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Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a…

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (2006)

by Svetlana Alexievich

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The 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl Power Plant was one of the worst nuclear accidents in history. Ms Alexievich's book is the ongoing human story.

The author stands back and lets the interviewees tell their stark stories in their own words. There is a concert of voices – beginning with the then pregnant wife of one of the fireman who originally responded to the fire and whose husband, like all the initial responders, died an agonizing death over the next two weeks.

We hear from clean up workers and their spouses now devastated by cancer; from farmers who were told it was safe to harvest and sell their crops while government authorities around them wore radiation-protective gear. We hear of a generation of young men and women whose children are doomed to the most extreme of birth defects.

We hear stories of heroism and stories of a government more concerned about preserving its image than about protecting its people; stockpiles of iodine which were intended to be given to inhabitants to protect their thyroids were never given out. Individuals were told they would have to give up their communist party cards for failing to support the Soviet minimization of the disaster. Belarusian physicists who recognized the magnitude of the disaster were threatened with insane asylums.

And the radioactive contamination will persist for tens of thousands of years to come.

Letting the people tell their stories makes this a non-technical read. It also makes this book emotionally devastating.

It's an important book for anyone in the shadow of a nuclear power plant – and in this day and age that is most of the world. The Chernobyl incident contaminated not only Belarus and other Soviet countries, but much of Europe and even North America. I came away feeling immensely saddened but also much more educated. ( )
  streamsong | Nov 17, 2015 |
Honestly, I have no words, but fortunately she does. This is a must read, a statement I do not make lightly. Yes, it will depress you at times. Yes, you will weep. But to avoid is to turn yet another blind eye to not just history, but to reality, to humanity, and to forever hide oneself from the world and instead choose the fiction of a child. Understand. ( )
  wjmcomposer | Nov 16, 2015 |
"We’re afraid to talk about it. We don’t know how. It’s not an ordinary experience, and the questions it raises are not ordinary.”

It’s an odd horror story. It’s just a really strange event. There is no war or enemy, and nothing actually looks wrong. The land is still green and quite beautiful. The dead are still alive, acting quite normal, if inconvenienced. Radiation is an odd poison, the effect delayed and seemly unconnected from it.

And it’s a story that is so relevant to us in the worst of ways. "These people have already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future.", writes Alexievich, who otherwise writes very little.

Alexievich doesn't provide explanations. There is no analysis or sequence of events. She quotes those interviewed but doesn't give us the questions that inspired the answers. An oral history detached from any quotidian strings. The answers, which she calls monologues, are long and uninterrupted.

In the first monologue a woman tells the story of the first responders, including her husband. They lived about two weeks, sent in because the soon-to-die USSR fretted about a much larger explosion. But the men sent in later didn’t fair so well either. Liquidators, those sent to clean up, would slowly die by the thousands. But the interviews stay very personal.

"None of those boys is alive anymore. His whole brigade, seven men, they’re all dead. They were young. One after the other. The first one died after three years. We thought: well, a coincidence. Fate. But then the second died and the third and the fourth. Then the others started waiting for their turn. That’s how they lived. My husband died last. "

It’s an emotionally exhausting book. I had a lot of trouble starting a new chapter. When I finished, often I would just put the book down. The evacuees, their babies, their pets, the refugees of the fall of the Soviet Union who resettled (!) the area because they felt they had no where else to go. And the liquidators, on their suicide missions.

We used to have an old man who sat on this stoop, the house is leaning over, it’s going to fall apart soon, but he’s talking about the fate of the world. Every little factory circle will have its Aristotle. And every beer stand. Meanwhile we’re sitting right under the reactor. You can imagine how much philosophy there was.

I find it difficult to make any concluding statement. You can find some basic facts here:
http://www.chernobyl-international.com/about-chernobyl/facts-and-figures ( )
1 vote dchaikin | Nov 15, 2015 |
I’m one of those readers that tries to sample award-winning books/ authors from time to time, and it usually takes me several tries before I find something that I’m in the mood to read. Case in point: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, recent Booker-prize winner, was a little too disorienting for me to finish, but that’s not to say I won’t try it when my attention span is a bit longer. I was a little leery of the heaviness of Voices from Chernobyl by Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, but the fact that it’s an oral history made it easy to put it away for a time to get ready to go on.

This is an oral history, and Alexievich calls it her attempt to get at the feelings behind the events. It’s harrowing, it’s enlightening about the horrible things that happen alongside acute radiation poisoning, and it’s enlightening about the government response to the fire at the reactor at Chernobyl. Also, I will say that the first story was absolutely the saddest for me. If you can make it past that, it’s not quite as emotionally raw. It’s still harrowing reading though.

Oral histories are a mixed bag for me. I’ve read some that are simply too long and detailed (Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live), I’ve read bits of some that are too dismaying (I read bits of Elena Poniatowska’s La noche de Tlatelolco in college), but Voices from Chernobyl felt like the right length and the right sort of mix of stories. She collected stories for three years roughly ten years after the fire, and she gets stories about before, during, and looking to the future as people grieve as well as get sick with the effects of radiation exposure. It’s a little about politics, it’s a little about how to live with suffering, it’s a little about science. It’s a very affecting book, and I am eager to find what gets translated into English next.
  rkreish | Nov 6, 2015 |
Nobel prize winner, 1915. ( )
  clifforddham | Oct 9, 2015 |
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"Le 26 avril 1986, à 1 h 23, une série d'expolsions détruisit le réacteur et le bâtiment de la quatrième tranche de la centrale nucléaire de Tchernobyl; Cet accident est devenu la plus grande catastrophe technologique du XXème siècle".
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312425848, Paperback)

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award

On April 26, 1986, the worst nuclear reactor accident in history occurred in Chernobyl and contaminated as much as three quarters of Europe. Voices from Chernobyl is the first book to present personal accounts of the tragedy. Journalist Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people affected by the meltdown---from innocent citizens to firefighters to those called in to clean up the disaster---and their stories reveal the fear, anger, and uncertainty with which they still live. Comprised of interviews in monologue form, Voices from Chernobyl is a crucially important work, unforgettable in its emotional power and honesty.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:37 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Voices From Chernobyl is the first book to present personal accounts of what happened on April 26, 1986, when the worst nuclear reactor accident in history contaminated as much as three quarters of Europe. Svetlana Alexievich--a journalist who now suffers from an immune deficiency developed while researching this book--interviewed hundreds of people affected by the meltdown. Their narratives form a crucial document revealing how the government masked the event with deception and denial. Harrowing and unforgettable, Voices From Chernobyl bears witness to a tragedy and its aftermath in a book that is as unforgettable as it is essential.… (more)

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