Voices from Chernobyl on the 28th Anniversary of the Catastrophe

After the Nazi Holocaust, the world accepted oral histories as the evidence of what had occurred. This only seems natural, and it is easy to imagine the uproar that would ensue if public intellectuals and United Nations agencies suddenly declared that these oral histories were unreliable or based on a misunderstanding of the true causes of the suffering. However, when it comes to Chernobyl, Fukushima, and other nuclear disasters, oral history gets dismissed as ‘anecdotal,’ or motivated by a desire to gain status as a compensated victim. In spite of all the official neglect of the victims, there are a few good collections of oral histories in books and documentary films. In these, hundreds of witnesses all tell similar accounts that contradict the official conclusions.
One of the best oral histories was Voices from Chernobyl, compiled by Svetlana Alexievich in the 1990s and translated into English in 2005. To commemorate the 28th anniversary of the catastrophe, I’ve collected a few excerpts below, but they really don’t do justice to the full impact of reading the whole book. Most of these voices belong to the liquidators, the 700,000 people from all over the Soviet Union who were conscripted into various tasks related not only to taming the reactor but also to “cleaning up” and evacuating the exclusion zone, and many of these jobs ended up being absurd and desperate rites of decontamination and dispossession in a world where “the Apocalypse met the Stone Age.” (p.87) The work was lubricated with a flood of alcohol that turned the zone into a black market with a vodka currency, and this itself invites the question whether it was an official ploy to make sure that the veterans of the Battle of Chernobyl would fade away into alcoholism before their problems could be clearly linked to radiation.

What is apparent from reading their accounts is that the rate of death and disease was much higher than the official studies ever admitted. To this day, the World Health Organization supports the view expressed in this statement:

According to UNSCEAR (2000), 134 liquidators received radiation doses high enough to be diagnosed with acute radiation sickness (ARS). Among them, 28 persons died in 1986 due to ARS. Other liquidators have since died but their deaths could not necessarily be attributed to radiation exposure.

Voices from Chernobyl

There you are: a normal person. A little person. You’re just like everyone else--you go to work, you return from work. You get an average salary. Once a year you go on vacation. You’re a normal person! And then one day you’re turned into a Chernobyl person, an animal that everyone is interested in, and that no one knows anything about. You want to be like everyone else, and now you can’t. People look at you differently. They ask you: Was it scary? How did that station burn? What did you see? And, you know, can you have children? Did your wife leave you? At first we were all turned into animals. The very word “Chernobyl” is like a signal. Everyone turns their head to look. He’s from there! (p. 31)

There’s a note on the door: “Dear Kind Person, please don’t look for valuables here. We never had any. Use whatever you want, but don’t trash the place. We’ll be back.” I saw signs on other houses in different colors—“Dear house, forgive us!” People said goodbye to their homes like they were people. Or they’d written: “we’re leaving in the morning,” or “we’re leaving at night,” and they’d put the date and even the time. There were notes written on school notebook paper: “Don’t beat the cat. Otherwise the rats will eat everything.” And then in a child’s handwriting: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good cat.” I’ve forgotten everything. I only remember that I went there, and after that I don’t remember anything. I forgot all of it. I can’t count money. My memory’s not right. The doctors can’t understand it. I go from hospital to hospital. But this sticks in my head: you’re walking up to the house, thinking the house is empty, and you open the door and there’s this cat. That, and those kids’ notes. (p.36-37)

We started thinking about it—I guess it must have been—three years later. One of the guys got sick, then another. Someone died. Another went insane and killed himself. That’s when we started thinking. But we’ll really only understand it in about 20-30 years. For me, Afghanistan (I was there two years) and then Chernobyl (I was there three months), are the most memorable moments of my life. (p.39)

We came home. I took off all the clothes that I’d worn there and threw them down the trash chute. I gave my cap to my little son. He really wanted it. And he wore it all the time. Two years later they gave him a diagnosis: a tumor in his brain… You can write the rest of this yourself. I don’t want to talk anymore. (p.40)

There were already jokes. Guy comes home from work, says to his wife, “They told me that tomorrow I either go to Chernobyl or hand in my Party card.” “But you’re not in the Party.” “Right, so I’m wondering: how do I get a Party card by tomorrow morning?” (p. 44)

