From the November-December 2015 issue of News & Letters
Review of: Voices from Chernobyl: The oral history of a nuclear disaster by Svetlana Alexievich (Published 2006).
“I am not married to sorrow, I just choose not to look away.” —Terry Tempest Williams
These oral sketches create an unforgettable mosaic of emotional and intellectual impressions: love, friendship, heartbreak, anger, self-justification, guilt, bitterness, nostalgia, lost lives and resignation. The mother of a daughter with extreme mutations, whose surgeries began when she was two days old, said, “The ones like her don’t live, . . . But she didn’t die, because I loved her.”
Among Belarusians, only the best informed and most distrustful of the Soviet government panicked in April 1986 when the day rained fallout from the equivalent of many Hiroshima-style bombs. A child remembered the weather in Minsk after the faraway explosion, “There was a black cloud and hard rain.”
People heard that there had been an accident at Chernobyl, but the May Day celebration was upon them and nobody wanted to miss it. Celebrants noticed that the rain puddles were shiny yellow and green as though painted, but that was not a reason to cancel the festivities—Minsk’s best May Day ever. But many, even those not yet born, lost their innocence.
Heartbroken young women and dying men, the liquidators, comprised several of the sketches in Alexievich’s book. Two-week rotations for cleanup of the nuclear reactor turned into six months, and their acceptance of Party leadership was tempered when they realized they had been sent as necessary sacrifices—not that they didn’t understand, but just that all illusions were destroyed. One radioactive laborer complained, “I can’t take my little boy in my arms.”
Repeatedly the men cited their ideals as Slavs or Communists, who didn’t think of themselves except as part of a necessary whole to be preserved even at the cost of their lives. As they died, their fantastically loyal wives tried to protect them. One of the wives explains not only the 10-year ordeal of watching the unspeakably gruesome death of her husband, but trying to shield him from, one by one, the deaths of his comrades and attempts not to bring him a mirror, which in the end he demanded.
A man and wife, teachers, contributed to the mosaic with illuminating descriptions of how radiation affected students still well enough to be at school on some days. “They are constantly seeing someone or something get buried.” They describe children who aren’t “like the kids I taught 10 years ago.” They don’t play or fool around, but faint if they have to stand for more than 15 minutes. Children who can’t be surprised or made happy, “always tired and sleepy” with pale, gray faces. “If they fight or accidentally break a window, the teachers are pleased.” These children don’t get yelled at, can’t remember a five-minute-old lesson and are “growing so slowly.”
Philosophical essays on various topics comprise an important part of the mosaic; some explaining people’s change of heart as they resigned themselves to the consequences of years of excess radiation. The book includes observations by children who spent most of their lives in radiating environments or had been evacuated.
They had poignant memories: “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 sparrows and May bugs disappeared from our town. “My plants are there, and two albums of stamps, I was hoping to bring them with me. Also, I had a bike.” “I had a friend, Andrei. Yulia, Katya, Vadim, Oksana, Oleg, and now Andrei. The whole sky is alive for me now when I look at it, because they’re all there.”
Says the compiler of these voices, Alexievich, “These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future.”
As one of the voices says, “ . . . Lazarus . . . looked into the abyss. And now he’s alien, he’ll never be the same as other people, even though Christ resurrected him.”