Voices from Chernobyl – The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

Monday, 14 March 2016

Last year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl – The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster is exactly what its title indicates, a series of monologues about the Chernobyl meltdown.

Voices from Chernobyl - Picador

Human error (a foolish shutdown ‘experiment’) combined with inadequate design came together on the night of 26 April 1986 to create a catastrophic nuclear accident which spread radiation north from Chernobyl (today it’s in Ukraine) across what is now Belarus and beyond. In fact only a couple of people died in the explosion, the death toll reached 31 within weeks, mainly from firefighters who rushed to the scene and received fatal doses of radiation. However in years to come many more Chernobylites are expected to die from the effects of radiation. Deaths at Chernobyl, the book points out, are the polar opposite of the deaths in New York from 9/11. There everybody died in the collapse of the Twin Towers, New Yorkers rushed to hospitals to donate blood, but it was not necessary, there were hardly any injured survivors. Hardly anybody died immediately at Chernobyl, the deaths will come slowly over the years.

The account are often heart-breaking, one Chernobylite recounts “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.”

Voices from Chernobyl - otherAt first nobody understood anything because the Soviet Union tried desperately to keep a lid on the story. Chernobyl also helped to kill the Soviet Union, the evasion was one of the factors that killed off Communism.

On 30 April 1986, so just a few days after the explosion, I flew from Melbourne to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. That morning I remember hearing increasingly worrying accounts that something had gone terribly wrong. High levels of radiation had been detected in Sweden, the winds had carried the radioactive dust in that direction, but the USSR government was only just starting to admit that something had very bad had happened.

I had another Chernobyl memory jog when I took a Bulgarian Communism tour in Sofia last year. The mausoleum of the country’s first Communist leader, Georgi Dimitrov, was demolished overnight in 1999 and has never been replaced. It no longer blocks the view of the old Royal Palace from the Sofia City Garden, but today it’s just a patch of anonymous wasteland without even a sign to indicate what once stood there. On May Day each year during the Communist era the country’s government hierarchy would stand on the mausoleum balcony as the happy citizens of Sofia marched past. On 1 May 1986 even steady rain did not dissuade everyday citizens from taking their part in the parade, but there were no Communist officials to watch over them. The officials knew what had happened 1400km to the north-west, they certainly weren’t going to stand outside in the radioactive rain. The everyday citizens still hadn’t been told.

The book concludes with a poignant account by Valentina Panesevich, the wife of a fatally poisoned liquidator, the workers who struggled, with totally inadequate protection, to clean up the site in the subsequent months.