When Svetlana Alexievich gathered the material for her book Voices from Chernobyl she made interviews with people who shared their experiences from the time of the explosion in the nuclear power plant. Sweden was the first country where high levels of radioactivity were first noted after the event in Chernobyl. Soon enough it was clear that the radioactivity was caused by another nuclear power plant than the Swedish.
I was nineteen 1986 and learned from authorities in our country that I ought to leave the berries from the forest and not fish and hunt if I lived on the east coast of Sweden. For all my life I had picked berries and made jam and enjoyed a lot of time in the forest. Now that was supposed to be dangerous and nobody knew whether activities outdoors would be dangerous, too. I remember being angry with the authorities in the Soviet Union for building a Nuclear Power Plant that was not safe enough. Svetlana Alexievich´s book remind us that the people who died to save the rest of us are our heroes. But did they have to die?
When we read Alexievich´s book we understand that authorities sometimes lied about the danger in order to get things done. They also used the military system as an excuse. When a young soldier refused to go to Chernobyl after knowing that he was supposed to clean the place from radioactive pollution, he was forced to go, or else he would be imprisoned or executed. The book is quite open with this and I now understand why the author has not always been welcomed by authorities in her country. I am however happy that she chose to write this book. When truth is revealed, it’s always easier to deal with the messanger, but this time the messanger got her story to be printed and spread, which is good for all of us.
According to the eye witnesses in Alexievich´s book and according to interviews made in different movies, such as the one I link to below, authorities did not inform the local inhabitants of the acute danger in the nearby area round the power plant and for the first 36 hours they did not even evacuate. The people in Pripyat, the closest town, could see the fire from a distance and they noticed that the smoke was blue and shiny. Locals were soon falling ill and had symptoms like headache, vomiting etc. At first the authorities let people go on with their lives as if this accident in the Nuclear Power Plant was not such a big problem. But as they realized the danger, they arranged for an evacuation, 36 hours after the explosion. They told people to pack for three days, but most of them have never had a chance to return to their homes in Chernobyl. Still many of the things are left behind, since they are contamined with radioactivity and lots and lots of things were actually buried in the ground.
Svetlana Alexievich´s book is quite dysthopic in a way. She writes in her foreword that she thinks that although the book deals with a part of our history, she claims it deals with our future. She starts off with a shared experience with a content I almost wish I hadn’t read. The first eye-witnessed story is from the widow of one of the firemen who died shortly after the explosion. We follow her and her husband as he ends up in a hospital in Moscow where he was taken secretly without his wife’s knowing. The widow does not spare a moment, but shares every horrific detail from his last days in life with all the strange symptoms and horrific wounds and thus my reading is already destined to go on until I have read the entire book.
Many of the stories are interviews or monologs where we notice how officers tell young soldiers to follow orders and when they do, they are forced to go into the evacuated zone to do the most disgusting jobs one can imagine. Afterwards they are changed and there is nothing they can do about it. Their health is ruined and although some of them earned some extra money or were decorated with medals, they paid with their health. Some of them speak as heroes and mean that without them the disaster had been worse, but some of them speak as victims and let us know that they regret their participation in the cleaning of the nuclear power plant area, since that has ruined their lives completely.
Page after page share the same feeling of lost future and dreams that will never come true, but also meet people with a stubborn will to stay in the area despite the danger. Many of the interviews show how the Chernobyl catastrophe actually made people in the area talk. They share their feelings and thoughts in a way they didn’t do before. The people who were evacuated live in a constant connection with their lost homes and the life they used to live in Chernobyl. By reading this book I became even more aware of the danger of nuclear power and also sadly aware of the impact in people’s life such a disaster causes. The book has to be read!
Please watch this documentary in case you need to fill in the gap concerning facts about what happened in Chernobyl in April 1986:
If you prefer reading, then please just follow this link:
…or want to know more: