Last updated on January 1, 2020
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plan was supposed to be the pinnacle of Soviet innovation and a testament to the drive inspired by the spirit of Lenin & Stalin. Its very construction was intended to be a statement that the western powers were no match for their Soviet counterparts. But on April 26, 1986, a meltdown at the Number Four reactor changed all of that and the course of world history. Moscow moved quick to suppress any information coming out of the Soviet Union. Initially the damage control was somewhat successful but before long, nuclear engineers in neighboring countries and across Europe realized that something was terribly wrong and all indicators pointed towards the Soviet Union. Officials were forced to issue a public admission regarding the incident, setting off alarm bells across the globe. I remember watching the news of the disaster with my parents and being in complete shock. My father could only watch and shake his head in disbelief. No one knew what would happen next but it was clear that this accident was unlike any that the world had ever seen before.
All hands were on deck as Soviet troops, doctors, engineers and plant workers scrambled to contain the damage. Massive amounts of gamma rays were escaping by the minute and those in the immediate vicinity of the reactor absorbed lethal dosages of radiation that would later wreak havoc on their bodies and decimate the number of relief workers. Years would pass before doctors and scientists fully understood the lasting effects of exposure to radiation at the plant. However, even today there is still much about Chernobyl that remains hidden. The second sarcophagus that covers the reactor opened on July 3, 2019 and time will tell if it is a permanent fix to contain the deadly amounts of radiation found within the buried reactor.
I have always wondered what happened to ordinary people that lived in Pripyat and surrounding areas. We know that those who worked in the plant or were assigned cleanup and rescue jobs close to it, developed numerous health conditions that often resulted in death. Author Adam Higginbotham captured the plight of workers at the plant in his phenomenal book, Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster. Svetlana Alexievich was born in the Ukraine and raised in Belarus, one of the many former Soviet Social Republics. In 2015 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and is known for her criticisms of the Soviet Union. In this eye opening collection of personal accounts of life post-Chernobyl, she allows ordinary men and women to tell their stories of how Chernobyl changed their lives. The filter is off and the people interviewed here are frank and unapologetic. I caution the reader that the subject matter is graphic and the stories may send a chill down your spine. But they are not here to make people feel good, they are telling the truth about life following the worst nuclear disaster in modern history. Importantly, the author does not coach any of the people, she gives the green light and lets them tell us what they know and feel.
I believe that it goes without saying that any reader who decides to choose to this book should have an overall knowledge of the Chernobyl story. While it is not necessary to read any prior material on the disaster, doing so would give the reader an even greater sense of how misinformed people were regarding the plant and the effects of radiation. As I read through the book, I found the stories to be tragic and at other times surreal. There is without a doubt a genuine disconnect between what the people believe and the danger that actually existed. I found it hard to reconcile and can only surmise that the source of the disconnect was the Soviet way of life which relied on the tight control of information and the use of propaganda. But did this control of information cause more deaths than necessary?
The stories paint a dark picture in which millions of citizens are largely unaware of the danger posed by the reactor’s meltdown. Some go on as if nothing has changed, oblivious to the mortal danger around them. The true danger of the exposure to radiation would later manifest itself not just in those with direct contact but even unborn children. The births defects that plague the babies of Chernobyl are some of the most heartbreaking moments in the story. The mothers are conflicted by anger, sadness and regret. They believed in the Soviet system and that everything would be okay. It is what they were told by those they trusted and by Moscow. And the inability to actually see radiation undoubtedly made it harder for many to believe that where they were living was contaminated. Their ignorance is perhaps a glaring defect of the Soviet system: a population drive by innovation was also hindered by the suppression of information and a strict chain of command that did not permit freedom of speech. The inability of lower level party members to sound alarms and take measures that could have changed things is yet another tragedy in the Chernobyl story. And it is discussed here in several of the interviews.
Sadly, as time continues to move forward, more individuals that are known as “Chernobylites”, will succumb to the long lasting effects from their time near the reactor and living in the areas in and around Pripyat. Children born to that generation will continue to live with their birth defects and struggle to understand the unfair hand that they have been dealt in life. The Soviet Union is long gone and it is believed by some that Chernobyl helped to bring about its demise. The disaster did damage the Soviet reputation and spread mistrusts across the republics but there were other factors involved that lead to the Soviet Union’s dissolution in December, 1991. Chernobyl will continue to haunt Russia and Ukraine, serving as a reminder of a dark time in Soviet history. The recent HBO show of the same name has renewed interest in the disaster but to accurately capture what really happened, in particular to those that lived through it, the voices here are invaluable.