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review 2019-07-08 22:01
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Voices from Chernobyl - Svetlana Alexievich,Keith Gessen

I read this after watching the HBO mini series about the disaster. If you have seen it, the firefighter’s wife, the one who follows her husband, her account opens this collection of oral histories. It pretty sets the stage for the rest of the history that follows.

It is not easy reading. There are bits about the killing of animals – enough dogs and cats survived the cull that their descendants inhabit the zone today. There are stories about people, including children, dying. The genius lies in how the histories are presented. Alexievich uses a combination of straight forward interview as well as a Greek Chorus. The fact that the names of the people, for the most, are not used until the end making the stories more universal.

In the West, we perhaps have disregarded Chernobyl. The interviews resented here, especially from those that lived though the Second World War and the meltdown, will correct that.

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review 2015-11-08 00:00
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster - Сьвятлана Алексіевіч,Сьвятлана Алексіевіч,Keith Gessen Honestly, I have no words, but fortunately she does. This is a must read, a statement I do not make lightly. Yes, it will depress you at times. Yes, you will weep. But to avoid is to turn yet another blind eye to not just history, but to reality, to humanity, and to forever hide oneself from the world and instead choose the fiction of a child. Understand.
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review 2013-10-18 20:19
Review: Voices from Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievich
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster - Swietłana Aleksijewicz,Keith Gessen

We don't need the destruction of entire cities to know what it's like to survive a catastrophe. Whenever we lose someone we love deeply we experience the end of the world as we know it. The central idea of the story is not merely that the apocalypse is coming, but that it's coming for you. And there's nothing you can do about it.

Dale Bailey, "The End of the World As We Know It"

The reason I like apocalyptic fiction so much is that it is, in fact, fiction.  A half-dozen pre-human mass extinctions notwithstanding, the real world has never actually ended.  And so, for me, apocalyptic stories are always metaphors - for loneliness and isolation, for fear of the future, for the possibilities of new beginnings, for first-world guilt, for community and cooperation, for homesickness, for grief, for loss, for thanatos and the destructive impulse.  All things which I have experienced.  All things which make apocalyptic stories - so bizarre and shocking and unfathomable on the surface - deeply resonant for me.

That all evaporates when it's no longer fiction.  If I were to say I "related" to a book about a nuclear catastrophe which killed and continues to kill uncountable hundreds of humans, animals, plants, and ecosystems, which rendered a quarter of an entire country uninhabitable for the foreseeable future, which destroyed lives beyond repair, which crippled an empire... if I, well-fed and cozy here in my middle-class American apartment, were to say I could relate to that, I'd be an ass.  Worse than an ass.

And yet.

There is a poem I never wrote called "The Eruption of Mt. Baker", which was part of a poetry collection I also never wrote called Separation Anxiety.  I am not a poet, or not a good one, which is why this was never actually written, but several years back I spent a lot of time writing drafts and then ripping them up.  It was based on a recurring nightmare I used to have:  We're driving away from home for the last time - I'm ten years old, and I'm sitting in the back of my parents' minivan, playing this handheld electronic baseball game.  We're moving 2500 miles away, but I can't even be bothered to look out the window at our house, our neighborhood, our town, our state for the last time, even though I know we'll never come back.  Never in the next few years, anyway, which for a 10-year-old might as well be forever.  This part isn't a dream.  It's the morning of June 22, 1994, and it's almost unbearably sunny.

In the dream, this is all the same, except the mountain, Mt. Baker, is erupting as we're driving away, the ash and molten lava covering everything up behind us as we go, and the flow is following us, chasing us, as we calmly drive away, never more than a few feet behind the car.  Still, I never look up from the game.  My dad is whistling in the driver's seat.  Everything I ever knew is being destroyed, but none of us even notice.  We never turn around.

Of course, we've been back since then.  I live only about 100 miles away now, and it's not such a big deal to drive up there if I ever feel the need.  But it's hard to go home these days, and it keeps getting harder - as the things I remember change or disappear, as the people get older and drift away, as it becomes less and less recognizable as home, only this place that meant everything to me once, and is now just a graveyard for painful memories.

