Alexievich shapes these testimonies into novelistic "monologues" that convey a vivid portrait of late-Communist malaise, in which bullying party bosses, paranoid propaganda and chaotic mobilizations are resisted with bleak sarcasm ("It wasn't milk, it was a radioactive byproduct"), mournful philosophizing ("[t]he mechanism of evil will work under conditions of apocalypse") and lots of vodka. The result is an indelible X-ray of the Russian soul. - Publishers Weekly
"Chernobyl is like the war of all wars. There's nowhere to hide." On April 26, 1986, the people of Belarus lost everything when a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station exploded. Many people died outright, and many were evacuated, forced to leave behind everything from pets to family photographs. Millions of acres remain contaminated, and thousands of people continue to be afflicted with diseases caused by radiation as 20 tons of nuclear fuel sit in a reactor shielded by a leaking sarcophagus known as the Cover. For three years, journalist Alexievich spoke with scores of survivors--the widow of a first responder, an on-the-scene cameraman, teachers, doctors, farmers, Party bureaucrats, a historian, scientists, evacuees, resettlers, grandmothers, mothers--and she now presents their shocking accounts of life in a poisoned world. And what quintessentially human stories these are, as each distinct voice expresses anger, fear, ignorance, stoicism, valor, compassion, and love. Alexievich put her own health at risk to gather these invaluable frontline testimonies, which she has transmuted into a haunting and essential work of literature that one can only hope documents a never-to-be-repeated catastrophe. - Donna Seaman
We cannot refresh anything about Chernobyl, except our memories. On April 26, 1986, a botched technical experiment at the nuclear plant started a graphite fire that blew the roof off, releasing molten reactor core - 50 tons of radioactive fuel - into the night sky. The Soviet authorities concealed the disaster. Three days later, workers at a nuclear plant in Sweden were found to have radioactive particles on their clothing. Finding no leak at their plant, the Swedes traced the particles back to the Ukraine-Belarus border. Here, the contamination that was not carried on frisky winds around the world fell immediately on fields, forests and villages and will, allowing for two half-lives of plutonium, leave the area radioactive for 48,200 years.
"The radio wasn't saying anything, and the papers weren't either, but the bees knew. They didn't come out for two days, not a single one." The absence of information from above surprised few people interviewed by Svetlana Alexievich in this marvellous and tragic book. Though this was the era of Gorbachev - who comes out very badly here - people still looked for the truth in the behaviour of their Party bosses rather than the media; and the bosses were taking iodine tablets and, when they visited the site, making sure they walked only on the triple layer of fresh asphalt that had been laid for their visit.
Nobody knew what radiation was capable of: nuclear power was known as "the Peaceful Worker". Three days passed before the sudden evacuation of the nearest town, Pripyat, two kilometres away. Children went to school, and finished their costumes for the May Day parade. Today, Pripyat, like the rest of the human habitats within a 30-kilometre radius, is home only to ghosts, security and scientific people. Except that it's not: "the zone" has its own category of inhabitants, "self-settlers", refugees, thieves and residents who have crept back, like Anna the bee-keeper and the old villager from Bely Bereg who tells the author, "Home is where the heart is. When you're not there, even the sun's not the same."
Alexievich is a Belarussian journalist, and it was Belarus that received 70 per cent of the fallout of iodine, caesium, strontium and plutonium radionuclides. It lost 485 villages, and today one in every five Belarussians - 2.1 million - still lives on contaminated land. President Lukashenko's government continues to refuse to acknowledge Chernobyl's impact. When the plant exploded and the wind nudged a radioactive cloud over the whole country, the director of Belarus's Institute for Nuclear Energy, Vasily Nesterenko, rushed to Party offices in Minsk, begging officials to initiate iodine distribution - the city had 700kg of iodine concentrate in store in case of a Cold War attack. He describes "a conspiracy of ignorance and obedience". Little has changed. Then, secretaries were instructed to refuse him admission. They let him in when he held his dosimeter to their thyroid glands and it chattered. He was sacked. Recently, in 1999, Nesterenko's colleague, the clinical scientist Prof Yuri Bandazhevsky, was arrested for publicising the effects of caesium-137, particularly on the human foetus. Prof Bandazhevsky is now dying in jail. (The writers' organisation English PEN has just obtained a copy of Prof Bandazhevsky's banned research, for which it is seeking a publisher.)
