Svetlana Alexievich – Chernobyl Prayer

I remember when the news broke some days after the event. It was April 1986 and my secretary having watched it on  TV that morning, told me the story.  It was an explosion at a nuclear power plant somewhere in Russia. At that time the USSR to us was Russia. It was only later we understood it was in Ukraine at Chernobyl by the town of Pripyat near the Belarusian border. It seemed a horrific event and a horrible disaster but like so many things that happen in far away places it was another seven-day wonder and ever so quickly slipped from the public consciousness. We heard, of course about the Chernobyl children and the cancer deaths and we knew that lamb on Scottish hills was not fit for eating. But that was it, the news moved on to other things.

Some years later at a wedding breakfast in Zilina north west Slovakia I met a couple who were both nuclear scientist at an atomic plant near Nitra. We had a fascinating conversation over the banquet table. Having gained a level of trust I felt bold enough to posit that Nuclear power, despite all its advantages was just too dangerous, to risky to keep using in our world. “Look at what happened at Chernobyl” I said. Their response surprised me. “Oh they were idiots, They were crazy. It was the type of reactor no sane person or government would ever use. With the right safety measures our systems are perfectly safe”. Their assessment was borne out by Vasily Borisovich Nesterenko a director of Institute of Atomic Energy in Belarus, as he describes the situation:  “We are still a Stalinist country…Stalin’s kind of person is still alive.  I remember, in Kiev, at the railway station. Trains one after the other, taking away thousands of frightened children. Men and women crying. For the first time I thought, ‘Who needs this kind of physics, this kind of science, at such a high price?’ Now it’s all out in the open. They’ve written about the amazing shock-working tempos at which the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was built. It was built the soviet way. The Japanese take twelve years to develop a facility like that, but we did it in just two or three. The quality and reliability of that highly complex facility was what you would expect in an animal breeding complex, a chicken farm! If there was a shortage of something, they just ignored the plans and substituted whatever was to hand at the time. Thus the roof of the turbine hall was covered with bitumen. That’s what the firemen extinguished. And who was in charge of this atomic power station? There wasn’t a single nuclear physicist in the management team. They had power engineers, turbine specialists, political workers but not a single expert. Not a single physicist. Man has invented a technology for which he is not ready. He is not up to it. Can you put a pistol in the hands of a  child. We are reckless children.”

More recently an Estonian friend encouraged me to watch Craig Mazon’ mini tv series “Chernobyl”. She had a special interest. When she was a young girl, her father got the call late one night in 1986 to get ready to be picked up at 6 in the morning. He had no idea where he was being taken, but he knew it was serious. Three months later, when he returned, she excitedly ran out to meet him only to be met by his stern voice telling her to stay away. She was only allowed to embrace him after he had stripped, burned all his clothes and showered and scrubbed and showered. He had been at the site as a driver and was able to say that, with the exception of some minor inaccuracies and some liberties taken for dramatic purposes, which the writer freely admits, the video represented an accurate and realistic account of the events both in their detail and atmosphere.

I found “Chernobyl”  deeply moving to watch and it is strange how disasters and tragedies fascinate us. It is not simply a morbid fascination it is much more than that. There is something about this, possibly the biggest technological disaster in history, that draws us in to consider deep questions of life and death, of who we are, how we live and have our being in this world. What is science, what is real and what is sham. What is love? What is life and what on earth can we do about this genie which we have let out of the bottle.

One of the most revealing and poignant accounts of the disaster is Svetlana Alexievich’s “Chernobyl Prayer” translated by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait. The horror and the tragedy of this terrible event is somehow shot through with astonishing insights. In some places it reads like the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. Apart from some historical background and a section where the author interviews herself, the book is a collection of monologues by the people who were there, who were involved in the clean up and whose lives have been changed for ever by it. They are conservationists, inspectors, chemical engineers, residents, firemen, historians, army recruits, doctors of agriculture, parliamentarians, medical assistants, teachers, hunters, lecturers, villagers, mothers. You see the stubbornness, the defiance and the core of humanity brought to the very edge.

The monologues which begin and end the collection are the most powerful and telling. The first, Lyudmila Ignatenko, the wife of a fireman on whom one the of the characters in the mini-series is based, tells her harrowing story. Newly married, pregnant and in desperately in love, she is torn apart by her desire to be close to her husband, as his body slowly disintegrates and dissolves behind the plastic screens, while knowing that that the radiation will almost certainly kill the child she is carrying, which it does.

“Four hours later they told me my little girl had died. And for a second time, they wouldn’t let me have her! What do you mean, you won’t give me her! It’s me who won’t give her to you! You want to take her for science, but I loathe your science! Loath it! First your science took him (her husband) away from me, now its back for more”

Svetlana describes how she felt an urge to look behind the facts to delve into the meaning of what was happening. The truth is that facts alone were not enough. She wanted to hear from shocked people. This is what the collection is about.

