Book Review – Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich

If you’re not moved by this book, you’re not human. Ms. Alexievich delivered a powerful narrative of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. As opposed to delivering a dry history of events populated with statistics, she explored the aftermath through the human cost of the tragedy. The author achieved this through personal interviews with those affected.

The hardest task for an historian is to present readers with a realistic portrayal of time and place. Through the book’s structure Ms. Alexievich did. Voices from Chernobyl consisted exclusively of the words of those directly involved. She spoke with former Soviet military personnel who worked on the clean-up as well as former government officials. While that presented an accurate perspective, the most haunting comments came from those who lost loved ones in the tragedy.

I’ve read volumes of history books in my time. None contained the emotional impact of this one. Ford Maddux Ford began his The Good Soldier with the line, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” I doubt few people come away from Voices from Chernobyl not saying the same thing. I’m not sure how I managed to finish it and I can’t imagine how Ms. Alexievich persisted through writing it. I really have to applaud her commitment to getting the story of the Belorussian people’s suffering out to the world.

To be sincere, I’m struggling to write this review. The stories Ms. Alexievich included really moved me: and I’m not an emotional person. She began and ended the book with stories of men who responded to the disaster and passed away from radiation poisoning. The author allowed their widows to tell their stories in their own words.

One that will remain with me forever involved a woman’s ordeal at the hospital. She concealed her pregnancy so they would let her in to attend to her husband. One of the nurses told her: “He’s not your husband anymore. He’s a radioactive object.” (Page 16) Her daughter passed shortly after birth: another victim of complications from radiation poisoning.

For those managing to hang in there and continue reading this review, there’s much more graphic information in the story. The man who passed away at the end of the book succumbed to a horrendous form of cancer. The widow recounted a conversation with two hospital orderlies.

“We’ve seen everything,” they told me, “people who’ve been smashed up, cut up, the corpses of children caught in fires. The way Chermobylites die is the most frightening of all.” (Page 231)

There are a lot of very disturbing personal reminiscences like this in the book. Once more, that’s what made it so powerful. Approximately 340,000 members of the Soviet military worked at Chernobyl following the disaster. (Page 140) One of them recalled the following.

Before we went home we were called in to talk to a KGB man. He was very convincing when he said we shouldn’t talk to anyone, anywhere, about what we’d seen. When I made it back from Afghanistan, I knew that I’d live. Here it was the opposite: it’d kill you only after you got home. (Page 41)

One observer described the Soviet Union as a “country of authority, not people.” (Page 209) Government officials weren’t spared the effects of Chernobyl, either. One former First Secretary of the Stavgorod Regional Party Committee indignantly defended his reluctance to evacuate the area after the disaster. His response elucidated the mindset of Soviet officials during the Cold War era.

In the papers—on the radio and television they were yelling Truth! Truth! At all the meetings they demanded Truth! Well, it’s bad. It’s very bad. We’re all going to die! But who needs that kind of truth? When the mob tore into the convent and demanded the execution of Robespierre, were they right? You can’t listen to the mob, you can’t become the mob…If I’m a criminal, why is my granddaughter, my little child, also sick? My daughter had her that spring, she brought her to us in Slavgorod in diapers. In a baby carriage, it was just a few weeks after the explosion at the plant. There were helicopters flying, military vehicles on the roads. My wife said: “They should go to our relatives. They need to get out of here.” I was the First Secretary of the Regional Committee of the Party. I said absolutely not. “What will people think if I take my daughter with her baby out of here? Their children have to stay.” Those who tried to leave, to save their own skins, I’d call them into the regional committee. “Are you a Communist or not?” It was a test for people. If I’m a criminal, then why was I killing my own grandchild? (Goes on for some time but it is impossible to understand what he’s saying.) (Page 198)

The Swedish Academy honored Svetlana Alexievich with the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. After reading this book, I understand the choice. Some experiences in life deeply affect a person. They shape his view of the world around him in new ways. For me, one of those experiences will have been reading Voices from Chernobyl.

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