Books

01 December 2015

Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich, 1997


When the reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station exploded on the 26th April 1986, I was living in Sweden. From the moment the Swedish authorities realized what had happened at Chernobyl, we were informed as to what had happened, what was likely to happen and, most importantly, the precautions that would have to be taken should the nuclear cloud move towards Scandinavia. In Soviet Russia there was evidently no such information; the people in charge did not want anyone to panic – there had been a small accident, an incident, but it was being taken care of; there was definitely nothing to worry about.


The men sent to the station to clean up were not given proper protective clothing (otherwise they would have suspected that something was wrong); people were not given the necessary medications nor were they told that they could not to eat the produce from their farms (for the same reason). Evacuations were eventually undertaken, but the uninformed evacuees took belongings and food with them, and only a handful of people were aware of the enormity of the situation. The tragedy of Chernobyl was a mixture of both ignorance and obedience to the Party. No one could see the radiation - the crops looked the same as they always had – and no one could understand what all the fuss was about, not until they began to get sick and die, but by then it was already too late.

Photo of Svetlana from sverigesradio.se

Voices from Chernobyl is a series of monologues by survivors of the catastrophe. Many of them are dying; most of them have at least one close relative who has already died. Svetlana Alexievich's presentation is both beautiful and heart-wrenching without descending into sentimentality. While the voices describe what happened, they also, almost unintentionally, contain a warning as to what can happen when technology goes drastically wrong and people are kept completely in the dark.

Written by the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, Voices from Chernobyl is definitely worth reading.