Country Focus: Belarus (Byelarus’/Belarus’)
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
By Svetlana Alexievich
Translated by Keith Gessen
Preface by Keith Gessen
Originally published in Russian as Tchernobylskaia Molitva by Editions Ostojie, 1997.
My edition: Dalkey Archive Press, 2005
Time period: The Chernobyl disaster occurred on April 26, 1986; Alexievich conducted her interviews in 1996
Notes: Alexievich is an Belarusian investigative journalist. She has also written Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghan War and War’s Unwomanly Face.
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Although the Chernobyl nuclear plant is located within the country Ukraine (in 1986, part of the U.S.S.R.), 70% of the radionuclides from the accident drifted northward over the land that has since become the country of Belarus (also part of the U.S.S.R. at the time of the meltdown). Alexievich has transcribed dozens of gut-wrenching stories from a range of Belarusians, including evacuees, scientists, soldiers, and teachers. The opener, relayed by the wife of one of the fireman who was first on the scene, couldn’t be more terrifying. Not only did these testimonies shock me with their gruesome tales of radiation poisoning, but also with the Soviets’ unwavering belief that their government—which sent thousands of soldiers into radioactive areas without any protection other than cases of vodka—was handling the situation appropriately. I’ve never been a proponent of nuclear power. Reading Voices From Chernobyl has ensured that I never will be.
I don’t know what I should talk about—about death or about love? Or are they the same? Which one should I talk about?
We were newlyweds. We still walked around holding hands, even if we were just going to the store. I would say to him, “I love you.” But I didn’t know then how much. I had no idea… We lived in the dormitory of the fire station where he worked. On the second floor. There were three other young couples, we all shared a kitchen. On the first floor they kept the trucks. The red fire trucks. That was his job. I always knew what was happening—where he was, how he was.
One night I heard a noise. I looked out the window. He saw me. “Close the window and go back to sleep. There’s a fire at the reactor. I’ll be back soon.”
I didn’t see the explosion itself. Just the flames. Everything was radiant. The whole sky. A tall flame. And smoke. The heat was awful. And he’s still not back.
Belarusian writers need to be translated! Titles written about Belarus by non-natives are included below..