I’m not a writer, but I am a witness.
In an attempt both to write about more of the books I read—not just the ones I get for free off of publishers—and to make that process less intimidating, I’m experimenting with different ways of posting, e.g. not always my usual essay. I like the idea of “journaling” about a book; in particular, books that have been released for a while don’t, I think, need to be “reviewed” as much as they simply need to be considered. As always, feedback appreciated.
What I know about the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident: It happened in the Ukraine, which was, at the time of the accident in 1986, part of the USSR. Gorbachev was in power. Perestroika had already begun; glasnost, the process of making governance transparent, was directly hastened by the disaster. This occurred, in essence, because a test that was running during maintenance shutdown in the plant’s Reactor Four was allowed to occur in such a way as to make the reactor extremely unstable. A power spike led to overheating, which led to the control rods becoming jammed, which led to an explosion. A graphite fire shot plumes of radioactive material into the air above the plant. This later settled across the surrounding region as radioactive dust.
What I know about Svetlana Alexievich: Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. She is a non-fiction writer, the first (I think?) to win that award. She is Belarusian. In a way she is less a writer than a composer: her books are composed of other peoples’ voices, revealed through interviews. Chernobyl Prayer has three parts, each subdivided into “monologues”. Her art is to arrange peoples’ testimonies, and, one presumes, to be trustworthy, and to ask the right questions in the first place, and to be capable of listening.
You may need to do some background reading if you wish to tackle Chernobyl Prayer; almost all of the information in the first paragraph, above, I gleaned from Wikipedia and the official IAEA report. Alexievich isn’t writing for Western grief tourists (although, of course, in a way, she absolutely is. But she wants you to work for it.) There are no tidy maps or chronologies. Just the voices of people living in a ruined world.
It’s a book you want to quote a lot. I found myself underlining huge chunks, not only because they are tragic or beautiful, but because the people she meets are insightful on things like the Soviet character, too, and the motivations of politicians, and the fact that the people who lived near the reactor were really still peasants, country people, who didn’t understand that just because you couldn’t see radiation didn’t make it unreal.
There are themes that recur. On the implacability of nature, which is beautiful but also, in a way, what makes nuclear disaster so fatally unstoppable:
One morning, I looked into the orchard and there were boars grubbing about. Wild boars. You can resettle people, but not the elk and the boars. And the water takes no notice of boundaries, it flows where it will, over the ground, under the ground.
On the hierarchy of threats (this from a woman who has settled with her husband and child in the ghost country near Chernobyl, fleeing political violence in Tajikistan):
I meet people, they’re amazed, can’t understand it. ‘What are you doing to your children, you’re killing them. You’re committing suicide.’ I’m not killing them, I’m saving them. …This threat here, I don’t feel it. I don’t see it. It’s nowhere in my memory.
It’s men I’m afraid of. Men with guns.
Many people—probably two-thirds of the people Alexievich interviews—compare it to the war. They mean, I think, the Second World War, but it could be any war of the past century. The grannies of Eastern Europe are very used to war. Soldiers forcing them from their homes? Crucial information being kept from them? The destruction of their livelihoods? “It was just like the war”, they say, over and over again. Some of them leap from simile to metaphor: “It was war. We were at war.”
A government filmmaker is struck by the universal need for a role, the way that people cling to a cultural narrative:
I caught myself filming things exactly how I had seen them in the war films. And just then, I noticed I wasn’t alone: the other people involved in all this activity were behaving the same way. They were acting as if they were in everyone’s favourite movie… The tear in the eye, a few words of farewell. A wave of the hand. It turned out we were all searching for some form of behaviour that we were already familiar with. We were trying to conform to something.
