nonfiction

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster- Svetlana Alexievich

I was five when the Chernobyl nuclear disaster took place, which is apparently young enough to not have formed any memories of the event (much like the Challenger disaster from earlier that year; I have no memory of that either). I don’t remember learning anything about it in grade or high school, other than maybe a brief mention. I vaguely understood what had happened and the implications of the disaster, and when I came upon a website filled with photos by a woman who had ridden her motorcycle through the mostly-abandoned-but-still-radioactive areas surrounding the plant, I was fascinated. There’s this huge swath of contaminated land, inhabited only by a few hardy (and foolhardy) souls, where animals (whose state of health isn’t really known) roam freely into long-abandoned buildings and tables remain still set for dinner. Whoa. It was with these photos in mind that I added Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich (Picador, 2006) to my TBR after reading a review from a fellow blogger.

Voices from Chernobyl is a collection of monologues taken from interviews by survivors of Chernobyl: widows of liquidators and other men forced into service in the aftermath of the blast; men who worked at the plant site in various capacities, some who knew enough to know that the government was lying to the people about the dangers of the radiation; people who have come back to live on forbidden land; people who have sick children; people whose children have died. Long, long paragraphs of grief and anguish, of anger and the inability to comprehend how this could have happened, and sometimes the admission of how different their society was when the disaster took place (the interviews were collected in 1996).

This is a good example of an amazing book that didn’t work for me personally. I was expecting there to be more background on the disaster, on the Communist society the interviewees lived in at the time and the government that was so willing to hide the scope of the danger, on the history of the area and what daily life looked like in these now mostly-abandoned areas before they were evacuated. There was a very brief introduction, and then the book dove right into the monologues with zero background information on the person being interviewed, just a name and sometimes an occupation, if it was relevant to their interview. That was it. So many monologues kept referencing ‘the war,’ and sadly, my history education outside of learning about the American revolution 23478932749832 times kind of stank, and it took me a little bit of mental groping to remember the Soviet-Afghan War (it’s never called this during the book, just ‘the war,’ with a few references to “I was in Afghanistan,” which is what finally jogged my foggy memory. I have a book of Russian history in the basement; I’m going to have to see if it’s new enough that this war is covered in it…) My background in everything surrounding the Chernobyl disaster is so lacking that while I did learn *some* things as I read this, the monologues enough weren’t enough to fill in the gaps for me.

And thus, I need book recommendations! Have you read anything about Chernobyl? Can you recommend anything more comprehensive that will help enlighten me more on this tragedy? I’d really love to learn more and not feel quite so lacking in this area.

6 thoughts on “Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster- Svetlana Alexievich

    1. I agree, the subject is fascinating! I was really bummed out that this book wasn’t what I needed, because I do think that it would work well for someone who has more of a background in and a better understanding of the history of the area.

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