Penguin Modern Classics
On 26 April 1986, 01:23 hours and 58 seconds, a series of blasts brought down Reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, near the Belarusian border. The accident at Chernobyl was the gravest technological catastrophe of the twentieth century.
In Chernobyl Prayer, journalist Svetlana Alexievich, brings together voices from Chernobyl in a very beautiful and moving collection of oral history testimonies. Reviewers have made the comparison to musical composition in the way she uses ‘monologues’: “She […] developed her own non-fiction genre which brings together a chorus of voices to describe a specific historical moment”. It is certainly a well-orchestrated piece, with a skillful blend of factual information and personal recollection.
The saddest thing about the particular ‘historical moment’ described in Chernobyl Prayer, is that it hasn’t yet ended: the effects will last for centuries.
I don’t want to say too much about it, as it is a book which needs to be read in order to absorb the full emotional impact and horrific consequences of the disaster. It is a collection I would urge everyone to read, because Chernobyl is now largely forgotten and we continue to show the same complacency towards atomic weaponry and nuclear energy as the trusting citizens of the former Soviet Union did.
The story of Chernobyl is one of lies, cover-ups, negligence, injustice and secrecy. It is also one of death: horrific death unlike any other. It is a story of heroism and duty, with many people showing incredible bravery in tackling the initial fires and fall out caused by the disaster.
I found its subtext, the death of the USSR, also fascinating:
What is he dying for? In the newspapers, they’re writing it’s not just Chernobyl but Communism that has blown up. The Soviet way of life is finished.
The faith that these loyal people had in ‘The Party’, in their government and in the technology itself, is frightening, because it was so abused by those in power:
At that period, my idea of a nuclear power station was quite idyllic. At school and in college, we were taught that these were fairy-tale ‘factories making energy out of nothing’, in which people in white coats sat and pushed buttons. Chernobyl exploded in minds which were completely unprepared…
This book is full of betrayal. In the same way that ‘Hibakusha’, the survivors of nuclear warfare in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were shunned and discriminated against, people refused to go near those affected by Chernobyl: unwilling to bury their own dead next to the graves of those who died from radiation. This fear and prejudice even extended to some medical professionals, who withheld proper care to clean up workers and soldiers dying of radiation poisoning.
I wish that I could give a copy to every MP who voted to keep Trident yesterday, but the sad thing is, I don’t think this collection of heartbreaking stories would have any effect on them. Like the people of the Soviet Union, before Chernobyl’s meltdown, their faith in nuclear power is absolute.