Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

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9780312425845: Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award

On April 26, 1986, the worst nuclear reactor accident in history occurred in Chernobyl and contaminated as much as three quarters of Europe. Voices from Chernobyl is the first book to present personal accounts of the tragedy. Journalist Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people affected by the meltdown---from innocent citizens to firefighters to those called in to clean up the disaster---and their stories reveal the fear, anger, and uncertainty with which they still live. Comprised of interviews in monologue form, Voices from Chernobyl is a crucially important work, unforgettable in its emotional power and honesty.

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About the Author:

Svetlana Alexievich was born in the Ukraine and studied journalism at the University of Minsk. She has received numerous awards for her writing, including a prize from the Swedish PEN Institute for "courage and dignity as a writer." Her books include Zinky Boys, Secondhand Time, and Voices from Chernobyl, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Monologue about what can be talked about with the living and the dead

The wolf came into the yard at night. I look out the window and there he is, eyes shining like headlights. Now I’m used to everything. I’ve been living alone for seven years, seven years since the people left. Sometimes at night I’ll just be sitting here thinking, thinking, until it’s lights out again. So on this day I was up all night, sitting on my bed, and then I went out to look at how the sun was. What should I tell you? Death is more just than anything else in the world: no one can escape it. The earth takes everyone--the kind, the cruel, the sinners. Aside from that, there’s no justice on earth. I worked hard and honestly my whole life. But I didn’t get any justice. God was dividing things up somewhere, and by the time the line came to me there was nothing left. A young person can die, an old person has to die... At first, I waited for people to come--I thought they’d come back. No one said they were leaving forever, they said they were leaving for a while. But now I’m just waiting for death. Dying isn’t hard, but it is scary. There’s no church. The priest doesn’t come. There’s no one to tell my sins to.

The first time they told us we had radiation, we thought: It’s a sort of a sickness, and whoever gets it dies right away. No, no, they said, it’s this thing that lies on the ground, and gets into the ground, but you can’t see it. Animals might be able to see it and hear it, but people can’t.

The police and the soldiers put up these signs. Some were next to people’s houses, some were in the street--they’d write, 70 curie, 60 curie. We’d always lived off our potatoes, and then suddenly--we’re not allowed to! For some people it was real bad, for others it was funny. They advised us to work in our gardens in masks and rubber gloves. And then another big scientist came to the meeting hall and told us that we needed to wash our yards. Come on! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! They ordered us to wash our sheets, our blankets, our curtains. But they’re in storage! In closets and trunks. There’s no radiation in there! Behind glass? Behind closed doors! Come on! It’s in the forest, in the field. They closed the wells, locked them up, wrapped them in cellophane. Said the water was “dirty.” How can it be dirty when it’s so clean? They told us a bunch of nonsense. You’ll die. You need to leave. Evacuate.

People got scared. They got fi lled up with fear. At night people started packing up their things. I also got my clothes, folded them up. My red badges for my honest labor, and my lucky kopeika that I had. Such sadness! It filled my heart. Let me be struck down right here if I’m lying. And then I hear about how the soldiers were evacuating one village, and this old man and woman stayed. Until then, when people were roused up and put on buses, they’d take their cow and go into the forest. They’d wait there. Like during the war, when they were burning down the villages. Why would our soldiers chase us? [Starts crying.] It’s not stable, our life. I don’t want to cry.

Oh! Look there--a crow. I don’t chase them away. Although sometimes a crow will steal eggs from the barn. I still don’t chase them away. I don’t chase anyone away! Yesterday a little rabbit came over. There’s a village nearby, also there’s one woman living there, I said, come by. Maybe it’ll help, maybe it won’t, but at least there’ll be someone to talk to. At night everything hurts. My legs are tingling, like there are little ants running through them, that’s my nerve running through me. It’s like that when I pick something up. Like wheat being crushed. Crunch, crunch. Then the nerve calms down. I’ve already worked enough in my life, been sad enough. I’ve had enough of everything and I don’t want anything more.

I have daughters, and sons... They’re all in the city. But I’m not going anywhere! God gave me years, but he didn’t give me a fair share. I know that an old person gets boring, that the younger generation will run out of patience. I haven’t had much joy from my children. The women, the ones who’ve gone into the city, are always crying. Either their daughter-in-law is hurting their feelings, or their daughter is. They want to come back. My husband is here. He’s buried here. If he wasn’t lying here, he’d be living in some other place. And I’d be with him. [Cheers up suddenly.] And why should I leave? It’s nice here! Everything grows, everything blooming. From the littlest fly to the animals, everything’s living.

