Category: Non-fiction

Voices from Chernobyl

by Svetlana Alexievich

In 2004, the Paris Review ran an extract from Svetlana Alexievich’s last book to be translated into English (by Keith Gessen), Voices from Chernobyl. It’s an oral history – like all of her books – of the worst nuclear reactor accident in history. 

Philip Gourevitch, who went on to edit the magazine, is a fan:  

Alexievich builds her narratives about Russian national traumas—the Soviet-Afghan war, for instance, or the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe—by interviewing those who lived them, and immersing herself deeply in their testimonies. But her voice is much more than the sum of their voices. The first time many English readers may have encountered her was in the quarterly Granta, under the editorship of Bill Buford, where a piece called “Boys in Zinc” appeared in 1990. (An eponymous book soon followed.) The title is a reference to the zinc coffins in which the Soviet military returned its Afghan war dead to their mothers, and the piece, told from the mothers’ point of view, made that war as all-encompassingly present and personal—as real—as any fictional account ever did for any other war, and with the same singularity and originality of style and passion, of political intelligence and tragic vision.

The extract is available in full on the Paris Review website:  

On April 26, 1986, at 1:23:58 a. m., a series of explosions destroyed the reactor in the building that housed Energy Block #4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. The catastrophe at Chernobyl became the largest technical disaster of the twentieth century. . . . For tiny Belarus (population: ten million), it was a national disaster. . . . Today, one out of every five Belarussians lives on contaminated land. This amounts to 2.1 million people, of whom seven hundred thousand are children. In the Gomel and Mogilev regions, which suffered the most from Chernobyl, mortality rates exceed birthrates by twenty percent.
—Belaruskaya entsiklopedia, 1996, s.v. “Chernobyl,” pg. 24

On April 29, 1986, instruments recorded high levels of radiation in Poland, Germany, Austria, and Romania. On April 30, in Switzerland and northern Italy. On May 1 and second, in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and northern Greece. On May 3, in Israel, Kuwait, and Turkey. . . . Gaseous airborne particles traveled around the globe: on May 2 they were registered in Japan, on May 5 in India, on May 5 and sixth in the U.S. and Canada.
—“The Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident in Belarus”
The Sakharov International College on Radioecology, Minsk, 1992

Lyudmilla Ignatenko Wife of deceased Fireman Vasily Ignatenko

We were newlyweds. We still walked around holding hands, even if we were just going to the store. I would say to him, “I love you.” But I didn’t know then how much. I had no idea . . . We lived in the dormitory of the fire station where he worked. I always knew what was happening—where he was, how he was.

One night I heard a noise. I looked out the window. He saw me. “Close the window and go back to sleep. There’s a fire at the reactor. I’ll be back soon.”

I didn’t see the explosion itself. Just the flames. Everything was radiant. The whole sky. A tall flame. And smoke. The heat was awful. And he still hadn’t come back.

They went off just as they were, in their shirtsleeves. No one told them. They had been called for a fire, that was it.

Seven o’clock in the morning. At seven I was told he was in the hospital. I ran over there‚ but the police had already encircled it, and they weren’t letting anyone through. Only ambulances. The policemen shouted: “The ambulances are radioactive‚ stay away!” I started looking for a friend, she was a doctor at that hospital. I grabbed her white coat when she came out of an ambulance. “Get me inside!” “I can’t. He’s bad. They all are.” I held onto her. “Just to see him!” “All right‚” she said. “Come with me. Just for fifteen or twenty minutes.”

I saw him. He was all swollen and puffed up. You could barely see his eyes.

“He needs milk. Lots of milk‚” my friend said. “They should drink at least three liters each.”

“But he doesn’t like milk.”

“He’ll drink it now.”

Many of the doctors and nurses in that hospital‚ and especially the orderlies‚ would get sick themselves and die. But we didn’t know that then.

At ten‚ the cameraman Shishenok died. He was the first.

