The steam explosion that tore the roof from Chernobyl’s fourth unit in the pre-dawn hours of April 26, 1986, spewing fallout across much of Europe, seemed a Hollywood techno-disaster flick become chillingly real. Though the drama and terror of those spring days have faded, we are still pondering the lessons that, like millions of latent cancers planted by the stricken reactor’s radiation plume, have yet to fully manifest themselves. Chernobyl was a global wake-up call on the fragile limits of technology, one that silenced — hopefully for good — both sides’ official Cold War enthusiasm for “the peaceful atom.”
A good deal has been written about the accident and the massive clean-up effort that followed. The 600,000 “liquidators” dispatched to put out the burning graphite reactor, contain the spread of contaminants, evacuate local populations and bury mountains of radioactive debris — many of whom absorbed dangerously high doses of radiation — remain a vexed political issue in the former USSR. Only this year, Moscow declared it would no longer compensate victims from non-Russian republics, arguing that it should not have to pay “citizens of one country for damages that occurred in another country.”
The disaster struck just as Mikhail Gorbachev was beginning his ill-fated perestroika campaign to modernize and reform the Soviet system. Gorbachev won short-term political advantage by publicly hammering his bureaucratic enemies who, true to form, had clammed up and for 10 days refused to tell the world what was happening at Chernobyl. But the accident can now be seen as the USSR’s death knell. The Soviet model of economic development was exposed as wasteful, hazard-ridden and out-of-control. Millions of people, brought up to believe in the system, irreversibly lost faith as they floundered in that terrifying 10-day information vacuum, wondering whether they and their children were being slowly poisoned by invisible clouds of radiation.
A key social response to Chernobyl was the birth of a vibrant and youthful environmental movement, encouraged by Gorbachev at first to expose the evils of Soviet industrialism and take the bureaucrats to task. While many of those perestroika-era gains, such as freedom of the press, have since withered under ferocious attack from the Kremlin, Russia’s environmentalists remain a strong and defiant force to this day. That is largely a legacy of Chernobyl.
As Svetlana Alexievich relates in Voices from Chernobyl, an oral history of those turbulent few days, it was the USSR’s westernmost Slavic republic, Belarus, that bore the brunt of the cataclysm. The tiny country’s contamination zone still encompasses 20 percent of its territory, houses 2 million people and produces much of the food consumed by Belarussians. A few decades earlier, the Nazis rolled over Belarus, destroying some 600 villages. Chernobyl emptied out another 500, as their populations fled the invisible death cloud, often permanently. Post-Soviet Belarus has morphed into a paternalistic dictatorship, run like a giant collective farm by President Alexander Lukashenko, and many Belarussians appear to prefer it that way. This, too, can be viewed as a legacy of the tragedy.
Only 31 people were actually killed in the Chernobyl blast and its immediate aftermath, which makes it a pretty minor disaster in terms of human life. But global health officials, who have tracked a huge spike in thyroid cancers, birth defects and other disorders in the most affected areas, warn that the final bill, in the form of leukemia and other serious cancers, won’t be in for another decade or two.
Alexievich’s focus is the narrowest possible, a series of monologues by an astonishingly wide variety of people who found themselves caught up in the disaster. In the process, a remarkable portrait emerges of Soviet society shattering under tension. Emotionally, it’s incredibly raw stuff, but the approach also evokes rich, human detail. Among Alexievich’s subjects are peasants, awed by the waves of helicopters and heavy equipment storming across their land, who assumed that war must have broken out “with the Chinese or the Americans.” A soldier, ordered into the still-burning reactor area, relates with pride how he and his mates performed tasks that caused robots to break down. The widow of a liquidator tells in harrowing detail how her radiation-poisoned husband’s skin disintegrated and his veins popped. A local Communist Party leader recalls worrying that the accident might disrupt the May Day celebration. And then there’s the Soviet nuclear physicist who mourns a wave of heart attacks and suicides among his colleagues in the wake of Chernobyl. “When you lose faith, you’re no longer a participant,” he says. “You’re an also-ran, you have no reason to exist.”