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The Unforgettable Fire | The Nation

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The Unforgettable Fire

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In the spring of 1986 the English language, and nearly every other, acquired a new word for catastrophe: Chernobyl. On April 25, 1986, when Reactor No. 4 at the nuclear power station near a leafy village some eighty miles north of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev began to melt down, the world

About the Author

Andrew Meier
Andrew Meier, author of Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall, is a fellow at the Cullman Center for...

had no notion of the disaster about to unfold. Neither did Moscow. In a classic confusion of priorities that would open the floodgates for glasnost and, in due time, a rethinking of the Soviet nuclear landscape, the Politburo was concerned above all with bad press. A year earlier a new general secretary had arisen, Mikhail Gorbachev. Yet even as word spread that the accident at the station had already reached an unprecedented scale, with the specter of a radioactive Armageddon rising over Europe, Gorbachev and company seemed less concerned about the damage issuing from Chernobyl than the damage to Moscow's reputation.

Having entered the English vernacular, "Chernobyl" has gained currency in the twenty years since the accident. "To go Chernobyl"--whether it be a relationship, teakettle or political career--is to melt down. Yet as scientists will tell you, what is commonly called the "accident" at Chernobyl was anything but. For this disaster was born of human decisions. The engineers at the plant had long been eager to test a theory. Those on the night shift decided to conduct an unauthorized test. Not specialists in nuclear science, they powered the reactor down, disabled emergency backup systems in order to see how long the turbines could operate and, hoping to learn how the reactor's coolant system would function on low electricity, instead learned how its core would melt. The explosion tore off the reactor's 1,000-ton steel-and-concrete roof, spewing the now famous radioactive maelstrom into the heavens. In all, Chernobyl released 100 times more radiation than the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The true death toll will never be known. The government of Ukraine has tallied more than 8,000 dead, nearly all victims of the fire and cleanup. The toll, in environmental and chromosomal damage, continues today and will for generations.

The Kremlin's first reflex was to try to conceal the mess--even from rescue workers. Firefighters and thousands of other local workers were dispatched to the burning station with no warning. The scientists who flew in from Moscow came with only their razors. (They imagined they would stay just a couple of days.) No special clothing was distributed. No one was immediately evacuated from the nearby settlements, the so-called nuclear villages where the station's workers and their families lived. Thirty-one workers died immediately from exposure. Hundreds more fell violently ill in the first hours. Only after the Swedes detected the fallout did Moscow admit that Chernobyl had become a man-made nuclear Vesuvius. Finally, more than thirty-six hours after the fire broke out, villagers were evacuated. The 48,000 inhabitants of Pripyat, the settlement in the woods closest to the plant, left their homes with as much as they could carry. By May 5, anyone living within twenty miles of the station was evacuated. The marshes and woods around Pripyat were cordoned off from the rest of the world. The region, comprising some seventy-six villages and settlements where more than 100,000 people once lived, has been known ever since simply as "the Zone."

The world has lived for twenty years with the word "Chernobyl," but few have ever heard of tiny Belarus, a forlorn nation of 10 million devastatingly contaminated by the "test" at Reactor No. 4. More than 18,000 children in Ukraine have been treated for radiation fallout. They have suffered all varieties of cancer, kidney and thyroid ailments, digestive and nervous disorders, loss of hair and skin pigmentation. But an estimated 70 percent of the radionuclides released from Chernobyl fell on Belarus. Hitler leveled 619 Belarussian villages. Chernobyl took almost as many: 485. Of these, the "liquidators"--the Soviet term for the workers condemned to perform the cleanup--buried seventy in their entirety. Today, one-fifth of the territory of Belarus, a country of farmers, is contaminated.

Svetlana Alexievich's remarkable book, recording the lives and deaths of her fellow Belarussians, has at last made it into American bookstores. (The book was published in 1999 by the British house Aurum, in a translation by Antonina Bouis.) Hers is a peerless collection of testimony. The text is well translated by Keith Gessen, but it is unfortunate that the book's American editors have altered its title. Voices From Chernobyl, which just won the National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction, appeared in Russian in 1997 as Chernobyl'skaya molitva ("The Chernobyl Prayer"). The original title is not only more poetic but more accurate. Alexievich has not merely given us a work of documentation but of excavation, of revealed meaning. It is hard to imagine how anyone in the West will read these cantos of loss and not feel a sense of communion, of a shared humanity in the face of this horror.

A prominent Belarussian writer and journalist, Alexievich is doubtless well aware of what her title has lost in translation. She sees herself not as prophet (in the old Soviet writer's extracurricular tradition) but as a guide intent on repairing her country's fractured sense of community. What she longs for is sobornost, that sense of belonging and shared ideals sacrificed long ago to Bolshevik unanimity. Throughout her work, she has sought to bring to light the hidden stories of the Soviet era. One of her first books, U voiny--ne zhenskoe litso ("War's Unwomanly Face"), an oral history of Soviet soldiers in World War II, which broke with the heroic narratives of official history, was suppressed for two years before Gorbachev allowed it to be published in 1985. That book and its follow-up, Poslednie svideteli (1985), a collection of 100 "children's stories" of war, sold millions of copies in the former Soviet Union and made Alexievich a glasnost celebrity. Her career hit its peak with Zinky Boys (1992), an unflinching look at the Soviet war in Afghanistan ("zinky" alludes to the zinc coffins in which more than 15,000 Soviet soldiers returned home).

As voiceless narrator and hidden editor, Alexievich is aware--too much so, her critics contend--of her singular pursuit. "For me people are like the black boxes found in the debris of airplane crashes," she told me a few years ago in her small apartment in Minsk, Belarus's capital. "Someone has to open them." A graduate of Soviet training schools, Alexievich worked for years within the perimeters of state-sanctioned journalism. In time, however, she reached beyond accepted traditions. Taking the late writer Ales Adamovich as her model, she has created, with greater fluency in each new book, a genre she calls "documentary-literary prose." "My writing is not just all facts and voices," she told me. "I strive to create a text that works as a sign, pointing out undercurrents that lie beneath the facts." For Voices From Chernobyl, Alexievich traveled to the irradiated regions and looked for survivors wherever she could--interviewing more than 500 in all. But she discovered that she remained "hostage to the standard conceptions" of Chernobyl, unable to find "a new way to see it, so it could be understood." She was too close. This tragedy, unlike the wars she had explored in previous works, was hers too. Alexievich was also a victim of Chernobyl. She suffers from an immune deficiency, discovered after she completed this book. With characteristic humility, however, she decided to let her interlocutors stand on the stage alone.

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."

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