Voices from Chernobyl by by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Keith Gessen


Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster - Swietłana Aleksijewicz,Keith GessenVoices from Chernobyl is one of my Reading Nobel Women. Alexievich won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature for books like this one. She is a master at writing the Soviet experience from the “perspective of the individual”. I definitely want to read the rest of her books after this.

The book is a compilation of interviews that she does with witnesses to the events at Chernobyl following the nuclear disaster there. She relates their comments and experiences in a way that gives the reader an idea of the entire impact of Chernobyl. There’s everything from what happened to the firefighters that first went into the plant to the way people from Chernobyl were treated in other parts of the country to the soldiers who came in later to clean it up. The stories were mostly heartbreaking, as would be expected, but there was also this amazing sense of the human spirit in much of it.

They had been proud of their country, even when it happened, even when they were so terribly failed by it. They looked at the world in a way that is totally foreign to the US experience. I could also appreciate the indifferent attitude that so many residents and workers had about this poison they couldn’t see or smell nor had the proper training to be concerned about. I had no idea that it could be so beautiful in an affected area.

Of course, there was so much more bad stuff going on. Those soldiers who basked in the sun of the affected area died horrible deaths later, as did the firefighters. I remember when I was growing up there being so many books and movies about the after effects of nuclear fallout and being terrified by the way it was portrayed. Except for in cartoons or superhero stories where it somehow gave people great powers. Mostly, it seems, it brings to reality things out of our nightmares. I’ve had my own pregnancy problems and can’t imagine what these women went through when it comes to procreation in the aftermath.

The stories are interviews, and as such, so personal. The people interviewed talk with emotion and Alexievich even adds in the places where they paused or wept or gasped. She wanted the reader to see the person sitting in from of her and I always felt like I did. The name Chernobyl has been familiar to me because of what happened, but no one really talks about what happened to the people, not like this. This is a beautiful representation of the way people can handle horrible things.

As I stated above, I am definitely reading her other books. She’s also written about the Soviet women who fought in WWII in The Unwomanly Face of War and the men who fought in Afghanistan in Zinky Boys. I have this one on Scribd but click on the cover image for the Booklikes purchase options or add to Goodreads here.

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