Review: Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices From Chernobyl

Svetlana Alexievich
Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices From Chernobyl.

Fresh from Svetlana Alexievich’s thoroughly well deserved Nobel Prize in Literature this week, I decided to review Voices From Chernobyl (the sales of which will, following her win, no doubt receive a major boost). 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 disaster, away from the government cover ups and lack of media interest following the immediate aftermath of the event. On 26th April 1986 the power plant, in Ukraine, exploded and sprayed a colossal cloud of radiation across Europe. Chaos and mystery ensued, and Alexievich boldly stepped out to discover the human cost; the personal accounts reveal a world suddenly besieged by an invisible enemy, where confusion and fear reside over everyone.

Voices From Chernobyl

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 brought terror to those stuck in its grasp.

I first read it 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. It 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.” It was first published in Russia (1997), and 2005 elsewhere.

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, and was exposed to fatal levels of radiation. Over the following days, in horrifying fashion, he began to exhibit acute radiation poisoning. It’s a depraved story, absolutely grotesque in its details of a human body disintegrating, and it encapsulates the shocking nature of the book.

This 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.

Legacy

Despite the horrific nature of the accounts, I do feel this will stand as an important cultural monument, a book which 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.

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