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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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1,845667,404 (4.35)206
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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review of
Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl
by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - May 15, 2016

This is just the tip of the review iceberg. For the full thing, go here: "Chernobyl Hibakusha": https://www.goodreads.com/story/show/443403-chernobyl-hibakusha

In 1978 I was a canvasser for Maryland Action, a consumer activist group that resisted price raising by the local gas & electric company. The canvassers were told not to bring up nuclear power, since that wasn't what we were canvassing about. Nonetheless, the people whose doors we went to often wanted to debate w/ us about nuclear power, taking it for granted that we were actually a group opposed to it.

In 1979 I was part of a group most commonly called "B.O.M.B." (Baltimore Oblivion Marching Band). B.O.M.B. was founded by Richard Ellsberry as a guerrilla performance unit. His initial vision was that we wd do things like go to shopping mall openings.

In April of 1979, the nuclear power plant on 3 Mile Island in Pennsylvania had a problem w/ its cooling towers that threatened to result in a nuclear meltdown, a very dangerous thing. B.O.M.B. had a meeting at wch we debated whether or not to go as close to it as we cd get to stage a performance action. Some people decided not to, others were all for it. I debated against it as foolish but went there anyway b/c I felt that it was of historic importance.

On April 3, 1979, 6 of us left Baltimore pre-dawn to go to 3 miles south of Middletown, PA, to the 3 Mile Island Visitor's Center that was at the edge of the Susquehanna River that the island is located in the midst of. We performed an action that parodied the scientific optimism that nuclear power plants can be kept safe & that such a powerful force can be controlled & made a movie of it. A short version of that movie can be witnessed here: https://youtu.be/WFnEj9c35fE . This action became national, if not international, news. One of the members of B.O.M.B. was shortly thereafter hired to be an assistant photographer of the inside of the plant.

I mention these 2 things to demonstrate that I was not unaware of the dangers of nuclear power plants. Decades later I read Frederik Pohl's Chernobyl, A Novel, a docudrama of sorts based on his research about Chernobyl. It was the 1st bk I read by Pohl & I was impressed by its apparent level-headedness, its carefulness of description. This bk was released a mere yr after Chernobyl's infamous April 26, 1986 disaster. In a sense while it was timely it was also premature - the more long-term negative effects weren't as clear by then as they are now.

Now, around the time of the 30th anniversary of the nuclear accident, I decided to read Voices from Chernobyl in preparation for a video-tele-conference w/ artist activists in Belarus that I was co-organizing w/ Monty Canstin [sic] in Mogilev & his friends & collaborators in Minsk [an unedited screen recording of this by Ryan Broughman can be witnessed here: https://youtu.be/DiklpJ_RX3E ]. I got copies of this bk from my local library in both Russian & English so that I cd compare the 2 languages. Chernobyl was located in the Ukraine next to the Dnieper River across from Belarus. Reputedly 60 to 70 % of the fallout went into Belarus.

From the "Translator's Preface" to Voices from Chernobyl:

"In Belarus, very little has changed since these interviews were conducted. Back in 1996, Alesandr Lukashenka was the lesser-known of Europe's "last two dictators." Now Slobodan Milosevic is on trial at The Hague and Lukashenka has pride of place. He stifles any attempt at free speech and his political opponents continue to "disappear." On the Chernobyl front, Lukashenka has encouraged studies arguing that the land is increasingly safe and that more and more of it should be brought back into agricultural rotation. In 1999, the physicist Vaily Borisovich Nesterenko (interviewed on page 210), authored a report criticizing this tendency in government policy and suggesting that Belarus was knowingly exporting contaminated food. He has been in jail ever since. — Keith Gessen, 2005"

I wonder if Lukashenka himself wd be willing to eat food grown on such radioactive lands? - esp a regular diet of it? It's worth noting that this bk is published by the Dalkey Archive Press, a press that I esteem highly as the publisher of difficult experimental literature. It was quite a surprise for me to see that it published this.

"On April 26, 1986, at 1:23:58, a series of explosions destroyed the reactor in the building that housed Energy Block #4 of the Chernobyl Power Station. The catastrophe at Chernobyl became the largest technological disaster of the twentieth century.

