The Unforgettable Fire
Alexievich spent three years traveling through Belarus. She sought out witnesses, "workers from the nuclear plant, the scientists, the former Party bureaucrats, doctors, soldiers, helicopter pilots, miners, refugees, re-settlers." As she recalled in my interview with her: "One of the first liquidators I visited met me with joy. 'How good it is you've come now,' he said. 'We didn't understand everything,' he said, 'but we saw everything.' Two months later he died."
The stories collected here are not only haunting but illuminating. She begins with Lyudmilla Ignatenko, wife of fireman Vasily Ignatenko:
I don't know what I should talk about--about death or about love? Or are they the same?... We were newlyweds. We still walked around holding hands, even if we were just going to the store. I would say to him, "I love you." But I didn't know then how much. I had no idea.... We lived in the dormitory of the fire station where he worked on the second floor. There were three other young couples, we all shared a kitchen. On the first floor they kept the trucks. The red fire trucks. That was his job. I always knew what was happening--where he was, how he was.... One night I heard a noise. I looked out the window. He saw me. "Close the window and go back to sleep. There's a fire at the reactor. I'll be back soon".... I didn't see the explosion itself. Just the flames. Everything was radiant. The whole sky. A tall flame. And smoke. The heat was awful. And he's still not back.... The smoke was from the burning bitumen, which had covered the roof. He said later it was like walking on tar. They tried to beat down the flames. They kicked at the burning graphite with their feet.... They weren't wearing their canvas gear. They went off just as they were, in their shirt sleeves. No one told them.
And she speaks with another widow of a liquidator:
We were expecting our first child. My husband wanted a boy and I wanted a girl. The doctors tried to convince me: "You need to get an abortion. Your husband was at Chernobyl." He was a truck driver; they called him in during the first days. He drove sand. But I didn't believe anyone.... The baby was born dead. She was missing two fingers. A girl. I cried. "She should at least have fingers," I thought. "She's a girl."
One of the helicopter pilots who flew day and night over the burning reactor tells Alexievich that the plan was to dump enough sandbags on the fire to quell the flames. According to scientists today, this tactic only added to the radioactive clouds. The pilot recalls:
I talked to some scientists. One told me, "I could lick your helicopter with my tongue and nothing would happen to me." Another said, "You're flying without protection? You don't want to live too long? Big mistake! Cover yourselves!" We lined the helicopter seats with lead, made ourselves some lead vests, but it turns out those protect you from one set of rays, but not from another. We flew from morning to night. There was nothing spectacular in it. Just work, hard work. At night we watched television--the World Cup was on, so we talked a lot about soccer.... For me, Afghanistan (I was there two years) and then Chernobyl (I was there three months) are the most memorable moments of my life.... I didn't tell my parents I'd been sent to Chernobyl. My brother happened to be reading Izvestia one day and saw my picture. He brought it to our mom. "Look," he says, "he's a hero!" My mother started crying.
Another survivor is Sergei Sobolev, a "professional rocketeer," now an official with a Chernobyl veterans group who helps run a small Chernobyl museum:
They've written dozens of books. Fat volumes, with commentaries. But the event is still beyond any philosophical description. Someone said to me, or maybe I read it, that the problem of Chernobyl presents itself first of all as a problem of self-understanding. That seemed right. I keep waiting for someone intelligent to explain it to me. The way they enlighten me about Stalin, Lenin, Bolshevism. Or the way they keep hammering away at their "Market! Market! Free market!" But we--we who were raised in a world without Chernobyl, now live with Chernobyl.
And one of those soldiers sent to the front:
Your mind would turn over. The order of things was shaken. A woman would milk her cow, and next to her there'd be a soldier who had to make sure that when she was done milking, she'd pour the milk out on the ground. An old woman carries a basket of eggs, and next to her there's a soldier walking to make sure she buries them. The farmers were raising their precious potatoes, harvesting them really quietly, but in fact they had to be buried. The worst part was, the least comprehensible part, was that everything was so--beautiful! That was the worst. All around, it was just beautiful. I would never see such people again. Everyone's faces just looked crazy. Their faces did, and so did ours.
The Chernobyl reactor was a Soviet construction of unique design. It is commonly known as an RBMK-1000, a Russian acronym that stands for Reaktor Bolshoi Moshchnosty Kanalny--a Reactor of Large Power with Channels. Nuclear scientists in the West do not like the RBMK design. They fear its lack of a containment shell and worry that its core demands great quantities of combustible graphite. When I studied in Moscow in the first years after the Chernobyl disaster, I used to visit a friend in a dacha complex for elite Soviet academics in the woods outside Moscow. Across the way lived the hero-scientist who designed the RBMK model. He never came out of his dacha. He had fallen far from favor. His design, however, lives on.
The disaster at Chernobyl did nothing to diminish the popularity of nuclear power in Russia among the authorities. The country has ten operational nuclear power plants, with thirty-one reactor units (and six more still being built). Eleven of these are the Chernobyl-standard RBMK reactors. At the same time, in Pripyat and the abandoned villages around it, a strange phenomenon has evolved in the decades since the disaster. Officially, the Zone remains off-limits. Scientists who travel there report remarkable findings--an abundance of natural beauty, of renewed flora and fauna. Debate rages over the scale, and half-life, of the damage. Reactor No. 4 is known today simply as "the Cover." How many tons of nuclear fuel its core holds remains unknown. Nor does anyone know how much radiation is seeping from the Cover's fissures, or how long it will stand. But one element of the unforeseen afterlife is undeniable: More and more former residents have returned to the Zone. By now more than 1,000 people have come back to live among the spectral villages of the radioactive marsh and woods. A Ukrainian website that offers Ukrainian brides and Ukrainian babies now advertises "Chernobyl Tours," as if the Zone were a vacation spot.
Belarus, as even George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice have grown fond of saying, is Europe's last dictatorship. President Aleksandr Lukashenko, a half-mad Soviet throwback freshly re-anointed in March, brooks no dissent. He is no fan of Alexievich, a feeling she naturally returns in kind. "This land is a socialist reservation," she told me. "Life has stopped here.... People feel there's no exit. Even when it comes to the legacy of Chernobyl, we keep quiet. It still is not part of our culture." The effects of the disaster will not disappear under the weight of repression, however. In the author's interview with herself that introduces the Russian edition, Alexievich writes that she has the eerie sense of not so much reporting on the past as "recording the future." It is a pity, then, that her extraordinary collection of testimony has lost its original subtitle. Voices From Chernobyl is subtitled The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. Alexievich's choice had carried a warning. She called it "A Chronicle of the Future."