Chernobyl and the ghosts of a nuclear past

A Nobel laureate captures the beginning of the “age of disasters”.

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“This is not a book on Chernobyl,” writes Svetlana Alexievich, “but on the world of Chernobyl.” It is not about what happened on 26 April 1986, when a nuclear reactor exploded near the border between Ukraine and Belarus. It is about an epoch that will last, like the radioactive material inside the reactor’s leaking ruin, for tens of thousands of years. Alexievich writes that, before the accident, “War was the yardstick of horror”, but at Chernobyl “the history of dis­asters began”.

Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year for her powerful works of oral history, was born in Ukraine and grew up in Belarus. The explosion took place close to her home ground. At once, people began to ask her whether she was writing about it. Others rushed out books of reportage or polemic. She hesitated. What had happened was uncanny, beyond words. There was, she writes, “a moment of muteness”.

Gradually, over many years, she interviewed people whose lives had been affected by the blast. Many have since died. Her book – first published in Russian in 1997 and now issued in a new translation of a revised text – is made up of their testimonies. Her own voice is heard only briefly. Even the prefatory summary of events is a patchwork of extracts from news reports.

It is a moving piece of polyphony, skilfully assembled from what must have been a huge mass of material. Characters unself­consciously reveal themselves. Stories are told with urgent anger, or ramblingly, full of puzzling gaps. A world emerges piecemeal, a strange one in which the most lethal products of modern science coexist with an apparently timeless peasant culture.

Alexievich’s interlocutors include fire-fighters and “clean-up workers”, those thousands of conscripts and volunteers ordered into the contaminated zone to contain the damage, many of whom died soon and horribly. She listens to the former inhabitants of the hundreds of evacuated villages. She listens to teachers and children, to sorcerers and scientists. She listens to those who rail against the idiocies of officialdom. She listens to officials.

All these people rummage though their minds, trying to find a means to comprehend what befell them. They reach for ill-matched, ready-made myths or modes of discourse. They talk of war. They talk of nationhood, or communism, or God. With patience and a scrupulously open mind, Alexievich attends to them all, and sometimes: “Voices broke through from a parallel world, as though talking in their sleep or raving.” From them she has put together a mosaic of words that is at once a composite account of “the most important event of the 20th century” and a rich, multifaceted picture of a society in crisis.

Alexievich wanted, she says, to avoid “the banality of horror”. She does so by focusing on the particular, which can never be clichéd. The first and last testimonies are those of two widows. The first one’s husband was among the firefighters who were called out to the blaze. “They left just in the shirts they were wearing. Nobody warned them.” Afterwards the men were flown to a secure hospital in Moscow. She followed. A doctor told her, “This is not your husband . . . it’s a highly contaminated radioactive object . . .” She was pregnant but she wouldn’t leave him. She stayed, sympathetic nurses breaking rules to allow it, and watched him literally fall apart until he died 14 days later. Her baby daughter died within hours of being born. Now she, and the son of her second marriage, are both desperately ill.

We have heard many such stories before. What makes this one so memorable is the level of detail Alexievich’s sympathetic listening elicited. After her husband’s death the young woman dreamed repeatedly that he was walking beside her, barefoot. She talked to a priest (one of this book’s themes is the resurgence of religion in the face of ­catastrophe). The priest told her to buy a pair of slippers and put them in a stranger’s coffin with a note addressed to her husband. But how would that stranger find him? “They’ll find him,” said the priest. “They’re all in one world there.” At least that idea is kind. The widow of a clean-up worker who died two years later says that Chernobyl victims, by that time, were unwelcome even in cemeteries. “Imagine! The dead afraid of the dead.” He had to be cremated. No friendly post-mortem passing on of slippers for him.

Alexievich alternates monologues with choric passages where villagers or conscript workers or schoolchildren speak together, ruminating and grumbling and throwing in observations plucked at random from their memories: “All the hens’ combs were black, not red – that was the radiation.” The book has a coherent structure, but the experience of reading it is an oddly drifting one, like passing through a crowd of people, all talking to themselves.

Themes emerge. A dominant one is the extent to which the culture of the Soviet Union was shaped by war. The older people say “So long as there’s no war” or “I’m terrified of war”. The evacuation of the contaminated zone was traumatic because of the memories it evoked. “The old women were crawling in front of their houses on their knees praying. Like in the war! People were marched off in file. And the cattle were marched off, too. Like in the war!”

The authorities also seem locked into a warlike mindset. They sent in troops to combat an intangible enemy. “Men with guns. Who were they meant to fire at? Gun down the earth and trees?” The KGB hunted through the contaminated zone for non-existent saboteurs and foreign spies. The clean-up workers were drilled, kicking up clouds of radioactive dust. Even the memorials at Chernobyl look like war memorials.

The analogy with war helps foster the cult of heroes. The men sent into the zone boast of their selfless fortitude. They have every right to: as Alexievich writes, “They saved Europe.” But she asks, “Were they heroes or were they suicides? Or victims?” Most of them would say the first; their rhetoric is triumphalist. “There were no whingers, not one coward. Believe me: no one will ever beat us.”

