Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich, was our Read Around the World book club read back in November, for Belarus.
I was 6 when the Chernobyl disaster happened. I have vague memories of watching News Round and Blue Peter at that time, and during the next years, and never fully being able to understand why the children being shown were so very poorly. As an adult, I thought I knew the basics of what happened when the nuclear reactor caught fire on 26th April 1986. I was wrong. Chernobyl Prayer is a harrowing, eye opening book, filled with the recounts of those that lived through this time, those who lost so much, those who are still attempting to manage the consequences.
Today, I want to share some of my main thoughts and opinions with you, that I had whilst reading.
Chernobyl as a shift in time: It is easy with hindsight, to wonder how on earth the nuclear blast could have been treated in such an astonishingly dismissive way by both government and society at the time. But this book made me realise just what a different world it was and how sweeping statements do not do the the human beings involved justice. The author writes of pre-Chernobyl and post Chernobyl worlds:
‘In the space of one night we shifted to another place in history. We took a leap into a new reality, and that reality proved beyond not only our knowledge but also our imagination. The past suddenly became impotent, it had nothing for us to draw on.’
And at the same time, the political system was also collapsing, Alexievich writes, ‘The giant Socialist continent was sinking into the sea’. I believe that there was nothing in place that could begin to handle this vast, incomprehensible tragedy. I believe leading political minds were focused elsewhere and were determined to stay in power, to keep the system alive.
The everyday impact of the Soviet system: I do know a fair amount about the Soviet system but have never really explored its impact in such an extreme situation. A social and political system, which portrayed itself as the all-knowing, all protective parent, meant that many of those affected didn’t question the actions of government at the time. Not everyone had a political perspective; for many, everyday life was the foundation of their existence and many wanted to believe that it would all be ok. The reality was just too much to digest. The values of duty and solidarity were ingrained too, the initial fire fighters stepped in because it was their duty to do as they were ordered, the clear up teams did what they did, not only because of political pressure but also for the good of their country. Knowledge about nuclear power and its potential danger, was not widespread. People couldn’t see the radiation at first, everything seemed the same, only time would show the devastation. It must have been so confusing and unbelievable.
The physical horror: For me, the description of how the initial fire fighters physically fell apart, had a massive impact. The description is raw and beyond imaginable. It made me sick. The unconditional love of the wives of these men, made me sob. The factual information of life expectancy, even now, leaves me speechless.
The deep sadness and feelings of loss, being forced to leave absolutely everything behind without closure: Initially people of the zone were told that they would only be leaving temporarily; they left their homes and belongings thinking they would return only to be told that there was no going back. Again, it is hard to imagine the loss, not only of physical items but of livelihoods, memories, identity and roots.
The children: The children longed for, who were never born for fear of how they would form. The children born with physical complications and special educational needs. The children who became more and more ill over time, losing their childhood as the radiation took their energy, their ability to have full lives. The children, who survived only to develop severe physical illnesses and who died before they really had a chance to live.
Some people didn’t leave or chose to return regardless: Some of the older rural generation chose to stay, to wait out any consequences, to live in their homes regardless of what happened. Some people found ways to return, seeing the zone as a better alternative to the lives they were forced to have. For some people, the love of their land, the pride in their homes and livelihoods was much stronger than the threat of radiation. For some, Chernobyl has become a freedom. This is certainly a very different perspective that I had not come across before. We humans are complex beings.
The danger that this reactor still holds and will continue to hold for thousands of years: Why do we create such power when the consequences have such a real, potential deadly impact. And it frightens me that in this age, where leading powers threaten nuclear attacks, the horror of Chernobyl could so easily happen on a world wide scale. And I am astonished that we as human beings cannot see the horrendous consequences of such action. Even now, the Chernobyl plant is only contained, due to a new covering only recently placed over the top of it, to prevent further leakage. There isn’t a solution. It is there and that frightens me beyond belief. The radiation in the environment will still be present for thousands of years. What are we doing to our planet? On a positive note, isn’t Nature a resilient goddess, re-wilding and healing land that we humans have destroyed.