In April 1986, a series of explosions occurred in the nuclear reactor of Chernobyl in the Ukraine. Consisting of stories told by firemen, clean-up workers, soldiers, scientists, widows, orphans, residents, and evacuees, this book is not concerned with the event itself, but the aftermath, especially in the author’s home country of Belarus which was heavily impacted by the fallout.
This has to be one of the most horrifying and depressing, but at the same time impressive and touching books I have ever read. There are stories told by women about their children who were born dead or with severe ailments or deformities, and about their husbands who died, often driven by feelings of duty and bravery, but whose sacrifice was absolutely essential. Residents talk about living on the contaminated land and getting sick, about the evacuations, and about charlatans promising to cleanse the air and the soil. A doctor of agricultural sciences lays out his theories concerning the continued use of the land for farming, as in Belarus one third of the country was contaminated. Hunters talk about being sent out to kill all the abandoned pets while looters were not deterred and brought contaminated goods to the rest of the USSR. Food was still manufactured on the collective farms and consumed by the people who were uniformed about the radioactivity.
Almost everyone mentions the lies, the misinformation, and the obfuscation by the government, and their own ignorance regarding radioactivity and its effect on the environment and the human body. Much advice was ignored because there were only few obvious indications of the grave danger, and because many of the most affected people were poor and deeply rooted in the land, so it was almost impossible to move them from their homes. Beneath the surface, it is also an examination of the Soviet system, the supremacy of the collective over the individual, the sense of duty instilled in the population, and the belief in the greater good. One person says that ‘Chernobyl brought down an empire, it cured us of Communism,’ and it truly was a caesura in the history of the Soviet Union, but also in all our understanding of the risk of using atomic energy, although this effect should have been much stronger. This is a grim tale that is devastating and anger-inducing because of the hubris of mankind thinking that they can control the uncontrollable.
Most impressive is the fact that from all these individual stories such a clear picture of the whole issue is created, especially regarding the political and societal dimension. I also felt that I truly got to know the ‘Chernobyl people’, as they call themselves, and that I understood their motivations, for instance, those that returned to their land against all common sense. The bookends are formed by the stories of two widows, one of a firefighter and one of a clean-up worker, and they are the epitome of this work as they tell a tale of undaunted love, unshakeable obligation, and unimaginable horror, that is impossible not to be deeply moved by, and that throws the high price of depending on nuclear power in sharp relief.