Voices from Chernobyl
by Svetlana Alexievich
Nikki’s Rating: 10 out of 10
Summary: The haunting account of survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Svetlana Alexievich interviewed not just people who lived there but workers at the nuclear plant, scientists, doctors, soldiers, wives of firefighters, re-settlers, and those involved with the clean up including miners, helicopter pilots, and liquidators. Each story is tragic and harrowing as the aftermath of the disaster continues 10 years later and into the foreseeable future.
10 Valiant Things about Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl
(May Contain Spoilers)
The biggest reason why Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl is so powerful is because it is in the survivors’ own words. Alexievich didn’t edit their words, try to soften them, or change their stories to fit her own perceptions. Many of these stories are horrific but they are real. Someone lived that nightmare and their story is worth being heard.
Alexievich didn’t stick to interviewing just people who lived in the Zone, she actively searched and interviewed people who were affected by the Chernobyl disaster through different means. Thousands of people got radiation not from living in the Zone but from being involved with the clean up and containment of the nuclear reactor. These include soldiers, miners, liquidators, pilots, and firefighters.
Of course, one of the worst things that Russia did during the Chernobyl disaster is the government attempted to cover-up how bad the disaster really was. Whether to keep face internationally or to avoid panic within the country, the government consistently denied the dangers and they still continue to do so. As noted in Voices from Chernobyl, a physicist in 1999 came forward claiming that living and farming in Belarus was dangerous due to radiation levels and was therefore imprisoned until 2005, upon release he was exiled and remains so.
One of the most surprising things to me was the disbelief that many people did have about the effects of radiation even after being warned by those in authority. There were areas that the government did actually evacuate and deemed unsafe for people to stay in and yet many people chose to stay or returned after being evacuated. These people continued eating food grown in the area and used milk and meat from contaminated livestock. One individual described radiation as believable as fairy dust, it cannot be seen and so it must be magic, it is of no consequence to them.
While at times incredibly hard to read, Voices from Chernobyl gives details about how clean-up was done after the disaster. The burying of not just the top layers of soil but of everything above ground in some areas. The systematic killing of livestock, pets, and any animals found within the Zone. And then of course the evacuations of people within the Zone.
6. Willful Negligence
Voices of Chernobyl clearly shows the willful negligence and disregard for life that the Russian government had at the time of the disaster. Not only did they not distribute adequate protective gear for those responding to the disaster, they also didn’t educate them on safety measures that they could have taken. For example, authorities didn’t explain to the clean up crews and soldiers that their clothes would retain radiation. One liquidator allowed his son to wear the cap he wore in the Zone often with no thought of it, his then healthy son developed a brain tumor 2 years later.
Many of the stories in Voices of Chernobyl are not about the disaster itself but rather the continuing aftermath. The severely ill children, the high mortality rates, babies being born with defects, women unable to get pregnant or suffering from multiple miscarriages. Each year in Belarus, the number of people with cancer, neurological disorders, mental retardation, and genetic mutations increases.
Going along with the need to cover-up the effects of the Chernobyl disaster, Russia continues to deny them and the devastation radiation can cause. Officially, Russia accepts the Chernobyl death toll of 54 individuals. Many organizations, including the UN, believe that the death toll number is in the thousands with others believing that it may in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Without the government taking responsibility, many families will continue being burdened with expensive medical bills from their loved ones illnesses that were actually caused by radiation due to Chernobyl.
9. The Motherland
So many stories included a sense of pride in the Motherland that I’ve come to associate with the Russian people. While Chernobyl was an epic disaster, many of these stories included love for their fellow man and pride for their country. So many times in tragedy, we show our capability for courage, selflessness, and dedication to the greater good. There were those who knew the dangers of the radiation, who knew they were risking their lives, and still reported to Chernobyl to do what they could for the world, the Motherland, and their loved ones.
Overall reading Voices from Chernobyl was difficult as the stories are all heartbreaking to various degrees. But regardless of the sorrow, pain, and suffering, the stories also included love and hope. Love for their land, their home, their family, their friends, their animals. That regardless of this tragedy in their lives, they will go forward and live the best life that they can.