My parents and little brother were in town over the holidays this year, and along with my sister, the five of us drove up there to see some old friends.  But as soon as the scenery along the highway changed from generic to imbued, I started to get queasy again.  Because it's not enough to go back to the place - home isn't just a place.  It's a place and a time, and we're 17 years too late now.  17 and a half.  It just keeps getting further and further away, and there's no way back, anymore.

Another poem in the nonexistent collection was going to be called "The Excavation of Everson", where I went home years later and began chipping away the layers of volcanic rock, to find the town perfectly preserved within, Pompeii-like, with tiny hollow molds in the shape of my ten-year-old friends.  Hollow human molds of my family, my siblings, and me, still there.  Still there.  Somehow, despite everything that had happened in the intervening years, we had never really left at all.

I don't know why this fantasy appealed to me so much.  Everything perfectly preserved, but dead.  But I would just picture myself sitting in my old bedroom again, everything the way I remembered it.  The sun in the perfect sky, coming in through the window, blazing like it did on June 22, 1994.  And I'd find that little handheld game, wherever I used to keep it.  And I'd smash it into tiny pieces.

We are all prisoners of time, and we all lose our homes, our pasts, the people we love, and eventually ourselves.  Bit by bit, the things we remember go away.  The world is always ending, it's just usually so slow and subtle we never notice until we're forced to: a move, a rite of passage, a birth, a death.

A war.  An attack.  A revolution.  A nuclear catastrophe.  An apocalypse.

This is why I read fiction about the end of the world.

What happened at Chernobyl is real, and so unlike the other apocalyptic books I've read, I can't appropriate it as a metaphor for my own life.  What these people went through is ghastly and unimaginable, and it's the result of an inept and corrupt government.  It could have been prevented.  It could have been mitigated.  This book should be read, because what happened to these people should not be swept under the rug, as the Russian government has tried to do for over 25 years.  We have a responsibility to hear their stories, to know what really happened, to keep it from happening again.

And as for me, I know that imagining events in my own life as if they were the result of a natural disaster is trite.  It's cheap.  It's adolescent hyperbole.  I can go home whenever I want - there is no lava, there is no radiation.

And yet.

In Ukraine and Belarus, many people returned to their irradiated homes shortly after the disaster.  Many never left.  They moved back into their houses, they began to farm the earth.  Living there is a death sentence, and they know it.  They could leave, but they don't.

Why would they do this?  I can't really know, and I can't really relate to their reasons.  It was a different time, a different culture, a different set of values.

And yet.

"Even if it's poisoned with radiation, it's still my home. There's no place else they need us. Even a bird loves its nest . . ."

"During the day we lived in the new place, and at night we lived at home - in our dreams."

"I washed the house, bleached the stove. You need to leave some bread on the table and some salt, a little plate and three spoons. As many spoons as there are souls in the house. All so we could come back."

