If you were captivated by the recent HBO series, Chernobyl, and especially the story of Lyudmila Ignatenko and her husband, Vasily, one of the first responders to the fire that occurred after the explosion in the nuclear power plant, then Svetlana Alexievich’s book Chernobyl Prayer will be equally captivating, its first chapter providing much of the material for this story-line. I haven’t had a chance to catch it yet, but Lyudmila Ignatenko’s story seems to have been faithfully recorded in the TV series, including her disregard for the medical professionals who say she cannot be near her husband, or the zinc coffins he and his colleagues are laid to rest in, eventually buried under slabs of concrete. Writer and producer, Craig Mazen, said that he turned to Alexievich’s work for ‘beauty and sorrow.’
Having read and loved her book about Soviet women soldiers in the Second World War, I immediately picked up a copy of Chernobyl Prayer, from Penguin with translation by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait. As with that earlier work, Alexievich records diverse experiences from the aftermath of the disaster, talking to a psychologist, teachers, hunters, returnees, soldiers and clean-up workers, medics, a cameraman, a physicist, children. But before the interviews, Alexievich sets out the outsize effect Chernobyl had on her own country of Belarus.
Although the plant was across the border in Ukraine, Belarus bore the worst of the disaster, as ’70 per cent [of the radioactivity released] fell upon Belarus.’ The devastation wrought is almost as bad as the Nazi invasion, when ‘the Germans wiped out 619 villages on its territory along with their inhabitants. In the aftermath of Chernobyl, the country lost 485 villages and towns: 70 remain buried forever beneath the earth.’ For Belarus, the memories of the nuclear disaster are bound up with those recorded in The Unwomanly Face of War.
As with The Unwomanly Face of War, the bookends of Svetlana Alexievich’s own memories and reflections on the interviews give the reader a chance to pause between reminiscences and reflect, as the writer considers her work and how to differentiate it from the many other books on the disaster.
I am trying to capture the life of the soul. A day in the life of ordinary people. Here, though, everything was extraordinary: both the event itself and the people, as they settled into the new space. Chernobyl for them is no metaphor, no symbol: it is home. How many times has art rehearsed the apocalypse, offered different technological versions of doomsday? Now, though, we can be assured that life is infinitely more fantastical…
The truth was that I had no idea how to write about it, what method to use, what approach to take. If, earlier, when I wrote my books, I would pore over the suffering of others, now my life and I have become part of the event. Fused together, leaving me unable to get any distance.
Many times, people mention that they had performed drills of what to do if there was a nuclear bomb attack. They were expecting Hiroshima and the name of the Japanese city is mentioned more than once. (This came full circle in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which was often weighed against Chernobyl.) The heroes of the Battle of Stalingrad are invoked with those who rushed towards the power plant, wearing normal clothes, oblivious to how quickly fatal doses of radiation would be received.
They saved Europe. Just imagine for a moment the scene if the other three reactors had exploded…
This is a story that the Soviets are well versed in. The heroic sacrifices made in the fight against Nazism are recalled as they battle this new, unseen enemy. They fly helicopters over the reactor with their heads out of the window, work in clouds of radioactive dust and, at the end of the day, drink enough vodka to stave off radiation sickness while being told to wash their hands before eating.
We’ll never be like the Dutch or the Germans. And we’ll never have good roads or groomed lawns. But we’ll always have heroes!
For many, the Chernobyl disaster overlaps with the end of the Soviet Union itself, as ‘The world of our beliefs and values had been blown apart.’ Misinformation circles. Some don’t believe the disaster happened at all or think that the danger was exaggerated. Sabotage by enemies is floated as a cause. Some evade evacuation because they haven’t finished the planting and others come back, incredible as it seems, to be on their land and close to family graves, even if it means living in former bustling villages alone. The Chernobyl Prayer of the title could mean that the old religious ways return as communism falls, or it could mean that praying is all they can count on. Contaminated stuff that is meant to be buried ends up on the black market. The readings from the clean-up workers’ dosimeters disappear into a KGB file, hidden from their doctors. But still people want to go back.
We returned along with our cats. And dogs. We came back together. The soldiers and riot police wouldn’t let us in, so we came by night. Took the forest footpaths. The partisan paths.
Another in the same group:
The police used to shout at us. They’d drive over, and we’d hide in the forest. Like hiding from the Germans.
Others are evacuated to the contaminated areas, escaping the sectarian violence that erupts as the USSR falls apart, finding relative safety on land no one else wants.
Perhaps it is in the questions Alexievich asks as she works on Chernobyl Prayer, or a natural topic for the country-dwellers she talks to, but the effects on nature are given careful consideration. Wolves, boars, elk and foxes still roam the forests. Cats and dogs appear and disappear.
The cuckoos are calling, the magpies chattering. Roe deer are running about. But nobody can say if they’ll carry on multiplying. 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.
Aside from the resilience of nature, for the people, the stories have an air of escalating horror, after the deaths of the firefighters in the immediate aftermath, to be followed by the children who are still getting sick years later, to a clean-up worker who goes home and throws out all his clothes – except his cap, which his son claims – only for the child to be later diagnosed with a brain tumour. Fatalism takes over, as farmers share meals harvested from contaminated soil with the clean-up workers and the evacuees only realise that they haven’t changed their clothes as they settle into their new locations.
In no way could you call Chernobyl Prayer an easy read. The inclusion of a monologue from a Belarusian physicist who knew exactly what was going to happen, telling of supervisors ignoring him, warnings not issued, evacuations not started, iodine going undistributed – even as Party insiders protect themselves and their families – chills the blood. ‘If we were still a closed system today, behind the Iron Curtain, people would be living right next to the reactor itself.’ Such recollections have the effect of allowing the reader to ‘eavesdrop’ on conversations it feels like we were never meant to hear.
Author photo by Elke Wetzig