14 October 2015

Voices from Chernobyl: the Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

By Svetlana Alexievich, the Nobel Prize Winner of 2015.

On April 26, 1986, the worst nuclear reactor accident in history occurred in Chernobyl and contaminated as much as three quarters of Europe. Voices from Chernobyl is the first book to present personal accounts of the tragedy. Journalist Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people affected by the meltdown---from innocent citizens to firefighters to those called in to clean up the disaster---and their stories reveal the fear, anger, and uncertainty with which they still live.

The first thing that strikes you when you read these interviews - the stories - is that they're all real. Chernobyl may be a horrible accident to the rest of the world, and - sadly - part of the popular culture, but for millions of people it was, and still is a part of their lives. A huge part. And with these interviews, Alexievich allows us to get a glimpse into these people's lives, and to understand how this disaster and its aftermath changed their everyday lives and the way they looked at the world and at themselves.

These are the stories of the Ukranian and Belarusian firefighters, soldiers, wives, doctors and peasants, who found themselves in the middle of the Chernobyl disaster. All these stories are deeply personal and each one is unique, but they all have so much in common. The pain, the loss, and, in some cases, acceptance. All these people had to leave thier homes forever, and for many of them it was a devastating change, especially for the Belarusian peasants, who had lived in their villages for generations. 

The city of Pripyat today
We meet soldiers whose job was to evacuate the villages and to "clean up" after the disaster, which meant burying the crops, the soil, the houses and killing off pets and farm animals. These soldiers were traumatized by what they had to do, and all of them even felt guilty about the bugs and worms they buried along with the radioactive soil. Most of us don't even think about the smallest creatures, but to these soldiers even the smallest insect had a soul.  

A lot of people ended up feeling betrayed by the Soviet government. Their whole view on life and the world changed, causing a conflict of identity. Suddenly, these absolutely normal people became the Chernobyl people. Others avoided them like the plague; they became a subject of interest of the scientists and journalists from all over the world. And they had to adjust to their new lives.

The parts that were particularly hard to read were the interviews with the children and the firefigthers' widows. This book was written in 1997, eleven years after the disaster. Many of the people had already died in cancer and other complications caused by the radiation. Next year is the 30th anniversary of Chernobyl, and I wonder how many of the witnesses in this book are still alive today. 

Svetlana Alexievich
When you read this book you realise how close the rest of the Europe came to facing the same fate as Ukraine and Belarus in 1986. If it wasn't for those firefighters, who knows what could have happened.

The Russian edition (the one I read)

Voices from Chernobyl is a very depressing book. I had to take breaks while reading it, becasue I kept crying. No book has ever made me cry before. But it's a book that everyone should read. Alexievich doesn't edit or comment a lot on these stories, she just lets the voices be heard. It's only right that she won the Nobel Prize. And I hope that all the attention will help bring awerness about Chernobyl and remind us that there are real people still living in its shadow.

Of course, I'm going to give the book 5+ stars.

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