April 26, 1986. Early morning. The worst nuclear accident occurs close to the Ukrainian village of Pripyat. The friendly atom has striken – and the aftermath is worse than anyone could have possibly imagined. The USSR attempts to contain the spread of information, but not the spread of the radiation. The result: more than 3/4 of Europe is affected, more than 1 million Belarussians suffer from some sort of post-radiation effects (cancer, acute radiation sickness, other health problems). Sadly, nearly 30 years after the explosion of reactor 4 the area surrounding Chernobyl and the now deserted town of Pripyat is turned into an entertainment centres. In exchange for a substantial sum you can go and experience the nightmare millions would pay much more to never have experience. Unfortunately, most of them paid with their lives or with the lives of their most loved ones.
Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl is the first book to present the personal stories of common people affected by the Chernobyl disaster. It’s also among the first to unveil the information Soviet officials withheld for so many years. I couldn’t possibly imagine what Alexievich might have felt while she spoke to those people. I thought there is possibly no way that the next story is going to be more tragic and more despairing than the last and yet it was. Women, who have lost their husbands. Fathers who have lost their children. Friends who have lost their friends. And people who have lost their health and their lives. What makes Voices from Chernobyl so powerful is the fact that the book presents exactly that. The voice of Svetlana Alexievich is rarely heard – she gave the microphone to those suffering people and let them share their pain in their own words, through their own reflections. It felt as if they waited for so many years to express the unbearable suffering they had to go through, to say openly to the world what exactly happened back then and back there.
Hours after the explosion the Soviet government had already began covering up the disaster. It’s true they didn’t know the exact effect of radiation on people – nobody knew because never before had something like this occurred – and yet they were extremely negligent, possibly looking to save their own a*ses. liquidator, soldiers, random men with Party cards were sent with no equipment and no protection to the site hours after the reactor exploded. Most of them died – quickly and more terribly than imaginable. The first story from the collection is exactly by the wife of such a liquidator – and her pain as she sees her husband transform from a human being into a monster. Within hours and days. People were being evacuated, animals were being killed, food was being confiscated. And yet at the same time scientists were silenced and the broader community was kept at ignorance as to the exact scale of the tragedy. Nobody told people to immediately stop eating or drinking anything from the region, to throw away all of their clothes, to immediately start drinking iodine. A liquidator that came back from the site gave his hat to his proud son – who contracted brain tumour 2 years later.
It was surprising (and rather depressing) to learn that most of the men send to Chernobyl to clean up felt proud – they felt they were serving their country but little did they know that they were giving their country their most priced possession. In times of despair vodka, the memories of their loved ones and the dream of returning a hero kept these men standing. It’s devastating to know that all they got for their bravery and sacrifice was a medal and cancer.
Alexievich gives voice to all those silent stories – liquidators, soldiers, teachers, children, old people who refused to leave their homes, refugees from war for which the Chernobyl area was the only safe place, Communists, generals, defendants of the regime, scientists, regular people. All of them suffering in their own way, all of them simply wanting to shout to the world their pain – the pain inflicted by a disaster a few could have prevented and effects many could have diminished. One of the most touching collection of stories, which would hardly leave anyone indifferent.