Crime and Punishment in Chernobyl – Svetlana Alexievich’s “Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster”
I bought a copy of Voices from Chernobyl when I read that the author, Svetlana Alexievich had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. But eventually, even without this intense spotlight on her achievement, I would have found my way to her book partly because I, too, have created literature out of other “voices”–my oral history memoir of Minnesota’s premier Ojibwa artist George Morrison, Turning the Feather Around (MN Historical Press). But also because, every year or so, I read one of the great works of Russian literature. Voices from Chernobyl belongs with Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.
In Jane Austen’s miniature world, immense things happen in muted form. Long years of waiting and longing plague Ann Elliot in Persuasion but we hear hardly a peep from her. Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice experiences her comeuppance on a rather small stage. But the works of the Russians invoke wide and troubling distances, uncertainties that drill deep into the psyche, and as in Voices from Chernobyl, a range of experiences that often defy categorization.
The nuclear disaster in Chernobyl made world headlines when it occurred in 1986. The explosion and nuclear fire released radiation so intense that in some locations, it could not be quantified with available instruments. Men with inadequate protective clothing arrived to attempt to contain the fire and the spill of radiation For months and years after, residents near enough to have been affected were offered relocation, butthe true story of Chernobyl was not officially told. Only a softened, hushed version found its way into the press.
One of the rare gifts in Svetlana Alexievich’s “Voices of Chernobyl” is to respect the confusion and silencing that characterized the disaster from the beginning. She takes the people she interviews at their word. She does not dispute what they experienced, including what various official agencies told them. Yet, from these
voices, including many refugees from “Armenia, Georgia, Abkhazia, Tajikistan, Chechnya” who came to live in the homes left by escapees from the disaster, she records the intensity of feelings, their shock and chagrin at finding themselves living in a destroyed world, where the destruction is not always noticeable.
Commenting on her response to these stories, she writes in the afterword, “I often thought that the simple fact, the mechanical fact, is no closer to the truth than a vague feeling, rumor, vision….The development of these feelings, the spilling of these feelings past the facts, is what fascinates me.” (p. 236)
Some of the sections read like choral call and response: “The only time I don’t cry is at night. You can’t cry about the dead at night…..”
“We have the best kind of Communism here–we live like brothers and sisters…”
“The boss-men come, they yell and yell, but we’re deaf and mute. We’ve lived through everything, survived everythng.”
“I’m not afraid of anyone–not the dead, not the animals, no one. My son comes in from the city, he gets mad at me. ‘Why are you sitting there! What if some looter tries to kill you?’ But what would he want from me? There’s some pillows…”
“Why did Chernobyl break down? Some people say it was the scientists’ fault. They grabbed God by the beard and now he’s laughing. But we’re the ones who pay for it.” (pgs 76-78)
Many other segments are what the author calls monologues: Here’s a bit from “Three Monologues about a Homeland” Lena M.–from Kyrgystan says: “The place we called our homeland doesn’t exist, and neither does that time, which also was our motherland….This is our home now. Chernobyl is out home, our motherland. [She smiles suddenly.] The birds here are the same as everywhere. And there’s still a Lenin statue….People don’t understand. ‘Why are you killing your children?’….I’m not killing them. I’m saving them…They fear what they have here in Chernobyl. I don’t know about it. It’s not part of my memory.”
This ultimate awareness of limits, this is one of the most startling elements in these strangely moving, yet unconnected accounts. Add to that, the refusal to be characterized by anything except ongoing life, with its mixture of the bizarre, quiet, hateful, sad, sustaining and unpredictable.
I read it avidly, quickly. Then, when I’d finished, I wasn’t sure what I’d read. Perhaps some other time, I’ll start over.