After Chernobyl you can eat anything you want, but you have to bury your shit in a lead box… The prayer of the Chernobyl liquidator: Dear Lord, since you made it so that I can’t, will you please also make it so that I don’t want to? (p.48)

We’re lonely. We’re strangers here. They even bury us separately, not like they do other people. It’s like we’re aliens from outer space. I’d have been better off dying in Afghanistan. Honest, I get thoughts like that. In Afghanistan death was a normal thing. You could understand it there. (p. 50)

I’ve wondered why everyone was silent about Chernobyl, why our writers weren’t writing much about it--they write about the war, the camps, but here they’re silent. Why? Do you think it’s an accident? If we’d beaten Chernobyl, people would talk about it and write about it more. Or if we’d understood Chernobyl. But we don’t know how to capture the meaning from it. We can’t place it in our human experience or our human time-frame.
So what’s better, to remember or to forget? (p. 86)

A group of scientists flew in on a helicopter. In special rubber suits, tall boots, protective goggles. Like they were going to the moon. This old woman comes up to one of them and says, “Who are you?” “I’m a scientist.” “Oh, a scientist. Look how he’s dressed up! Look at that mask! And what about us?” And she goes after him with a stick. I’ve thought a few times that someday they’re going to start hunting the scientists the way they used to hunt the doctors and drown them in the Middle Ages. (p.88)

The book finishes with a long, heartbreaking testimony entitled A Solitary Human Voice, that of Valentina Panasevich, who lost her husband to cancer after he returned from work as a liquidator. If you think you ever loved someone with complete devotion, Valentina might put you to shame. Chernobyl is a tale from the end of the Cold War and the end of the communist system in the USSR. It was the end of an age when people were expected to surrender their private life to ideology and sometimes even die for it. It is stunning to hear Valentina’s voice, a product of this era, speaking with total obliviousness and contempt for ideology and the projects of state: a fitting rebuke to the system that caused the tragedy, and a fitting affirmation of the primacy of the individual to conclude this book. Love is all there is. There was nothing for Valentina besides her love for her husband. She told the historian Alexievich:

In school, all the girls dreamt of going to university or on a Komsomol [Communist Youth League] work trip, but I dreamt of getting married. I wanted to love. To love strongly, like Natasha Rostov [in War and Peace]. Just to love. But I couldn’t tell anyone about it, because back then you were only supposed to dream of the Komsomol construction trip. (p.223)

In the final pages of the book, Valentina recounts how she met her husband and cared for him during his slow decline after he returned from conscripted duty at Chernobyl. Like so many of the preceding testimonies, her account describes how it was common knowledge among the people that the radiation had taken far more lives, and far more of a toll on the health and DNA of the victims, than were ever officially admitted:

One time I managed to get an ambulance. It arrives with a young doctor. He comes over and right away staggers back. “Excuse me, he’s not from Chernobyl [a liquidator], is he?” I say, “Yes.” And he, I’m not exaggerating, he cries out, “Dear woman, then let this end quickly! Quickly! I’ve seen how the ones from Chernobyl die.” Meanwhile, my husband is conscious, he hears this. At least he doesn’t know, he hasn’t guessed, that he is the last one from his brigade still alive. (p.229)

Further reading:

"Svetlana Alexievich wins 2015 Nobel prize in literature," The Guardian, October 8, 2015.

One of the more compelling testimonies from Voices from Chernobyl (not excerpted above) was published in full in The Paris Review,Winter 2004.

Alla Yaroshinskaya. Chernobyl: Crime without Punishment (2011).

Jim Green. "Chernobyl: How Many Died?" The Ecologist. (April 26, 2014).

1 comment:

  1. Dennis,

    Another excellent, intelligent blog by you, and actually all of your blogs are!

    In this blog you discussed vodka and the "...ploy to make sure that the veterans of the Battle of Chernobyl would fade away into alcoholism "

    It was even more nefarious, IMO, as 'officials' tried to blame Chernobyl-radiation-induced-birth defects and early-deaths on alcohol. In the Symposium on the "Medical and Ecological Consequences of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident," Dr. Wertelecki specifically studied this and ruled out ruled out alcohol as the reason for Teratogenic (birth defects and microcephaly) seen from Chernobyl.

    His presentation can be viewed here: