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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

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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So, one evening on Twitter I was chatting with some friends about female Nobel laureates for literature and I decided to put my money where my mouth was and read some – other than those I’d already read, Lessing and, er, Jelinek… And so I bought myself copies of Herta Müller’s The Appointment (see here) and Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer. I knew nothing about either writer, other than the fact they had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Chernobyl Prayer is… probably going to be one of my top five reads of the year come December. Yes, it is that good. Read it now. Alexievich has made a career out of publishing the stories told to her by people regarding certain events, and in Chernobyl Prayers she interviewed lots of people in Belarus and Ukraine about the nuclear reactor meltdown in that town, and used their accounts to build a narrative of events and the effects of the accident. I remember Chernobyl being on the news and, like most people in Western Europe, I never really understood the damage wrought by the disaster. It was severely downplayed by governments and the media throughout the world – but nowhere quite as extensively as it was in the USSR, especially in the areas most affected by Chernobyl. Chernobyl Prayers is not only eye-witness accounts of the disaster and its immediate aftermath, but every account editorialises on the incident, on the USSR and Russian character, and so provides a rich and deep portrait. I’ve heard it said Alexievich “embellishes” the testimonies she collects, but I was under the impression going in that Chernobyl Prayers was on the borderline between fact and fiction, and that’s an area I enjoy exploring in literature. So I consider that a value-add, not a criticism. I’ve since added Alexievich’s next book, Second-Hand Time, to my wishlist. ( )
  iansales | Jan 31, 2017 |
I have never read anything else quite like this, I found it very unsettling. The first proper chapter, A Lone Human Voice, is one of the most affecting and upsetting pieces of writing I have come across. The book is made up of many multi-layered voices treading and retreading the same period of the Chernobyl disaster and subsequent clean up operation, evacuation, and general aftermath. The stories are terrible, and there is a sense of unreality about it. It's testimony rather than a factual account so the realities are mixed in with rumour, impressions and feelings. It's very poetic despite the subject matter and I can't stop thinking about it. ( )
  AlisonSakai | Jan 29, 2017 |
There really aren't words to describe this book. The last monologue was utterly heartbreaking. ( )
  kemilyh1988 | Jan 16, 2017 |
Series of interviews with people who lived in the Chernobyl region and their experiences after the nuclear plant exploded. It is terrible and one can pray no one ever will have to experience again what those people went through. The Soviet authorities failed on so many levels. ( )
  hvg | Jan 1, 2017 |

Alexievich has collected story after story of ordinary people whose lives were destroyed by the after effects of the Chernobyl explosion on 26 April 1986 (my 19th birthday). Although Chernobyl itself is just inside Ukraine, the Belarussian SSR, now the independent state of Belarus, was much worse hit - 22% of its territory was contaminated to a high level by radioactive materials. I must say I have personal concerns - at the time I was working outdoors on an archaeological site in southern Germany, though I'm glad to say that any ill effects have failed to become apparent in the last thirty years.

I bought this after Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize last year. Belarus is a country of deep fascination for me - I had two colleagues from there in my last job, one of whom lost her father (an open air theater performer) to cancer in the late 1980s. It's the largest European country that I have not yet visited (the others are Norway, Iceland, Latvia and Lithuania). For those who are fascinated by the JFK assassination, Minsk of course has a crucial role. I'm told that its Metro is the most spectacular in the former Soviet Union, outclassing Moscow's.

The words reported here are those of the speakers. But Alexievich weaves them together to form a coherent image of a country whose vitals were poisoned over one weekend in 1986, whose people weren't told then and haven't been told now what was really going on - massive sacrifices made in human terms, but for what benefit, if any? Nuclear physicists and experts are interviewed, but more to get the human side of their story rather than to delve into the technical aspects of what went wrong and how it could have been prevented or the effects ameliorated.

Chernobyl was a massive industrial accident, and I think it makes most sense to look at it in that way - a tech-obsessed totalitarian system, already living on borrowed time, unable to bridge the gap between the politically driven needs of the industrial-technological compex and the existential needs of its own citizens. Alexievich concentrates on this human story, rather than drawing wider conclusions about nuclear power. I would observe that even on the most extravagant estimates of the effects of Chernobyl, more people were killed in Bhopal, or in the Great London Smog, never mind the Banqiao Dam disaster of 1975. (And the overall toll to human health and world climate from the fossil fuel industry over the centuries is clearly massive.) Read the book for what it is - but do read it. ( )
  nwhyte | Dec 11, 2016 |
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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
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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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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)

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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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