56 pages 1 hour read

Svetlana Alexievich

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1997

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich is a collection of 35 first-person oral accounts of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the former Soviet Union. Originally published in Russian in 1997, the book was translated into English by Keith Gessen in 2005; it has been translated into almost every European language. Alexievich, a Belarusian investigative journalist, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for Voices from Chernobyl in 2015. Voices from Chernobyl also won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2005. In 2019, HBO released Chernobyl, a five-part miniseries depicting the disaster and its immediate aftermath, which drew on some of Alexievich’s testimonies.

Although a work of nonfiction, the book inhabits a liminal space between fiction and nonfiction: While it’s based on more than 500 interviews that Alexievich conducted between 1986 and 1996, the published text is a literary construction of the interviews rather than a verbatim transcription. Alexievich herself has called it a “polyphonic confession-novel” (Skiveren, Nicolai. “Spectral Toxicity: Atmospheres of Radiation in HBO’s Chernobyl and Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices of Chernobyl.” Ekphrasis Magazine, 2020, p. 78), while others have described it as “testimonial literature,” “literary nonfiction,” and “documentary prose” (Lindbladh, Johanna. “The Problem of Narration and Reconciliation in Svetlana Aleksievich’s Testimony Voices from Chernobyl’,” in Lindbladh, ed. The Poetics of Memory in Post-Totalitarian Narration. The Centre for European Studies at Lund University, 2008, p. 41).

This guide refers to the 2005 English edition by Dalkey Archive Press.

Summary

The book is prefaced by a “Historical Note” explaining that on April 26, 1986, a series of explosions at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR, now Ukraine), just south of the border of the Byelorussian SSR (now Belarus), destroyed the reactor, releasing catastrophic levels of radiation. Nearly 500 villages and settlements in this agricultural region had to be permanently abandoned, and 70 were buried underground. At the time of the book’s publication, 20% of Belarus’s 10 million residents were still living on contaminated land.

The book contains three parts and is bookended by a pair of monologues, both entitled “A Solitary Human Voice,” by young women whose husbands—a firefighter and a construction worker—died of acute radiation poisoning. Both women describe loving and happy relationships with their husbands and recall in searing detail caring for them as their bodies deteriorated gruesomely over the course of weeks or months. The book’s three main parts each include 10 or more monologues and end with a “chorus” of shorter excerpts from multiple speakers.

Part 1, “The Land of the Dead,” features mostly elderly residents of local villages who returned to their homes post-evacuation and continue to harvest crops and graze livestock on the contaminated soil. They struggle to comprehend the nature of this hitherto unknown, invisible enemy—radiation—and to understand why they must not consume perfectly normal-looking milk, mushrooms, and berries. They frequently compare the disaster with their traumatic memories of World War II. The concluding “Soldiers’ Chorus” presents the recollections of military and police personnel deployed to “the Zone” to clear the blast site and assist in evacuations, often noting leaders’ failure to provide protective gear or accurate information.

In Part 2, “The Land of the Living,” the monologues address the grim aftermath of the explosion in greater detail, depicting an atmosphere of chaos and uncertainty. Locals from various walks of life reflect on the silence or outright lies of government leaders, whom they previously trusted to protect them. Teachers describe the lingering health effects on children; a young mother relates years-long efforts to keep a daughter alive who was born with severe congenital deformities.

Part 3, “Amazed by Sadness,” adds elite perspectives to the mix. A regional Communist Party leader invokes ignorance, Soviet ideology, and orders from above to justify participating in the initial cover-up. Two top scientists from the Institute for Nuclear Energy in Minsk describe government efforts to muzzle them in the days immediately following the event; a third recalls obediently following orders without question. Various intellectuals reflect on the disaster as a product of the Russian/Soviet mindset or character, which valorized collectivism and self-sacrifice. In the concluding “Children’s Chorus,” children aged 9 to 16 share memories of the accident and the evacuation and talk about what they’ve lost, including friends who have died.

Collectively, the monologues paint a vivid picture of confusion and chaos in the immediate aftermath of the explosion—and of the grueling, surreal, and often heroic labor of post-disaster containment and decontamination. They criticize Soviet officials for secrecy, deception, incompetence, corruption, excessive deference to authority, and lack of concern for human well-being, and they lament the dysfunctionality of the centrally planned economy—all critiques that became increasingly prevalent in the 1980s and ultimately contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Most of all, these accounts illuminate the surreal experience of living through a nuclear disaster unprecedented in human history—and of grappling to comprehend an invisible “enemy” that has pervaded and permanently altered both the natural environment and the bodies and consciousness of its human survivors.

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