Voices from Chernobyl – 2006
Svetlana Aleksiévitch’s books tells only one story. The story of human being in a specific period and region. The Great Patriotic War, the Soviet–Afghan War, the Chernobyl disaster and the fall of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics are just background for the documented speech of common folks smashed by those happenings. By herself:
…how many novels vanish without a trace! Disappear in the darkness. We haven’t been able to capture the conversational side of human life for literature. (…) I love how humans talk, I love the lone human voice. This is my greatest love and passion.
First I’ve read The Last of Soviets (2016). Never I’ve read something so impactful about human life. Of course I’m not the most avid reader. But I’m sure the stories documented by Svetlana are unique. People that saw their loved one disappear and never come back, who went to forced labor fields, who were underneath the constant yoke of an overwhelming power. And yet they found motives to be happy. Like an old man once punished but still lover of soviet socialist utopia.
The stories are catchy, Svetlana’s testimony literature got me in a particular way. It’s so clear the necessity to register, under all aspects, and never forget, what happened. The war, Stalin, Chernobyl. However, by those witnesses, that were floating in those unaccountable events. Svetlana affirms several times in Voices from Chernobyl how much the russian and ex-USSR republics’s people seek explanation for those events. If the post-war, post-Stalin and post-Chernobyl’s life had only one objective: what had happened?
In Voices from Chernobyl facts are accessories to human emotions. It opens the curtains. The spouse of a fireman that went to work in the nuclear explosion fire tells about unconditional love, one of terrible consequences. Real lives. Sometimes it doesn’t feel that, it’s all so extreme. What humans can do, how can they react.
The work’s subtitle are A Chronicle of the Future (Portuguese version; UK too). We ask ourselves why. Svetlana answers. Chernobyl opened the curtains. Chernobyl isn’t the past. Is it the future?
The most fair thing in the world is death. No one can scape it.
Death turns to be the relief. One case of a child that met a boy in a camp. Then their friends told him she was from Chernobyl. Never again he talked to her. Her dream?
Now, when I think about the future, I dream with finishing studying and going far away from here, somewhere no one know where I am from. So someone can love me. And I can forget everything.
Chernobyl is the future.
I work at the mortuary. This morning, I still haven’t time to take off my jacket when the door opened and a woman came inside, more than hiccups, she screams: “Take the medals, with all the certificates. Take the compensations! Give me back my husband”
The people beside the nuclear center lived like they were in stone age. The invisible death confused them. They were told to clean everything, to remove a layer of earth, to bury ashes of the wood-burning stove. Some stories are comic:
You went outside town, and beside the road scarecrows started to appear; a grazing cow covered in plastic and beside it an old lady covered in plastic too. You could’t choose between laughing or crying.
The country that put the first man in space fought the atom with a shovel, literally. Thousand were called in urgency to bury the fourth Chernobyl nuclear reactor’s guts. Radiation many times beyond the deadly dose. A sarcophagus to bury the potential unspeakable killer. And the chance of a new explosion and the contagious of a larger portion of Europe, and the world.
…I think so, It’s the price we pay for the rapid industrialization after the revolution. (…) What our peasant has beyond their hands? Until today! The axe, the scythe, the machete. That’s all. That’s the peasant world. Oh, and the shovel too. (…) His conscience oscillate between two epochs, two eras: stone and atomic one.
And that’s the man’s disaster to man. And for the other animals too. Svetlana, it looks, emphasizes what happened to the animals. Earthworms and beetles, revoked and buried. Cats and dogs shot dead by hunting groups ordered to contain everything that could spread radiation. While themselves were dying with radiation doses – curies and roentgen.
Other pillars of soviet people stand out too: vodka, literature and the jokes. Vodka was recommended as protection against radiation; literature, always about suffering, born from it, and the jokes…
Chernobyl jokes. Shortest: “What a good people were the belarussians”.
Before Chernobyl were 82 cases of cancer per 100 thousand inhabitants. After, number went up to 6 thousand. One of five belarussians live in contaminated area. Thousands of tons of cesium, iodine, lead, zirconium, cadmium, beryllium, boron, plutonium; equivalent to 350 bombs like the one dropped in Hiroshima.
Voices from Chernobyl register the past to talk about the future. Who is the man? What he is capable of? What is love? Death? Witnesses gain a voice with Svetlana’s work. They spill over us the reality that no fiction can match. Where are we going after Chernobyl?