“The churches filled up again with people – with believers and former atheists. They were searching for answers that could not be found in physics or mathematics. The three-dimensional world came apart and I have not since met anyone brave enough to swear again on the bible of materialism. We were dazzled by infinity.”

“More than once – and this is something to think about- I have heard people say that the behaviour of the firemen extinguishing the fire at the power station on the first night, and the behaviour of the clean-up workers later, resembled suicide. Collective suicide. The clean up workers often did the job without protective clothing, unquestioningly heading into places where even the robots were malfunctioning. The truth about the high doses they were receiving was concealed from them, yet they were compliant, and later even delighted with the government certficates and medals awarded to them just before they died. Many did not survive that long….For some reason, as the years go by, it is being forgotten that saved their country. They saved Europe. Just imagine for a moment the scene if the other three reactors exploded…”

“They were heroes. Heroes of the new history. Sometimes compared to heroes at the battle of Stalingrad or Waterloo, but they were saving something greater than their homeland. They were saving life itself. Life’s continuity. With Chernobly, man imperilled everything, the whole divine creation where thousands of other creatures animals and plants live alongside man.”

Alexander Revalsky, a historian:

We were brought up in a particular kind of Soviet paganism. Man was almighty, the crown of creation. He had the right to do whatever he pleased with the world – ‘we cannot wait for the favours of nature; our mission is to take them from her’.. There’s that renown Bolshevik slogan: ‘With an iron fist we shall herd the human race into happiness’ The psychology of a rapist. The materialism of a caveman, Defying history defying nature. And it’s still going on.”

A father on justice:

The only righteous thing on the face of the earth is death. No one has ever bribed their way out of that. The earth takes us all: the good, the evil and the sinners. And that’s all the justice you’ll find in this world”

A returnee on forgiveness:

Dying might not be difficult but it is scary. There is no church and the priest doesn’t come to these parts. There is nowhere to take my sins”

Katya  on the sin of loving:

“I pray for love. But I am afraid of it, afraid of loving. I have a fiancé, we’ve handed in our forms at the registry office. Ever heard anything about the Hiroshima Hibushka? The people who survived Hiroshima? They can only count on marrying each other. It doesn’t get written or discussed here, but we exist. The Chernobyl Hibushka. He took me home, introduced me to his mother. She is a good mum. She works at a factory as a financial manager. A community activist. Goes on all the anti-communist demos, reads Solzhenitsyn. And this good mother, when she found out I was from a Chernobyl family, one of the evacuees, she asked in surprise ‘But surely you can’t have children, my dear’  The words rang in my ears ‘My dear, for some people procreation would be a sin’. The sin of loving.”  

Gennady Grushevoy chairman of the Chernobyl children foundation on the dilemma:

For us, everything revolves around feeling. That is what gives us our grandness, elevates our lives, and is, at the same time, so disastrous. The rational choice for us is never enough…The moment  you walk into someone’s yard in the village, you are their guest. I went in and sat at the table, ate radioactive sandwiches because that was what they were all eating. I downed a drink with them and it gave me a sense of pride to know I had it in me. I told myself ‘Okay, so maybe I can’t change a thing in this man’s life, but what I can do is eat a radio active sandwich alongside him, so I won’t be ashamed. Share his fate.’ That is the attitude we take to our lives. And yet I have a wife and two children. I was responsible for them. I had a dosimeter in my pocket… I realise now this is just our world its who we are. Ten years ago, I felt proud of being the way I was, while today I’m ashamed of it. All the same. I would still sit with him and eat that wretched sandwich again. I’ve thought about it, thought about what kind of people we are. I couldn’t get that damned sandwich out of my mind. You had to eat it as an act of the heart, not of the mind.

Slava Konstantinova agriculturalist on fear:

Our Russian people have always lived in fear of war and revolution. That blood drenched vampire, that Devil incarnate Joseph Stalin …and now its Chernobyl. And we wonder why people here are the way they are. Why aren’t they free? Why are they so afraid of freedom? It is just that they are more used to living under a tsar: a father of his people. It makes not the least difference whether he is called the ‘general secretary or the president”

If you lose faith in reason, all sorts of fears take it’s place, like the mind of a savage, it produces monsters”

Sergey Vasilevich Sobolev  on the museum of Chernobyl

“This morning , before I had time to take my coat off, the door opened and a woman was there, sobbing. Well not so much sobbing as yelling: Take his medal and all his certificates of merit! Take all his benefits – just give me back my husband! She carried on shouting for ages, then left me his medal and certificates. So now they will be displayed in a case in the museum. People will look at them… but no one but me heard what she shouted. Only I, when I’m arranging these exhibits, will remember.”

Nadezhda Petrovna Vygovskaya on eternal life:

I sing in a church choir. I read the gospel. I go to church, because it is the only place you hear talk of eternal life. That comforts people. Nowhere else will you hear words like these, and so I want to. When we were being evacuated, if we came to a church, everybody entered. It was almost impossible to get in. Atheist and communists, they all went.