Edit: Re-posted after technical difficulties.
The 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded a few weeks ago to the journalist, Svetlana Alexievich, for her collected work of non-fiction on Soviet history. Like the performance artist, Anna Deavere Smith, Alexievich uses interviews to document the human impact of different historical events. Her most famous book is undoubtedly Voices From Chernobyl, in which she interviewed hundreds of people involved in the nuclear disaster that took place in the Soviet Union in 1986.
As you might expect, Voices from Chernobyl is a dark, dark read, and I struggled at times to even pick it up. Each interview was understandably depressing, telling a story of predominate hopelessness. But what I didn't expect was to come away with so many individual stories of suffering, unhappiness, and fear. How the firemen experienced early attempts to put out the fire at the reactor was incredibly different from how a soldier emotionally processed the situation a few weeks later while evacuating the exclusion zone. How the women went through that same time was often quite different from the men. That doesn't mean it was pleasant to read, but it helped me understand this event in a more personal and deeper way than what I had previously understood from the paragraph that is typically dedicated to Chernobyl in high school history books.
In a disaster, we tend to lump everyone's experience as one story, but if you think about it, of course each individual suffers very differently. How a father grieves the death of a son from a radiation contaminated hat is a different kind of pain than what a village experiences after losing track of a disabled woman during the evacuation. How a woman grieves for the lost chance at having a healthy baby is different from how a family mourns their already "damaged" or dying children.
Different levels of knowledge about nuclear energy and radiation also created very different experiences. The scientists near Chernobyl and Minsk understood the dangers of the total radioactive contamination and their instinct was to balk party orders during the early days of the disaster, and get the hell out before they and their families were poisoned any further. But peasants, who knew nothing about radiation, looked around their fields and saw healthy crops and blue skies. They didn't understand why they had to leave everything behind. On the surface, things appeared normal, beautiful even. To give up their ancestral homes, their gardens, their dogs, for what seemed like to reason at all? They were told that everything, absolutely everything they owned, even their own bodies, had been poisoned and furthermore, had become another source of the poison. Even their livestock had to be buried alive to prevent further contamination. One of the men involved with this "liquidation" of radioactive material during the evacuation said of the peasants, "We annulled their labor, the ancient meaning of their lives. We were their enemies," (p. 185).
You can't see radioactive elements clinging to dust particles, but it was everywhere around Chernobyl and quickly drifting across Europe. The interviewees often seemed more at odds with this radioactive paradox than they were angry at the Soviet corruption and incompetence that had led to the disaster in the first place. Of course they were mad at the government, but their completely transformed lives maybe made blame an almost secondary, perhaps even trivial emotion in comparison. How could everything be poisoned? they kept asking. The milk, the apple trees, the salami in the store? How could you really live knowing that everything you touched would eventually kill you. That you too were a source of poison and would be subsequently shunned by the rest of the country. There was no where to run. No where to live. And there was no context for that existence, no way to understand it or know what to do next.
Voices From Chernobyl recounts what is essentially the non-fiction equivalent of science fiction, and I'm glad to have read it, but I'm sorry that so many people had to live and die through such a nightmare.