Voices from Chernobyl
On September 11, 2001, after the first hijacked plane hit the World Trade Center, emergency triage stations were set up throughout New York City. Doctors and nurses rushed to their hospitals for extra shifts, and many individuals came to donate blood. These were touching acts of generosity and solidarity. The shocking thing about them was that the blood and triage stations turned out to be unnecessary. There were few survivors of the collapse of the two towers.
The effects of the explosion and nuclear fire at the Chernobyl power plant in 1986 were the exact opposite. The initial blast killed just one plant worker, Valeriy Khodomchuk, and in the next few weeks fewer than thirty workers and firemen died from acute
radiation poisoning. But tens of thousands received extremely high doses of radiation—it was an accident that produced, in a way, more survivors than victims—and this book is about them.
Much of the material collected here is obscene. In the very first interview, Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the wife of a fireman whose brigade was the first to arrive at the reactor, talks about the total degeneration of her husband’s very skin in the week before his death, describing a process so unnatural we should never have had to witness it. “Any little knot [in his bedding], that was already a wound on him,” she says. “I clipped my nails down till they bled so I wouldn’t accidentally cut him.”
Some of the interviews are macabre. Viktor Iosifovich Verzhikovskiy, head of the Khoyniki Society of Volunteer Hunters and Fisherman, recalls his meeting with the regional Party bosses a few months after the explosion. They explained that the Zone of Exclusion, as the Soviets termed the land within thirty kilometers of the Chernobyl power plant, evacuated of humans, was still filled with household pets. But the dogs and cats had absorbed heavy doses of radiation in their fur, and were liable, presumably, to wander out of the Zone. The hunters had to go in and shoot them all. Several other accounts, particularly those about the “deactivation” of the physical landscape in the Zone—the digging up of earth and trees and houses and their (haphazard) burial as nuclear waste—also have this quasi-Gogolian sense: they are ordinary human activities gone terribly berserk.
But in the end it’s the very quotidian ordinariness of these testimonies that makes them such a unique human document. “I know you’re curious,” says Arkady Filin, impressed into Chernobyl service as a “liquidator,” or clean-up crew member. “People who weren’t there are always curious. But it was still a world of people. The men drank vodka. They played cards, tried to get girls.” Or, in the words of one of the hunters: “If you ran over a turtle with your jeep, the shell held up. It didn’t crack. Of course we only did this when we were drunk.” Even the most desperate cases are still very much part of this “world of people,” with its people problems and people worries. “When I die,” Valentina Timofeevna Panasevich’s husband, also a “liquidator,” tells her as he succumbs
to cancer several years after his stint at Chernobyl, “sell the car and the spare tire. And don’t marry Tolik.” Tolik is his brother. Valentina does not marry him.
Svetlana Alexievich collected these interviews in 1996—a time when anti-Communism still had some currency as a political idea in the post-Soviet space. And it’s certainly true that Chernobyl, while an accident in the sense that no one intentionally set it off, was also the deliberate product of a culture of cronyism, laziness, and a deep-seated indifference toward the general population. 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 attest, to lie about the disaster in the most criminal way. In the crucial first ten days, when the reactor core 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. “If I’d known he’d get sick I’d have closed all the doors,” one of the Chernobyl war widows tells Alexievich about her husband, who went to Chernobyl as a liquidator. “I’d have stood in the doorway. I’d have locked the doors with all the locks we had.” But no one knew.