"For tiny Belarus (population: 10 million), it was a national disaster. During the Second World War, the Nazis destroyed 619 Belarussian villages along with their inhabitants. As a result of Chernobyl, the country lost 485 villages and settlements. Of these, 70 have been forever buried underground. During the war, one out of every four Belarussians was killed; today, one out of every five Belarussians lives on contaminated land. This amounts to 2.1 million people, of whom 700,000 are children. Among the demographic factors responsible for the depopulation of Belarus, radiation is number one. In the Gomel and Mogilev regions, which suffered the most from Chernobyl, mortality rates exceed birth rates by 20%." - p 1

"In a year they evacuated all of us and buried the village. My father's a cab driver, he drove there and told us about it. First they'd tear a big pit in the ground, five meters deep. Then the firemen would come up and use their hoses to wash the house from its roof to its foundation, so that no radioactive dust gets kicked up. They wash the windows, the roof, the door, all of it. Then a crane drags the house from its spot and puts it down into the pit. There's dolls and books and cans all scattered around. The excavator picks them up. Then it covers everything with sand and clay, leveling it. And then instead of a village, you have an empty field." - p 223

"A while ago in the papers it said that in Belarus alone, in 1993 there were 200,000 abortions. Because of Chernobyl." - p 174

Considering that the total population of Belarus is only 10,000,000 & that, obviously, less than half of those are women of a fertile age 200,000 abortions is pretty phenomenal. Imagine being afraid to give birth, imagine being afraid that yr DNA has been hopelessly derailed, that you're the last of yr line.

Frederik Pohl's Chernobyl begins w/ an interesting quote:

"From The Revelation of St. John the Divine:

"And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of the waters; and the name of the star is called wormwood; and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men dies of the waters, because they were made bitter.

"The Ukrainian word for wormwood is chernobyl."

At least 2 European women friends of mine claim to've been effected by radiation from Chernobyl. It's quite possible in both cases despite their both having been a considerable distance away from it. Imagine the stigma of being possibly (or definitely) irradiated. Even if one shows no external signs of ill-health one becomes a pariah, no healthy person is likely to want to risk having children w/ such a person. reading these 1st-person accts impressed that upon me, impressed upon me that there are now MILLIONS of people in this unfortunate position. Think of how many people have emigrated from the Ukraine alone who've kept their origins veiled in order to avoid this stigma.

"The large differences between 1990 and 2000 in the numbers of Ukrainian and Russian speakers for the 1987-1990 immigrants are more puzzling. One hypothesis is that many of the Ukrainians recorded in the 2000 census were illegal migrants at the time of the 1990 census, and that by 2000 they had permanent status and/or felt more comfortable responding to the census.

"The total number of persons of Ukrainian ancestry was 893,055 in 2000. The number of all immigrants was 253,400, and 56 percent of them arrived between 1991 and 2000. If we add the 1987-1990 immigrants (12.5 percent of all immigrants), we have a total of 68.5 percent of all immigrants belonging to the Fourth Wave. In absolute numbers there were 142,000 immigrants between 1991-2000, and 31,600 arrived between 1987 and 1990." - http://www.ukrweekly.com/old/archive/2003/410319.shtml

How many of these Ukrainian immigrants, legal & illegal, were fleeing from Chernobyl? Voices from Chernobyl is a bk of transcribed interviews w/ people directly effected by the proximity of Chernobyl, often people who were married to the people who tried to do damage control but who were dead by a decade later as a result of their irradiation.

"I'm not a writer. I won't be able to describe it. My mind is not capable of understanding it. And neither is my university degree. There you are: a normal person. A little person. You're just like everyone else—you go to work, you return from work. You get an average salary. Once a year you go on vacation. You're a normal person! And then one day you're suddenly turned into a Chernobyl person. Into an animal, something that everyone's interested in, and that no one knows anything about. You want to be like everyone else, and now you can't. People look at you differently. They ask you: was it scary? How did the station burn? What did you see? And, you know, can you have children? Did your wife leave you? At first we were all turned into animals. The very word "Chernobyl" is like a signal. Everyone turns their head to look at you. He's from there!" - p 34

"The world has been split in two: there's us, the Chernobylites, and then there's you, the others. Have you noticed? No one here points out that they're Russian or Belarussian or Ukranian. We all call ourselves Chernobylites. "We're from Chernobyl." "I'm a Chernobylite." As if this is a separate people. A new nation." - p 126

Imagine the stigmatization, imagine how horrible it is to be a Chernobylite:

"I go home, I'd go dancing. I'd meet a girl I liked and say, "Let's get to know one another."

""What for? You're a Chernobylite now. I'd be scared to have your kids."" - p 79

Afraid to have kids is right:

"My little daughter is different—she's different. She's not like the others. She's going to grow up and ask me: "Why aren't I like the others?"

"When she was born, she wasn't a baby, she was a little sack, sewed up everywhere, not a single opening, just the eyes. The medical card says: "Girl, born with multiple complex pathologies: aplasia of the anus, aplasia of the vagina, aplasia of the left kidney." That's how it sounds in medical talk, but more simply: ne pee-pee, no butt, one kidney. On the second day I watched her get operated on, on the second day of her life. She opened her eyes and smiled, and I thought that she was about to start crying. But, God, she smiled!

