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Life Without Chekhov and Tolstoy

What the Chernobyl Disaster Took from its Victims

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

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