Book: Voices from Chernobyl

Author: Svetlana Alexievich

Original Language/Translation: Russian; read in English

Genre: Non-fiction, history,  journalism

Page Count:235 pgs

Overall Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★


“The Chernobyl explosion gave us the mythology of Chernobyl. The papers and magazines competed to see who can write the most frightening article. People who weren’t there love to be frightened. Everyone read about mushrooms the size of human heads, but no one actually found them. So instead of writing, you should record. Document. Show me a fantasy novel about Chernobyl – there isn’t one! Because reality is more fantastic” –Anatoly Shimanskiy, journalist


Our species is prone to underestimating what they cannot fathom. Even more worrisome is that we naively try to control that which we do not understand. This underlying sentiment possesses the proud motive of man and frequently results in an even more unfathomable consequence; one that we never seem to learn from (even though our professors, pundits, and leaders will point to history lessons and rehash the “we must learn from our mistakes” rhetoric for days to come only to ironically repeating it when the next disaster or atrocity happens, while the blank stares and ears that their words fall on remaining untouched). In the process, what has passed becomes a jumble of statistics, names, and images that we pretend to know, understand and even illusively sympathize with, but in reality, the disconnect between it all makes it nearly impossible to absorb of the scope of suffering that has taken place.

Many creators then assume their place and attempt to bridge this gap; to permeate the past and extract the human experience for the present. Many do a great job at being descriptive and subject-experts. Artists will pour their souls out trying to recreate the light of the past while academia will offer abundant facts and theories about what happened with their own trademark. Yet the works that effectively focus on the most fundamental thing in all of this: the people themselves – the ones treated as collateral damage as an unfortunate by-product – are the ones that come the closest to it. However, there’s even a fewer number within that group that can fully envision and convey the situation, unless they were there, and to me, there’s quite a significant reason for this beyond the obvious.

The biggest, single most important reason is perspective. When independent parties try and stimulate history and its participants in a way that is “accurate” rather than “true”, it is usually from a very specific standpoint and intent. This generally involves a great deal of categorization (you have your perpetrators, victims, etc. etc.), and thus the story already involves a sort of conditioned thinking stimulated by those groupings. There is nothing wrong with that. From the purpose of academia and the various disciplines within it, the intention and the method are perfect for one another, however, returning to the original point of works effectively bridging the gap of the aforesaid, that sort of methodology is heavily underwhelming and even reductive.

Outside the frame of academia then (where as mentioned the goal tends to be entirely different), what grouping or collectivizing does is inherently reduce individuality, and this here is crucial. This is partly the reason why when the news flashes something like “1000 people died due to x or y”, most people will react with a fleeting awe (if even that), and move on with their daily grind versus when they are able to fully fathom the fact that a human being with a life, like their own suffered under whatever circumstances. We require personalization. It is absolutely imperative; otherwise, the slow, sinister flow of desensitization continues. What essentially the categorical approach does is inhibit the core humanity of these people and places them within a bucket that we can comprehend (exactly for what it is – a descriptor), but one that they unfairly belong in. It becomes challenging then to see these people as anything outside of their pre-defined buckets. It is unfair to stop at the victim as the “end” and frame everything else around that when it should be the opposite. This is why autobiographies tend to be so effective, precisely because there is a visceral multi-dimensional complexity to the account that hits with a real fervor for conveying context and evoking a greater understanding, since the person that is recounting isn’t doing it with a label, but from the deepest corners of their core and experience. This is why a good journalist or artist (regardless of approach and intent) will understand this and detach them self from the maudlin dialect of a “victim’s” story, and opt to tell a human’s story: one with a heart, life, wants, desires, fears – one like you and me.

And this is why Svetlana Alexievich’s – the Nobel Prize recipient for 2015 in Literature – journalistic account titled Voices from Chernobyl might be one of the most powerful, compelling pieces I’ve ever had the pleasure and displeasure of reading. I can’t recall the last time a work single-handedly made me feel so powerless, disturbed, and angry but at the same time, full of awe and hope.


I’m going to talk about this book purely from my experience and the profound impact it had on me (along with providing some contextualization) because that’s really the only way I feel that one can approach a book like this.  This is a book that bears the soul of every-o-n-e within it, and what a heavy burden it carries…of holding the fragments who seemed to have come to a standstill, but whose voices will continue to echo forever.

Voices from Chernobyl is a compilation of oratory “interviews” conducted by Alexievich of those who were present and involved with the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster that occurred in Pripyat, Ukraine in 1986.  Much of the events and “truths” surrounding this event are shrouded in mystery due to the Soviet Government at the time who attempted to conceal the gravity of the disaster. Furthermore, this was a catastrophe that no one could fathom, and its consequences were even more unreal until of course, the reality began to boil up from the crevices of the radiated soil and colorless skies that even nature abandoned. Sadly, the refusal to admit the extent of the damage and error still continues onwards today within the various governments of nations involved, especially Belarus where Alexievich hails from (which also happens to be one of the most damaged places from the radiation). Essentially, the book serves as an inside, microscopic look at one of the most hushed, misunderstood human-triggered disasters of our modern history in a way that not only synthesizes a higher level of understanding about the incident, but forces the reader into a state of that’s much needed for human beings to enter – which is one of submission.

Now the reason Voices from Chernobyl is so compelling is primarily because of how well personal observatory/narration is utilized. It is persuasive by nature refusing to let the reader go, forbidding any indifference or insensitivity to manifest. The interviews tend to make quite an impact for the autobiographical reasons that were mentioned, but this collection goes beyond the interview-interviewee format to actually reconstruct a tangible history comprised of multiple truths intersecting with multiple lives trying to still comprehend the tragedy that befell them. The book is separated into three sections, and each anecdote/story is displayed as a monologue, not a series of questions and answers. It is a frontline view into the lives of those who were front-liners during this time. Devastated mothers, widows, children, dying people, historians, liquidators, engineers, scientists, doctors, nurses, lovers, fighters, government officials, philosophers, men, women all likened by their tragedies, come forth to share their experiences, their truths, and their world – of Chernobyl.

“But haven’t you noticed that we don’t even talk about it among ourselves? In a few decades, in a hundred years, these will be mythic years. I’m afraid of the rain. That’s what Chernobyl is. I’m afraid of snow, of the forest. This isn’t an abstraction, a mind game, but an actual human feeling. Chernobyl is in my home. It’s in the most precious thing: my son, who was born in the spring of 1986. Now he’s sick. Animals, even cockroaches, they know how much and when they should give birth. But people don’t know how to do that. God didn’t give us the power of foresight. A while ago in the papers it said that in Belarus alone, in 1993 there were 200,000 abortions. Because of Chernobyl. We all live with that fear now. Nature has sort of rolled up, waiting.”- Aleksandr Revalskiy, historian

What really captivated me about this work was how genuinely honest and fundamental it was – reminding me the power of real stories. Alexievich wasn’t trying to play the blame game, or throw a pity party, or take some preachy stance to manipulate the reader into thinking one thing or the other even though the stories presented may seem to do otherwise. All she did was present the unspoken voices living in the memory of a ghost town. I could feel the weight of every word, the authenticity of every feeling, and the devastation of every broken heart and life. The sheer strength of the stories – on an individual level – was astounding. There was a rawness to it that just flowed from the pages of the book into the depths of my heart. This is truly one of the few books I can say made me feel without any sort of gimmick or a contrived appeal to pathos. That is the power of honest story-telling with honest motivation.

“Before, we didn’t notice this world around us. It was there, like the sky, like the air, as if someone had given it to us forever, and it didn’t depend on us. It’ll always be there. I used to lie in the forest and stare up the sky, I’d feel so good I’d forgt my own name. And now? The forest is still pretty, there’re are plenty of blueberries, but no one picks them anymore. In autumn, it’s very seldom you hear a human voice in the forest. The fear is in our feelings, on a subconscious level. We still have our television and our books, our imagination. Children can grow up in their houses, without the forest and the river. They can only look at them. These are completely different children. And I go to them and recite Pushkin, whose appeal I thought was eternal. And then I have this terrible thought: what if our entire culture is just an old trunk with a bunch of stale manuscripts? Everything I love…”

Many of these stories were bound by a biting cynicism and despair that spilled meaning about home, grief, anger, and most importantly, embracing the unfathomable as just that – and respecting it. The latter was especially prominent and played the biggest role in my appreciation of this book because it spoke of a greater truth that often gets subsided or suffocated by our overestimation of ourselves and underestimation of powers greater than ourselves. Humanity often receives a reminder by whatever cosmic force that may be induced by our own ignorance about our own powerlessness and the results are what we see here within the pages of this work. Yet, at the same time, that powerlessness and the cynicism invoked by it is sublimely juxtaposed by the human spirit to endeavor; to grow infinitely, and best of all, for the better.

“Question: Is the world as it’s depicted in words the real word? Words stand between the person and his soul.

And I’ll say this: birds, and trees, and ants, they’re closer to me now than they were. I think about them, too. Man is frightening. And strange. But I don’t want to kill anyone here. I fish here, I have a rod. Yes. But I don’t shoot animals. And I don’t set traps. You don’t feel like killing anyone here. Prince Myshkin said “Is it possible to see a tree and not be happy?” What’s the point of looking at evil? Evil is important, of course. Sin isn’t a matter of physics. You have to acknowledge the non-existent.

…And man, also. I am afraid of man. And also  I want to meet him” – Nikolai

The kind of understanding many of these voices echoed was both with a sense of absoluteness and one that we all seek on some level. This is why this book is so important. It innately opens the door to understanding in the most personalized manner possible; inviting all eyes and hearts to apprehend what it knows.

“These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future.”  – Svetlana Alexievich

Quite simply, the reason this book should be read is that it fosters an inclination to change. This kind of change might not be consciously profound, but I’m a firm believer that the highest art or creations have an inherent ability to reconstitute the matter that constitutes us thereby shifting who we are into who we become. Our understanding advances with great creations, and it is fundamental to our existence and evolution to recognize this and learn from it. And the voices in this book do just that. Alexievich does just that. And the least we can do is listen to those voices that are trying so hard to talk to us.