I often thought that the simple fact, the mechanical fact, is no closer to the truth than a vague feeling, rumor, vision. Why repeat the facts- they cover up our feelings. The development of these feelings, the spilling of these feelings past the facts, is what fascinates me. And so, in the mid nineties, Svetlana Alexievich spent three years travelling through Belarus and Ukraine, interviewing people who’d been affected by the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl, to try to elicit these feelings, to help uncover how this catastrophe had impacted on their lives and how they felt about it some years on. The result is a polyphony of voices, both solo and in chorus, very much in the style of Svetlana Alexievich’s other oral histories, like The Unwomanly Face of War. Across the range of voices and experiences it’s an account of the devastation caused by the accident at Chernobyl. And through the survivors’ testimonies another theme emerges: that of the Soviet system, its values and belief systems, which contributed at many different levels to the scale of the tragedy.
The idea of polyphony is reflected in the structure of the book. A series of monologues and choruses is book ended by two of the most harrowing accounts of death, both by young women who lose their beloved husbands in the catastrophe. In the first, the husband was a firefighter who attended the fire at the reactor in the early hours of April 26th when the accident happened. He subsequently died a horrible death in a Moscow hospital a few days later. In the second and last interview, the wife of a construction worker, working at the site as a liquidator, tells of her husband’s dreadful disfigurement and death as a result of radiation sickness. In both accounts, the depth of their love for their husbands comes through, their anguish at the suffering they witness, their profound sense of loss and the emptiness of their future.
There are many accounts of the pain of evacuation: the inhabitants of Pripyat, the nearby town which serviced the reactor, had to leave in buses at very short notice. One man says the one thing he wanted to take with him was his door. They had a family tradition of laying their dead on the door- they’d laid his father out there. It also had notches showing how he’d grown as a lad and his son after him. He wasn’t allowed to take it, but came back a fortnight later and carried it off on his motorbike. What he hadn’t expected was that they’d be laying his little daughter out on it some time later. People who left were resettled elsewhere, but were known to be from Chernobyl and ostracised; children were shunned by others at school fearing contamination. Many couldn’t bear to be away from their homes and returned to live there. These re-settlers lived hand to mouth, often lonely, living in evacuated and abandoned villages, tolerated by the authorities.
Then there are the accounts given by a range of people drafted in shortly after the accident to help limit the damage: construction workers, army reservists, soldiers, many of them pulled out of other jobs to work there. There are accounts of highly dangerous activity, for example, the clearing of radioactive debris from the roof- and some tasks which I just hadn’t imagined- like the removing of a layer of radioactive topsoil to be buried in secure concrete underground pits. ( Which weren’t secure concrete structures at all in the end, just dug out pits). Fear of radioactive contamination didn’t seem to feature in these accounts, the workers saying they simply went along with their orders, encouraged by the idea that they were doing something heroic and necessary for their country, something patriotic, in these times the Russian shows how great he is. How unique. We’ll never be Dutch or German. And never have proper asphalt or manicured lawns. But there’ll always be plenty of heroes.
This sense of heroism recurs throughout the monologues and, combined with more general bravado and plain ignorance, led to many liquidators sent to the Exclusion Zone just not making use of the scant safety equipment. One account tells how after a while reservists began picking plums from the trees, ate fish and swam in the river. And this carelessness worked well for the bosses, who got the liquidators to endanger themselves even more by offering them staggeringly high rates of pay for the most dangerous activities, while providing hopelessly inadequate safety equipment and fiddling the records of radiation they were receiving.
Towards the latter half of the book we read the testimonies of the Communist Party apparatchiks and the scientists. The truth is that the regional Communist Party leaders were hopelessly out of their depth- they weren’t scientists, so didn’t understand the dangers of radioactive contamination and were desperately trying to convince the population and the world that they had everything under control. Attending the May Day parade in Kiev shortly after the accident was seen as a necessary show of confidence and solidarity, despite the dangerously high levels of radioactivity in the city. Equally disturbing is the testimony of some scientists, sent into the Zone to measure levels of radiation, and finding people with thyroid levels sometimes 2-300 times the norm. When asking their superiors what they should then do, they were told ‘take your measurements and watch television’. So that’s what they did.
Several scientists and technicians reflect in the interviews on this lack of reaction to the high levels of radiation. This was an era when nuclear physics was one of the most prestigious areas of activity in the Soviet Union. It was unthinkable that something could go that wrong. Like other citizens, the scientists also had an unshakeable faith in the Soviet system and communism, so they kept quiet and followed orders, even when they were horrified at their findings. They also had an absolute belief in the collective experience and were unused to making any decisions on their own- so how were they going to go out on a limb and tell the truth about the measurements? There is some poignant testimony where they are quietly reflecting on the actions they took, or failed to take, at the time.
Estimates are that the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station caused 4,000 deaths and several thousand cases of thyroid cancer. In Belarus, just north of Chernobyl, 2 million people of a population of 10 million are living on contaminated land. Details of the technical causes of the accident will be found elsewhere, but these voices are moving testimony to the lived experience of victims and survivors- and to the culture of cronyism, laziness and a deep- seated indifference towards the general population.
In some ways, the Chernobyl catastrophe seems a part of history. When I visited the excellent Chernobyl museum in Kiev this summer, the newspaper cuttings and film footage seemed to belong to a different era. And we know that the dawning realisation of the role of the Soviet authorities in the cover up and denial of the tragedy contributed to the break up of the Soviet Union only a few years later. Yet while reading this book, the accounts of completely inadequate safety equipment made me wonder how we’re placed in the UK. How many protective suits do we have in case of an accident at Sellafield? How many masks? What about hospital beds in these time of NHS shortages? How would we deal with it?
The 1997 US Picador edition, translated by Keith Gessen, which I read, has been followed by a second revised edition, brought out in 2016 by Penguin, translated by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait. I read the US edition because I had it on my bookshelf, given me by a friend after the author won the Nobel Prize in 2015. I found the translation excellent and the translator’s preface helpful: the second edition may contain updated and additional material. Whichever you read you’ll be moved, sometimes to tears, by these voices.