Crisis of Command
America’s Broken Civil-Military Relationship Imperils National Security
On April 26, 1986, the world's worst nuclear reactor accident occurred in Chernobyl, Ukraine, which contaminated as much as 75 percent of Europe. Nobel Prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich conducted interviews with hundreds of people affected by the nuclear meltdown. Her interview subjects include firefighters, liquidators (the term given to members of Chernobyl's cleanup team that risked their lives inside the contaminated reactor), politicians, doctors, physicists and everyday citizens in the decade that followd the accident. Alexievich's powerful narratives are woven together to provide a glimpse into how life was irreparably changed by the meltdown, and provides vignettes of survivors carrying on in the years that followed. Her book, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, is excerpted here.
What do I pray for? Ask me: what do I pray for? I don't pray in church. I pray to myself. I want to love! I do love. I pray for my love! But for me—[Stops short. I can see she doesn’t want to talk.] Am I supposed to remember? Maybe I should push it away instead, just in case? I never read such books. I never saw such movies. At the movies I saw the war. My grandmother and grandfather remember that they never had a childhood, they had the war. Their childhood is the war, and mine is Chernobyl. That's where I'm from. You're a writer, but no book has helped me to understand. And the theater hasn't, and the movies haven't. I understand it without them, though. By myself. We all live through it by ourselves, we don't know what else to do. I can't understand it with my mind. My mother especially has felt confused. She teaches Russian literature, and she always taught me to live with books. But there are no books about this.
She became confused. She doesn't know how to do without books. Without Chekhov and Tolstoy. Am I supposed to remember? I want to remember, and also I don't want to. [Either she's listening to herself, or arguing with herself] If scientists don't know anything, if writers don't know anything, then we'll help them with our own lives and our deaths. That's what my mom thinks. But I don't want to think about this, I want to be happy. Why can't I be happy?
We lived in Pripyat, near the nuclear station, that's where I was born and grew up. In a big pre-fab building, on the fifth floor. The windows looked out onto the station. On April 26—there were two days—those were the last two days in our town. Now it's not there anymore. What's left there isn't our town. That day a neighbor was sitting on the balcony, watching the fire through binoculars. Whereas we—the girls and boys—we raced to the station on our bikes, and those who didn't have bikes were jealous. No one yelled at us not to go. No one! Not our parents, not our teachers. By lunch time there weren't any fishermen at the river, they'd come back black, you can't get that black in a month at Sochi. It was a nuclear tan! The smoke over the station wasn't black or yellow, it was blue. But no one yelled at us. People were used to military dangers: an explosion over here, an explosion over there. Whereas here you had an ordinary fire, being put out by ordinary firemen. The boys were joking around: "Get in a row at the cemetery, whoever's tallest dies first." I was little. I don't remember the fear, but I remember lots of weird things. My friend told me that she and her mother spent the night burying their money and gold things, and were worried they'd forget the spot. My grandmother, when she'd retired, had been given a samovar from Tula, and for some reason the thing she worried about most was the samovar, and also about Grandpa's medals. And about the old Singer sewing machine. We were "evacuated." My father brought that word home from work. It was like in the war books. We were already on the bus when my father remembered he'd left something. He runs home, comes back with two of his new shirts still on their hangers. That was strange. The soldiers were sort of like aliens, they walk through the streets in their protective gear and masks. "What's going to happen to us?" people were asking them. "Why are you asking us?" they'd snap back. "The white Volgas are over there, that's where the bosses are, ask them."
We're riding on the bus, the sky is blue as blue. Where are we going? We have Easter cakes and colored eggs in our bags and baskets. If this is war, it's not how I imagined it from the books I'd read. There should have been explosions over here, over there, bombing. We were moving slowly, the livestock was in the way. People were chasing cows and horses down the roads. It smelled of dust and milk. The drivers were cursing and yelling at the shepherds: "Why are you on the road with those, you this-and-that?? You're kicking up radioactive dust! Why don't you take them through the fields?" And those cursed back that it'd be a shame to trample all the rye and grass. No one thought we'd never come back. Nothing like this had ever happened. My head was spinning a little and my throat tickled. The old women weren't crying, but the young ones were. My mother was crying.
