Book Review: Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
By Svetlana Alexeivich
This past April was the thirtieth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Last August, I traveled to Chernobyl as part of a larger trip to Belarus, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, and Sweden. While I don’t remember Chernobyl when it happened, I remember learning about it in elementary school and high school. Even at that young age, it captured my imagination. Really, it is hard to imagine it. As a child, I imagined some glittery cloud of poison spreading across Europe. As an adult, having been there, my imagination is even more stilted. It is warped by adventure, bragging rights, and voyeurism. With that said, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, was a necessary dose of lived experience. The book is a collection of interviews from survivors of Chernobyl. It is awesome in the traditional sense of the word. I am in awe of the immensity of the human suffering caused by this event.
The problem with being a tourist is that it experienced as an outsider and consumer. Experiences are packaged and devoured. While I certainly felt the gravity and horror of the Chernobyl disaster as an outsider and drew some lessons from the experience, I could only experience Chernobyl safely (relatively), for a short time, years later, and with the freedom and privilege of a traveler. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster provided me with more material for deeper reflection and understanding. To the people who contributed to the book’s narrative, Chernobyl was hellish. It deformed their babies. It ruined their relationships. It killed loved ones. It poisoned food. It killed painfully, often slowly and gruesomely. It destroyed beloved pets and livestock. It vacated villages and emptied lives. I knew all of this, but I really didn’t FEEL all of this. The book helped me to feel the suffering and desolation of the hundreds of thousands of people impacted by the disaster.
(Years later, it doesn't seem real. It is a decaying world of lost things.)
There are a few themes that struck me or made me think a little more deeply. One very common theme was the sense that Chernobyl felt like war. This was because of the military’s role in evacuating villages, the use of military material, a sense of duty in cleaning or fighting the disaster, the mass dislocation of people, a lack of personal choice, leaving things behind, the and destruction of forests, animals, and villages. This made me think about how military or authoritative responses to disasters impact the psyche of a people. Even when natural disasters happen in the United States, it is not uncommon that the National Guard would be dispatched. But, this pairing of disasters with the military must have some psychological impact on people. Perhaps we like to think of this as a benign role for the military, but it is still a display of military power, imagery, and authority. What does it mean to be at war with a disaster? At war with nature? Can governments muster a less militant response? To what degree is authority necessary for public safety?
Another theme from the book was the reproductive consequences of radiation. One woman was told it was a sin to reproduce. Another had a child who was born with no vaginal, anal, urethral opening and other health issues. This required enormous care, endless surgeries, frustration, and hopelessness. I believe I read that Chernobyl resulted in 200,000 abortions in Belarus. Many women had children with severe disabilities. Some women had miscarriages as their fetus took on radiation. All of this amounts to tremendous suffering. Those who chose to have children often had enormous challenges, disappointments, and death. Many women could not have children. Others chose not to. But these are all choiceless choices wherein no one has the agency to make the “right” choice. There is no right choice. There is endless, demoralizing, sickness and suffering. Men were also impacted by the disaster, as they were mobilized as soldiers, pilots, liquidators, and firefighters. I learned in the book that one of the effects of radiation is erectile dysfunction. Discussing this was highly stigmatized, but impacted the relationship prospects of these men. Finally, children who survived or were born after grew up in an environment of death and sickness.
Another theme was gender roles themselves. The men who were interviewed were stoic and dutiful, if not somewhat fatalistic and nihilistic. Men played an important role in containing the disaster and evacuating villages. If men were not bound by duty and suppressed emotions, they would not be so easily mobilized into self-sacrificing heroics. The men saw themselves as robots. They were like robots, as they literally replaced the malfunctioning robots who failed to remove graphite rods from the roof of the reactor. Certainly this was an important task, but it was a sentence to a painful, miserable, grotesque death. We make men into robots so they can fight wars, shoot “criminals,” guard prisons, break strikes, and do all of the other violent dirty work that society requires. Sometimes these robots malfunction and strike the women, children, and animals that society deems that they should not. Yet, society does not care of this violence is unleashed against foreigners and “bad guys” (often Muslims and African Americans).
Animals were often discussed. After the disaster, soldiers killed every animal in the exclusion zone, from cows to cats to foxes. Those who were evacuated and some who remained told stories of beloved cats and dogs that they left behind. The soldiers who killed the animals viewed it as a job, but unpleasant none the less. The animals were feared to be radioactive and thus capable of spreading radiation. So, they were killed. In a way, killing pets and livestock represented killing the remnants of civilization. Some animals escaped and became feral, but even the feral animals represented the human life and activity that once was. It was a connection to the former humanity the land. In the absence of humans, wild animals returned. To those who stayed behind, the wild animals seemed a bit fiercer. This might be imagined, but in this vision, the violence and destruction of nature made the animals mean.
Hopelessness was another theme. There is no justice. There is no one to blame. The Soviet Union is gone. The Soviet Union could be blamed for responding slowly, for secrecy, for lying to people, for building less safe reactors, and for instilling in people faith in nuclear energy. But, what happened cannot be undone. People live with the consequences. The magnitude of the problem would have been daunting to any country. Any country would have had to sacrifice human beings in the heroics of stopping the disaster. Again, the wiggle room for choices is small. The faith in nuclear energy and the naivety of people is the most tragic. In the first day after the disaster, children played and people marveled at a nuclear fire! Fisherman experienced an atomic tan, none the wiser that they were killing themselves. The juggernaut of ignorance resulted in a lot of cancer. Then, I think of the greatest disaster we face today: CLIMATE CHANGE! Like radiation, it is hard to see climate change. At ground zero of melting ice caps, not so much. But for most of us, we don’t see it or don’t want to see it. So, there is this disaster of global proportions. A disaster greater than Chernobyl. Yet, governments are just as slow to respond. Worse, society propagates the naïve belief that it can be stopped by green consumerism and within the framework of capitalism. In the face of grand human suffering, the destruction of nations, the extinction of life…we are fisherman with a nuclear tan. This is not to blame people themselves. But, I think that the same mechanisms that resulted in a slow response to Chernobyl operate quite well in the face of many disasters. Why? Responses are hard. They are scary. They require resources and restructuring. They require vulnerability. They require informed people. They require things that undermine the power of those in power. It is easier to ignore, minimize, hope for the best, or hope no one notices. At least that it what I thought when considering this aspect of the Soviet response.
A good book is a book that makes me think. It is rare for a nonfiction book to make me both think and feel. With that said, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, was a great read. It adds to my understanding of Chernobyl and has given me a lot to consider.