“Voices From Chernobyl” by Svetlana Alexievich

This book is a collection of conversations with survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster of 1986. Alexievich conducted these interviews ten years after the calamity and published this book in 1997. It was translated into English in 2005 and the author received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015.

For the sake of historical perspective, keep in mind that the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, leaving Russians living in the former Soviet republics confused about their identities/nationalities. Ukraine and Belarus inherited Chernobyl.

The accident consisted of explosions followed by fire, fueled by the plant’s graphite control rods. The very worst possible outcome, a supercritical or branched chain reaction (as in a fission bomb) was avoided (or limited to a microsecond), but the amount of radioactive material released was huge.

This book provides very little context. Mostly, it consists of the unedited reflections of survivors. (I’ve added a little context here from Wikipedia, which is a useful starting point to learn about Chernobyl, with extensive links and references.)

What I hear in the survivors voices is an attempt to assign meaning to an experience so dire and extreme as to almost totally defy logic. In this case, the survivors had many factors working against them.

Some were relatively uneducated. Even those working at the nuclear plant understood it only poorly. Communication of information was limited, and there was no trust between officials and citizens.

The failures that precipitated the accident had probably never been considered by planners or plant operators. The closest parallel was probably that of a “ground burst” or the incomplete explosion of a nuclear weapon. The Cold War military had pondered these catastrophes, and the Russian military played the lead role in response to Chernobyl.

A nuclear plant poses the very small possibility of a very bad accident. This is not a category of risk that societies deal with well. It’s also a category that sometimes leads to “the cure being worse than the disease”. I can’t say that this applies to everything done in the wake of Chernobyl, but some measures were plainly ill considered. Some people were told to drink milk. Any number of “folk” type remedies were attempted.

So how did the survivors interpret their experiences, and their staggering losses? Some turned to religious reflection. “Why does God hate me? Of what was I guilty?” Some assumed that Russia’s enemies must have caused the explosions. Many, I think, suffered terrible depression and disorientation.

One common framework for comprehension was war. A citizen aged 50 or more would remember WW II and the experience of being displaced or evacuated under fire. But Chernobyl happened during the sunny spring time, when crops were growing. It didn’t look or feel like wartime. And the government issued cheerful, calming statements.

One thing Chernobyl was NOT was private. Radiation was detected and tracked around the world. Fear traveled in its wake. It could never have been kept a secret.

But I digress. What about these people and their stories? Some put their lives back together, with astonishing strength and determination, and moved on. Others suffered from social stigma and ill health. And for some, it was a final blow, the incomprehensible sad end to a life beset by severe challenges.

Reading about Chernobyl reminded me of another accident, the chemical factory “gas release” in Bhopal, India, in 1984. In a way, it was the inverse of Chernobyl. The “immediate” death toll in Chernobyl (four weeks) was 35. But the subsequent death toll was high and the consequences of exposure to radiation continue to the present. Some land is still vacant. At Bhopal, the overnight death toll was 2,259. There were further deaths and some permanent injuries. The site has been “remediated”. There’s a big different between radioactivity and toxicity, however acute. Bhopal is fading (uncomfortably) into history. The world will watch Chernobyl carefully for many, many years

Speaking of looking at Chernobyl, if you Google “Chernobyl Tourism” you can book a trip inside the current exclusion zone for a period up to seven days. Perhaps this is offered to prevent a black market in entry to the area? Not on my bucket list…

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