When I was in the Navy, I learned that if I were to get a sunburn so severe that it interfered with my ability to do my job, I could be prosecuted under the terms of the Uniform Code of Military Justice with "destruction of government property."
That was something of an eye opener. As a lowly seaman apprentice, I suffered no illusions about my place in the chain of command that linked me with the President of the United States. But the realization that, in the eyes of the government to which my allegiance was sworn and my ass contracted, I was just a piece of property made me grateful to be serving during a time of peace.
Then war broke out in the Persian Gulf and my shipmates and I started shitting bricks. I imagine this is akin to what hundreds of thousands of people in the vicinity of Chernobyl felt when the nuclear reactor exploded on April 26, 1986, releasing unknown quantities of radioactive particles all over Russia, Europe and beyond. It was the biggest disaster of its kind until a tsunami hit Japan in 2011 causing a nuclear event at Fukushima. The Soviet propaganda machine clamped down and didn't let up until the USSR dissolved 1991.
Svetlana Alexievich took that opportunity to go to Chernobyl and spent three years interviewing the survivors: those who left, those who stayed behind and those who answered the call to clean up the disaster and paid a terrible price.
The result was Voices from Chernobyl, a timeless collection of stories about the aftermath of the explosion. Alexievich took herself out of the interviews so that these haunting stories read like doomed monologues, testimonies from a broken world.
"Yesterday my editor cut the story about the mother of one of the firemen who went to the station the night of the nuclear fire. He died of acute radiation poisoning. After burying their son in Moscow, the parents returned to their village, which was soon evacuated. In the fall they secretly made their way through the forest back to their garden and collected a bag of tomatoes and cucumbers. The mother is satisfied: 'we filled twenty cans.' Faith in the land, in their ancient peasant experience—even the death of their son can't overturn the order of things."
Reading this book is like plunging into a world that gets more and more unfamiliar. First there is the Soviet mindset that informed how the residents responded from ignorant acceptance to bitter cynicism. In the translator's preface Keith Gessen writes, "Alexievich collected these interviews in the early to mid-1990s—at a time when anti-Communism still had some currency as a political idea in the post-Soviet space." That was certainly true in "the Zone": the region encompassing all of the villages and forests that had to be evacuated where confusion and misinformation ruled.
One of the journalists that Alexievich interviewed stated, "The most popular fable in the Zone is that Stolichnaya Vodka is the best protection against strontium and cesium."
Most of the peasant farmers in the Zone had no idea of the dangers of strontium and cesium, nor did they have any concept of radiation. For those of us in the West who grew up during the Cold War, the perils of radioactivity could be found in comic books, cartoons and movies. Though one can't see or smell radiation, it existed fully formed in my imagination as a terrible threat. Not so the farmers who didn't understand why they had to leave their land in the middle of planting season. The notion that poisoned particles could pollute the air, the earth and even the rain was completely alien to them.
The first ones to fully comprehend Chernobyl's lethal legacy were young mothers. As one midwife put it, "It's been a long time since I've seen a happy pregnant woman."
Finally, there's the dark pull of the Zone, the radioactive frontier that compels evacuees to return and new arrivals to stay in spite of the danger. The descriptions of quiet forests carpeted with dead birds and villages inhabited by dogs sound like fables from an apocalyptic world.
It's an astonishing book that, depending on your word view, can be taken as a sneak peek at the impending cataclysm or a template for surviving it. Either way, it's easy to see why earlier this year Alexievich was awarded literature's highest honor: the Nobel prize.