I said to my husband, “Vasenka, what should I do?” “Get out of here! Go! You have our child.” I was pregnant. But how could I leave him? He was saying to me: “Go! Leave! Save the baby.” “First I need to bring you some milk, then we’ll decide what to do.” My friend Tanya Kibenok came running in—her husband was in the same room. Her father was with her, he had a car. We got in and drove to the nearest village. We bought a bunch of three-liter bottles, six, so there was enough for everyone. But they started throwing up terribly from the milk.

They kept passing out, they got put on iv. The doctors kept telling them they’d been poisoned by gas, for some reason. No one said anything about radiation.

I couldn’t get into the hospital that evening. There was a sea of people. I stood under his window, he came over and yelled something to me. It was so desperate! Someone in the crowd heard him—they were being taken to Moscow that night. All the wives got together in one group. We decided we’d go with them. “Let us go with our husbands! You have no right!” We punched and we clawed. The soldiers—there were already soldiers—they pushed us back. Then the doctor came out and said they were flying to Moscow, but we needed to bring them their clothing. The clothes they’d worn at the station had been burned. The buses had stopped running already and we ran across the city. We came running back with the bags, but the plane was already gone. They tricked us. So that we wouldn’t be there yelling and crying.

Later in the day I started throwing up. I was six months pregnant, but I had to get to Moscow.

(…)

Emmanuel Carrère on writing Limonov

In the Paris Review

Emmanuel Carrère is a writer who doesn’t get enough attention. He is one of France’s best, a kind of Geoff Dyer-figure who blends fiction and non-fiction to great effect (although he is less comically inclined). The Adversary, in which the author recounts his attempts to write the true story of a pathological liar who ends up murdering his entire family to cover up his lies, is a good place to start. Limonov, his latest book published in English about the Russian dissident writer Eduard Limonov (pictured above), is also an excellent book. Carrère’s Paris Review interview, published last autumn, provides a good introduction to his work:

INTERVIEWER

We come to your last book, Limonov, which is again nonfiction. Who is Limonov?

CARRÈRE

Eduard Limonov is a Russian writer who is about seventy. I knew him in the eighties in Paris. The Soviet-era writers at the time were mostly dissidents with huge beards. Limonov was more of a punk. He was an underground prodigy under Brezhnev in Moscow. He had emigrated to the United States, been a bum and then a billionaire’s butler. He had a kind of Jack London life, which he wrote about in autobiographies that are actually very good, very simple and direct.

Then came the fall of the Soviet empire and things got strange. He went off to the Balkans and started fighting with the Serbs. He became a kind of crypto-fascist. It was a little like finding out a friend from high school had joined al-Qaeda. But time went by and I didn’t give it much thought. Then the journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated, and I went to cover it. I was amazed to discover that in the little world of liberal democrats around Politkovskaya, Limonov was considered a fantastic guy. It was as if Bernard-Henri Lévy and Bernard Kouchner suddenly said, Marine Le Pen, now she’s great. I was so intrigued that, in 2007, I decided to go see Limonov. I spent two weeks with him trying to understand this strange political and personal trajectory.

INTERVIEWER

The mystery of fascism? Was that what intrigued you?

CARRÈRE

I remember the exact moment I decided to go from reporting to writing a book. Limonov had spent three years in a labor camp in the Volga, a kind of model prison, very modern, which is shown to visitors as a shining example of how penitentiaries have improved in Russia. Limonov told me that the sinks were the same ones he had seen in a super-hip hotel in New York, designed by Philippe Starck. He said to me, Nobody in that prison could possibly know that hotel in New York. And none of the hotel’s clients could possibly have any idea what this prison was like. How many people in the world have had such radically different experiences? He was really proud of that, and I don’t blame him. My socioeconomic experience is relatively narrow. I went from an intellectual bourgeois family in the 16th arrondissement to become a bourgeois bohemian in the 10th. So these trajectories of the little boy in the African village who becomes the UN secretary-general or the little girl from east bumfuck in Russia who becomes an international supermodel fill me with wonder. I have to admire that amplitude of experience, the ability to integrate completely different values and ways of thinking. Limonov’s story, from that point of view, is fabulous. It’s a picaresque novel that also allowed me to cover fifty years of history, the end of the Soviet era, and the mess that followed. I’m surprised that the book has received the unanimously warm reception of the last one.

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