Monday, June 1, 2020

Book Review: Voices From Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

Voices From Chernobyl:  The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
Author:  Svetlana Alexievich
Publisher:  Picador (1997)
236 pages
Genre:  Non-fiction, History

First lines:  "There are no nuclear power stations in Belarus.  Of the functioning stations in the territory of the former USSR, the ones closest to Belarus are of the old Soviet-designed RBMK type.  To the north, the Ignalinsk station, to the east, the Smolensk station, and to the south, Chernobyl."

Recently, my husband and I watched the HBO Miniseries Chernobyl.  It was very well done and I highly recommend it.  It left me with a desire to learn more about this disaster.  I was in high school when it occurred and I only remember hearing something about it in the news.  I could not have told you much about it.  

As stores are slowly opening in our area, we had the opportunity to browse at our local bookstore.  My husband came across this book and we had to get it.

In Voices from Chernobyl, Svetlana Alexievich interviewed scores of people who lived through this disaster.  The words in the book are their words.  Every one of their lives was changed in some way.  Most of them lost someone they loved.  Many of them are sick themselves.  Hundreds lost their homes.  

What struck me the most was the deep passion the Russian people have for their country and their homes.  It is also very shocking to realize that much of the suffering could have been lessened if the government had not been afraid of looking incompetent in the eyes of the people.  In the Translator's Preface Keith Gessen says this:

"And it's certainly true that Chernobyl, while an accident in the sense that no one intentionally set it off, was also the deliberate product of a culture of cronyism, laziness, and a deep-seated indifference toward the general population.  The literature on the subject is pretty unanimous in its opinion that the Soviet system had taken a poorly designed reactor and then staffed it with a group of incompetents.  It then proceeded, as the interviews in this book attest, to lie about the disaster in the most criminal way."

This book will stick with me for a long time to come.  While I highly recommend the book, I don't think it would have had the same impact if I had not first watched the HBO Miniseries.  That gave me a very good understanding of the situation and what happened and this book fleshed the story out with a deeper insight into the thoughts and reactions of the people.


"Chernobyl is like the war of all wars.  There's nowhere to hide.  Not underground, not underwater, not in the air."

"So then I go to the military people.  They were young guys, spending six months there.  Now they're all very sick."

"And of course we were raised with a particular Soviet form of paganism, which said that man was the crown of all creation, that it was his right to do anything he wanted with the world."

"We had the psychology of oppressors.  Now everyone talks about God.  But why didn't they look for Him in the Gulag, or the jail cells of 1937, or at the Party meetings of 1948 when they started denouncing cosmopolitanism, or under Khrushchev when they were wrecking the old churches?  The contemporary subtext of Russian religious belief is sly and false."

"In those first days, there were mixed feelings.  I remember two:  fear and insult.  Everything had happened and there was no information:  the government was silent, the doctors were silent."

"In the civil defense instructions we had then, you were supposed to carry out an iodine prophylaxis for the entire population if there was a threat of a nuclear accident or nuclear attack.  That was in the event of a threat.  Here we had three thousand micro-roentgen per hour.  But they're worried about their authority, not the people."

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