Listening to the Voices

Reviews | published in Real Change on Dec. 13th, 2006
Subject: Chernobyl

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In the early hours of April 26, 1986, while the people of the western part of the former Soviet Union slept, the crew of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station’s Energy Block 4 prepared to conduct a safety test. Uninformed of instability within the reactor, the crew went ahead with the procedure as planned. Less than 45 seconds after the crew began, a steam explosion blew part of Reactor 4’s roof sky high. Oxygen, rushing in through the now-open roof, increased the already soaring temperatures of the reactor’s fuel. A fire began, spreading a plume of radioactive material to surrounding areas. Additional explosions followed. A nuclear meltdown occurred. And, in an instant, the world’s worst nuclear accident was born.

But to say something is born suggests, in ways metaphorical as well as literal, it has life. Chernobyl, as we speak of it some 20 years after the fact, is indeed living, even thriving. Perhaps not in the sense of having a heartbeat, but in the ways in which the disaster continues to wreak havoc on humans and animals, not to mention the soil, the plants, and water. You can point to statistics to shore up this viewpoint — in parts of Belarus, death rates exceed birth rates by 20 percent; nearly 6,000 Belarussian acres have been taken out of the agricultural economy — and shake your head in dismay.

Or, for the truly enterprising — though some might say suicidal — you can follow in the footsteps of journalist Svetlana Alexievich and go to Belarus yourself to search out Chernobyl’s very being. Once you’re there, you can ask the people to describe what life used to be versus what life is now, recording stories filled with pathos and gallows humor, with utter confusion and dismay. You could compile these recollections, calling them Voices from Chernobyl, and know that you’ve done a major service to the world’s consciousness. Or you can be like me and simply read the book Alexievich put together, all the while trying not to break into tears on a crowded city bus.

The causes for such a reaction are the more than 100 monologues she’s culled from folks from all stripes of life. Here, for example, a mother talks about her daughter: “The medical card says: ‘Girl, born with multiple complex pathologies: aplasia of the anus, aplasia of the vagina, aplasia of the left kidney.’ That’s how it sounds in medical talk, but more simply: no pee-pee, no butt, one kidney.”

A chemical engineer on his work decontaminating the land: “Our protective gear consisted of respirators and gas masks, but no one used them because it was 30 degrees Celsius outside, if you put those on it would kill you.”

Alexievich is a wonderful guide through this contaminated landscape, playing equal parts Virgil and Studs Turkel, using the interviews of Belarussians as both entrée and egress into a netherworld of governmental ineptitude and human suffering. She comments on this role, in a quasi-epilogue, by saying: “I felt like I was recording the future.” Such future work has come with a present-day price: After spending three years in Belarus, Alexievich now suffers from an immune deficiency.

In this way, author and subject converge, Alexievich becoming a part of the story as much as the storytellers are themselves. Yet she barely delves into her own fate. She’s more interested in the altered lives of others. Nowhere is this put to more effect than in the book’s prologue, the chilling 18-page recollection of a woman whose firefighter husband was one of the first to battle the blaze. After recalling days where his stools were “blood and mucous,” remembering the “clump[s] of hair left on a pillow,” she says this: “No one’s asked what we’ve been through. What we saw. No one wants to hear about death. About what scares them. But I was telling you about love,” she says to Alexievich. “About my love.”

Love? How, you wonder, can love survive in this contaminated landscape? Maybe it’s because, as Voices reminds us, love is the one thing that can never be extirpated. Even in a people, a country blighted by a radioactive midnight explosion, love endures.

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