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Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a…

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (1997)

by Svetlana Alexievich

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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English (40)  Swedish (2)  Dutch (1)  Finnish (1)  Norwegian (1)  All languages (45)
Showing 1-5 of 40 (next | show all)
This book was devastating and beautiful all at once. Filled with testimonies of people who were affected by the Chernobyl disaster - liquidators, widows of firemen and liquidators, those who lived in the area and were evacuated, those who lived in the area and remained behind, photographers, children born before and after the disaster, even a couple of people who supported the Soviet Union and its reaction to the disaster - this book isn't what I would consider "light reading."

Some of the most touching and sad testimonies bookended the histories contained here. The first is from Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the widow of Vasily Ignatenko, a firefighter stationed in Pripyat who succumbed to acute radiation poisoning two weeks after the disaster. (If you've watched the HBO miniseries "Chernobyl," you are probably quite familiar with both of these people, as they were prominently featured in the show.) The last testimony is from Valentina Panasevich, the widow of a liquidator who died years after Chernobyl. (Vasily's death was part of the Soviet "official death toll" from Chernobyl; Valentina's husband's death, like thousands of others, were not.) It was obvious that these two women loved their husbands intensely and were completely devastated about their deaths, and to read them speaking about how they adored their spouses was heartrending.

Perhaps some of the most touching testimonies besides these were from the children or their parents. One mother grieves because her child was born severely deformed due to the radiation (agenesis of the vagina, urinary tract, the anus, the left kidney, etc). Another woman is terrified of starting her own family, afraid of what overwhelming problems her children may have due to the mother's exposure to radiation. One liquidator threw away all of his clothing after leaving Chernobyl...but his son wanted to keep his cap, so he allowed his child to have it. The son wore it all of the time, and two years later, the boy was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died. Another boy has cancer and was told that it was because his father worked at Chernobyl before he was born. He states that he loves his father a great deal, even though the reader is well aware that the boy probably will have a quite shortened lifetime.

Highly recommended. ( )
  schatzi | Jun 23, 2019 |
I have never understood why fiction lovers find history "boring". Whatever a writer can dream up, history has topped it, and better yet, history is even crazier since it actually happened. Reading this book has only reinforced my view. Yet reading Voices in Chernobyl has also made this view more nuanced. It's easy to treat history as akin to a story, a game because history is written hundreds, if not thousands, of years later, while 5,000 feet in the air at all times. Many complain that history frequently reads like a roll call of "great men" as prefect as Plato's equilateral triangle and as cold as marble. This book is a good response that complaint.

The book is moving, and pulls no punches. Through carefully edited oral interviews, the author shows the confusion, loss, anger, and pride in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster from the viewpoints of the common person. The themes of loss, anger, and love are universal. Yet that doesn't stop me from putting down the book to take deep breaths. The stories are tragic. A pregnant wife losing her husband and child to the radiation her husband was exposed to while fighting the reactor fire. A soldier who survived the radiation, only to lose his son to brain cancer, caused by the hat that the soldier let his son play with. A nurse witnessing a group of men break into the hospital and kill a newborn before even asking its gender, because they assumed that the newborn was the wrong ethnicity. Wives who watched their husbands die of radiation poisoning. That loss is universal, and can be understood across all cultures and times.

The book also shows artifacts and attitudes unique to Chernobyl. The constant idea that one went to clean up the zone because it was the "manly" thing to do. The idea that communism and soviet culture required the collective over the individual. The way people talked and treated the meltdown as parallel to World War II. How the government covered up the incident, lying to people about radiation, all while wearing with protective equipment, telling everyone that things were handled. How scientists who knew better were afraid to share information, afraid that they would be silenced. The lives lost from such human calamity.

The last great theme of the book is the entire otherworldliness of the accident. The book talks about soldiers evacuating villages, burying contaminated soil, and shooting left-behind pets. How the people in the area couldn't understand radiation, "the atom" and how it poisoned the land, food, and people. The strange effects of the radiation on bodies, plants, and animals. The alienation of "Cherynoblites" caused by the general populace's fear of contamination.

For most Chernobyl will a footnote, an interesting fact in a school textbook. But in that footnote are the lives of millions. This book helps me remember that. ( )
  vhl219 | Jun 1, 2019 |
3.75 stars

On April 26, 1986, there was an explosion and fire at a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine. The oral stories in this book were collected ten years later, and published in Russian in 1997. They were translated and published in English in 2005. The stories come from people who were in towns/villages closeby, people who were later evacuated, people who moved into the area later, people who came in to clean up, and more.

The most horrifying stories for me were the ones from the people who were close enough to see it. The opening story was from a woman whose husband was a firefighter who went in right away, and that was one of the most engrossing stories. As an animal-lover, I was also horrified at the story from a hunter: the pets were all left behind and they were radioactive, so they had hunters go in to shoot them. If you "like" disaster stories or are just interested in the aftermath of Chernobyl and want to hear about it from people who were there, you'll want to pick up this book. ( )
  LibraryCin | May 16, 2019 |
Uno de los libros más tristes que he leído. Cada historia tiene una forma distinta de ser desgarradora y terrible. Los coros y coros de gente le dibujan al lector con sus experiencias personales el fin de una era y de una potencia mundial. Chernóbil queda como un símbolo de nuestro afán de modernidad rebelándose en nuestra contra y evidenciándonos como seres fallidos. Buena prosa, simple y directa, muy comunicativa. Algunos dicen no estar de acuerdo con las ideas políticas de la autora, y es muy válido, pero no por eso hay que despreciar su trabajo literario y periodístico. Así como pasó con Solzhenitzin, no siempre es bueno tener razón antes de tiempo, y aún no ha transcurrido el tiempo suficiente para saber si pasará lo mismo con Alexeievich. Por mientras, lo mejor es leer su obra y discutirla. ( )
  LeoOrozco | Feb 26, 2019 |
Wow - first book of the year, and a solid 5-star read. April 26, 1986 was when the world changed, when Chernobyl blew up, the worst civilian nuclear disaster in history. Alexievich chronicles this event through interviews with the people affected, with a preface covering the salient facts about the incident and its effects: clean-up workers sent in without any protection to 'clean-up' the site; families of military personnel sent to the site to try to contain it before it ran-away and caused a much worse catastrophe; families evacuated from the hot zone; people who refused to leave the hot zone; people continuing to live and work the contaminated land; Communist party leaders; atomic physicists and other nuclear experts; children. Powerful and disturbing. ( )
  LisaMorr | Jan 19, 2019 |
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» Add other authors (10 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Svetlana Alexievichprimary authorall editionscalculated
Björkegren, HansTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gessen, KeithTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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We are air: we are not earth

Merab Mamardashvili
First words
(Prologue) I don't know what I should talk about -about death or about love?
On 26 April 1986, at 01:23 hours and 58 seconds, a series of blasts brought down Reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, near the Belarusian border. (some historical background)
I don't know what to tell you about. (A lone human voice)
From materials published in Belarusian newspapers in 2005
… Kiev travel agency offers tourist trips to Chernobyl (In place of an epilogue)
Don't write about the wonders of Soviet heroism. They existed—and they really were wonders. But first there had to be incompetence, negligence, and only after those did you get wonders: covering the embrasure, throwing yourself in front of a machine gun. But that those orders should never have been, that there shouldn't have been any need, no one writes about that. They flung us there, like sand onto the reactor. Every day they'd put out a new "Action Update": "men are working courageously and selflessly," "we will survive and triumph."

They gave me a medal and one thousand rubles.
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Wikipedia in English (3)

Book description
"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".
The devastating history of the Chernobyl disaster by Svetlana Alexievich, the winner of the Nobel prize in literature 2015

- A new translation by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait based on the updated and expanded text -

On 26 April 1986, at 1.23am, a series of explosions shook the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Flames lit up the sky and radiation escaped to contaminate the land and poison the people for years to come. While officials tried to hush up the accident, Svetlana Alexievich spent years collecting testimonies from survivors - clean-up workers, residents, firefighters, resettlers, widows, orphans - crafting their voices into a haunting oral history of fear, anger and uncertainty, but also dark humour and love. A chronicle of the past and a warning for our nuclear future, Chernobyl Prayer shows what it is like to bear witness, and remember in a world that wants you to forget. [Amazon.co.uk]
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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 4 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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