I’ll remember everything for you. The planes are flying and flying. Every day. They fly real, real low, right over our heads. They’re flying to the reactor. To the station. One after the other. While here we have the evacuation. They’re moving us out. Storming the houses. People have gone under cover, they’re hiding. The livestock is moaning, the kids are crying. It’s war! And the sun’s out... I sat down and didn’t come out of the hut, though it’s true I didn’t lock up either. The soldiers knocked. “Ma’am, have you packed up?” And I said: “Are you going to tie my hands and feet?” They didn’t say anything, didn’t say anything, and then they left. They were young. They were kids! Old women were crawling on their knees in front of their houses, begging. The soldiers picked them up under their arms and into the car. But I told them, whoever touched me was going to get it. I cursed at them! I cursed good. I didn’t cry. That day I didn’t cry. I sat in my house. One minute there’s yelling. Yelling! And then it’s quiet. Very quiet. On that day--that first day I didn’t leave the house.

They told me later that there was a column of people walking. And next to that there was a column of livestock. It was war! My husband liked to say that people may shoot, but it’s God who delivers the bullet. Everyone has his own fate. The young ones who left, some of them have already died. In their new place. Whereas me, I’m still walking around. Slowing down, sure. Sometimes it’s boring, and I cry. The whole village is empty. There’s all kinds of birds here. They fly around. And there’s elk here, all you want. [Starts crying.]

I remember everything. Everyone up and left, but they left their dogs and cats. The first few days I went around pouring milk for all the cats, and I’d give the dogs a piece of bread. They were standing in their yards waiting for their masters. They waited for them a long time. The hungry cats ate cucumbers. They ate tomatoes. Until autumn I took care of my neighbor’s lawn, up to the fence. Her fence fell down, I hammered it back up again. I waited for the people. My neighbor had a dog named Zhuchok. “Zhuchok,“ I’d say, “if you see the people first, give me a shout.”

One night I dreamt I was getting evacuated. The officer yells, “Lady! We’re going to burn everything down and bury it. Come out!” And they drive me somewhere, to some unknown place. Not clear where. It’s not the town, it’s not the village. It’s not even Earth.

One time--I had a nice little kitty. Vaska. One winter the rats were really hungry and they were attacking. There was nowhere to go. They’d crawl under the covers. I had some grain in a barrel, they put a hole in the barrel. But Vaska saved me. I’d have died without him. We’d talk, me and him, and eat dinner. Then Vaska disappeared. The hungry dogs ate him, maybe, I don’t know. They were always running around hungry, until they died. The cats were so hungry they ate their kittens. Not during the summer, but during the winter they would. God, forgive me!

Sometimes now I can’t even make it all the way through the house. For an old woman even the stove is cold during the summer. The police come here sometimes, check things out, they bring me bread. But what are they checking for?

It’s me and the cat. This is a different cat. When we hear the police, we’re happy. We run over. They bring him a bone. Me they’ll ask: “What if the bandits come?” “What’ll they get off me? What’ll they take? My soul? Because that’s all I have.” They’re good boys. They laugh. They brought me some batteries for my radio, now I listen to it. I like Lyudmilla Zykina, but she’s not singing as much anymore. Maybe she’s old now, like me. My man used to say--he used to say, “The dance is over, put the violin back in the case.”

I’ll tell you how I found my kitty. I lost my Vaska. I waited a day, two days, then a month. So that was that. I was all alone. No one even to talk to. I walked around the village, going into other people’s yards, calling out: Vaska. Murka. Vaska! Murka! At first there were a lot of them running around, and then they disappeared somewhere. Death doesn’t care. The earth takes everyone. So I’m walking, and walking. For two days. On the third day I see him under the store. We exchange glances. He’s happy, I’m happy. But he doesn’t say anything. “All right,“ I say, “let’s go home.” But he sits there, meowing. So then I say: “What’ll you do here by yourself? The wolves will eat you. They’ll tear you apart. Let’s go. I have eggs, I have some lard.” But how do I explain it to him? Cats don’t understand human language, then how come he understood me? I walk ahead, and he runs behind me. Meowing. &...

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