Alexievich's book, which should be a melancholy experience, is both more and less than that. Her technique is a powerful mixture of eloquence and wordlessness, describing incompetence, heroism and grief: from the monologues of her interviewees she creates a history that the reader, at whatever distance from the events, can actually touch. Reading it, I realised for the first time that Chernobyl was Europe's tsunami: but we, humans, made this tsunami, and it has no end. In the mid-1990s, on a river cruise in Ukraine, I met a Chernobyl manager, one of the men who had sat in a helicopter for three days and nights directing the dumping of sand into the reactor's burning core. He had leukaemia and, as we slipped downstream, was drinking himself to death in a Conradian way. His children, and his children's children, will feel the accident's effects; by leakage into groundwater and from the fuel still left in Chernobyl's core, it could still get worse. And Chernobyl is not the only reactor on Earth. Yet it manages to be a place of ordinary life. As one member of the clean-up crew says, "The men drank vodka. They played cards, tried to get girls." The first lesson learned was that vodka offers some defence against radiation. It became precious currency, drunkenness essential.
Her technique is a powerful mixture of eloquence and wordlessness
In between these desperate griefs are stories of cynicism and surreal moments of greed and confusion. Radioactive tractors, motorbikes and fur coats smuggled from the zone have, it seems, been sold all over what was the Soviet Union. But possibly the strangest element of the disaster is the happiness it produces. Where man is no longer a predator, elk, wolves and boar return. A cameraman says, "A strange thing happened to me. I became closer to animals. And trees, and birds."
The longing for better relations with nature runs through this extraordinary book. If you have any curiosity about the future, I absolutely urge you to read it. Alexievich's Chernobyl is a place of extremes and unknowns, a theatre for the consequences of technology. As she says in a postscript, "These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future." I'm sure she is right. -
Alexievich’s job has perhaps been even more difficult than that of those older writers: she has consistently chronicled that which has been intentionally forgotten, from the Soviet war in Afghanistan to Chernobyl and the post-Soviet nineteen-nineties (the subject of her most recent book). Her first book, “War’s Unwomanly Face,” documented the experiences of Soviet women during the Second World War, but in all of her subsequent books she has written about events that had just occurred when she began investigating, when the work of un-remembering is arguably most active.
I first met Alexievich about twenty years ago. I called her after reading an excerpt from the just written “Voices from Chernobyl” which had appeared in Izvestia, the highest-circulation Russian daily at the time. Alexievich explained to me that she had been going to the “exclusion zone” and the “estrangement zone”—the contaminated lands around the nuclear reactor—for a decade. This means that she started visiting the “zones” almost immediately after the explosion. She confessed that the process of researching the book had made her physically ill.
Only in the nineties would an excerpt from Alexievich’s new book have appeared in Russia’s largest newspaper. In the decades since, her name has become almost obscure in the country of the language in which she writes. As a magazine editor in Moscow, I often introduced younger colleagues who had never heard of Alexievich to her books. On the eve of the Nobel announcement, Russia’s leading highbrow culture publication, Colta.ru, published a piece titled “Why You Should Know Who Svetlana Alexievich Is.”
Alexievich, whose native language is Russian and who has never written in another language, was born sixty-seven years ago in Soviet Ukraine and grew up in Soviet Belarus. For most of her adult life, she has lived in a nine-story concrete apartment bloc in central Minsk. Its standard-size kitchen—which is to say, quite small—is outfitted with a couch, because it’s the room where, in keeping with the Soviet intelligentsia tradition, all the important conversations happen. When Alexievich is there, her kitchen is indeed the site of many important conversations.
