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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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1,349529,583 (4.37)182
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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Showing 1-5 of 45 (next | show all)
Damn this book is so sad. I'm not sure I can even recommend it in good conscience, it must be the saddest book I've ever read. Literal hell on earth. If you are interested in hell on earth then read this, yes, it is very very good. ( )
  uncleflannery | May 16, 2020 |
Svetlana Alexievich’s “Voices From Chernobyl” is a collection of oral histories surrounding the Chernobyl disaster that, as one would expect, is a somewhat repetitive retelling of the April 1986 event. It’s not unlike reading the British and American inquiries into the sinking of the RMS Titanic. You’ve heard the story before and you know how it ends, but with each retelling there is a grain of truth that was missing or ignored in the “official” accounts. And while most of these are small, personal perspectives on the impact of private lives, what comes across in the end is a damning indictment of the Soviet, top-down, one-size-fits-all, style of government. This in turn stands in stark contrast to the heroic stoicism of the Russian people. What is fascinating is how these people, after witnessing the explosion, nuclear fire and loss of their city and homes listened to Mikhail Gorbachev tell them and the world that everything was being taken care of. It is little wonder that the Soviet Union fell in the wake of Chernobyl.
“Voices from Chernobyl” is a must read for anyone truly interested in events of April 26, 1986. Not sure it was worthy of the Nobel Prize in Literature, but that’s for other people to decide. Four stars from this old curmudgeon. ¬ ( )
  Renzomalo | May 9, 2020 |
A very powerful story, zeroing in with some momentum onto the Chernobyl disaster, through the words of mostly ordinary people. I read Adam Higginbotham's "Midnight in Chernobyl" first, and would recommend that for its overview of what was happening, but this was a good followup. At some points, especially early on, it was hard to read. It was always engaging. The translation was never problematic.

> They advised us to work in our gardens in masks and rubber gloves. And then another big scientist came to the meeting hall and told us that we needed to wash our yards. Come on!

> We talked about it—in the village where we worked, we all noticed there were tiny little holes in the leaves, especially on the cherry trees. We'd pick cucumbers and tomatoes—and the leaves would have these black holes. We'd curse and eat them.

> We came home. I took off all the clothes that I'd worn there and threw them down the trash chute. I gave my cap to my little son. He really wanted it. And he wore it all the time. Two years later they gave him a diagnosis: a tumor in his brain

> There were already jokes. 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?"

> In the first days after the accident, all the books at the library about radiation, about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even about X-rays, disappeared. Some people said it was an order from above, so that people wouldn't panic

> 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 gone crazy, or like they were committing suicide.

> It's better to kill [the pets] from far away, so your eyes don't meet. You have to learn to shoot accurately, so you don't have to finish them off later. … This one thing stuck in my memory. That one thing. No one had a single bullet, there was nothing to shoot that little poodle with. Twenty guys. Not a single bullet at the end of the day. Not a single one.

> You're a writer, but no book has helped me to understand. And the theater hasn't, and the movies haven't. I understand it without them, though. By myself. We all live through it by ourselves, we don't know what else to do. I can't understand it with my mind. My mother especially has felt confused. She teaches Russian literature, and she always taught me to live with books. But there are no books about this. She became confused. She doesn't know how to do without books. Without Chekhov and Tolstoy.

> People compared it to Hiroshima. But no one believed it. How can you believe in something incomprehensible? No matter how hard you try, it still doesn't make sense. I remember—we're leaving, the sky is blue as blue.

> We buried her in her old village of Dubrovniki. It was in the Zone, so there was barbed wire and soldiers with machine guns guarding it. They only let the adults through—my parents and relatives. But they wouldn't let me. "Kids aren't allowed." I understood then that I would never be able to visit my grandmother. I understood. Where can you read about that? Where has that ever happened?

> Try telling people that they can't eat cucumbers and tomatoes. What do you mean, "can't"? They taste fine. You eat them, and your stomach doesn't hurt. And nothing "shines" in the dark. … In the beginning people would bring some products over to the dosimetrist, to check them—they were way over the threshold, and eventually people stopped checking. "See no evil, hear no evil. Who knows what those scientists will think up!"

> 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 Ukrainian. We all call ourselves Chernobylites. "We're from Chernobyl." "‘I'm a Chernobylite." As if this is a separate people. A new nation.

> Imagine what was happening below as the bags of sand were being dropped from above. The activity reached 1,800 roentgen per hour; pilots began to feel it while still in the air. In order to hit the target, which was a fiery crater, they stuck their heads out of their cabins and measured it with the naked eye. There was no other way.

> We went into the contaminated zone on a helicopter. We were all properly equipped—no undergarments, a raincoat out of cheap cotton, like a cook's, covered with a protective material, then mittens, and a gauze surgical mask. We have all sorts of instruments hanging off us. We come out of the sky near a village and we see that there are boys playing in the sand, like nothing's happened. One has a rock in his mouth, another a tree branch. They're not wearing pants, they're naked. But we have orders, not to stir up the population. And now I live with this.

> And the staff officers who took us to Chernobyl weren't terribly bright. They knew one thing: you should drink more vodka, it helps with the radiation

> One time we had a scare: the dosimetrists discovered that our cafeteria had been put in a spot where the radiation was higher than where we went to work. We'd already been there two months.

> The dosimetrists—they were gods. All the village people would push to get near them. "Tell me, son, what's my radiation?" One enterprising soldier figured it out: he took an ordinary stick, wrapped some wiring to it, knocks on some old lady's door and starts waving his stick at the wall. "Well, son, tell me how it is." "That's a military secret, grandma." "But you can tell me, son. I'll give you a glass of vodka." "All right." He drinks it down. "Ah, everything's all right here, grandma. Don't worry." And leaves.