We got to Minsk. But we had to buy our seats on the train at triple the usual price. The conductor brought everyone tea, but to us she says, "Let me have your cups." We didn't get it right away—did they run out of cups? No! They were afraid of us. "Where are you from?" "Chernobyl." And then they shy off. In a month my parents were allowed to go to the apartment. They got a warm blanket, my fall coat and the collected letters of Chekhov, my mom's favorite. Grandma—our grandma—she couldn't understand why they didn't take the cans of strawberry jam she'd made—they were in cans, after all, they were sealed up. They found a "stain" on the blanket. My mother washed it, vacuumed it, nothing helped. They gave it to the dry-cleaners, it turned out the spot "glowed." They cut it out with their scissors. It was the same blanket, and my same coat, but I couldn't sleep under the blanket anymore, or wear that coat. It wasn't that I was afraid of those things—I hated them! Those things could have killed me! I felt this animosity—I don't really understand it myself.
Everyone was talking about the accident: at home, in school, on the bus, in the street. People compared it to Hiroshima. But no one believed it. How can you believe in something incomprehensible?
Everyone was talking about the accident: at home, in school, on the bus, in the street. People compared it to Hiroshima. But no one believed it. How can you believe in something incomprehensible? No matter how hard you try, it still doesn't make sense. I remember—we're leaving, the sky is blue as blue. And Grandma—she couldn't get used to the new place. She missed our old home. Just before she died she said, "I want some sorrel!" We weren't allowed to eat that for several years, it was the thing that absorbed the most radiation.
We buried her in her old village of Dubrovniki. It was in the Zone, so there was barbed wire and soldiers with machine guns guarding it. They only let the adults through—my parents and relatives. But they wouldn't let me. "Kids aren't allowed." I understood then that I would never be able to visit my grandmother. I understood. Where can you read about that? Where has that ever happened? My mom admitted: "You know, I hate flowers and trees." She became afraid of herself. At the cemetery, on the grass, they put down a tablecloth and placed some food and vodka on it, for the wake. The soldiers brought over the dosimeter and threw everything out. The grass, the flowers, everything was "clicking." Where did we take our grandma?
I'm afraid. I'm afraid to love. I have a fiance, we already registered at the house of deeds. Have you ever heard of the Hibakusha of Hiroshima? The ones who survived after the bomb? They can only marry each other. No one writes about it here, no one talks about it, but we exist. The Chernobyl Hibakusha. He brought me home to his mom, she's a very nice mom. She works at a factory as an economist, and she's very active, she goes to all the anti-Communist meetings. So this very nice mom, when she found out that I'm from a Chernobyl family, a refugee, asked: "But, my dear, will you be able to have children?" And we've already registered! He pleads with me: "I'll leave home. We'll rent an apartment." But all I can hear is: "My dear, for some people it's a sin to give birth." It's a sin to love.
Before him I had another boyfriend. He was an artist. We also wanted to get married. Everything was fine until this one thing happened. I came into his studio and heard him yelling into the phone: "You're lucky! You have no idea how lucky you are!" He's usually so calm, even phlegmatic, not a single exclamation point in his speech. And then this! So what is it? Turns out his friend lives in a student dormitory, and he looked into the next room, and there's a girl hanging there. She strung herself up with some panty hose. He takes her down. And my boyfriend was just beside himself, shivering: "You have no idea what he's seen! What he's just been through! He carried her in his arms—he touched her face. She had white foam on her lips. Maybe if we hurry we can make it." He didn't mention the dead girl, didn't feel sorry for her for a second. He just wanted to see it and remember it, so he could draw it later on. And I started remembering how he used to ask me what color the fire at the station was, and whether I'd seen cats and dogs that had been shot, were they lying on the street? Were people crying? Did I see how they died? After that. . . I couldn't be with him anymore. I couldn't answer him. [After a pause.] I don't know if I'd want to meet with you again. I think you look at me the same way he did. Just observing me and remembering. Like there's an experiment going on. I can't rid myself of that feeling. I'll never rid myself of it.
Do you know that it can be a sin to give birth? I'd never heard those words before.
Excerpted from Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Keith Gessen, published in 2006 by Picador. Voices from Chernobyl translation copyright 2005. Originally published in the US by Dalkey Archive Press. Published by arrangement with Picador. All rights reserved.