There is a further ambiguity here. Who do they mean by “us”? Over and over again, men, talking of their willingness to undertake lethal tasks, say something along the lines of: “That’s the kind of people we are.” Are they thinking nationally? Do they mean Russian people (or Ukrainians, or Belarusians)? Or do they just mean that they are men (none of the women use this formulation), conditioned by an ancient warrior code that requires young males to offer up their lives uncomplainingly for the defence of the community?

Or are they talking politics? Communism informs much of the thinking here. The Soviet cult of workers of prodigious strength and endurance, rewarded with certificates and diplomas for assiduously serving the collective, generated a frenzy of selflessness. Under communism, as a thoughtful photographer remarks, “thinking about your own life was unpatriotic”. A rocket engineer reflects on the clean-up workers who were sent up on to the reactor’s roof. They were supposed to stay there for only one and a half minutes at a time, but that wasn’t long enough to perform the tasks assigned to them. Within a few years, all of them died. So did the divers who went down into the pool of irradiated water to open a valve, and the miners who worked naked on their hands and knees underground, in temperatures of 50 degrees, to shore up the reactor from below. “We come from a culture of superhuman feats and sacrificial victims . . . Our readiness to sacrifice ourselves – no one else comes close.”

The empire sustained by that culture was already fissile when Chernobyl erupted. Three years later it fell apart. Several of the speakers here see a causal link between the two crack-ups. It was not only the huge cost of containing the fallout. There was also the disillusionment. In the West it was widely understood, from the moment the atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima, that nuclear power was as dangerous as it was mighty. Still now, when even green campaigners are telling us that the least ecologically damaging kind of power is nuclear energy, we accept its benefits cautiously and with fingers crossed. Yet, for Soviet citizens, it came as a shock that things could go wrong in the much-trumpeted age of miraculous Soviet technology. A biologist tells Alexievich that before Chernobyl even she and her fellow scientists believed nuclear reactors were risk-free “fairy-tale factories, making energy out of nothing”.

The shock destabilised an entire society. One of Alexievich’s best-informed speakers is a director of an atomic energy institute nearly 300 miles from Chernobyl. Arriving at work the morning after the explosion, he found consternation. “The instruments were shrieking. There was a radioactive cloud over the whole of Minsk.” All that day he was torn between his duty to the state, which enjoined total secrecy in any such crisis, and his humanity. At last, as the end of the schoolday approached, humanity won. “Soon my daughter would be walking around the city with her friends, eating ice cream.” He rang his wife. “Speak softly. Close the windows. Put all food in plastic bags. Shhhh! Dissolve two drops of iodine. Wash your head.” He knew his phone was bugged: everybody’s was. As he rang off, he imagined the eavesdropper ringing his or her family to pass on the advice. Newly rebellious, he felt glad of it.

Over the next few years, for those cast adrift by the wreck of the Soviet empire, the “exclusion zone” around Chernobyl became, bizarrely, a refuge. One woman, half Russian and half Ukrainian and married to a Tatar, found herself fleeing from Kyrgyzstan, where Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz were massacring each other. Where could she go? “I’m Soviet! But the country I was born in doesn’t exist now.” The silent horror of radiation seemed preferable to the human violence she had witnessed. The forest is empty. The danger there is impalpable. If it kills you, it does so without shouting, and without deliberate malice. “Is there anything more terrifying than man?”

Alexievich’s interviewees are of all ages and stations. She writes that often a peasant had something more illuminating to say than a physicist or a high-ranking politician. She talks to elderly people who couldn’t stand the urban tower blocks to which they were moved and who returned, illegally, to their irradiated cottages and poisoned vegetable plots. Some of what they say is startlingly acute.

An old woman serenely accepts, as few rationalists can, the lethal radiation in the beautiful countryside around her. Something that is omnipresent, but invisible? That’s not difficult for her to comprehend. It’s just “like God”. A storyteller and wise woman talks about spirits. Her words have a fearful modern pertinence. “In the spring it is not only the grass that comes out of the ground, but all sorts of evil. The best thing is to bury a lock by the gate, lock the teeth of the evil spirits. Close the windows and doors, so that death cannot fly in.”

The buried lock is scarcely more strange than the measures the clean-up workers were ordered to enact. They buried whole villages. They buried the very earth, stripping off the contaminated topsoil and covering it with other earth. They washed roofs. They stood by the roadside, armed as though for battle, stopping villagers from visiting their homes again. When a woman tried to creep by with a pail of milk from her own cow, or a sack of onions dug up from her own patch, they stopped her and buried the food. It was necessary, but it seemed nonsensical. “We all had the faces of madmen,” one of them says. Their jokes, of which Alexievich hears many, are ghastly.

Since Chernobyl, there has been Fuku­shima. Neither site has yet been made safe: it seems unlikely they ever will be. We are living in Alexievich’s “age of disasters”. This haunting book offers us at least some ways of thinking about that predicament.

Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait, is published by Penguin Modern Classics (304pp, £9.99)

Svetlana Alexievich will be in conversation with James Meek for the Cambridge Literary Festival on 31 May 

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is a cultural historian, biographer and novelist. Her most recent book is Fabulous (Fourth Estate)

This article appears in the 14 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster

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