> For a long time after that we used dry milk powder and cans of condensed and concentrated milk from the Rogachev milk factory in our lectures as examples of a standard radiation source. And in the meantime, they were being sold in the stores. When people saw that the milk was from Rogachev and stopped buying it, there suddenly appeared cans of milk without labels. I don't think it was because they ran out of paper.

> I wanted to go to the reactor. "Don't worry," the others told me, "in your last month before demobilization they'll put you all on the roof." We were there six months. And, right on schedule, after five months of evacuating people, we were sent to the reactor

> You were supposed to be up there forty, fifty seconds, according to the instructions. But that was impossible. You needed a few minutes at the least. You had to get there and back, you had to run up and throw the stuff down—one guy would load the wheelbarrow, the others would throw the stuff into the hole there. You threw it, and went back, you didn't look down, that wasn't allowed. But guys looked down

> We had lead underwear, we wore it over our pants. Write that. We had good jokes, too. Here’s one: An American robot is on the roof for five minutes, then it breaks down. The Japanese robot is on the roof for five minutes, and then—breaks down. The Russian robot is up there two hours! Then a command comes in over the loudspeaker: "Private Ivanov! In two hours you're welcome to come down and have a cigarette break."

> Meanwhile if a soldier got more than 25 roentgen, his superiors could be put in jail for poisoning their men. So no one got more than 25 roentgen.

> A commission came to visit. "Well," they told us, "everything here's fine. The background radiation is fine. Now, about four kilometers from here, that's bad, they're going to evacuate the people out of there. But here it's normal." They have a dosimetrist with them, he turns on the little box hanging over his shoulder and waves that long rod over our boots. And then he jumps to the side—it's an involuntary reaction, he can't help it. But here's where the interesting part starts for you, for a writer. How long do you think we remembered that moment? Maybe a few days, at most. Russians just aren't about to start thinking only of themselves, of their own lives, to think that way. Our politicians are incapable of thinking about the value of an individual life, but then we're not capable of it either. Does that make sense? We're just not built that way. We're made of different stuff

> We'd been afraid of bombs, of mushroom clouds, but then it turned out like this; we know how a house burns from a match or a fuse, but this wasn't like anything else. We heard rumors that the flame at Chernobyl was unearthly, it wasn't even a flame, it was a light, a glow. Not blue, but more like the sky. And not smoke, either.

> The other day my daughter said to me: "Mom, if I give birth to a damaged child, I'm still going to love him." Can you imagine that? She's in the tenth grade. Her friends, too, they all think about it. Some acquaintances of ours recently gave birth to a son, their first. They're a young, handsome pair. And their boy has a mouth that stretches to his ears and no eyes.

> I was the First Secretary of the Regional Committee of the Party. I said absolutely not. "What will people think if I take my daughter with her baby out of here? Their children have to stay." Those who tried to leave, to save their own skins, I'd call them into the regional committee. "Are you a Communist or not?" It was a test for people. If I'm a criminal, then why was I killing my own grandchild?

> 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 got 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

> 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.

> The doctors told me: if the tumors had metastasized within his body, he'd have died quickly, but instead they crawled upward, along the body, to the face. Something black grew on him. His chin went somewhere, his neck disappeared, his tongue fell out. His veins popped, he began to bleed. From his neck, his cheeks, his ears. To all sides. I'd bring cold water, put wet rags against him, nothing helped. It was something awful, the whole pillow would be covered in it. I'd bring a washbowl from the bathroom, and the streams would hit it, like into a milk pail. That sound, it was so peaceful and rural. Even now I hear it at night.

> The guys wanted to say something nice to him, but he just covered himself with the blanket so that only his hair was sticking out. They stood there awhile and then they left. He was already afraid of people. I was the only one he wasn't afraid of. When we buried him, I covered his face with two handkerchiefs. If someone asked me to, I lifted them up. One woman fainted

> Two orderlies came from the morgue and asked for vodka. "We've seen everything," they told me, "people who've been smashed up, cut up, the corpses of children caught in fires. But nothing like this. The way the Chernobylites die is the most frightening of all."

> I read that the graves of the Chernobyl firefighters who died in the Moscow hospitals and were buried near Moscow at Mitino are still considered radioactive, people walk around them and don't bury their relatives nearby. Even the dead fear these dead. Because no one knows what Chernobyl is. ( )
  breic | Jan 29, 2020 |
Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, interviewed hundreds of people affected by the Chernobyl explosion. There are the pregnant wives of the firefighters who were sent onto the roof of the reactor and died of radiation poisoning within weeks, or of the soldiers who survived for a year or two, whose children were born dead, or damaged; scientists who tried to tell the truth; refugees from Chechnya so desperate that they moved into the contaminated zone; old people who moved back home to their farms; young women for whom giving birth is a sin; young men and women who will spend their lives alone because noone will marry a survivor of Chernobyl. People went to watch the burning reactor. Their children played outside in earth that will be contaminated with radioactive isotopes for thousands of years. 20% of the land in Belarus is contaminated. Radioactive milk, meat, fruit and vegetables were sold at markets outside the contaminated zone and people bought them because they were cheaper.

This book was agonising to read, but too important to avoid. ( )
  pamelad | Jan 13, 2020 |
Probably the hardest pages I've ever turned. The end result is heartbreaking, unresolved but fascinating. ( )
  kvschnitzer | Dec 8, 2019 |
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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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(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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"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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