Voices of Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich
A Book Review
“It’s like I’m painting with water on a wall, no one knows what I’m painting, no one can guess, no one has any idea.”
Grief is an invisible weight. It is one that we all carry to varying degrees at one point or another in our lives. We live, we lose, we die ourselves. It’s grim and poetic and terribly, irreversibly true. War is something that has threaded itself through the fabric of humanity from our very conception. Though horrible, it is a concept we have studied and can understand. But our ability to split the atom, awesome though it may be, has come at a cost we’re only beginning to understand.
I had the fortunate misfortune to read this book almost immediately after finishing John Hersey’s outstanding “Hiroshima,” an account of six people’s lives who survived the first atomic bomb. Originally published in the New Yorker not long after the war, it is a harrowing tale. The residents were expecting to be bombed, but nothing could have prepared them for the instant devastation that obliterated the city and threw their lives into chaos. Structures crumbled, people were vaporized, crushed, burned. Then, the fires spread and raged and consumed that which remained.
It’s a scenario that’s difficult to imagine, much less comprehend. Movies have contextualized the pain and suffering of war. The propoganda machine splits our vision between heroes and villains, winners and losers. Think of the endless stream of World War II movies, covering everything from the storming of the beaches of Normandy to the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. Yet Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain mostly in the dark of our collective cinematic vision. Why? Is it because it was too gruesome? Too shameful to reenact? Out of respect for the victims?
Instead, these weapons of mass destruction have been used as a cautionary tale of the apocalypse. Nuclear winter. Mass extinction. The rise, in some cases, of the machines. The moral of that story is that nuclear weapons are very, very bad, m’kay?
So, that’s the most obvious ramification of this technological terror we’ve constructed. One benefit of these developments is nuclear power. It’s clean, producing almost zero emissions. It’s incredibly efficient, capable of producing immense amounts of electricity. And it’s much safer than the use of coal.
Well, about that…
In steps Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize of Literature. The book is a series of interviews, some individual, others collective of people who lived through the silent tragedy of Chernobyl. Where “Hiroshima” sticks to the stories of six protaganists, “Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster” fans outwards, capturing a radius of suffering.
We begin with the wife of a firefighter. He was a first responder when the reactor had a meltdown and exploded, tossing bits of burning bits of radioactive graphite all around. These men bravely went on suicide missions. Every one of those firefighters died within days or weeks of exposure to an amount of radiation that is so high it boggles the mind.
There was no way to protect them. Helpless, we read on as her husband is isolated from everyone and dies a painful death where his skin turns soft and sloughs off and he begins to cough up blood and bits of lung and liver. When he dies, his remains are so radioactive that he must be buried at a special cemetery in a lead casket to prevent the spread of this invisible plague.
This is only the beginning. It continues on and on in painstaking, heartbreaking detail. These are the stories of the ones who remain. We hear stories of so-called liquidators, a few of the thousands that the Soviet Union’s military sent in to try to bring the reactor leak under control and then deal with the massive amounts of nuclear fallout.
A recurring scene of futilitiy is the continual removal of radioactive topsoil to be buried elsewhere. Literally everything has become poison. You can’t see it, you can’t smell it, you can’t taste it or touch it but it is there and it is killing you. Though most residents were evacuated not long after the meltdown, nearly everyone was exposed to radioactive dust. No one was prepared, no one was informed. People wanted to harvest their potatoes and tomatoes. Children played until they were brought inside…
Animal lovers beware. After the evacuation of the surrounding villages, hunters were hired and brought in to eliminate the dogs and cats and horses to prevent them from spreading to other areas. At first, the dogs ran to them like old friends, staring down the muzzle of a gun. Then they were thrown into a pit and buried. A small black poodle survives this and tries to crawl out of the pit. Some 30 hunters were there and all of them were out of bullets. Instead, they had to bury the dog alive.
The scope of the story expands beyond Chernobyl. The toxic air spread to Belarus, Ukraine, and southern parts of Russia. While thousands of liquidators were being sent in to cope with this catastrophe, the Soviet Union began a massive cover up to ensure word didn’t get out about what had happened there. The lack of transparency is not surprising, but it still shocks. Soviet physicists who knew the urgency of the situation were fearful of surveillance or otherwise ignored. People fled. Others, refugees of war torn places, like Chechnya and elsewhere, entered this wasteland in order to find some semblance of peace.
The costs were high. Children were born with cancer and deformities and defects. Many died. Their parents could only watch with the tender sadness that comes with losing a child and listening to them, frail and feeble, as they said, all too self-aware, “Papa, I don’t want to die.”
You will cry when reading this book. It is unrelenting. Many people who tell their stories were old enough to remember the Great War, which was a time of great privation. Millions died in battle and many more millions died of starvation. That, remember, they could understand. This, though, they cannot. It is death without a face, and death without a trace. We can only bear witness to what they have endured.
In the aftermath, a forest turned red and died. A part of civilization was uprooted from their homes and told that no one can return. Not just for years, but generations. Too many generations to count.