I want to understand."
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disasternote is a collection of first person accounts of the ongoing effects of the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, compiled by Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich. It was first published in Russian in 1997, eleven years after the accident.
The accounts were collected over three years from hundreds of survivors of the disaster—including the relatives of first responders, evacuees from Pripyat and the Exclusion Zone, liquidators conscripted to help with the cleanup, and re-settlers who returned to live on the contaminated land. They are presented as "monologues," minimally edited, with occasional notes from the author in the style of stage directions. Some chapters consist of quotes from multiple subjects, interspersed, but all are credited by name except where they request otherwise.
The book won the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award (for the English translation) and was a major factor in Alexievich's reception of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015.
Works inspired by accounts in Voices from Chernobyl:
- Chernobyl, a 2019 miniseries chronicling the aftermath of the disaster, relies heavily on the accounts in Alexievich's book. The first story, told by the fireman's wife Lyudmilla Ignatenko, is reproduced in the show as a major subplot.
- The Door, a 2008 short film of the account, "Monologue About a Whole Life Written Down on Doors."
Although not a work of fiction, this book provides examples of:
- After the End: The re-settlers describe the Exclusion Zone as a post-apocalyptic environment. Many express a feeling of having survived something that should have been unsurvivable.
- Bambification: One of the liquidators tasked with exterminating contaminated animals says that they wouldn't kill deer because they had "expressive eyes."
- Canary in a Coal Mine: One re-settler learned to identify habitable areas by the presence of birds, indicating the radiation levels were not deadly.
- Conditioned to Accept Horror: Many of the survivors describe death as a mundane, normal part of life in the wake of the diasaster.
- Daylight Horror: Some of the accounts describe the Exclusion Zone as unsettlingly beautiful.The horror was more horrible because it was so pretty.
- Death of a Child: Some of the most heartwrenching accounts describe the deaths of the subjects' children from consequences of radiation exposure.
- Lyudmilla Ignatenko's daughter dies four hours after being born, having absorbed a lethal dose of radiation in the womb.
- Nikolai Kalugin describes his six-year-old daughter's death of acute radiation syndrome.
- One liquidator relates that he kept his contaminated hat after returning home and gave it to his young son, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor two years later. It is not stated whether he survived.
- Designated Hero: Invoked. Multiple accounts describe the process of creating "heroes" in the Soviet Union as arbitrary and exploitative—the hero is whoever happens to be in the right place to take care of a problem that could kill them. The cameraman notes that "Everywhere you went, people would say, 'Ah, movie people. Hold on, we'll find you some heroes.' And they'd produce an old man and his grandson who spent two days chasing cows off from right near Chernobyl."
- End of an Age: One of the interviews mourns the collapse of the Soviet Union (which Chernobyl precipitated) as this.The place we called our motherland doesn't exist, and neither does that time, which was also our motherland.
- Forbidden Zone: Many of the interviewees continue to live in the 2,600 square kilometre Exclusion Zone, despite attempts by soldiers to keep them out.
- Gallows Humor: Over and over, interviewees tell macabre jokes about Chernobyl, usually centering on radiation and death. One recalls an apple-seller quipping that even if her apples were poisonous, people would buy them for their bosses or mothers-in-law.
- Hiroshima as a Unit of Measure: A former Pripyat resident remembers that people began comparing the disaster to Hiroshima as soon as they learned about it.
- Hope Sprouts Eternal: Discussed in variation. The cameraman has this reaction to spotting a living stork in the Exclusion Zone:A stork landed in a field across from me one day. A symbol! No matter what catastrophes befall us, we will triumph! Life goes on!
- Inescapable Horror: The radiation became embedded in everything in the Exclusion Zone.[T]he atom is everywhere. In the bread, in the salt. We breathe radiation, we eat it.
- Invisible Monsters: The radiation itself. Many are skeptical of the danger it poses, since they cannot see it. This is discussed in "Monologue About What Radiation Looks Like."
- Mother Russia Makes You Strong: This ethos is strongly present in the "Soldiers' Chorus"—many go into detail on the culture of service to one's country, as well as the politics of masculinity, that influenced liquidators to join the monumental cleanup effort.
- Nightmare Fetishist: One woman describes an artist she dated and broke up with after realizing from the invasive questions he asked that he was only interested in her because of her association with Chernobyl.
- Not Now, We're Too Busy Crying over You: While the cameraman is on his way back from a trip through another region of the Zone when he overhears people talking about his own supposed death at the reactor.It's funny now, but I walked to the studio worrying that I was going to open the door and see a memorial to me with my photo on it.
- Nuclear Nasty: Discussed. One account describes a cameraman who came to the Zone hoping to see "a three-headed boar," and another recalls rumors of birds with multiple heads.
- Poisonous Person: Lyudmilla was told by nurses not to touch or even get close to her husband after he had been irradiated because he could damage her.
- Polluted Wasteland: The Exclusion Zone (and many areas outside of it) are contaminated with lethal levels of radioactive fallout from the reactor, which is concentrated in plants and animals.
- The Power of Language: Many survivors claim they have difficulty putting their experiences into words at all, as though there were no language to capture what they had seen.
- One particularly philosophical subject expresses this explicitly:Question: Is the world as it's depicted in words the real world? Words stand between the person and his soul.
- In the epilogue, Alexievich shares her belief that the Zone itself is "more powerful than anything literature has to say."
- One particularly philosophical subject expresses this explicitly:
- "Shaggy Dog" Story: One of the liquidators tells a joke which ends unexpectedly, with no apparent punchline.Want to hear a joke? This prisoner escapes from jail, and runs to the thirty-kilometer Zone at Chernobyl. They catch him, bring him to the dosimeters. He's "glowing" so much, they can't possibly put him back in prison, can't take him to the hospital, can't put him around people. [Beat] Why aren't you laughing?
- Speech-Centric Work: The book is composed of verbatim interviews with its subjects, presented as "monologues."
- Suffering Builds Character: The cameraman explains the Soviet ethos that valorized suffering:They, our parents, lived through a great catastrophe, and we needed to live through it, too. Otherwise we'd never become real people.
- Title Drop: Averted in the American version. The original title, Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future, appears in two parts near the end of the book: the last account contains the line, "I'll read my Chernobyl prayer in a whisper," and the last line in Alexievich's epilogue is "I felt like I was recording the future."
- Was Once a Man: Lyudmilla recalls the nurses saying this about Vasily after his exposure to extreme radiation, even calling him "a nuclear reactor."This is not your husband anymore, not a beloved person, but a radioactive object with a strong density of poisoning.
- What a Senseless Waste of Human Life: Some of the liquidators express disgust and fury at how the disaster was handled, having been sent effectively to their deaths during the cleanup effort.They flung us there, like sand onto the reactor.
- You Cannot Grasp the True Form: A frequent refrain throughout the accounts is the sense that these people had witnessed something beyond human comprehension and horrible beyond words.No one can speak to me in a way I can answer. In my own language. No one can understand where I've come back from. And I can't tell anyone.