Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich

The Blurb On The Back:

”It may be poisoned with radiation, but this is my home … Even a bird loves its nest.”

You can order CHERNOBYL PRAYER by Svetlana Alexievich from Amazon USAAmazon UKWaterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Svetlana Alexievich is a Nobel Prize winning writer who uses interviews and testimony to chart Russia’s emotional history by reference to critical events.  Written in 1997 and revised in 2013, this intensely moving book (translated by Ana Gunin and Arch Tait) sees Alexievich return to her native Belarus to collect testimony from those affected by the Chernobyl disaster (both in the immediate and long-term aftermath) as they struggle to make sense of it.

I’ve previously read Alexievich’s THE UNWOMANLY FACE OF WAR so was familiar with her writing technique, which is essentially one of reportage, allowing the people to speak for themselves but adding in editorial notes to address gestures or pauses.  The result is a set of curated monologues – in this case some of which are carried out one-to-one, others with groups of people.  The fragmented sentences are a little disorientating at first, although (oddly) I was more thrown by the sections that come from Alexievich directly as it’s like she’s working out what she thinks as she writes and I found that a little off-putting.

The book focuses on the impact of Chernobyl on Belarus, which lost 23% of its land to nuclear contamination (devastating to a country dependent on agriculture) and which took 70% of the nuclear fallout.  Much of the testimony is from farmers who were forced to evacuate their land as they struggle to make sense of a danger that they can neither see, smell nor touch with Alexievich giving them the space to draw out their relationship with the land and nature.  What comes through is how deeply these people have been affected by their experience and how they were still struggling to come to terms with it when Alexievich interviewed them almost 10 years later.  I was particularly moved by how many people described trying to return to their home and, in the case of the older witnesses, why they ended up defying the authorities and going back regardless.

It’s the tidbits of information that really make this book stand out.  For example, I had no idea there’d been a civil war in Tajikistan, which had led to refugees fleeing to Belarus to settle there despite the dangers of radioactivity because they have nowhere else to go but also because they welcome the silence and isolation.  Similarly, there are some telling testimonies from some of the higher-ups in the Belarus Communist Party seeking to justify their inaction and apparently reckless disregard for the health of their citizens.  Alexievich makes no comment or raises any questions directing this testimony in one direction or another, but she does draw out how many ordinary Belarusians believed that the higher-ups looked out for themselves as they recount stories they heard of relatives being given iodine or sent away while others involved in the Party recount how they were bullied by the KGB and Moscow.  This is the second book I’ve read about the Chernobyl disaster and the second where it’s clear that for all his talk of glasnost, Gorbachev was just as dedicated to secrecy and maintenance of Party discipline as his forebears.  What also comes out is how unprepared people were for a disaster of this type with a number of witnesses making the point that while they had a plan for how to mobilise the civilian population for nuclear war, no one knew how to respond to a disaster of this type – although it did make me wonder why the nuclear war plan could not be adapted or whether anyone thought to try.

Some of the testimony here will be familiar to those who watched the HBO drama CHERNOBYL.  In particular, Lyudmila Ignatenko whose husband was a fireman who attended the fire and ended up dying of radiation poisoning in a Moscow hospital but there’s also testimony from some of the men tasked with shooting animals, moving residents out from their homes and clearing debris from the site.  One of the things that frightened me most about the book was the scale of looting (including equipment used to clear the site that should have then been buried) but also how the Belarus Party allowed contaminated food into the food chain (in some cases reclassifying it for animal consumption), with produce then being sent out across the USSR because Moscow would not let them escape the quotas of their agricultural plan.

This is a very moving book and Ana Gunin and Arch Tait do a terrific job with the translation, giving the text a conversational style that uses slang expressions to bring these people to life.  I have to say that I did find some of the philosophising by the witnesses a little dull.  I know how churlish that sounds because these are people who have been through an awful event that they are trying to make sense of but I think it’s very much a Belarus thing to consider your place among the earth and bring in folklore elements.  That aside, I found this a powerful and compelling read that really brings out the human tragedy and horror of Chernobyl and how its effects continue to linger.

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