Like many I must admit that I’m sometimes guilty of allowing myself to be drawn into the romantic fantasy of nuclear disaster, of almost enjoying those photographs of empty cities like Pripyat that appear like the ruins of an ancient civilisation reclaimed by time. Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl is a book in which there unequivocally no romance to be found, just the unimaginable pain, horror and loss experienced by ordinary people exposed to a completely extraordinary situation. I’ve briefly reviewed the book before, but a combination of a planned trip to Ukraine, reviewing Noriko Takasugi’s book on the Fukushima disaster, and the lingering sense that my first look at Alexievich’s book was insufficient has led me to return to it for a more in depth look.
Alexievich, a Belarussian journalist, set out to interview hundreds of people affected by the partial meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power station in May 1986, collecting those interviews together into a unique work of oral history (for the uninitiated a branch of the discipline that focuses on individual testimonial and personal experience rather than archives and grand narratives). Oral history is a fitting approach to the subject, as translator Keith Gessen notes in his preface, Chernobyl is a disaster that left far, far more survivors than it claimed victims. Only one person died in the initial blast, perhaps several dozen in the following weeks. But unknowable thousands were uprooted, irradiated, poisoned and subsequently experienced a living death, exiled and plagued by health problems.
Her interviewees are a wide range of people, from residents of the local area and the ‘liquidators’ called to clear up the stricken reactor, to those who today live and work, legitimately or illicitly in the ‘zone’, the thirty kilometre exclusion area. They tell stories from all stages of the disaster, the first uncertain hours and days, the evacuations, and the long aftermath. Some of the accounts are almost unreadable, the words of people forced from their homes, displaced into alien towns and cities cities. People who materially speaking lost everything, and then watched loved ones dying, literally disintegrating before their eyes from acute radiation poisoning, in a context of Soviet total secrecy, where it was impossible to find out what had happened to them, what they had been exposed to, and what the likely effects would be.
Considering the horror of what is described the calmness in many of the accounts is striking, the language the participants use at times verges at times on poetry, and the way they relate their experiences to literature, history and culture are incredibly powerful. A telling, reoccurring comparison that is made is between the nuclear disaster and the Second World War. One interviewee, a psychologist working in the zone, talks of the trauma he experienced as a child during the war, the terrible things he had witnessed ‘I thought the most horrible things had already happened…but then I traveled to the Chernobyl zone…the future is destroying me, not the past’. Another younger participant speaks of Chernobyl being ‘her childhood’ in the same way as a previous generation of Belarussians grew up in the midst of conflict.
As we get close to thirty years since the disaster, Chernobyl has (again like the Second World War), merged to an alarming degree with the popular imagination, becoming a myth abstracted from reality. Take Pripiyat’s frequent appearance in video games as an example. This is no less true in a photographic sense, one look around the internet and it’s easy to get the impression that a visit to Pripyat is almost a rite of passage for certain types of photographer, the ultimate in urban exploration. At the same time nuclear power is on the agenda again in many countries struggling to find ways to produce cheap power while meeting climate change and CO2 emission goals. Arguments and claims for and against the future of nuclear power, of varying quality, are aired with increasing frequency. Chernobyl is not in any sense an event of the past, it remains a contested part of the present.
This book serves as a reminder, not so much of the safety of nuclear power, because as most people would concede Chernobyl was a completely unnecessary disaster, but rather of the truly terrible consequences when things do go wrong, however seldom that might be. It’s a reminder that Chernobyl isn’t just a piece of cultural shorthand, it’s a an unhealable wound, its an event that will continue to effect lives for centuries, perhaps millennia. It’s a reminder of the limits of photography and the visual, and the understated power of text and written voices. It’s possibly one of the most moving books I’ve ever read.