There is some discussion of “Slavic fatalism”, a kind of gloomy (it can be cheery, if there’s vodka around) passivity. There is also mention of the way that the government fell back, instantly, into old habits:
They revived the forgotten vocabulary of Stalinism: ‘Western intelligence agents’, ‘spying forays’, ‘sabotage’… Everybody is harping on about undercover spies and saboteurs, rather than iodine prophylaxis. Any unofficial information is treated as enemy ideology…
Clean-up workers are issued lead aprons and masks, sometimes, but the ones who are working on the roof have no protection from the radiation coming up from below. In any case, most people don’t wear their masks—they are heavy and cumbersome, and the work must be done quickly. One man tells of the thirty-six hundred roof workers, how they slept on the ground, on straw taken from hayricks right beside the reactor. “They’re dying now,” he says. “But for what they did… These are still people from a particular culture. A culture of superhuman feats and sacrificial victims.” I have read nothing more chilling about Soviet Communism than this, the recognition that thousands of lives were viewed as worthless. It is not the same thing as the “Blitz Spirit” of pulling together. It is not as if protective equipment didn’t exist; it was simply not considered worth spending on these men. And the men were offered money, a bump up the queue for an apartment or a car, maybe five to seven more years of life, and the promise of postmortem heroism. And that worked. This was only thirty years ago.
And the terrifying ignorance of Party leaders:
In the villages and factories, people from the district committees of the Communist Party traveled around, meeting people. Yet not one of them was capable of giving an answer if they were asked what decontamination was, how children could be protected, or what the coefficients were for radionuclides finding their way into the food chain. Neither could they if asked about alpha, beta and gamma particles, nor about radiobiology, ionizing radiation, let alone isotopes. For them, that was all something from another planet. They gave lectures about the heroism of Soviet people, symbols of military courage, and the wiles of Western intelligence services.
Thirty. Years. Ago.
There is an interview with a man who was on a district committee, and in it, he seems to understand how terribly he and his colleagues failed. But he can’t look at it too directly. He does not want to shoulder the blame. Who can; who could? “It was our duty,” he keeps saying. “We did what we were told to do.”
This, from an engineer, perhaps explains why:
We stayed silent and obeyed orders implicitly, because we were under Party discipline. …That was not because [we] were afraid of losing [our] Party cards, but because of [our] faith. Above all, a belief that we were living in a fine and just society that put people first. Man was the measure of all things. For many people, the collapse of that faith ended in a heart attack or suicide. A bullet in the heart, as with Academician Legasov. Because when you lose that faith, when you are marooned without faith, you are no longer part of something, but complicit in it, and you no longer have any justification.
No longer part of something, but complicit in it: it’s such an articulate phrase, such an exact assessment of how ideology works, and why its crumbling can be such a catastrophe.
And man was the measure of all things. I think for a considerable portion of the twentieth century, we believed this. Why not? We had harnessed the power of the atom. We were programming computers. We had sent men to the moon. We could conquer anything, anything we wanted. And then Chernobyl happened. It wasn’t like Hiroshima or Nagasaki; it wasn’t intentional. It was a terrible accident, and man failed as the measure, and no matter how many men in green uniforms shoveled rubble off the roof of the reactor, they could not pull the particles from the skies, or the rivers, or the grass.
There is absolute rage running through this book; it is a current of fury at the lies and deceit that were fed to the people of Pripyat and Chernobyl, and it is also fury at the helplessness of the people who suffered and continued to suffer. There is almost superhuman love: the testimonies of two women whose husbands were clean-up workers (one comes near the beginning of the book, one near the end) are sobering and painfully beautiful and so sad. And there is this, from one of the children Alexievich interviews:
I want to tell you how my grandma said goodbye to our house. She asked my dad to bring a sack of millet from the pantry, and scattered it over the garden. ‘For God’s birds.’ She collected eggs in a sieve and scattered them through the farmyard. ‘For our cat and dog.’ She sliced up pork fat for them. She emptied all the seeds out of her little bags: carrots, pumpkins, cucumbers, her blackseed onions, all the different flowers… She shook them out over the vegetable plot: ‘Let them live in the soil.’ Then she bowed to the house. She bowed to the barn. She went round and bowed to every apple tree.
Chernobyl Prayer is published by Penguin Modern Classics.