"The ones like her don't live, they die right away. But she didn't die, because I loved her.

"In four years she's had four operations. She's the only child in Belarus to have survived being born with such complex pathologies.." - p 85

"I'm afraid. I'm afraid to love. I have a fiancé, we already registered at the house of deeds. Have you ever heard of the Hibakusha of Hiroshima? The ones who survived after the bomb? They can only marry each other. No one writes about it here, no one talks about it, but we exist. The Chernobyl Hibakusha. He brought me home to his mom, she's a very nice mom. She works at a factory as an economist, and she's very active, she goes to all the anti-Communist meetings. So this very nice mom, when she found out I'm from a Chernobyl family, a refugee, asked: "But, my dear, will you be able to have children?" And we've already registered! He pleads with me: "I'll leave home. We'll rent an apartment." But all I can hear is: "My dear, for some people it's a sin to give birth." It's a sin to love." - p 108

Maybe that "very nice mom" who believes in "sin" shd go to hell.

"There was a black cloud, and hard rain. The puddles were yellow and green, like someone had poured paint into them. They said it was dust from the flowers. Grandma made us stay in the cellar. She got down on her knees and prayed. And she taught us, too. "Pray! It's the end of the world. It's God's punishment for our sins." My brother was eight and I was six. We started remembering our sins. He broke a glass can with the raspberry jam, and I didn't tell my mom that I'd got my new dress caught on a fence and it ripped. I hid it in the closet." - p 221

NO, it's not the "end of the world" but I'm sure that if humans can manage to really end the world by blowing it to smithereens it'll be considered by somebody - esp if the almighty dollar's in there somewhere. &, NO, it's not "God's punishment for our sins", there is NO God & NO sin - but there's an endless supply of sniveling robopaths who'll fall back on any mythology before they try to actually look at what's happening. &, NO, the little girl isn't going to go to 'HELL' for ripping her dress. If her mom were less delusional she might realize that a ripped dress is a good entry point into sewing lessons.

"I heard—the adults were talking—Grandma was crying—since the year I was born [1986], there haven't been any boys or girls born in our village. I'm the only one. The doctors said I couldn't be born. But my mom ran away from the hospital and hid at Grandma's. So I was born at Grandma's'" - p 222

Imagine that. For me, that outdoes Greek tragedy by a mile - not that it's a competition. People are afraid to continue to exist, afraid of the mutations, of the failures to adapt, of the deformities.

Literally EVERYTHING is effected. It's not like a bomb blowing up one bldg, like one field being destroyed - so that production goes on elsewhere - or, rather, some places were far more dangerously radioactive than others but almost anything cd be radioactive & it wasn't always easy to tell unless it manifested like this:

""And the chickens had black cockscombs, not red ones, because of the radiation. And you couldn't make cheese. The milk didn't go sour—it curdled into powder, white powder. Because of the radiation."" - p 40

But not all milk curdled into powder. Some, apparently, seemed 'normal':

"'I go in to see a doctor. 'Sweety,' I say, 'my legs don't move. The joints hurt.' 'You need to give up your cow, grandma. The milk's poisoned.' 'Oh, no,' I say, 'my legs hurt, my knees hurt, but I won't give up the cow. She feeds me.'"" - p 43

"I was in a taxi one time, the driver couldn't understand why the birds were all crashing into his window, like they were blind. They'd all gone crazy, or like they were committing suicide." - p 89

Typically, ignorance reigns. Maybe it's not 'reasonable' to expect people to understand the extraordinary, the things that they don't personally have direct dealings w/. How 'reasonable' is it to expect people whose lives center around having kids & farming to understand where the electricity comes from that's powering their precious tv?

"My son calls from Gomel: Are the May bugs out?"

""No bugs, there aren't even any maggots. They're hiding."

""What about worms?"

""If you'd find a worm in the rain, your chicken'd be happy. But there aren't any."

""That's the first sign. If there aren't any May bugs and no worms, that means strong radiation."

""What's radiation?"

""Mom, that's a kind of death. Tell Grandma you need to leave. You'll stay with us."" - pp 50-51

Still, one wd hope that the lack of insects, regardless of what cause it wd be attributed to, wd be recognized as a dire warning sign by people accustomed to tending the soil. An interesting aside found on the Wikipedia entry re May bugs is this:

"Both the grubs and the imagines have a voracious appetite and thus have been and sometimes continue to be a major problem in agriculture and forestry. In the pre-industrialized era, the main mechanism to control their numbers was to collect and kill the adult beetles, thereby interrupting the cycle. They were once very abundant: in 1911, more than 20 million individuals were collected in 18 km² of forest.