Monologues by Those Who Returned



2 January 2012

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review 2011-11-23 00:00
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster - Swietłana Aleksijewicz,Keith Gessen Today, April 26th, is the 26th 27th anniversary of Chernobyl catastrophe. In case you're wondering - no, Google did NOT feature it on its home page (same as last year, sadly). But shouldn't humanity remember this disaster?****This is one of the most horrifying books I have ever read. It reads like a postapocalyptic story, except for all of it is horrifyingly real. Svetlana Alexievich, a journalist, provides real but almost surreal in their horror oral accounts of Chernobyl disaster. On April 26, 1986 an explosion of reactor 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power station marked the transition from the idea of a "peaceful atom" to the worst nuclear catastrophe in history. This was a disaster largely hushed up by the government; people were lied to, the effects were minimized and brushed off, and there were not enough resources for a proper and safe clean-up. These true stories are heart-wrenching and shocking, honest and resigned, angry and hopeless. The city of Pripyat, which was home to the workers of the Chernobyl nuclear station, remains abandoned since that fateful April of 1986. People were thrown into the areas where machines were unable to function due to radiation - while wearing little more than t-shirts and equipped with shovels. People were on the burning roof of the reactor without any protection. People were dying from acute radiation sickness in the most horrifying ways imaginable. Scientists tried to sound alarm but were silenced. Produce heavily contaminated with radiation was still exported to other parts of the Soviet Union. Contaminated items from looted towns and villages appeared all over the country. People were whisked from their homes on buses and told that they would be gone for only a few days. Pets were shot to contain spread of contamination. Visiting officials came in full radiations suits; their local guide was wearing a sundress and sandals. Radiation meters readings were either ignored or falsified. Officials were bringing people out for May Day parades outside in accordance with orders from "above" and then watched their own family members succumb to the disease. Listless sick children live in surrounding areas and are just waiting to die. Alexievich lets the eyewitness accounts speak for themselves, with very little editorial voice. Occasionally, she clarifies the emotions or the reactions of the interviewees, but for the most part she lets them speak in their own voice. She does not preach or editorialize, and that makes the book more poignant.These are stories of people robbed of their present and future, of the disaster that is still claiming lives. Its effects will be felt for decades to come, in the sick children, mutated animals, abandoned cities and villages, and destroyed lives. I cried when I was reading this book. How can you not?5 stars for the fact that she was courageous enough to listen to the heartbreaking accounts and compile all these stories. I would not have had enough strength to do that.
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review 2011-03-19 00:00
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster - Сьвятлана Алексіевіч,Сьвятлана Алексіевіч,Keith Gessen The Russian journalist Svetlana Alexievich spent three years interviewing people who had been involved in Chernobyl: villagers from the surrounding area, "liquidators" (members of the cleanup squad), widows and children, nuclear scientists, politicians, even people who, incredibly, had moved to Chernobyl after the accident. She presents their words almost without comment. Sometimes she adds a [Laughs]; sometimes [Stops]; sometimes [Starts crying]; sometimes [Breaks down completely]. I am not sure I have ever read anything quite as horrifying. It is like a very well written post-apocalyptic novel in many voices, and it's all true. Here are some extracts.

From the translator's preface:
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 show, to lie about the disaster in the most criminal way. In the crucial first ten days, when the reactor was burning and releasing a steady stream of highly radioactive material into the surrounding area, the authorities repeatedly claimed that the situation was under control.
From the Historical Notes:
During the Second World War, one out of every four Belarussians was killed; today, one out of five Belarussians lives on contaminated land. This amounts to 2.1 million people, of whom 700,000 are children.
From a liquidator's account:
We had good jokes too. Here's one. An American robot is on the roof of the reactor for five minutes, then it breaks down. The Japanese robot is on the roof for five minutes, then it breaks down. The Russian robot's been up on the roof for two hours! Then someone shouts over the loudspeaker: "Private Ivanov! Two hours more, and you can take a cigarette break!"
From a nuclear physicist's account:
There's a moment in Ales Adamovich's book, when he's talking to Andrei Sakharov. "Do you know," says Sakharov, the father of the hydrogen bomb, "how pleasantly the air smells of ozone after a nuclear explosion?"
From a politician's account:
I was First Secretary of the Regional Committee of the Party. I said absolutely not. "What will people think if I take my daughter with her baby out of here? Their children have to stay." Those people who tried to leave, to save their own skins, I'd call them into the regional committee. "Are you a Communist or not?" It was a test for people. If I'm a criminal, then why was I killing my own grandchild?" [Goes on for some time but it is impossible to understand what he is saying]
From a teacher's account:
Our family tried not to economize, we bought the most expensive salami, hoping it would be made of good meat. Then we found that it was the expensive salami that they mixed the contaminated meat into, thinking, well, since it was expensive fewer people would buy it.
From a widow's account:
When we buried him, I covered his face with two handkerchiefs. If someone asked me to, I lifted them up. One woman fainted. And she used to be in love with him, I was jealous of her once. "Let me look at him one last time." "All right."
From a father's account:
My daughter was six years old. I'm putting her to bed, and she whispers in my ear: "Daddy, I want to live, I'm still little." And I had thought she didn't understand anything.
From the author's afterword:
These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unseen. I felt like I was recording the future.

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