In the early aughts, Alexievich left Minsk and spent about a dozen years in Europe, living by turns in different countries where she could find writing fellowships: in Italy, Germany, France, and Sweden. She finally returned to Minsk a couple of years ago, admitting that her plan to wait out the reign of the Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, had failed. This project proved too long, even for her.
At around the time of her return, Alexievich published “Second-Hand Time,” her longest and most ambitious project to date: an effort to use an oral history of the nineties to understand Soviet and post-Soviet identity. In the meantime, she has seen her own identity change profoundly. She is a Russian-language writer who has never lived in Russia, but only now, nearly a quarter century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has this separation between Russia and its neighbors become clear. A Belarusian-language literature has been developing, and Alexievich has expressed regret that she cannot write in the language of her country. At the same time, she has spoken about feeling increasingly alienated from what used to be her intellectual community inside Russia, which has now, she says, thrown itself into that country’s new imperial project. Through her books and her life itself, Alexievich has gained probably the world’s deepest, most eloquent understanding of the post-Soviet condition—and the Swedish Academy has just amplified the voice of that experience immeasurably.- Masha Gessen
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. - Danny Yee
Svetlana Alexievich, Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War, W. W. Norton & Company (September 30, 1992)
From 1979 to 1989 a million Soviet troops engaged in a devastating war in Afghanistan that claimed 50,000 casualties―and the youth and humanity of many tens of thousands more. Creating controversy and outrage when it was first published in the USSR―it was called by reviewers there a “slanderous piece of fantasy” and part of a “hysterical chorus of malign attacks”―Zinky Boys presents the candid and affecting testimony of the officers and grunts, nurses and prostitutes, mothers, sons, and daughters who describe the war and its lasting effects. What emerges is a story that is shocking in its brutality and revelatory in its similarities to the American experience in Vietnam. The Soviet dead were shipped back in sealed zinc coffins (hence the term “Zinky Boys”), while the state denied the very existence of the conflict. Svetlana Alexievich brings us the truth of the Soviet-Afghan War: the beauty of the country and the savage Army bullying, the killing and the mutilation, the profusion of Western goods, the shame and shattered lives of returned veterans. Zinky Boys offers a unique, harrowing, and unforgettably powerful insight into the realities of war.
The 1979-1989 Soviet war in Afghanistan, as Russian author Alexievich remarks in this oral history, wrenched boys from their daily life of school or college, music and discos, and hurled them into a hell of filth. She conveys that hell here through the grotesque memories of infantrymen, helicopter pilots, tank crewmen, medical corpsmen and political officers who survived the ordeal, plus those of widows and mothers of fighters--zinky boys brought home in zinc coffins. In his moving introduction, Heinemann (Close Quarters) points out the uncanny similarities between the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the American war in Vietnam. The reality of being a soldier, as this powerful book demonstrates, is everywhere dismally and remarkably the same: grueling, brutal and ugly. Most affecting are the mother scenes, especially one in which mothers of zinky boys meet regularly at a local cemetery and talk about their sons as though they are still alive. - Publishers Weekly
The price of modern war on the character of its people is something America already knew when the decade-long Soviet involvement in Afghanistan began in 1979; any comparison, only briefly mentioned in promotional material for this work, must be supplied by the reader. The Russian aspect of these recollections, with their unfamiliar allusions (partly explained in the footnotes), does not hide a similar sense of disillusionment and suffering. Alexievich uses first-person accounts to illustrate the style of conflict the Soviet soldier faced, as well as to reveal the enormity of the betrayal of the ordinary Soviet citizen that may have contributed to the end of the U.S.S.R. A powerful, lyrical, and poignant portrait of a brutal chapter in modern history. For general reading and any military collection with a Soviet emphasis.- Mel D. Lane,