Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

Once you brace yourself and accustom yourself to the destruction wrought on the human body by nuclear reactions (by reading Hiroshima, for one), you are ready to read Svetlana Alexievich’s collection of stories from survivors of Chernobyl. The disaster struck on April 26, 1986, destroying much of Belarus by killing off 485 villages and leaving a devastating legacy of poisoned land that continues to play tricks with deformities in newborns and adults.
She begins with the story of a newlywed couple who were separated by the death of the husband, he a first responder fireman who attempted to put out the flames of the exploded reactor. The description of the painful onset of death over the next few weeks, the deterioration of his body, is almost too much to read. The next sections are shorter “monologues,” voices from various soldiers, villagers, children, grandmothers. One account mentions that in the first days after the accident, all books about radiation, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, X-rays disappeared. An order from above, so people wouldn’t panic. Other accounts talk about the impact on animals, the crazy dogs and cats running wild through the Zone. Hunters invited into the Zone to kill all the animals. How you could tell a city was inhabitable by humans if the pigeons were still alive. Pigeons falling atop a cab driver’s window, all suddenly blinded. The land, covered in white. How all bugs and worms died. People forbidden to eat the potatoes that had sustained them for so many years. An overarching theme is the silence, how no one wrote or talked about the disaster, how everyone maintained quiet for so many years before talking to Alexievich ten years after the meltdown.