Chernobyl: History Of A Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy

The Blurb On The Back:

There is no blurb on the back, but there are the following quotes:

”A compelling history of the 1986 disaster and its aftermath … plunges the reader into the sweaty, nervous tension of the Chernobyl control room on that fateful night when human frailty and design flaws combined to such devastating effect.”

Daniel Beer, Guardian

“Extraordinary, vividly written, powerful storytelling … the first full-scale history of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, one of the defining moments in the Cold War, told minute by minute.”

Victor Sebastian, Sunday Times

“An insightful and important book, that often reads like a good thriller, and that exposes the danger of mixing powerful technology with irresponsible politics”

Yoval Noah Harari 

“Haunting … near-Tolstoyan.His voice is humane and inflected with nostalgia”

Roland Elliott Brown, Spectator

You can order Chernobyl: History Of A Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy from Amazon USAAmazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links. 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Serhii Plokhy is Professor of History at Harvard University and a specialist in Eastern Europe.  In this by turns horrifying, moving and meticulously researched book (winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize in 2018 for non-fiction), he depicts the events surrounding the explosion of the No 4 reactor at Chernobyl on 26 April 1986 and the cover up and clear up that followed and explains how it contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I picked this up because I watched the HBO 2019 drama about Chernobyl earlier this year and wanted to know more about it (specifically to see what was accurate and what had been changed in the interests of the drama).  Although the HBO series drew more on Svetlana Alexeivich’s VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL as a source (and being familiar with Alexeivich’s other work, I will definitely pick it up), this book was recommended to me in terms of providing a good narrative overview.  In addition, Plokhy lived 500 miles away from Chernobyl at the time of the explosion so there is a personal dimension to this book (reinforced by the preface where he describes a tourist trip out to the site) and his time spent living in the Soviet Union means he has an understanding of how things worked, which he conveys to the reader.

Despite a prologue that begins in Sweden, when a nuclear power worker sets off an alarm at the power plant and realises that there’s an external source of radiation, Plokhy takes a largely chronological approach to the disaster, beginning with the Communist Party Congress in February just before the disaster and then slowly moving forward through the disaster itself, the immediate aftermath (with the refusal or inability of senior people on the ground to accept what happened) and then the desperate efforts to prevent further radiation escaping while containing the reactor.  It then moves on to the political attempts of Gorbachev to downplay the explosion (which Plokhy sets against the on-going negotiations with Reagan on nuclear disarmament) and finally the cover up and allocation of liability.  

Plokhy’s special skill in this book is setting the disaster in the context of how the USSR political system worked at this time, with the Ukrainian party elite essentially at the beck and call of the Moscow head honchos, which pits Soviet interests against the interests of the Ukrainian (and Belarusian people).  One of the most horrifying scenes in the book for me was where the Ukrainians were instructed to proceed with a May Day parade shortly after the explosion, even though there was a large amount of radiation within the air and the route of the march was essentially a trap for it, exposing attendees to more radiation than they might otherwise have suffered.  

What’s also clear though is the jockeying and evasion of the different Soviet departments and Ministers, who have one eye on proceeding up the greasy pole by pleasing their masters, which means making sure they keep their other eye on who they can pass blame of responsibility for taking decisions onto.  This goes a long way to explain the bureaucratic paralysis in the immediate aftermath of the explosion as literally no one wanted to be responsible for either calling out what had actually happened or then ensuring that people were promptly evacuated.

Gorbachev really doesn’t come out of this book well.  As someone who grew up in the 80s and 90s and who therefore had in mind this idea of him as a compassionate reformer, it was a stark reminder that he was a skilled operator within the Communist Party regime and whose first loyalty was always to the USSR as a concept.  Although some of it was down to the lack of initial information, it’s genuinely shocking to see how once the truth became apparent the instinct was to deny, divert and accuse rather than be honest and open and given how the radiation spread it’s just unforgivable.  I was particularly interested in how Plokhy sets out how this feeds in to the final fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the ecological movement (which was something I’d been totally unaware of).

There is – as you’d expect – a lot of tragedy in the book and it’s ramped up by the sense of dread Plokhy creates as he calmly sets out what happened.  Particularly upsetting is what happened to the fireman who were in the first response teams as Plokhy describes the effects of the radiation exposure.  It’s very difficult to read at times and incredibly moving.

I did have some very minor criticisms of the book (but they are minor) – it would have helped to have had a list of the main people involved in the disaster because I did find it difficult to keep track of who was responsible for what (mainly because of my unfamiliarity with Russian names).  Also there is a degree of repetition towards the end of the book with Plokhy repeating events/points made in the preceding chapter, which I found a little disappointing given how sharp the rest of the book is.

Ultimately though, this is genuinely one of the best books I’ve read all year.  It’s compelling, moving and it really makes you think about politics, decision-making, and nuclear power.  

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