Book Review: Voices from Chernobyl

Voices from Chernobyl written by Svetlana Alexievich and translated into English by Keith Gessen

On April 26, 1986, reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station exploded and caught fire, setting into motion one of the worst nuclear disasters in human history.  It’s been decades since the events of Chernobyl and the details of what happened that day are documented for all to read in history books.  However, what is harder to find is information on a more personal level about those who experienced the event first hand, and those who are still suffering from it.  That is what Voices from Chernobyl is about.

Voices from Chernobyl, written by Svetlana Alexievech and translated into English by Keith Gessen, is a compilation of monologues compiled from interviews conducted by Alexievech herself.  These monologues touch on an element missing from most literature written about Chernobyl.  That element is the human element.  It accounts everything from the government’s and people’s reactions to what was left behind in the now contaminated land around Chernobyl.

The book covers personal stories told by those who were actually there.  It is broken into three sections titled The Land of the Dead, The Land of the Living, and Amazed by Sadness.  Much of it can be hard to read at times, such as Lyudmilla Ignatenko watching her husband die from radiation sickness, but it is the horrendously sad stories that often need to be recorded the most.

And for each sad story accounted by an individual there is another that will help restore your faith in your fellow human beings.  For instance, Vasily Nesterenko, former director of the Institute for Nuclear Energy at the Belarussian Academy of Sciences, fought tooth and nail to try to convince his government to help protect its population from the radiation.  He didn’t stop until they dragged him to court and he had a heart attack.

What’s even more shocking is that for each of these stories of extreme hardship, there are many more about normalcy and how life continued to carry on in the face of such a huge disaster.  It is these numerous accounts that make you truly understand that the people who were involved with Chernobyl were just ordinary people, like you and me.  When reading history books, it’s hard to remember that.

You see, when historical events happen and are recorded into the history books to be taught to our children, something tends to be left behind.  Everything becomes factual, sterile.  Feelings, emotions, and personal experience falls to the wayside.  What’s so very sad is that these pieces of history, the personal human histories, are just as important as the cold hard facts.  What people went through on a personal level, as well as on a societal level, needs to be preserved.

And that’s what Voices from Chernobyl is about, the personal histories of Chernobyl.