Exploring a haunting oral history of the Chernobyl disaster
[Update: In 2015, Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature]
I’m going through my Instapaper links, catching up on reading about many things, including Chernobyl. These two quotes below so perfectly describe the tensions underlying Soviet society: the complete and utter indignity of daily existence, with its arbitrary cruelties and humiliations. But then there’s this strangely unquestioning loyalty, or perhaps just a sense of duty that somehow prevented an even greater disaster, even while thousands of small, tiny disasters unfolded for individual lives. I don’t know what we can call that. But whatever it was, the willingness of people to get in there and get it done, knowing they were going to die, leaves a tragic, haunting film over everything.
At the cemetery we were surrounded by soldiers… No one was allowed in. It was just us. They covered him with earth in a minute. “Faster! Faster!” the officer was yelling. They didn’t even let me hug the coffin…Everything on the sly. Right away they bought us plane tickets back home. For the next day. The whole time there was someone with us. He wouldn’t even let us out of the dorm to buy some food for the trip… When we were leaving, the woman on duty counted all the towels and all the sheets…We paid for the dormitory ourselves. For fourteen nights. It was a hospital for radiation poisoning. – Lyudmilla Ignatenko, wife of deceased fireman Vasily Ignatenko, recounting her husband’s death
They were young guys. They’re dying now too, but they understand that if it wasn’t for them… These are people who came from a certain culture, the culture of the great achievement. They were a sacrifice. There was a moment when there existed the danger of a nuclear explosion…Can you imagine it? A European catastrophe. So here was the task: who would dive in there and open the bolt on the safety valve? They promised them a car, an apartment, a dacha, aid for their families until the end of time. They searched for volunteers. And they found them! The boys dove, many times, and they opened that bolt, and the unit was given 7000 rubles. They forgot about the cars and apartments they promised — but that’s not why they dove! Not for the material, least of all for the material promises. [Becomes upset.] Those people don’t exist anymore, just the documents in our museum, with their names. But what if they hadn’t done it? In terms of our readiness for self-sacrifice, we have no equals. – Sergei Sobolev, deputy head of the Executive Committee of the Shield of Chernobyl Association
To a certain extent they all committed suicide. They gave their lives to save Europe. I asked them later: Would you do it again? Almost all of them said: Yes, we had to do it. There were 800,000 liquidators. In France, someone said he doubted whether you could find so many people prepared to give their lives in the West. The people didn’t know what was lying in wait for them, this terrible death, that strong men would fall apart in one or two years. They even threw away their face masks: too hot. And yet they saved the world…You see, they were Soviet people. I’m not sure if you would find so many volunteers in Belarus today. Today the people know that their life is unique, that it belongs to them alone. – Svetlana Alexievich, Belarus writer and author of ‘Voices from Chernobyl’ in an interview with signandsight.com
The first two quotes are from interviews conducted by Belarus writer Svetlana Alexievich, in her book Voices of Chernobyl (read an excerpt here), an oral history of Chernobyl. The last is from Alexievich herself, in an interview with German website, signandsight.com. You should read the interview. Alexievich has some fascinating comments on how a nuclear disaster changes time and space, because the fallout transcends both.
Also noteworthy is the graffiti in Chernobyl and Pripyat. As if, somehow, this would be the one place we don’t leave our mark. But of course, we’re human and we always do. Possibly one of the only places in the world where graffiti is a positive sign of life. Here’s a round-up of graffiti in Pripyat, the now-abandoned (mostly) town beside the reactor. And another photo round-up, on the bureaucracy involved in getting in and out of the 30-km exclusion zone around Chernobyl. I’m also fascinated by all the classroom shots—the schoolbooks, the chalkboards, the hallway signs. It’s a little piece of Soviet life we’d never otherwise get to see, frozen in time like this.