Following Svetlana Alexievich’s thoroughly well deserved Nobel Prize in Literature (2015), we’re taking a look at Voices From Chernobyl.
It was first published in Russia back in 1997 before enjoying a 2005 translation across the rest of the world. Alexievich is a journalist, not an author, and she interviewed hundreds of people to form this deeply personal account of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
For the first time it helped to clearly display the human tragedy behind the incident, away from the government cover-ups and misinformation.
Voices From Chernobyl
On 26th April 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine exploded after a safety check backfired disastrously. A colossal plume of radiation was immediately shot into the local vicinity – neighbouring town Pripyat and Kiev – before spreading across Europe.
What followed was chaotic and appalling, with the Soviet Union desperately trying to deal with the consequences of the disaster… whilst also covering up as much of it as possible.
In 1996, almost a decade after the sarcophagus was secured over the power plant to trap in the worst of the radiation, Svetlana Alexievich boldly stepped out to discover the human cost.
The personal accounts she tracked down reveal a world suddenly besieged by an invisible enemy, where confusion and fear overtook everyone.
Whilst in 1986 the disaster was of passing interest for the media, the true extent of the death toll, along with the damage to the environment in Europe (principally Belarus and Ukraine) will likely never be known.
Voices From Chernobyl does, however, offer a terrifying insight into a world gone mad, where this strange, invisible enemy wreaking havoc and terror to those stuck in its grasp.
I first read the book a few years ago and was left stunned. At the time I remember wondering why Alexievich hadn’t received more widespread acclaim, but finally there’s the greatest prize of them all.
The Nobel Prize is, indeed, thoroughly well deserved.
Over a three year period she interviewed over 500 individuals, compiling the results about an almost apocalyptic world. As she writes:
"These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future."
A Solitary Human Voice is the opening account, by Lyudmilla Ignatenko, and it tells the story of her husband Vasily, a fireman living in Pripyat (the now abandoned town next to the nuclear power plant).
He was one of 30 men who first descended on Chernobyl shortly after the explosion. He was exposed to fatal levels of radiation. Over the following days, in horrifying fashion, he began to exhibit acute radiation syndrome (ARS). It’s an appalling account, absolutely grotesque in its details of a human body disintegrating. Yet it encapsulates the shocking nature of the work.
Voices From Chernobyl isn’t an easy read. There are no light-hearted asides or moments of respite – it’s a full on slog of human suffering and disbelief, almost akin to Primo Levi’s (a Holocaust survivor) If This Is a Man in its relentless brutality.
If there is anything uplifting to be found, it’s the activities of the liquidators (assigned to clear up the radioactive mess on the roof of Chernobyl’s reactors) and their extraordinary acts of bravery and personal sacrifice.
Despite the horrific nature of the accounts, I do feel this will stand as an important cultural monument. A book that future generations will read, and judge, human behaviour in the 20th century.
Due to this I’d suggest it’s imperative to experience the stories yourself – you can do so online at Voices From Chernobyl (this is the full text).
Alternatively, you can read a number of extracts on The Guardian. I do, however, highly recommend you purchase the book.
But there are various other documentaries you’ll find online, such as YouTube, where you can find out more of the details of what happened in April of 1986.
Finally, I’ve adapted this post several years on to take account of the exceptional Chernobyl mini-series.
Craig Mazin wanted to create the project to explain to people why the nuclear reactor exploded. He wrote the scripts after HBO commissioned the series, for which he used Alexievich’s Voices From Chernobyl as a reference point.
It’s a truly magnificent short series with excellent writing and a genuine respect for the disaster.
But it’s also harrowing viewing, if essential – the disaster stands as a reminder for us now that we have to care for the environment.