"Collecting adults was an only moderately successful method. In the Middle Ages, pest control was rare, and people had no effective means to protect their harvest. This gave rise to events that seem bizarre from a modern perspective. In 1320, for instance, cockchafers were brought to court in Avignon and sentenced to withdraw within three days onto a specially designated area, otherwise they would be outlawed. Subsequently since they failed to comply, they were collected and killed. (Similar animal trials also occurred for many other animals in the Middle Ages.)" - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cockchafer

Are trials of insects any more ridiculous than all the rest of it?

"What's it like, radiation? Maybe they show it in the movies? Have you seen it? Is it white, or what? What color is it? Some people say it has no color and no smell, and other people say that it's black. Like earth. But if it's colorless, then it's like God. God is everywhere, but you can't see Him. They scare us! the apples are hanging in the garden, the leaves are on the trees, the potatoes are in the fields. I don't think there was any Chernobyl, they made it up. They tricked people. My sister left with her husband. Not far from here, twenty kilometers. They lived there two months, and the neighbor comes running: "Your cow sent radiation to my cow! She's falling down." "How'd she send it?" "Through the air, that's how, like dust. It flies." Just fairy tales! Stories and more stories." - pp 51-52

Right. It's not enuf to have Holocaust deniers, now we have Chernobyl deniers. Why, I've never seen anyone die so death doesn't exist. However, for people who were refugees from the war in Tajikistan, the irradiated area around Chernobyl seemed like a nice alternative:

"They come onto the bus one day to check our passports. Just regular people, except with automatic weapons. They look through the documents and then push the men out of the bus. And then, right there, right outside the door, they shoot them. They don't even take them aside. I would never have believed it." - p 55

No doubt that was justified by somebody's idea of a Motherland or a Fatherland.

The "Chernobylites", the stigmatized victims of the backfiring of overconfident technological 'progress' partially 'adapted' by having a sense of humor. Peppered throughout the tales of misery are Chernobylite jokes. I used most of these jokes in a performance I gave 3 days after the anniversary on April 29, 2016 ( https://vimeo.com/164947710 ):

"They asked the Armenian broadcaster: 'Maybe there are Chernobyl apples?' 'Sure, but you have to bury the core really deep.'"

"There was a Ukranian woman at the market selling big red apples. 'Come get your apples! Chernobyl apples!' Someone told her not to advertise that, no one will buy them. 'Don't worry!' she says. 'They buy anyway. Some need them for their mother-in-law, some for their boss.'"

"Guy comes home from work, says to his wife, "They told me that tomorrow I either go to Chernobyl or hand in my Party card." "But you're not in the Party." "Right, so I'm wondering how do I get a Party card by tomorrow morning?" ( )
  tENTATIVELY | Apr 3, 2022 |
A collection of oral interviews of survivors of the Chernobyl disaster. The details and images of what life was like in the immediate and long-term aftermath really stick with you. The bleakness of options for the survivors. The lack of warnings. A tough read in places, but very well done.

Please excuse typos/name misspellings. Entered on screen reader.
( )
  KatKinney | Mar 3, 2022 |
"These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future." ( )
  rhodehouse | Aug 17, 2021 |
Voices from Chernobyl. Svetlana Alexievich. Trans. By Keith Gessen. 1997.Translation, 2005. I have never read a book on such a tragic, hideous subject that has been written in such beautiful prose! Given what little I know about reading in the vernacular and then reading in translation, Gessen is truly a master at his craft! Alexievich , a Nobel Prize winner, interviewed countless victims of the Chernobyl disaster: nuclear plant workers, scientists, doctors, soldiers, communist party bureaucrats, children, refugees, and re-settlers. She concentrated on feelings, rumors, and memories because she thought facts masked the emotions and memories. These understated, but emotional stories are a marvel of the human heart and mind. The Soviet government’s refusal to acknowledge the danger, to accept outside help, and its determination to keep the full damage of the disaster a secret compounded the nightmare and prolonged it. This evil is equal to Stalin’s death camps and Hitler’s concentration camps. It burns your soul. ( )
  judithrs | Jul 30, 2021 |
3.75 stars. It was well done and gave an incredible look at the Chernobyl disaster through firsthand accounts. I do wish that all of the accounts were longer with some background information on who was telling them. ( )
  Tosta | Jul 5, 2021 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Svetlana Alexievichprimary authorall editionscalculated
Björkegren, HansTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gessen, KeithTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tait, ArchTranslatorsecondary 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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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Wikipedia in English (3)

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.

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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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