“What do savages understand about lightning?”
Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, a win which was greeted with a mass ‘eh’ from the West, as Alexievich was not a well-known writer in the Western literary world. The great thing about prizes like the Nobel is how it introduces the world to a great array of voices from different cultures, and I, for one, am glad that Alexievich has been drawn to my attention. Chernobyl Prayer is, as the title suggests, the story of Chernobyl. Specifically it focuses on Belarus, a country which has been horribly affected by the Chernobyl fallout, as Alexievich describes here:
“For the small country of Belarus (population ten million), it was a national disaster, despite the country not having one power station of its own. Belarus is still an agrarian land, with a predominantly rural population. During the Second World War, the Germans wiped out 619 villages on its territory along with their inhabitants. In the aftermath of Chernobyl, the country lost 485 villages and towns: seventy remain buried forever beneath the earth. During the war, one in four Belarusians was killed; today, one in five lives in the contaminated zone. That adds up to 2.1 million people, of whom 700,000 are children. Radiation is the leading cause of the country’s demographic decline. In the worst hit provinces of Gomel and Mogilyov, the mortality rate outstrips the birth rate by 20 per cent.”
With a small introduction into the background and events of the Chernobyl disaster told in newspaper clippings, there is a short section by Alexievich on why she was writing the book, why she felt compelled to tell the story, which is written in the form of an interview with herself. Then the rest of the book is a series of monologues covering personal experiences of the event itself and the things which have happened since. The monologues have titles like ‘Monologue on how man is crafty only in evil, but simple and open in his words of love’, ‘Monologue without a title; a scream’, ‘Monologue on how easy it is to return to dust’ and each title is taken from the body of the personal testimony. The power in Alexievich’s work, here, is in allowing the people of Chernobyl, the people affected by Chernobyl, to speak for themselves. Like here, as a woman describes seeing the fire at the Chernobyl reactor:
“To this day I can see the bright, raspberry red glow. The reactor seemed lit up from inside. It was an incredible colour. Not an ordinary fire, but a kind of shining. Very pretty. If you forget all the rest, it was very pretty. I’d never seen anything like it in the movies, there was just nothing comparable. In the evening, everyone came out on to their balconies; if they didn’t have one, they went to their friends and neighbours. We were on the eighth floor and had a great view. About three kilometres as the crow flies. People brought out their children and lifted them up. ‘Look! Don’t forget this!’ And these were people who worked at the reactor: engineers, workmen. There were even physics teachers, standing in that black dust, chatting away. Breathing it in. Admiring the sight. Some people drive dozens of kilometres or cycled to see it. We had no idea death could looks so pretty.”
There are few key threads which emerge from the various monologues. One, of course, is the event itself and the way in which the country, the people, responded to the radioactive fallout. This includes the many horrible ways people died, in particular the book begins with a monologue from a woman who was married to one of the fireman who were sent in to extinguish the fire – without proper protective equipment, without knowing what they were confronting. If you are thinking of reading the book (and it is worth it) I warn you it is a harrowing, horrifying account. Yet the speaker and Alexievich do not glamourize or exaggerate the events. Just telling it how it happened is horrible enough. Interspersed throughout the monologues are the voices of children, which are equally difficult accounts to read, people who lived in the area who couldn’t understand what was happening, people who returned to ‘the Zone’ and people who found it a sanctuary. The draw of the Zone is powerful, as one man describes here:
“The Zone pulls you in. Like a magnet. I’m telling you. Saints preserve us! Once you’ve been there…Your heart is drawn to it.”
Threading through the monologues are insights into the Slavic mentality, the ways in which people were drawn to Chernobyl, forced there, the way they got people to work on the clean-up operations even though they were being exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. Many of them became sick later, yet the mentality of heroism, of fatalism, of the absence of any other choice but to drink and grumble, pervades the stories. Of course at the time it was still the Soviet Union and a ‘soviet’ mentality prevailed, as one man describes here:
“To continue the conversation about our mentality, the Soviet mentality. The Soviet Union had fallen, collapsed, but people were still expecting to be coddled by a great powerful country, which no longer existed. My characterisation, if you want it: a hybrid between a prison and a kindergarten, that’s what Socialism is, Soviet Socialism. A citizen surrendered his soul to the state, his conscience, his heart, and in return received his rations for the day.”
Many of the people that lived in and around Chernobyl were peasantry, and a ‘peasant’ mentality prevailed. These were not ignorant people, but uneducated, used to dealing with what they could see, touch, smell and taste. And their experience is enlightening into how the mind cannot comprehend, cannot make a link between a beautiful, lush, contaminated landscape and the inevitable sickness that would follow. Consequently many people stayed in the contaminated areas, in fact in Belarus many people have no choice but to stay on the contaminated land there is so much of it, but worryingly the state too conspired to spread the harvests from those contaminated lands, bringing radiation into the food chain for everyone. The extent to which items were robbed, pilfered or knowingly redistributed into the populace is quite staggering. The failure to provide any protective equipment, adequate medical care is staggering. There were many people who fled to Chernobyl as a means of escape from other places, places of war and conflict, as the Soviet Union began to crumble, finding the Zone a safe haven from other perils. Bullying, fear and suspicion were a significant factor in keeping people or attracting people to the Zone, as one woman, who had to flee Kirghizia because of conflict describes here:
“We used to have a Motherland. It’s gone now. Who am I? Got a Ukrainian mother, my dad’s Russian. I was born and raised in Kirghizia, then married a Tatar. Who are my children? What’s their ethnicity? We’re all mixed up, our blood is mixed. In our passports, for me and our children it says ‘Russian’; but we’re not Russian. We’re Soviet! But the country I was born in doesn’t exist. The place that we called home and the times which were also our home don’t exist now. We’ve become as homeless as bats.”
This is another factor which heavily pervades the book: the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the massive mental shock it caused to the population. In many respects it is hard to separate the two issues. Their homeland was no longer something they recognised, they were told that the land was no good, that their crops could not be eaten, yet people continued to do so. Because it looked good, it tasted good. It is a hard thing to comprehend, and yet I suspect that with another, new, disaster whether any population would behave any differently. It makes me think about our response to climate change: if someone told us tomorrow that we had to stop driving cars or it would kill us, would we? This mentality, coupled with the stigma of being from the Zone – contaminated people – is the Chernobyl mentality. It is terrifying yet instructive. Something we can all learn from.
Chernobyl Prayer is an extremely powerful book. I have only once before encountered a book told through personal account, Haruki Murakami’s Underground – the story of the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo Underground. That, too, was a powerful book and I wonder if Murakami had encountered Alexievich’s work before taking that approach. It is hard to describe how effective it is, how it brings the people and their suffering and their heroism and their ordinary power so viscerally to life. There were many times reading this book when I was brought close to tears. It is a difficult, but worthwhile read. Last year when we were on holiday, travelling around Europe by train, we visited Dachau and it has a similar feel to it. It is not a place, a book, I would recommend you go to if you want to be entertained. But the story it tells, the lesson we must learn from it, is a powerful and important one. I was glad I read Chernobyl Prayer, glad that Alexievich gave voice to those people. It is a terrible story, but aren’t the stories which must be told always the terrible ones?
Chernobyl Prayer is published in UK by Penguin Books